We do not live in Narnia

We do not live in Narnia

Narnia is the fictional land invented by CS Lewis where he took Alice for epic brawls between good and evil. 

A Goodreads reviewer described Narnia as a land where magic meets reality, and the result is a fictional world whose scope has fascinated generations

Magic crashing into reality.

Fiction is absorbing because it could be true. All we have to do is suspend our disbelief long enough to identify with the characters in the story and we are invested, even with a white rabbit that talks. 

Where the rabbit hangs out, we believe too.

Thank goodness

Life would be strange, but not half as fanciful without fictional lands imagined for our entertainment.

As my wife reminds me, we are in and of this world. That is the real one that we inhabit every day. The one that throws up challenges, curveballs and exposes everyone to COVID.

Sometimes it feels imagined when everyone in the neighbourhood locks down, and the bustle suddenly stops. There are no cars, few buses and dogs taken for more walks than they ever thought possible.

Then previously unacceptable rates of infection that made lockdowns essential are ok after all. Case numbers can grow exponentially. It feels like a 180 because it is — the race that was not a race is not a race again.

Maybe it is Narnia.

CSIRO seem to think so.

In this mythical land, payments for environmental services such as carbon sequestration, clean water and habitat for wildlife would be 80% of the roughly $65 billion in agricultural production worth 6% of GDP.

In a generation, the budget will somehow shift to pay 6% of current GDP on environmental services.

First, let’s make a few context numbers available.

As of 2020, agriculture accounts for 

  • 55% of Australian land use (427 million hectares, excluding timber production) 
  • 25% of water extractions (3,113 gigalitres used by agriculture in 2018–19);
  • 11% of goods and services exports in 2019–20;
  • 1.9% of value-added (GDP) and
  •  2.6% of employment in 2019–20

In other words, Australian agriculture is conspicuous without being the backbone of the economy. 

Services deliver a steady two-thirds of GDP and industry a quarter, whilst in dollars, mining provides around $200 billion.  

The big employers in Australia are health care, retail, professional services, construction and retail, who all have more than 3x the number of workers as agriculture.

Australia is one of the most food-secure nations in the world. Not only is agricultural production diverse across the varied climate and soils of the continent, with an array of nutritious foods grown, but Australia also produces more food than it consumes, exporting around 70% of agricultural production.

As of 2020, around 3.5 million people, 14% of the population, live in rural areas. This population has declined as a proportion of the total population but has doubled in absolute numbers since 1960.


In summary

Not a big deal for the economy or employment, already growing enough food with a stable rural population.

Not too many of these fundamentals suggest the need for an environmental market. 

A $48 billion environmental market

Climate change is the only driver to promote a market equivalent to 80% of the agricultural sector.

Somehow, society would decide to seed emissions offsets and other environmental credits to kick start a market where consumers and taxpayers pay for actions that deliver fungible environmental credits.

This would be a fantastic outcome.

Farmers and landholders would be paid to put carbon back into soil and vegetation, hold water on their land, restore habitat, fence off streams and restore habitat for wildlife.

But we fund all of these activities already. Only it is done with a few dollars at the margins.

So what would be different in the next 20 years that has not already been the case for the past 30?

The rhetoric about climate change perhaps?

Delivering on commitments to the Paris agreement?

A 180 on climate policy?

A young girl named Alice falls through a rabbit hole into a fantasy world?

Hero image from a photo by Szymon Fischer on Unsplash

Changing the quilt

Changing the quilt

If you are fortunate enough snag a window seat on a commercial flight, gaze out of the window for a while as the aircraft defies all logic and ascends to the clouds. Once away from the suburbs you will see a patchwork quilt below, a pattern made by humans — the farmers who produce our food and fibre.

Over generations, these stoic folk have cut down trees to grow crops or raise livestock and when we look down from the sky what we see are rectangular patches of browns, tans and dull greens. Occasionally there is a darker, almost black patch, that in places might stretch to the horizon or could just be an isolated blob of irregularity. Sometimes ribbons appear that amble across the landscape ignoring the straight lines of the field edges.

It is actually quite a sight, something to marvel at really.

It has only taken a few hundred years to sow this quilt together into a pattern that represents production and progress. It tells you there is wheat and sheep and cotton down there on the doona; wheat that ends up in the sandwich presented to you by the smiling cabin crew member.

If the quilt did not exist then folk would go without.

Only this marvel also feels tainted. As we think about the regular rectangles, it is clear that In making the quilt, wilderness was lost. The trees, wildlife, and many an ecological process strained or curtailed and the pristineness is gone forever.

Ouch, that feels worrisome somehow.

Loss is such a loaded word. It is sad and painful, far more painful than the joy of gain because it takes us closer to the primal fear: the loss of our existence.

What? Has Alloporus completely lost the plot and turned into Confused Confucius? It’s rhetorical people, get over it. The world is what it is, populated by 7.5 billion humans beings all trying their best to have their version of a good time. Nobody is thinking about the loss of existence.

Ah, there you have it. Nobody is thinking about the loss of their existence.

Otherwise, we would be paying way more attention to the details of the quilt.

Are the patches the right size and shape and in the right configuration to ensure our future? Big might be good for efficient use of machinery but small means less wind fetch or the uniformity that gives pests their opportunity.

Are the colours right? A sandy brown colour everywhere suggests bare soil that when it is dry and windy might end up in New Zealand. Green hues suggest a crop or a pasture with production happening. Ribbons connect patches of native vegetation that provide any number of useful services to the surrounding fields.

And, in the end, will the quilt keep us well fed?

So book a window seat once in a while and marvel at the landscape below for it is quite remarkable. Then whisper a few pointy questions to yourself as you munch through your in-flight chicken sandwich.

Numbers that tell a story

  • $70 billion agricultural investment as bank loans to farmers
  • $40 billion on warships to be built in Adelaide
  • $2 million average farm debt in Australia
  • $1 a kilo for onions

Numbers in words…

While Australians have the 15th highest per capita GDP in the world [on IMF estimates] and the 5th highest average income among OECD countries, consumers pay next to nothing for their food [around 10% of disposable income].

Ageing farmers work an average 49 hours per week and are in debt up to their eyeballs.

The bankers insure this lending against the land value and know that global demand will keep the price of prime agricultural land high enough for their shirts to be safe.

Rather than provide food security to the region the Australian government invests in warships that the Chinese navy would overrun in the time it takes to order special fried rice.