Environmental issues are often framed as ‘problems’, ‘crises’, ’emergencies’, and sometimes even ‘wars’. Australia has a ‘Green Army’, and numerous lobby groups and political parties are ‘fighting’ climate change. And so on. Framing environmental issues in this way serves to create a mental shortcut, to shape the way individuals and groups make sense of events around them and the kinds of decisions they will make in response. The rhetoric of war invites perceptions of crisis, threats, and urgency.
The discourses surrounding issues can, therefore, shape policy responses, and so it was particularly interesting for me to discover the use of strong war rhetoric in a mid-20th-century study of soil erosion in Australia.
Land degradation has appeared periodically in national debates over the past century or so. An early example is pastoralist John G. Robertson’s letter to Governor Charles La Trobe on September 26, 1853.
“When I first came here, I knew of but two landslips, both of which I went to see; now there are hundreds found within the last three years,” Robertson wrote. “Ruts, seven, eight, and ten feet deep, and as wide, are found for miles, where two years ago it was covered with tussocky grass like a land marsh. I find from the rapid strides the silk-grass has made over my run, I will not be able to keep the number of sheep the run did three years ago, and as a cattle station it will be still worse; it requires no great prophetic knowledge to see that this part of the country will not carry stock that is in it at present.”
There were periodic references to localised soil erosion and land degradation in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. From the 1880s, the Mallee region of Victoria was severely degraded and sand drift became a prominent issue in the drought years of the 1920s and 1930s.
In 1938, a committee was appointed to investigate soil erosion in Victoria, followed by a conference on land degradation in 1939. By the 1940s, soil erosion had become a significant national issue, leading one geographer at the University of Sydney to claim it was Australia’s “greatest peacetime social problem.” In this period of drought and severe degradation, Australia, scientists and policymakers borrowed soil conservation approaches from counterparts in the United States.
In 1942, pastoralist John H. Pick’s book — Australia’s Dying Heart — was published by Melbourne University Press. The historian, journalist, editor, and public administrator Robert H. Croll opened the book with these strong words:
War has come to Australia. The danger is real indeed but, I say it deliberately, not more real than the insidious threat by an enemy we have had with us for years. We can, and will, repel the foe now hammering our frontiers — we are eager and willing to enter the lists against him; but we are actually encouraging and assisting this other enemy, civilization’s greatest menace, soil erosion.
The book itself is a short introduction and explanation of the causes and extent of soil erosion throughout Australia. While the context of the Second World War is obvious, the book also appeared at a time in the 20th century when Australia was still largely understood as an unfinished project, or an ‘undeveloped enterprise’, as the Prime Minister Stanley Bruce put it in the 1920s. For much of the first half of the 20th century, land settlement and increased primary production were seen as the best solutions to Australia’s military vulnerability in the region.
Yet little attention was paid to the maintenance and management of the land, which by the late 1930s had become severely denuded and thus unproductive in many parts, nor the specific conditions of the Australian climate.
Pick’s book represents an urgent warning, but of a particular kind. He agreed with those who would seek to develop the interior of the continent, and believed, as one historian put it, that “a new society could be ripped out of the Australian landscape. Soil conservation did not consist of acquiring a land ethic but could be accomplished through enlightened self-interest and efficient management.”
And, much like governments of the time understood development as a strategic goal for the future defence of the nation, Pick — as with Croll — framed soil erosion in wartime rhetoric, drawing specifically on the contemporary experience of the Second World War to shape his argument. In his conclusion, Pick writes:
Old ways die hard, I know. But when it is a case of the absolute and irrevocable ruin of at least one-half of the continent, even, the most encrusted conservatism must pause and consider. Once it is realized where we are drifting, the most selfish amongst us must be prepared to make some sacrifice.
At the present time, the best of our young men are on the other side of the world, giving their lives to preserve that heritage of freedom and prosperity which we owe to future generations of White Australians. Of what avail is their sacrifice, if an enemy within the gates is to be allowed to rifle the future resources of their country? Soil erosion is that enemy, an enemy more insidious than the traitor within the gates, a destroyer more deadly than all the Hitlers of history. Such men have their brief day of destiny and pass on like a dream of evil. The misery which they inflict is confined to the generation foolish enough, or sinful enough, to permit their elevation to such heights of power.
Soil erosion is an enemy far more ferocious. Its evil influence is everlasting. Once a country has been surrendered to the forces of erosion, it is rarely, indeed, that it can ever be reclaimed. Berbers, Egyptians, Arabs, Persians and Mongols all had their day of glory and departed. Each of these was, in turn, defeated by those same forces of decay which the rifling of its soil resources had released. Let not Australia go the same way. In the struggle which lies ahead with the foulest enemy we Britons have ever had to tackle, every other consideration must be laid aside. If the urge to produce wool and meat for our armies and for exchange to buy munitions becomes acute, no consideration can stand in the way of production. If, at the end of this war, the British Empire is bled white, the enemy must be bled whiter. We must throw everything we have into this fight. If possible, let us keep these other very important matters in mind. When the war is over,and Britain is herself again, in the reconstruction which must follow, we will build a better, greater, safer Australia. That the writer may share in that reconstruction is his only wish.
A full digitised copy of John Pick’s Australia’s Dying Heart is available through the State Library of Victoria. It represents a typical response to the obstacles to mid-20th-century notions of progress presented by the Australian environment. It is also an obvious and clear precedent to the language of crisis that permeated through the environmental movements the emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, and the kind of rhetoric we still encounter today.