European colonisation brought a different and more pervasive change, clearing land, building cities, damming rivers and establishing an increasingly mechanised and industrialised agriculture.
These iconic but changed landscapes inspired the romantic art of Arthur Streeton and poetry of Banjo Paterson among many others — and helped forge a young nation’s identity.
Change can happen surprisingly quickly. Often before we know it we’ve gone too far and need to scramble for fixes that are so often costly, slow and ultimately inadequate.
For example, in South Australia, researchers in the early 1960s raised the alarm that the feverish post-war period of soldier resettlement, land clearance and agricultural development threatened entire native plant and animal communities with extinction. The government’s response over the following 30 years was to expand greatly the conservation reserve network and eventually prohibit land clearing.
Is the balance right? Opinion varies. Many would say no, and consider the status quo to be stacked strongly against the environment.
Others see agriculture as entering a boom time, driven by growing population and rising food prices. Substantial interest from overseas investors in Australian agricultural land reflects this opportunity.
Demand for more secure sources of energy has generated rapid expansion of coal seam gas and wind power generation, and the development of northern Australia remains a bipartisan priority.
Worldwide, Australia is not alone — many international examples also exist of recent, massive, rapid and accelerating changes in how land is used.
Australia has historically taken a hands-off approach to managing land use change, instead focusing on increasing the productivity and competitiveness of agriculture. Apart from a handful of planning and environmental regulations, the use of land has been subject to minimal governance or strategic direction.
Where to from here?
What is it that Australians really want from our land? We know what we don’t want: wall-to-wall crops, pasture, buildings, gas wells, mines, wind farms or trees.
We can expect healthy debate around the margins, but, in general, diversity, productivity and sustainability seem to be widely valued. Most of us want to leave the place in decent condition for future generations.
Europe has had this conversation and knows what it wants from its landscapes — and it’s not afraid to pay for it (for instance, through agricultural subsidies). A deep aesthetic and cultural heritage is the central objective, with a balance of recreation opportunities, tourism, a clean and healthy environment and high-quality produce all being high priorities.
Once we know what we want, we can work out how to get there.
CSIRO’s recent National Outlook mapped Australia’s potential future pathways. A companion paper in Nature found that it is possible to achieve strong economic growth and reduce environmental pressure, if we put the right policies in place now. It provides a glimpse of how our rural lands might respond to coalescing future change pressures.
Who knows? A pay rise while watching trees grow could be an attractive proposition for our ageing farmers. Complementary biodiversity payments could also help arrest declines in wildlife and help it adapt to climate change.
But trade-offs are likely. Trees use a lot more water than crops and pasture, so we will need to think carefully about managing water resources.
Economic potential for land use change and sustainability impacts from 2013 to 2050 under national global environmental and economic conditions consistent with 2℃ warming by 2100.
Australians care about their land and are more aware than ever about what is happening to it. While we can have some control over the future of our land, and we do exercise this control in certain circumstances (such as urban planning), our long-term approach to rural land has been to let environmental and economic forces play out and let the invisible hand of economics determine what will be.
Given the pace at which change can happen, a smarter approach will be to start the conversation, work out what it is we want from our land, and put the policies and institutions in place to get us there.