QUARTERLY ESSAY 9 Beautiful Lies



A. Duncan Brown

There is little with which to disagree in the main thrust of Tim Flannery’s Quarterly Essay, Beautiful Lies, but a number of specific points do need some qualification, usually because they over-simplify very complex situations or processes.

The Aboriginal practice of burning scrub or forest is frequently cited by Flannery as a justification for the current policy of “hazard reduction” burning. A problem with this argument is that no one knows how frequently any particular area of land was burnt by the Aborigines, at least in eastern Australia. There is some continuation of the practice in parts of the Northern Territory and of Western Australia where, of course, environmental conditions are very different from those in the east. The statistics for the effectiveness of hazard reduction burning are fuzzy – needless to say. What they suggest is that the practice increases the frequency of low-intensity fires (because it causes them), decreases the frequency of fires of medium intensity, but has no effect on the frequency or severity of high-intensity (“blow up”) fires. In the light of that, and taking into account the extent of European impact on the Snowy Mountains and, of course, the appalling weather conditions during the January 2003 fires, to imply that the possible extinction of the pygmy possum and the corroboree frog can be attributed to lack of hazard reduction burning is to draw a very long bow indeed. Similarly, I have serious reservations about his suggestion that the cessation of burning by Aborigines “is the major cause of mammal extinction in central Australia” – not least because of the complexity of any ecosystem and the length of time involved.

Flannery notes that over the past few decades the Royal National Park in NSW has “lost its kangaroos, its koalas, its platypus and greater gliders” and uses this as evidence against “proclaiming more such reserves”. The arguments for and against nature reserves are not nearly as simple as that statement suggests. It is now generally acknowledged that if a reserve is to sustain its biodiversity, it must have an area greater than a certain minimum, a minimum that obviously will vary with the type of environment in which the reserve is located. In addition, wherever possible, there should be “corridors” connecting neighbouring reserves and allowing movement of animals between them. Not only is Sydney’s Royal National Park Australia’s oldest national park, it is one of the smallest in the country. It adjoins a city. Its borders, being the sea, Port Hacking and a major highway, are essentially impassable to the relevant animals. Internally, it is bisected by a major road and further fragmented by smaller ones. It is an obvious example of inadequacy and cannot be used as a valid argument against the principle of national parks.

Flannery argues in support of the “kangaroo industry”. Part of his argument is that it is less cruel to shoot a kangaroo through the head than to put cattle through the ordeals to which they are exposed on farms and their subsequent slaughter in an abattoir. I would add that the comparison is even more stark if the cattle have been raised in a feedlot. But there are some qualifications at this level. One is that the marksmen are as good as this comparison implies and do not leave wounded kangaroos to die slowly. Another is that the kangaroos that are shot are not mothers with dependent joeys.

There is another less emotional dimension to the comparison which Flannery does not address. Kangaroos grow faster and reach maturity sooner than cattle – slightly over two years for kangaroos compared with about four years (including gestation period) for cattle. This implies that kangaroos will withdraw nutrients from their ecosystem – and hence from their soil – faster than the same mass of cattle. Under most conditions in a natural ecosystem this would not matter because the elements are recycled within the system. In commercial agriculture, however, the produce is consumed elsewhere. In other words, weight for weight, and depending on the age at which the cattle are slaughtered, harvesting kangaroos will normally impoverish soil faster than harvesting cattle from the same environment. Because of many variables, and the qualifications that would follow, I am reluctant to quantify this statement in a short letter such as this.

Commercial agriculture is possible only through the application of fertiliser – but that is not “sustainable” because some nutrient elements are used in a manner that is essentially irreversible. The element most obviously vulnerable to exhaustion is phosphorus. I should emphasise here that, while this has particularly serious implications for Australia, it is a global problem. Calculating the “life expectancy” of natural resources has many uncertainties, of course. My own estimates indicate that, if present trends continue, known global phosphorus resources will be exhausted within 85 to 190 years.1 A long time in the perspective of politicians and captains of industry, but a very short time indeed on evolutionary, or even historical, time scales.

I find Flannery’s arguments in support of whaling somewhat short of convincing. Having argued previously for a kangaroo industry partly on the basis of the cruelty of slaughtering cattle, he makes no mention of the inherent cruelty of harpooning. From my perspective, this is even more difficult to justify when the result of that form of slaughter is used, at least in Japan, not to help sustain a population but rather to titillate the rich.

In the context of whaling, Flannery acknowledges the complexity of natural systems. In the paragraphs that follow, however, he proceeds to comment on old-growth forests on the one hand and biodiversity, soil degradation and water conservation on the other as if the two areas are unrelated. Most of Australia’s soil degradation and problems with water, to say nothing of loss of biodiversity, are largely a consequence of deforestation.


A. Duncan Brown is Emeritus Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Wollongong. He is the author of Feed or Feedback: Agriculture, Population Dynamics and the State of the Planet (International Books, Utrecht, in press).

1. See A. Duncan Brown, Feed or Feedback: Agriculture, Population Dynamics and the State of the Planet, Utrecht, International Books, in press.


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 9, Beautiful Lies. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 10, Bad Company.


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