Paradigm shift

grey kangaroo | NSW“You cannot solve a problem from the paradigm that created it” is a famous Albert Einstein quote.  The great man reminding us not only that lateral thinking is powerful, but that it is easy for us to stay with what we know at the expense of the things that we do not.

At times we appear so stuck in our ways that innovation seems all but impossible. We think in the current paradigm, work in it, live in it, trust it and are horribly uncomfortable when forced to go anywhere else.

Take sheep for example. A godsend if ever there was one — just about perfect wool and lamb cutlet factories. Nations were built on their backs.

In the late 1800’s there were more than 15 million of them in the parched lands of western NSW, outnumbering people by thousands to one.

Now we have talked about sheep before on Alloporus [Last chance to see | Buying up the land] and risk New Zealander and gum boot jokes if we go there again, only it is too good an illustration of what Einstein was on about.

Sheep production has been successful in Australia even when the conditions didn’t really suit them. Herding large numbers of the docile creatures on paddocks was the approach imported from overseas where the same thing had worked for generations.

It was difficult in dry country so, by necessity, the paddocks became quite large and the sheep stations huge. Graziers sweated hard and found a way. Countless sheep were reared, sheared and sold.

So many sheep left the stations over the years that it became apparent that these dry and dusty paddocks were becoming drier, dustier and less able to recover when the rains came. Growing numbers of feral animals, especially rabbits, didn’t help. Over time the rangeland became degraded almost everywhere threatening the viability of farms and bringing any number of unwanted costs from biodiversity loss to muddy waters.

What to do?

Here are some of the ideas that were tried:

  • make the paddocks even bigger
  • make the paddocks smaller
  • try running new sheep varieties
  • spell [rest] the paddocks for a while
  • turn the water points on
  • turn the water points off
  • apply some fertilizer to the paddocks
  • maybe keep the sheep but bring in feed from elsewhere to get them through the droughts

All these ideas and more were tested at some point. What you will notice is that they are all within the sheep-growing paradigm

A few innovators tried rearing goats or harvesting kangaroos. This is better perhaps but is still within the grazing paradigm.

A few very brave souls have suggested there are alternatives to meat and wool production and be paid for the carbon sequestration and/or ecosystem services provided by the land. And there is always ecotourism.

Again this may be better in some circumstances [although ecotourism is rarely the panacea proponents might like it to be] but it is still the economic paradigm.

So is it actually possible to solve the problem if it is so hard to think outside the core paradigm?

Fortunately there are enough ‘out there’ folk to become the early adopters of even quite wacky. The first business suit wearing users of the early mobile phones that were the size of a small suitcase looked most odd until they started doing deals from coffee shops — then everyone wanted one.

So paradigms do change and the grazing one might just be about to.

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