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Interview: Jackie French on listening to the land and lessons from history

Jackie French. Image: Kelly Sturgiss

By Willow Aliento

10 April 2014 — Historian, children’s author, novelist and permaculture expert Jackie French is an inspiration to those who practice old-school, hands-in-the-garden sustainability. As the author of books including The Chook Book and Backyard Self-Sufficiency, and the regular gardening writer for the Australian Women’s Weekly, she shares the wisdom earned from 40 years of self-sufficient living on her property near the Australian Capital Territory.

In her recent book, Let The Land Speak, she goes a gargantuan leap further, looking at the big backyard we all share and drawing some important lessons for our collective journey towards sustainability. Speaking by phone with The Fifth Estate from her home, she explains that while humans are good at change we are also good at avoiding it, a habit that is hampering our efforts as a nation to address the issues of climate and sustainability.

French said one of the reasons she wrote Let The Land Speak was that most of the books published about the Australian bush, and the history of land management, have “pretty much been by men, talking about men”.

She says her own path of understanding the Indigenous management of the landscape has been shaped by interaction with the local women elders of her area, who over the course of years have explained to her how the vegetation and the seasons together provide a map for both the whereabouts of specific plants, and act as a cultural calendar. One of the things they made clear to French was the deliberateness of the bush tucker plantings, a landscape-wide approach to farming and gardening, which is without fences and had over millennia created a landscape abundant with food.

“Very few people today know enough about what’s edible and useful or know enough about the ecology to see the pattern in it,” French says.

“I have lived here for 40 years, and every year see more patterns, both manmade and natural – like the clematis road [which she mentioned in the book], I hadn’t realised it was a road.

“[I had] a feeling that I’m getting older and I need to write some of this down.”

Talking to the Aboriginal women down the river also motivated French to write about the landscape and our interactions with it.

“They started writing books of [their traditional] knowledge down. One of the problems with an oral culture, and with modern culture, is that just one car accident can wipe out several generations of knowledge at once.”

One of the myths she explores – and deconstructs – in the book is the founding story of the colony that the early convicts and guards almost starved to death while waiting for supply ships from England. Her meticulous historical research, combined with knowledge of what food resources existed naturally in the Sydney region, made it clear the notion of starvation was the effect of a cultural belief that only English, familiar foods would do, not a physical fact of the landscape.

This misunderstanding of the nature of the land, and repeated attempts to impose foreign expectations, animals, plants and development styles on it is a recurring theme, and generally, her research and experience both show the result has been negative for the ecology.

The great golden myth

Another myth she explores is the notion that our minerals industry is and will remain a crucial part of the economy, which should be given priority over environmental protection or competing land uses. French points out in the book that in 2011, the mining industry employed 1.9 per cent of the Australian workforce, less than the 2.9 per cent employed by arts and culture; it generated 10 per cent of the gross national product at the height of the mining boom, compared to 60 per cent of the GNP generated by the services sector including tourism, education and financial services. The mining industry also received $2 billion in diesel subsidies in 2011.

“In 2012 the OECD economic survey recommended dropping the subsidy to extractive industries,” she wrote.

“Subsidies?… Why subsidise the supposedly most lucrative industries in Australia, and one where a large chunk, at least, of profits go overseas? Lack of imagination? The power of lobbyists? I suspect that the real answer is just as England, France, the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal kept hunting for the land of gold they knew was somewhere around here, our leaders – political, industrial, media and others – are locked into a world view that says extractive industries are the foundation on which our prosperity rests, and we niggle them at our peril.”

Lack of cost–benefit analysis is ecologically expensive

The manner in which mining projects proceed without adequate cost–benefit analysis is one French had personal experience with when a gold mine was approved upstream of her property.

“The authorities knew about the [endangered] species downstream, but there was no environmental evaluation [of them],” French says.

“There was no impact evaluation of the five sediment [discharge] events that occurred, and at no stage was there any remediation. The mine had been approved with good conditions, but it was self-monitoring.

“We have good environmental laws in Australia, but without independent evaluation and enforcement [they are not effective]. The dredging proposed at Gladstone might have excellent [approval] conditions, but people know [if it goes wrong], it’s a bit late to say the science wasn’t good enough afterwards.

“Most disasters have been predicted, but humans are very good at ignoring the evidence. As I say at the end of the book, humans like to believe ‘tomorrow will probably be like today – until one day, it isn’t.’

“[Projects] need independent evaluations. One of the problems is a government one, where the so-called independent evaluators required [for approvals] are employed by the developer. So if they are only paid for three days of evaluation for what should really take five or six years… the incompleteness of evaluation worries me.

“A true cost–benefit analysis needs to be carried out [for developments]. Like in China, where by law every project needs to have an environmental cost–benefit analysis.”

French gave the example of an alternative to the dredging at Abbott Point to improve the Port of Gladstone, whereby 600 kilometres of road between Far North Queensland and Cairns could be tarred instead, so exports could ship out of the existing port of Darwin.

“It could be worth destroying part of the north for a route to port instead,” she mused.

“The [gold mine] project here, when they assessed the jobs that would be created or lost with the mine, they didn’t assess the jobs downstream – the orchards, market gardens and tourism which employed more people and generated more income.

“Our greatest crime of all, however, was to simplify the bush”

French says the impact of the mine, and pollution from the mine, on those enterprises was not mentioned in the projects assessment documentation. This kind of incomplete assessment, due largely, she says, to lack of time taken to examine and understand the context, contributes to a lack of proper baselines for urban planning also.

“Better baselines are needed. For example, the Brisbane floods [which affected her father], there were people who were negligent [in planning terms] and allowed [development in flood zones] to happen – and they should incur sanctions,” French says.

“One of the incredible ironies is that most of these [environmentally risky] projects could go ahead if the planning occurred in a broader context. For example, Fukushima, all it needed [to prevent the disaster] was proper monitoring to ensure the approval conditions had been kept.”

French encountered a dichotomy in her own submissions during the gold mine consultations where the perception is someone is either for or against a development. What she did try to say – and stresses in the book – is that these kinds of developments need stringent conditions, yet even the planning authorities perceived her submission as saying the development should not proceed.

“It’s not a popular perspective… Humans like things simple,” she comments.

“We need to have cost–benefit analysis taught in schools, where [the kids] look at choices, and choose one project a year to do a cost–benefit analysis on.”

As she wrote in the book: “Most political and planning decisions are reactive: produced with little forethought because of opinion polls or political necessity. Too few are proactive: produced from a long-term study of trends and necessities.”

Our climate changes – live with it

Living in the one place for four decades, French has her own evidence base for climate change, one which was more than supported by her research for the later sections of the book.

“Climate change it seems in Australia is ridiculous not to accept it and integrate it,” French says.

“We know this country has droughts that can go for 100 years, or even 1000 years; the climate seems to change dramatically and unpredictably.

“In the last five years, no long-term weather forecast has been correct.

“[But] it comes back to the thing I say, ‘We like to think tomorrow will be like today… but one day, it won’t be.”

“We know in Australia it can be much hotter, much drier, much wetter and [we can also] be in the middle of a bushfire – and within 10 years we can have all of those. Projects need to plan for all of those – for hail, storms, flood and fire.”

In other countries, French says there is sometimes better acceptance of the nature of the climate and how it changes design. For example, she says, while Australians continue to put power systems for hospitals and other crucial buildings down in the bottom of the building where they are vulnerable to flood, a country like Holland, which has accepted and expects floods, puts the power systems up the top of the building. It’s not a major change in design, but it makes a great deal of difference when the inevitable happens.

Inventing a path away from disaster

Another element of French’s central message in sustainability terms is that creativity, innovation and invention are crucial for us to move forwards and improve our way of living in this landscape.

“We have the technology and prototypes for the most massive skyscrapers to be self powering with photovoltaics, water recycling and using waste heat to generate cooling. It’s a failure of imagination [we haven’t built them],” French says.

“We think we are making informed decisions, but we are very ignorant.”

One of the issues she identifies is that while studies have shown suburban solar installations can provide 60 to 80 per cent of society’s power needs, our power infrastructure can’t cope with that level of solar power because it was designed for centralised power generation, not localised.

This concerns French, who points out that centralisation of power, of healthcare, of education all create high risks. With power, the situation is one of particular vulnerability to a range of externalities including solar flares and natural disasters.

“In renewable [energy systems], each area can have its own own system, which would mean the damage from a disaster would be limited. Humanity is getting terrifyingly centralised,” French says.

She refers back to earlier decades, when there were still numerous small suburban hospitals and nursing homes that actually provided nursing care for the ill of all ages, rather than being as she terms them a “euphemism” for end-of-life residency, as nursing homes are today.

Kids as change agents

Having examined the statistics for industry through time while researching the book, French recognises the capital, both social and physical, which is tied up in coal-fired power plants. This, she says, makes it difficult for a change of approach to occur.

However, at the same time, she is a staunch advocate for the need to embrace change and discover its possibilities. And as Australia’s National Children’s Laureate for 2014, she believes our kids hold part of the solution.

“So many of the places I loved as a child have been destroyed. I asked myself, have I been creating heartbreak for [my son] by giving him… [the ability] to be part of the environment and enjoy that,” she says.

“Indigenous people worked hard to preserve [the environment] and did ceremonies to preserve it. Some Indigenous people believe part of the reason for the mess the world is in, is it is impossible to do those rituals now.

“Unless we can establish those rituals with everyone, so we can realise we are part of the ecology too, [belonging to the environment is difficult].

“That’s why I write for kids; mostly adults don’t have time to reassess their beliefs.

“I think too often [as adults] we ask kids, ‘What would you like to be?” when we should ask, ‘What do you want the world to be like?’, ‘What sort of house do you want to have?’

“I am currently asking kids [as part of being Children’s Laureate] what they want in schools, and they keep saying they want time to invent. We humans are an inventive species, yet we don’t encourage them to invent.

“Within schools over the last 10 years we have made them safer, but kids need to do some of that [risky] stuff. I’m beginning to think one of the major things schools need is a place kids can go at lunchtime and invent. This needs to be encouraged; we need to encourage creativity, invention and cooperation.

“I think [as adults] we have had the creativity knocked out of us. We humans are basically nice people who do best when we cooperate, but the thing of being competitive is seen as more important in my experience.”

“Tomorrow will probably be like today – but one day it’s won’t be”

“One of the reasons [I write] history, is we need to learn that lesson that things change. And as humans, we are good at change, and we need to accept and have confidence that we are good at it. This is what we are [as a species], and we can triumph, and we have survived with far less resources [to help us],” French says.

“All our education policies are predicated on ignoring change.

“Humans have done very well from using steel and iron, but we need to do it properly, so we actually end up with a higher standard of living. [Right now] we have pollution, crowding, our lives are more stressed, we have higher rates of cancer – actually, our standard of living has dropped.”

Jackie French’s 16 suggestions for survival in a changing world from Let The Land Speak:

  1. Learn your land – good decisions need good data
  2. Leave areas of biodiversity, even if large areas must be developed
  3. Be part of the society around you
  4. Evaluate what experts say rather than stick with your preconceptions and ideology (mining)
  5. Develop sensibly
  6. Eat good food
  7. Become a moral omnivore
  8. Learn to love the shabby and give up the addiction to the new
  9. Accept that “natural” or “native” does not necessarily mean “best” or “harmless”
  10. Get it in writing
  11. “Critically endangered” may not necessarily be the best criteria for preserving an area or species
  12. Be deeply suspicious of anyone who says, “That’s impossible,” unless they can substantiate it with a minimum three-year study of the proposition
  13. Be cautious. Be kind. Be wary of anyone who tries to make you angry. Expect war, too.
  14. Beware of the terrapath – “Terrapaths are the ones who know that what they are doing, whether it be mining or logging a forest, will hurt the species of the earth and simply don’t care, as long as they make a profit from the activity.”
  15. Be optimistic
  16. Love your country

Jackie French is the Children’s Laureate for 2014-15. Learn more at the Australian Children’s Laureate website.

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