Land Degradation – One Insidious Step at a Time

“Once again, the principal villains across Greece, Southern Italy, Southern France, and Spain, were fires, goats, and timber felling. … Able to thrive anywhere, goats often create an environment in which little but goats will survive.” Ronald Wright. A Short History of Progress

History is sobering.  It rocks us out of those favourite delusions that what is now will ever be, and that our present ideas and social structures are natural and eternal.  Hold to those delusions, and we may never change… not willingly.


Cole Thomas: The Course of Empire Destruction, 1836

That’s the thing about change and history.  We look to the experience of land degradation – and with it social and civilisation collapse – and wonder; how did this happen?  So often it wasn’t a matter of explicit choice.  History did the choosing for us.  It wasn’t explicit because we did not see it; did not think about it; hid behind the now and the shallowness of specialisation and small lives that in today’s world we think of as ‘wise’, even truth.

We did it then, and we are doing it now.

We respect focus and clichés more than philosophy.  We even encourage that least resilient of social capacities – obedience to authority and attention to instructed tasks and narrow job descriptions.  A bounded view of life, of experience.  Huxley’s Soma, drugging us into dispassion and apathy.  Teach to this standard.  Attend to these step-wise mechanical procedures.  Do not speak outside your speciality.  Do not think, act as instructed by The Man.  Think of the world is a set of objective and analytical bits, where synthesis and wonder are merely subjective.  Merely art.  Merely the Humanities.

And when we look back with anything resembling smugness of these repeated historical collapses, ponder the systems of box thinking and hierarchical and specialised knowing we encourage today, and ask whether we are better or worse than our once civilised ancestors.

Today, we do not encourage critical thought, outside-the-box thinking, open dialogue,  art, the Humanities, synthesis, mad dancing and self-expression.  Obedience is promoted.  The Eichmann’s scheduling trains without any ability for critical thought.  The National Party advocating more STEM subjects taught because they make better cogs for their patrons in the corporate machine.

And this makes the insidious steps of decay even less visible.  The willful blindness of Modernity.  ‘Education’ as an exercise in closing minds and killing experience and wonder and thinking of something new, something that might just happen tomorrow, over the horizon.

You don't know what you've got till it's gone.jpg

It is so easy to rationalise another step closer to the abyss as nothing to worry about.  Treat the doubters and speakers as dissidents.  Label them hippy, Greenie, latté suppers.  Hilarious.  It was just a little bit of degradation, nothing to worry about … and you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.  It’s partly why we maintain a blasé attitude toward climate change.  Humanity deals in what Jane Jacobs referred to as “exclamation points”, a wake-up-call from an indisputable shift in a system – an ecological, social or economic collapse.  Until that happens, all the insidious step by little step evidence of a problem is rationalised away.

None of this means it cannot be us that makes the choices and does the shaping of our future.  It starts with thinking beyond our today – back to the lessons of the past, and forward to the banquet of consequences upon which our children of tomorrow will feast.

Or perhaps not.  Perhaps it starts with learning to be free in our thoughts, to look at any industrialised mechanical hierarchy whether corporate or public sector as about as bright as a lumbering dinosaur with a tiny brain.

But first of all, the context and the warning.  I’ll look at one example in one place – Hawke’s Bay – of insidious degradation made ironic because of the potential in this place; a potential the dinosaurs cannot even begin to visualise.

Hawke’s Bay is about as close as we’ll get in New Zealand to a Mediterranean climate and landscape.  We have the limestone and the mudstones, the craggy mountains, the hot dry valleys, the droughts and floods.  That combination is both a curse and a blessing.

Land degradation Embalse de la Cierva, Spain

Land degradation Embalse de la Cierva, Mula (SE Spain)

It’s the reason why the Bay has potential problems.  We need only look to the worse examples around the Mediterranean to see a potential future; waterless hills feeding waterless plains, eroded valleys, silted up harbours, few forests, many goats, and those periodic Greek fires.  These areas would be very unpromising if it wasn’t for the fact that the Mediterranean is where travelling East meets the travelling West, and the history and natural beauty draws the tourists.  And the Mediterranean has around it arguably *the* most studied examples of environmental and civilisation collapse.

There is our context.

Then there’s the upside.  We could look to other parts of the Mediterranean as our future model.  We could make Hawke’s Bay the Provence or Tuscany of the South Seas if we really wished; a model of the good life.  Think vineyards, olives, apple cider, cheese-makers, cafés serving artisan coffee‚ local foods and boutique beer.

Think the opposite of the industrial brain-dead models of scale and cheapness.  Think growing high value, multiplying it, retaining it so the dinosaurs don’t take it away, distributing it so local enterprise does even better, attracting even more because people want to live and be within a place where living is not about being a cog in a machine.  We draw culture, art and the odd busking Bohemian nose flautist just to make life a little more interesting.

That better example is being shaped right now, but it doesn’t mean that the worse scenario won’t happen as well, the Eastern and Southern Med.

It’s easy for us to assume that we now have knowledge of the causes and consequences of land degradation that the old civilisations didn’t have.  Those old Cretans, Sumerians, Greeks and Persians were perhaps a little dim.  Especially the Cretins.

Soon bas relief.jpgThat’s another delusion.  Solon, the Athenian that got rid of that nasty piece of work Draco and his laws, tried to sort out the land management problems that were clearly evident then.  That was in 590 BC, 2600 years ago and almost at the height of Greek power.  Solon tried to ban over-grazing on steep slopes, and a generation later Pisistratus, another Athenian ruler, offered grants for olive planting and encouraged terracing.  To no avail.

To no avail.  Sound familiar?

Not bad thinking for the day.  Pity they didn’t ban the bloody goats.

Plato lamented the result two hundred years after Solon.  He called the resulting country “the skeleton of a sick man, all the fat and soft earth having wasted away.” Where once the land was – as he put it – “enriched by the yearly rains, which were not lost to it, as now, by flowing from the bare land into the sea; but the soil was deep, and therein received the water, and kept it in the loamy soil…feeding springs and streams running everywhere. Now only abandoned shrines remain to show where the springs once flowed.”

Sierra_de_la_Gessa - Land degradation.jpg

Sierra de la Gessa – The Skeleton of a Sick Man

What’s interesting about that quote is that the focus of Plato’s lament was on the retention and flowing of water.  That results from both soil loss and the degradation of soil to the point where rainfall no longer easily infiltrates or stores so well.  So streams dry up and springs don’t recharge.  We repeat the mistakes of the past with our focus on removing water quickly.  We ought to be working to store it and slow it in our hills.

Land degradation is associated with economic and social loss, and often complete social collapse.  It is no coincidence that Greek power and achievement began to wane just a little later than Plato, after the last bright flame of that megalomaniac Alexander, hell-bent on world domination.

What’s interesting is why the decline in those more erodible Mediterranean landscapes continued when people knew what was happening.  Partly it’s those delusions; what is now will ever be; our present ideas of how to manage land are natural and eternal.

Or, putting it another way; we can keep on doing as we are at the moment, and soil erosion and loss of water holding capacity from our hill country isn’t really that much of a problem.  After all, the big storms only happens every few decades, and those little storms that make the farm streams run brown with topsoil are just our form of normal.  Don’t even think about it.  It’s what we do.  So easy to dismiss or forget.

Unless you know your history.

We can choose to believe those delusions, or we can look hard at what we do on our steeper lands and gullies, work to keep water in the landscape, work on that vision of a South Seas Provence, and get rid of those damned goats.

But first, can we please get rid of the unthinking dinosaur hierarchies, and bring thought and discussion back into the centre of a resilient social fabric?  The machine is a failed model.

Chris Perley

Chris Perley is an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability with a governance, research, management and policy background in provincial economies, rural sociology and land use strategy.

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7 Responses to Land Degradation – One Insidious Step at a Time

  1. seekaweb says:

    good on you Chris.. Goats are not totally bad. They will eat blackberry. Ian

  2. invercargillgreen says:

    You are so right, Chris. The arrogance of contemporary governance involves a belief that our current technology and thinking is much superior to anything that has gone on before and yet our leaders are probably more ignorant because of that arrogance. John Key’s claim that Maori should be grateful for the economic benefits brought by Europeans exemplified this well.

    I believe a major influence on environmental degradation is the spiritual and emotional separation from the land through detached management. This occurs when tribal and family managed land is replaced by corporate interests that live in cities and overseas. Farm management becomes dominated by spreadsheets rather than firsthand experience of the soil and actual environmental capability. Decisions are influenced by the annual shareholder dividends, rather than longer term production capacity. Even the remaining family farms are under the pressure of the corporate demands of banks and the endless growth mantra of quantity over quality within a finite system (you often explain this well).

    An important part of dealing with our current land degradation would be to limit the current recolonisation that is occurring in NZ and rebuild our relationship with our land. I wrote this some time ago and believe it is still relevant, even though Labour claims that they have sanitised the TPPA, I don’t believe them.

    • cjkperley says:

      I so agree with the spiritual & emotional disconnection being a factor in our bad policy making. I’ve seen so much nonsense rationalised by detached minds looking at small bits and assuming all else will remain the same. And the recolonisation story is also how I feel. But if you have no sense of history, or the role of power and legalised theft in that history, then you will be blind to it. Most of Wellington perhaps.

  3. B.J.Ridler says:

    Always good of you Chris to remind us that others have been here before, have tried and have also failed.
    And as a comment regards those who control us. Taleb had this to say:
    “In the complex domain, expertise doesn’t concentrate:
    under organic reality, things work in a distributed way, as Hayek has convincingly demonstrated.
    But Hayek used the notion of distributed knowledge.”
    – Well, it looks like we do not even need that thing called knowledge for things to work well. Nor do we need individual rationality. All we need is structure.”

    The concept of “Knowledgeable Farm Systems” and how they would contribute to improve both the environment and the community for the future of Hawkes Bay seems destined to be hijacked and become another “better structured plan” towards skeletal oblivion.
    As you have said,it does not actually take years or even decades for the environment to suffer, just the wrong conditions for a few hours of a few days a month will do it.
    Yet it seems the concept of “acceptable averages” is what people accept without realising that their willingness to accept rather than question, is the real problem..

    • cjkperley says:

      Nice. There willingness to accept, rather than question. I think that is absolutely at the core Barry. Might steal that phrase if I may 😊

      • B.J.Ridler says:

        To quote the comedy duo of the 60’s, Wayne and Schuster: “if you like it, you can have it”.
        I am sure you can use it to better effect somewhere.

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