Friday, 29 April 2011

Ethical Dieback

Ethical Dieback.

While gamers and sports fans might like slow motion action scenes where you can watch every move in minute detail, I doubt if anybody would like to watch the slow motion disaster that is unfolding before our very eyes in the Perth region. 

I live in the hills at Jarrahdale and well into April I am watching whole sections of the forest slowly die. It is not just Jarrah and Marri that are turning yellow and dying, the whole ecosystem is in deep distress, so much so that, tragically, it looks like a Northern Hemisphere autumn is taking place right here, right now.

If we could watch what is going on in fast forward we would see vast tracts of bushland dying of thirst in the grip of this permanent drought. If you take the time to look, you will notice that the native ecosystems on the coastal plain are also in the deep distress of various forms of ‘dieback’. What is happening is a 'tipping point' in the process of 'tipping' ... a rare but hugely important event.

The Perth Region, including the Hills, has had a 20% decline in rainfall over the last 30 years and a much larger, 60% decline in runoff into the streams and our dams. Gooralong Brook, once a year-round running stream, has disappeared and most of its deeper pools are now bone dry. The climate of the SW of WA has already changed for the worse and if it gets even warmer and dryer, the Perth region will be in perpetual ecosystem distress. 

This distress is not only about trees, frogs, jilgies and thirsty kangaroos; it is also a crisis of the human spirit and the mind. Our identity as people of the Perth region is at stake. All that is endemic to this special part of the world is at risk of slow death by desiccation. Our iconic trees such as Banksia and Jarrah are already dying and the wildflowers, the exquisite ground orchids and kangaroo paws, will not reappear in a dry, colourless Spring.

Even the bikies that roar their Harleys up the Jarrahdale Road, heading for the hills, are part of endemic Perth, for although they might find it hard to admit, they love the beautiful bush vistas and the stress release that green, open spaces invite. That you can enjoy the roos, the jarrah forest and a thirst-quenching beer at the Jarrahdale Tavern is a quintessentially West Australian freedom. But it is a freedom, like the water in Serpentine Dam, which is in danger of disappearing. 
We are a people in denial about the huge, negative changes to our climate and landscape that have taken place during my lifetime (I am a baby boomer). Since 1975, in SW WA, we have experienced most of the driest years on record. Last year (2010) was the driest year for the SW since 1900 and we are now breaking records for night and day time heat. The summer of 2010 -11 had the highest average minimum and maximum temperatures on record. Our dams are right now at less than a quarter of their total capacity and the chance of record rains that would return them to the spectacular overflows I witnessed as a child seems a very remote possibility. 

We, in Perth, are in the front line of human induced global warming and its negative impacts and unless we confront that reality, our environment will either wither or simply pack up and move away from us. Sure, at huge expense, we can produce potable water from the sea and pump more ground water to keep Perth ‘green’, but these ‘solutions’ are a sign that we have got our relationship to the earth completely wrong. Go and have a good look at the (former) Lake Gnangara and think about the trade-off between ecosystem health and green lawns.

We are now living in a time of solastalgia, the homesickness you have when you are still at home. We have a lived experience of an environment that is changing all around us in ways that are distressing. Some people still think there is not a problem, that the problem is not serious, that we are not responsible for the problem, that we should do nothing ... but these responses are a sign of deep denial and ethical dieback.
Gooralong Creek with riparian vegetation dead and dying April 2011