February 9, 2013

The Future Eaters

Tim Flannery

Tim Flannery:
[Future] eating is … a cycle …
[By] the beginning of the 16th century … the Maori had really hit rock bottom.
{[There] was far too many people and not enough food. …}
[From] then on we see [the first glimmerings of] conserving their resources for the future … that was to play an increasingly important role in the new societies that they were beginning to invent. …

Wikipedia:

Outside the mainland of Afro-Eurasia … megafaunal extinctions followed a distinctive landmass-by-landmass pattern that closely parallels the spread of humans into previously uninhabited regions of the world, and which shows no correlation with climatic history …
An analysis of Sporormiella fungal spores (which derive mainly from the dung of megaherbivores) in swamp sediment cores spanning the last 130,000 years from Lynch’s Crater in Queensland, Australia showed that the megafauna of that region virtually disappeared about 41,000 years ago, at a time when climate changes were minimal …
[The] change was accompanied by an increase in charcoal, and was followed by a transition from rainforest to fire-tolerant sclerophyll vegetation.
The high-resolution chronology of the changes supports the hypothesis that human hunting alone eliminated the megafauna, and that the subsequent change in flora was most likely a consequence of the elimination of browsers and an increase in fire.
The increase in fire lagged the disappearance of megafauna by about a century, and most likely resulted from accumulation of fuel once browsing stopped.
(27 January 2013)

Contents


40-60,000 years ago

1000-500 years ago

The last 200 years


TIM FLANNERY (1956)


Professor, Climate Risk Concentration of Research Excellence, Faculty of Science, Macquarie University, Sydney (2007).
Australian of the Year (2007).
Former Visiting Chair of Australian Studies, Harvard University (1999).
Professor, University of Adelaide.

  • The Future Eaters, ABC Television, 1998.
    Based on The Future Eaters: An Ecological History of the Australasian Lands and People, George Braziller, 1994.

    TAMING THE FIRE


    On every other continent the 'placental' mammals, big energy users like lions, elephants — and even humans, have won the evolutionary race.
    But here [in Australasia] in a race for extreme energy efficiency [marsupials] have evolved to a position of pre-eminence. …

    The roots of Australia's infertility lie in its thick crust.
    It hasn't crumpled to form mountains, or been punctured by volcanoes. …
    [The] ice age was unkind to Australia.
    There were no glaciers to grind the rocks, and release the elements that life depends on.
    Instead, the land lay comatose.
    Its nutrients have been slowly leaching, and blowing away — for eons. …
    Mike Archer [Professor, University of New South Wales]:
    [Compared to placentals, marsupials] have an extremely wide … "metabolic scope".
    They're very responsive to changes in the climate, to temperature.
    They're much more tolerant of environmentally stressful conditions …

    The colossal levels of biodiversity that characterise the Australian heath [in] what looks to be most inhospitable, infertile-type country has to do with this unique … response to the these environments.
    The soils were very nutrient-poor.
    But that [has] enabled little pockets of animals and plants to [to develop] in a hundred thousand different places. …
    [There is] evidence that the arrival of humans, rather than climate, played the decisive role in megafaunal extinction. …
    The extinction of the megafauna destroyed a balance between plants and animals, that had evolved over millions of years — now countless tonnes of uneaten food covered the land. …
    This place has always been struck by lightning, but now it ignited huge fires — fuelled by the built up vegetation. …

    In an unholy alliance with fire, the eucalypts spread across the continent — destroying the original forests, creating the Australian landscape we know today.
    [The] triumph of the eucalypts was to change, even the climate of the continent.
    The original forests had acted like a sponge — storing huge quantities of moisture, and transpiring it back into the atmosphere.
    This allowed the monsoon rains to penetrate hundreds of kilometres south.
    The rains fed a permanent river system, that flowed inland — filling the lakes at the heart of the continent.
    They were a haven for great hosts of birds.
    Pelicans, cormorants, stilts, all came here to breed — in their millions. …

    The newly established eucalypt forests couldn't retain water — rain was no longer carried inland — the rivers stopped flowing.
    The arrival of humans had sent the land spiralling out of control.
    Fire storms ravaged the country.
    Plants, animals and resources were being destroyed — and people faced dramatic climate change. …
    The story of how the first future eaters recovered from this disaster — is one of humanities greatest triumphs. …

    This is the most amazing delicate rock art I've ever seen, beautiful red ochre on a white quartzite base, it's just extraordinarily complex and it's full of meaning …
    It's a record of life here [for] many thousands of years.

    [The Aborigines] learned to fight fire with fire, and began to burn off the built up vegetation — reducing the fuel load that was feeding the raging wild fires.
    Eventually, this developed into a highly sophisticated system of 'firestick farming' — still practiced in parts of northern and central Australia. …

    Long before the arrival of man, Australia was already at the mercy of El Nino — an erratic cycle of drought and flood.
    The problem all Australia's inhabitants face is never knowing when the next drought will strike. …
    Life on this continent has always depended on movement from place to place — to live with the cycle of drought and flood.

    The Aborigines found that they could be no different.
    The vagaries of Australia's climate kept them on the move.
    They simply couldn't settle down like people elsewhere, to cultivate their land.
    Instead, they moved across the land following what were to them 'highways', linking resources from one place to another. …

    The laws governing these journeys are still passed down, from one generation to the next — in song.
    They sing the paths the Aboriginal people followed, as they travelled across their country.
    They are a guide — to food, water, and safe passage. …
    To Aboriginal people they are a map, survival guide, and title deed, rolled into one. …
    Tim Flannery:
    [It] essentially turned this continent into a living network of societies …
    [In] an age before modern transport and communication that has to represent one of humanities greatest achievements.
    [They] established a remarkable ecological stability — there's little evidence of extinctions in the land, for tens of thousands of years. …
    [Then about] three and a half thousand years ago, the first domesticated animal reached Australia and New Guinea — the dingo. …
    This predator's exquisite sense of smell, and ability to track — became a gift to Aboriginal hunters.
    Together, man and dingo made a devastatingly efficient hunting team — but they were hunting the same prey as the last of the large carnivorous marsupials.

    The Tasmanian devil, was once widespread across the continent.
    [Soon] after the arrival of the dingo, both it, and the dog like thylacine disappeared from mainland Australia.
    They were simply out-competed by humans with pack hunting dingos. …
    [Vulnerable animals] of the rainforest, like tree kangaroos [only] survived, because people created sacred sites, which they call 'story places'.
    They were sanctuaries where no humans could enter, places where fire and hunting were taboo — areas where animals were protected.
    Tim Flannery:
    Most people don't realise how pre-occupied the Aborigine's were with the sustainable use of their resources …
    [Story] places … included the prime breeding habitat of many species …
    [So] as the animal built up inside the reserves they'd move outside where they could be sustainably hunted.
    [Similar to terrestrial and marine protected areas]
    They were a really ingenious solution to the extreme conservation difficulties that people face in a place like Australia.

    When I was a child I was told that this was a wild place, I was taught that it was an empty land — a terra nullius.
    But really this is a human artefact, for in a very real sense Aboriginal people created this environment, and they developed a way of living here which endured the test of time for 40,000 years, when my people arrived here, they threw that lesson away and today we're struggling with the same problems of fire, species extinction and climate change that the Aboriginal people triumphed over 40,000 years ago.
    The aborigines were the first people to so alter their environment that they threatened their own existence.
    [They] went through the complete cycle of future eating, and eventually developed a highly sophisticated response, to this most fragile of continents.
    In the end they created an entirely new ecology — one that depended on them for its very survival.


    NOMADS OF THE WIND


    Conservation for the Maori involved strengthening the traditional rules that governed the harvesting of nature's resources, and enforcing them on a community-wide basis.
    Today's fishermen have to obey government laws that restrict where and when they can fish, and which size fish they have to throw back.
    So it was with the Maori of the 16th century, who had to obey the spiritual restrictions laid down by the local expert on nature, or tohunga. …

    The early Maori believed that it was the special role of fish to be caught and put to use, the very reason for their existence.
    According to myth, Aotearoa [New Zealand] itself had been a fish, brought up from the depths by the god, Maui, and turned into a homeland for human beings.
    [Edible fish] species were respected, therefore, as spiritual entities, and elaborate systems were developed for their management. …
    [Such] fishing grounds were very much prized and 'tapu', which means sacred, under restriction. …
    Kevin Prime [Maori farmer and Conservationist]:
    [Rahui was a] temporary or sometimes permanent reservation status [that set] aside certain areas to protect a species or to allow the numbers to build up.
    The Maori [started to confront] the resource crisis they had created and moved forward into the final phase of the future eating cycle.
    They [became] warlike sweet potato farmers, living in large compounds with hierarchical structures, and strict rules for enforcing the conservation of nature. …
    That knowledge can still be found today in the Maori heartlands. …
    Many communities still have tohunga [–] elders who manage the forest resources. …
    Tim Flannery:
    Right through their travels across the Pacific, the Polynesian voyagers had been driven by a cycle of future eating, over exploiting natures resources and then moving on to colonize a new virginal island home.
    But here in New Zealand, it was different …
    [This was] the end of the line …
    [There] were no new islands to colonize [and] the resource crisis [became] extreme.
    The Maori were just beginning to develop ways of conserving nature, when suddenly, 200 years ago … a new wave of invaders had appeared on the horizon.

    EATING THE FUTURE


    When Captain James Cook first saw this place, he described it as being like 'a gentleman's park'.
    For the British, Cook's description brought to mind the richest and most fertile of lands. …
    The land [appeared support] a rich diversity of extraordinary wildlife.
    But in reality [only] creatures and plants that were highly energy-efficient, thrived here.
    Far from discovering a land of plenty, the colonists had set foot on some of the poorest soils in the world …

    [Each] good season saw more and more farmers move onto the land. Government policy actually forced them to carry at least 4 times the density of sheep, as today.
    The result was wholesale massacre of the native pastures — by hoof and jaw.
    [When, inevitably, drought came it] brought catastrophe.
    [In] the Flinders Ranges, 40,000 sheep died in just one season.
    Craig Nixon [Flinders Ranges National Park]:
    Those sheep didn't die of thirst they died of starvation …
    [They] ate everything …
    [Their hooves pounded the] soil into a powder and the [rains washed it away causing] gully erosion.
    [The country might] have survived with [some more good years but shortly after the] 1880 drought came the rabbits.
    [The] new invaders [not only] overstocked the land — [they] brought their own pests [— rabbits,] foxes, and a whole menagerie of other European creatures.
    There were only two native predators, capable of holding back these introduced pests.
    The wedge-tailed eagle [and] the dingo — [which can] kill foxes and cats.
    But their European traditions taught the farmers that these natural predators, were in fact, the pests.
    They were systematically wiped out by bounty hunters.
    [Fox,] rabbit and feral cat … spread unchallenged across the continent … triggering a hundred years of ecological turmoil. …

    [In New Zealand, recreational hunting with horses and hounds was] imported from the 'old country'.
    But there was a severe shortage of creatures to hunt.
    So a huge variety of alien species was brought in, and set free.
    Rabbits proved to be the same ecological disaster [as] they were in Australia. …

    [Hundreds] of ferrets, stoats and weasels [were introduced to control the rabbits …]
    [However, they] found it easier to hunt the native birds, especially the flightless ones which were much less elusive than the fleet-footed rabbit. …

    Red deer, brought in to be hunted, quickly multiplied — becoming a national pest.
    As well as overgrazing grasslands, they gorged themselves on the new growth in the native forests — turning the forest floor into a wasteland. …

    [By] the 1930s it was noticed that the dense, green canopies of the native forests were changing colour, and dying.
    The culprit was … the Australian brush-tailed possum.
    This leaf-eating marsupial had been imported to establish a fur industry.
    [It also turned out that] the supposedly vegetarian possum [preyed upon] the eggs and chicks of native birds …
    There were estimated to be around 70 million possums [devouring] 140,000 football fields of native forest every day.
    Tim Flannery:
    [Since the arrival of Europeans, New Zealand forests have] been slowly silenced and most of the birds that lived [there] are now extinct.
    All of those pollinators of plants, dispersers of seeds and eaters of insect pests are gone.
    [The] fabric of the entire ecosystem has just been torn apart. …
    [In Australia, The Europeans put an end to the] Aboriginal system of managing the land through fire …
    This firestick farming had played an important role in sustaining the medium sized marsupials. …
    [Recently, in a few places] where Aborigines have been given [back] their land … traditional land management has been re-introduced …


    Tim Flannery:
    [This] is a beautiful little Waru …
    [This] rock wallaby is an endangered species today …
    [Yet] when these fellas were young they were everywhere through this country …
    [This species is the] last survivor among [23 species of] middle size mammals in the whole of this region. …

    In New Zealand, the extinction crisis has gone much further than in Australia.
    By the 1970's it was realised that the nation was perilously close to losing, almost everything. …
    Alycia Warren [Department of Conservation NZ]:
    We noticed that there were islands that had species remaining on them that were now no longer found on the mainland.
    But often one island just had one species on it.
    And by removing feral animals from islands we were able to bring a lot of extra species to them.
    So now we have quite a few islands that are lifeboats for animals that are native to New Zealand. …
    Australia environmental crisis isn't just about disappearing wildlife — but the degradation of the land itself. …
    The mistakes continued well into the 20th century.
    The scramble for wealth drove agriculture ever onwards — into the more and more marginal land.
    [It] was more like mining the soil [than farming in a sustainable sense].
    The few nutrients that had sustained this ecosystem for thousands of years, were used up by just a few crops of wheat — and then the land was ruined. …

    Today so much of the Murray river's water is used for irrigation, that only a third of it's flow ever reaches the sea.
    The Murray Darling system was the life line for over 30,000 wetland areas, that depended upon it's cycle of drought and flood.
    [The] Murray cod, Australia's largest fresh water species, is already extinct in large tracts of the river. …

    [Australians have] won a lucrative bounty from wool and wheat.
    But the cost has been enormous.
    Once the native trees were cleared the water table rose, bringing salt to the surface — rendering the land useless.

    [Every] time the drought returns, more and more of the precious topsoil is blown off the land.
    Millions of tons are lost to erosion every year. …
    In just one afternoon [in 1993] Australia lost 4 million dollars in nutrients alone — blown away forever across the Tasman Sea. …

    [Bushfires] too are a man made catastrophe — the legacy of leaving the land unmanaged by the Aborigines …

    Now one in every 3 farmers, 24,000 of them, belong to Landcare [and] they're committed to making a living here sustainably. …
    [Experience] has taught graziers … to move their cattle on at the first sign of pasture degradation …

    Much of Australia is rangelands, unsuitable for growing crops, but ideal for meat production.
    Kangaroos and emus are the only large land animals that are perfectly adapted to this country.
    Both have the potential to be harvested sustainably and profitably over vast areas of the continent …
    Tim Flannery:
    [It costs] our environment nothing to produce [a] kangaroo steak, but the cost of making [a] loaf of bread [is] enormous.
    We loose 7 kilograms of irreplaceable soil for every kilogram of wheat we grow here …
    [In] the Northern Territory, people are beginning to raise crocodiles for meat and skins …

    Kakadu National Park is [a] complex ecology of wetlands, rainforest and grasslands …
    Greg Miles [Kakadu National Park]:
    [Much of] the landscape has been sculpted by fire.
    Aboriginal knowledge of how to manage this land with fire [is now] being applied using modern technology. …
    Greg Miles:
    [We] mimic what they used to do [with Banksia cones, using] satellite imagery, helicopters, incendiary capsules and [quad motorbikes. …]
    Just a few kilometres offshore from Auckland, lies the island of Tiritiri Matanga.
    It looks green now, but ten years ago it was barren, overgrazed pastureland, given over to goats.
    Today, the island is almost entirely covered in forest again, and is being used as a lifeboat sanctuary for rare birds like the flightless takahe.
    The transformation has been achieved mostly by volunteers — over a hundred or so of whom appear every weekend, joined by boatloads of children in their holidays.
    Over a hundred thousand native trees have already been planted.

    If [the] wastelands [are to be] turned back into forest again, the wholesale support of communities is essential, on both a national and a local scale.




    Eventually the new forest will grow to resemble this, the last relic of pristine forest left on the island — its canopy alive once again with the sound of native birds. …


    Tim Flannery:
    My people came ashore at this place just over 200 years ago, and ever since then they have been acting as if they never left Europe.

    [The] time has come now for us to become real Australasians …
    • to learn to respect the uniqueness of these most fragile of lands …
    • to live within their limits and
    • to let their rhythms, their richness and grandeur sit easily in our spirits.

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