Australia State of the Environment Report 2001 (Theme Report)
Prepared by: Dr Jann Williams, RMIT University, Authors
Published by CSIRO on behalf of the Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2001
ISBN 0 643 06749 3
After billions of years of evolution, earth is home to a large array of life forms and ecosystems. The Australian continent supports a significant proportion of this global diversity, and Australians increasingly accept a share of the responsibility for it. Concern for non-human life forms goes back in history and across many cultures. However, the level and nature of concern for these life forms changes over time, reflecting our understanding of the nature and importance of this legacy, the values we ascribe to it, the threats it is under and what might be done to conserve it (see Wilson (1992) and Burgman & Lindenmayer (1998)).
The evolutionary legacy of life on earth is now described by the term 'biodiversity', or biodiversity, but this term has come into wide use only recently. It refers to the variety of life of earth - plants, animals and microorganisms, as well as the variety of genetic material they contain and of the ecological systems in which they occur. It is a simple concept, but one which also has great complexity and significance. In Article 2 of the 1992 United Nations CBD (United Nations CBD 1992a), biodiversity was defined as:
the variability among living organisms from all sources including, inter alia, terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems and the ecological complexes of which they are a part; this includes diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems.
This definition was repeated in Australia's Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act), and the NSCABD (Commonwealth of Australia 1996) expands on the three levels at which biodiversity occurs. These levels of biodiversity are:
- genetic: the variety of genetic information contained in all of the individual plants, animals and microorganisms that inhabit the earth - genetic diversity occurs within and between the populations of organisms that comprise individual species as well as among species
- species: the variety of species on earth
- ecosystem: the variety of habitats, biotic communities and ecological processes.
These three levels of diversity are interrelated and interdependent (e.g. a population of a species is thoroughly dependent on its habitat for survival, and a functioning ecosystem is dependent on the complex of species that comprises it).
In the human history of Australia, changing values, scientific knowledge and cultural understanding have altered the way we perceive and interact with the natural environment generally and with biodiversity in particular. The following six phases offer a simplified summary of this process, characterising six different sets of attitudes (extended from Frawley 1994; see also Griffiths 1996; Bowman 1998). While the emphasis has changed over time, these phases reflect attitudes toward the Australian environment and biodiversity that are, to some extent, current.
The Indigenous peoples of Australia have valued and utilised components of biodiversity for at least 60 000 years (Thorne et al. 1999). Indigenous culture and practices have developed in a dynamic relationship with the environment. For example, the use of fire and hunting of animals helped shape the terrestrial environment. Today, Australians live in a cultural landscape that incorporates a diversity of manifestations of the interactions between humans and the natural environment over the last 60 000 years.
While 'western science' is still dominant in terms of the way non-Indigenous people view, describe and classify our flora and fauna, there are an increasing numbers of examples where Indigenous ecological knowledge is being accepted on an equal basis (Kakadu Board of Management and Parks Australia 1998).
Australia's flora and fauna were often a focus, but mostly in terms of their possible value for colonial trade or of their scientific interest and peculiarity.
The environment was viewed as feedstock for colonial economic and trade development. There was little in the way of specific law or management aimed at the protection of native species. Acclimatisation Societies were set up so the early settlers could make the environment more like 'home' and brought in some plants and animals that ended up becoming pests.
New resource management arrangements were established that were informed by science and aimed at management of natural resources (especially forests, water and soils) to best answer human needs in both the present and future.
Yam Daisy (Microseris lanceolata)
The edible tubers and bulbs of the Yam Daisy or Murnong were once a staple diet of the Indigenous peoples of south-east Australia.
Source: JJ Bruhl, University of New England
The modern conservation movement, prominent from the 1960s onward, expressed new issues and values in environmental management debates. In this era, the intrinsic value of biodiversity was more widely recognised, and when laws and policies for biodiversity conservation became the norm rather than the exception.
Since the early 1990s, the central organising concept used by governments to describe human interaction with the environment has been 'sustainable development', termed 'ecologically sustainable development' (ESD) in Australia. The main aims of ESD are to: integrate environmental, social and economic concerns over a long time; adopt a precautionary approach; and recognise the importance of biodiversity and ecosystem processes.
Current debates and practices still feature these different attitudes. One constant is the character of Australia's biota. The biota, special to Indigenous people for millennia, appeared fantastic and fascinating to early European observers. Beneath the superficial strangeness of kangaroos, black swans, platypus and endless eucalypts, a special quality has been increasingly realised.
One indication of change is the expression of biodiversity in domestic law. Integrated nature conservation legislation, which caters for harvesting control, conservation reserves and species protection, and specific legislation, which deals with threatened species, only date back a few decades in Australia (most states enacted such laws in the 1970s). By 1999, over 120 state, territory and Commonwealth statutes expressly referred to ESD as an objective and set of guiding principles (Stein 2000). There has also been a growth in the number and scope of international instruments concerning biodiversity (see Roles and responsibilities).
The following categories summarise the different values people and society place on biodiversity:
Biodiversity is consumed by humans as food and is used to feed stock. It provides materials such as timber and fibre, medicines, chemicals and genetic material.
Indirect utilitarian values include the maintenance of 'ecosystem services' or important ecological processes. Examples include maintaining water quality in catchments, moderating atmospheric processes or weather, conserving the structure or fertility of soil, maintaining coastal function, assimilating or removing wastes from water or soil, maintaining evolutionary potential in ecosystems, sequestering carbon emissions, cycling of nutrients, pest control, and pollination of crops.
Biodiversity has aesthetic and recreational uses for humans, both in the form of specific taxa such as flowers, birds, trees or whales, and as components of natural or semi-natural landscapes such as the Great Barrier Reef and the wetlands of Kakadu National Park.
Scientific discovery can lead to the development of utilitarian values. It will often be through scientific research, other forms of investigation and learning about community or Indigenous knowledge that such uses will be recognised. Also, the variety of life is of educational value across a wide variety of subjects and disciplines (e.g. biology, biochemistry, ecology, genetics and agronomy).
Various cultural and religious systems (e.g. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people) place value on components of biodiversity. Also, there is the ethical position that non-human forms of life have intrinsic value and a right to exist independent of any use to humans.
For all of the above values, there is the added dimension of keeping options open for the future. We are uncertain as to what species and populations are crucial to ecosystem services, or the actual significance of some of these services. Similarly, there may be uses for species or genetic diversity yet to be discovered, such as for food or medicine. And, if the values held in society change as they have in the past, then what is viewed as unimportant now may be more highly valued in the future.
All the values identified above are evident in Australian society, and many individuals will value biodiversity for more than one of these reasons. Perhaps the most important change in understanding in the long term has been the recognition of the reliance of biodiversity on functioning ecosystems, and its role in maintaining ecological processes. This recasts biodiversity science, policy and management in important ways. Managing just a few species and protecting a small selection of natural areas is not sufficient to protect Australia's biodiversity.
Another major and continuing change is the attention being paid to indirect (or underlying) as well as direct (or proximate) causes of biodiversity loss. For example, land clearing by farmers is a direct cause of biodiversity loss in Australia. The indirect causes lie in the social, institutional and economic settings that influence farmer behaviour and farm profitability. This includes the information available to landholders, economic conditions affecting rural industries and perverse incentives encouraging clearance.
This shift in emphasis deepens our understanding of the processes of biodiversity loss and allows more sophisticated policy responses. In the land clearance example, strict regulation is invited by the direct cause, whereas understanding the indirect cause invites the use of incentive mechanisms, forward planning, information provision and other approaches.
An indication of society's concern for biodiversity can be gleaned from opinion surveys, even though these have only been undertaken recently. An analysis of national surveys from 1975 to 1994 identified high levels of concern over environmental issues, and biodiversity was consistently important within the broader environmental field (Lothian 1994). During the 1990s, the ABS undertook more regular surveys (ABS 1999a). In 1999, the environment was nominated as the most important social issue by 9% of the Bureau's sample, above issues such as crime and health. Of those who did not rank the environment as their top issue, 69% stated that they were concerned about environmental issues. This represents a slight decrease on recent years although in 1986 the corresponding figure was 49% (SOE 1996, p. 10-11). The issues of concern most directly relevant to biodiversity, destruction of trees/ecosystems and of animals/wildlife, were identified by 29% of people, and 43% believed that the quality of the environment had decreased in the 1990s.