Due to the relatively late arrival of industrial society to our shores, diverse and intact ecosystems still exist in Australia to an extent not seen in the rest of the comparably developed world.
This means that, at a time in history when the world's ecosystems are under pressure on a global scale, Australia has become a refuge of rare and endangered habitats. In fact, Australia is one of only 17 countries recognised as a site of globally significant biodiversity.
Australia is the fifth most biodiverse country in the world and our oceans are the most biodiverse on the planet.
Virtually all original vegetation cover has disappeared from the Mediterranean, in Western Europe about 1% of the original forest cover remains while in America less than 1% of the grasslands of the Great Plains remains undisturbed by human activity.
Australia is a country rich in biodiversity, meaning rich in species diversity. What's more, over 80% of our native mammals, reptiles, flowering plants, fungi, mollusc and insects exist only in Australia. If they disappear from our country, they are gone forever.
Australia has the highest rate of extinction in the world.
State of the Environment
The unique conditions created by Australia’s size, climate and isolation means that our country is now the refuge of rare and endangered habitats, most of which do not exist anywhere else on earth. Yet, Australia remains on a development track that is leading to the disappearance of these precious remnants rather than their protection:
In the past 200 years, an estimated 27 species of Australian mammals, 23 species of birds, and over 60 plant species have become extinct. A further 592 vertebrate taxa, 6,175 vascular plants and 48,000 invertebrates may currently be threatened with extinction or are of conservation concern. Around 30% of the original vegetation remains in Victoria, Australia's most cleared state, with some grasslands and open woodland habitats existing at less than 1% of their original cover.
About one quarter of Australia's original rainforests now exist. Remaining rainforests are threatened by land clearing and logging.
Less than 8% of Australia's old growth forests now exist, half of which remain open to logging.
2.5 million hectares of Australian land is salt affected, and this is likely to increase six fold in the coming decades. The amount of land affected by salinity in WA is increasing at a rate equal to one football field an hour. About 70-80% of irrigated land in NSW is threatened by rising water tables and associated salinity problems.
More than half of Australia's wetlands have been lost and the remainder are under threat from changes in water flow patterns, land use, pollution and introduced pests. Rivers have been diverted, dammed and used for waste disposal. The flow of the Murray Darling river system, the source of life for Australia's south eastern states, has been reduced by three quarters.
Since 1976, global surface temperatures have been rising at three times the average rate recorded over the past century, with Australia's temperature matching this trend. This increase is unprecedented in the 1,000-year record that includes ice core sampling, seabed mud and tree ring samples. According to the 31 researchers from seven countries involved in the Global Carbon Project, the world is currently on course for the worst-case scenario for climate change predictions, with average global temperatures rising by up to 6 degrees Celsius by the end of the century.
And the world's oceans? In 2002, tests on a beached killer whale revealed levels of toxic substances higher than were measurable by standard testing. In 1997, plastic pollution stretching for more than 700,000 square km was discovered in the North Pacific Ocean confirming scientists predictions that plastic waste and sludge was becoming trapped by the currents of the North Pacific Gyre. Threats to Australia's marine environment include human pressure from waste disposal, urban and agricultural drainage, commercial fishing, toxicants, physical habitat destruction, the introduction of exotic organisms, mineral exploration and extraction, construction, and transport.
In early 2013, the United Nations warned Australia that the Great Barrier Reef risks losing its world heritage status due to unprecedented industrial expansion that is causing irriparable damage to the reef.
It can be argued that natural systems are in a constant state of change, that some species extinction can be expected due to natural selection, and that environments can withstand and adapt to human impacts.
These arguments have been used to suggest that people are not at all responsible for what is happening to our planet. This idea is easy to adopt in Australia where, with a relatively small population we enjoy clean beaches, fresh air and open tree filled spaces. It is this lack of visible impact that has allowed us to become the nation that we are:
- Australia's per capita ecological footprint is second only to the USA. This means that, Australians use up more of the world's natural resources (9 ha per person) than any other country except the USA (10.3 ha per person). The global average is 2.8 ha per person.
- High consumption levels equal high WASTE levels. In the last 10 years, Victoria's solid waste stream has increased by 60%, reaching 8.6 million tonnes in 2002-03. 51% of this waste is recycled, the rest goes to landfill or enters our waterways, beaches and land as litter. Despite greatly expanding recycling activity, Victorians are still producing more and more waste, outpacing rising recycling levels.
- Australians are the largest emitters of greenhouse gases per capita in the world. That's right, we beat the USA. Australia lags behind other OECD countries in its investment in renewable energy sources, with 90% of our energy still produced by burning coal. We also drive more cars further than any other country. Transport is the single biggest source of green house gas emissions.
- Australia has the fourth highest rate of native vegetation clearance in the world, exceeded only by developing countries with far greater populations and no legislative controls. Vegetation clearance is the single biggest threat to terrestrial species, which explains why . . .
- Australia has the highest rate of extinction in the world. Yet, instead of caring for and using the land we already have, we continue to clear more habitat, eradicating native species. In Tasmania, 1080 poison is still used to kill native animals (including endangered species) to prevent them from feeding on the seedlings of commercial tree plantations. Despite the fact that ocean dwellers are joining endangered species lists, Australia follows fishing regimes that discard up to 86% of the catch as unwanted refuse. This 'discard' may involve over 500 species including turtles, snakes, sawfish, sharks and seabirds.
- Rainforests continue to be cleared and logged in Australia, often in breach of the Government's own legislation. Queensland's tropical Daintree continues to be cleared for development, and logging continues in the temperate rainforests of Victoria's East Gippsland, in habitats which occur nowhere else on earth. Rainforests, which are home to around half the world's species are now globally endangered.
- Australia is one of few remaining countries that allow the logging of OLD GROWTH FORESTS. Australia's native logging regime exceeds that of exploited developing nations such as PNG, Burma and Zambia where illegal logging is rife. Around 90% of Australian logs are exported as woodchips, made into cardboard, paper or toilet paper, and then thrown away. The Australian public will subsidise timber corporations an estimated $41 million over a 20 year span to cut down and sell their natural heritage. No 100% recycled paper is manufactured in Australia.
- More than half Australia's farmland requires treatment for LAND DEGRADATION and it is costing the economy well over $600 million a year in lost production alone. Yet intensive agricultural practices continue, resulting in broad scale erosion, the loss of topsoil, rising water tables and resulting salinity. The grazing of hard hooved animals, a major cause of land degradation, is allowed in State Forests, conservation reserves and even National Parks, including fragile alpine and coastal environments. Intensive inorganic pesticide regimes mean that chemicals which are manufactured to be toxic are washed into our waterways and incorporated into the food we eat.
- Australia is the driest inhabited continent in the world, with the lowest average rainfall (except for Antarctica). Yet we use our WATER resources as if they were infinite. We plant thirsty exotic species, grow water intensive crops such as rice and cotton and graze great herds of cattle and sheep for export. Despite residential water restrictions, logging continues inside Melbourne's water catchments reducing our water supply by up to 50%.
It is now widely acknowledged by scientists, ecologists, industry and the population that human impacts are causing irreversible changes to our environment on a global scale. 'Climate change', 'habitat loss' and 'toxic waste' are phrases that did not exists a few decades ago, but are now part of our every day vocabulary. But so are words like recycling, re-newable energy, conservation and revegetation.
Our world has become what it is through the accumulated impact of every one of us, of each of our decisions. This means that we have the choice to make the same decisions and continue down the same path, or to make new decisions that take us and our world in a different direction.
It is still widely believed that the form of human development we are currently pursuing is the only viable option. But while we have the capacity to irreversibly alter our environment, we also have the capacity to protect what is left, rehabilitate what is damaged, and above all pursue a form of development that does no further damage.
Sustainable Development follows the principle of sustainability, that is, meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
This means using Australia’s natural resources in a way that does not lead to their exhaustion, damage the integrity of surrounding environments, or create non-biodegradable or dangerous wastes.
With its wealth of natural and renewable resources, Australia is well placed to lead the way in sustainable development.
Australia's environment provides many sources of RENEWABLE ENERGY, the sustainable alternative to fossil fuels. Green Power, the company that distributes electricity from renewable energy sources, now has over 100,000 customers, including close to 5,000 businesses. As a result of the growing demand for Green Power, over 150 new approved renewable energy projects have been installed in Australia since 1997, including the southern hemisphere’s largest solar farm and numerous wind farms.
The ORGANIC food industry is growing at a rate of 10 to 15% a year, while demand for organic produce is forecast to increase 20 to 25%. This gives farmers an opportunity to move towards sustainable farming practices and lessen the environmental impact of agricultural industries.
SUSTAINABLY MANAGED PLANTATIONS and RECYCLING provide enough material to satisfy Australia's wood and paper demands. There are almost a million hectares of plantations for timber production in Australia - plantations already supply over half of Australia’s domestic wood supply. Even without plantation supplies, Australia could be making paper out of post consumer waste. The Visy group now operates six paper recycling machines producing more than 1.2 million tonnes of 100% recycled packaging paper annually. As yet, there is no company in Australia that manufactures 100% recycled paper for non-packaging use (ie office paper).
Australia has a strong tradition of local market trade providing locally grown fresh produce and crafted goods without excessive packaging.
Chemical free alternatives exist in abundance, and are beginning to replace traditionally high impact cleaning agents and hygiene products.
Despite the encumbrance of a government that continues to subsidise unsustainable industries and chooses not to invest in sustainable alternatives; despite an economic system that makes being sustainable an added cost, sustainable industries are flourishing in Australia.
This is because of growing numbers of people choosing to start sustainable projects, work in sustainable industries, support sustainable industries and campaign for change.
The concept of sustainable development maintains the idea that human need (or more often human wants) trump every other consideration. In reality, we are but one species on a planet of around 8.7 million and the other 8,699,999 species that happen to not be us deserve at least a small percentage of consideration. In fact, it can be argued that they deserve the same amount.
Because of our anthropocentric view of the world, there is a chance that we will damage our home to the point where it is no longer habitable for even ourselves - that's not a very anthropocentric way to behave.
But even if it were possible to continue to thrive on a planet that we treat as though it existed to be our larder, why is it that we think we are the best? Many species can do way better things than us such as fly, change colour and shoot darts out of their fingers. Some animals can take all their cells apart, put them back together in the same order and still be alive. There is no end to the amazing things that exist in the world that are not us. Just like us they deserve to exist because they are part of life and have intrinsic value.
Anthropocentric concepts take for granted that humans are the central element of the universe. We are so used to hearing our world described through this framework that the idea that all forms of life are equally valuable can seem quite shocking to some people. The thing is, if humans disappeared from the planet, the earth would not disappear with them, in fact, the evidence suggests it would thrive. But if the planet disappeared, humanity would be gone. Is anyone still confused about our location in the universe?
Some people go further than anthropocentricism and speak and act as if one human concept (the economy) was more important than the environment (otherwise known as the world). These people are not called confused lunatics, they are called our world leaders.
Do you think you might give a shit?
Welcome to the environment movement. It's time to choose your own adventure.