Killing the Koala and Poisoning the Prairie: Australia, America, and the Environment

Killing the Koala and Poisoning the Prairie: Australia, America, and the Environment

by Corey J. A. Bradshaw, Paul R. Ehrlich

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Though separated by thousands of miles, the United States and Australia have much in common. Geographically both countries are expansive—the United States is the fourth largest in land mass and Australia the sixth—and both possess a vast amount of natural biodiversity. At the same time, both nations are on a crash course toward environmental destruction. Highly developed super consumers with enormous energy footprints and high rates of greenhouse-gas emissions, they are two of the biggest drivers of climate change per capita. As renowned ecologists Corey J. A. Bradshaw and Paul R. Ehrlich make clear in Killing the Koala and Poisoning the Prairie, both of these countries must confront the urgent question of how to stem this devastation and turn back from the brink.
In this book, Bradshaw and Ehrlich provide a spirited exploration of the ways in which the United States and Australia can learn from their shared problems and combine their most successful solutions in order to find and develop new resources, lower energy consumption and waste, and grapple with the dynamic effects of climate change. Peppering the book with humor, irreverence, and extensive scientific knowledge, the authors examine how residents of both countries have irrevocably altered their natural environments, detailing the most pressing ecological issues of our time, including the continuing resource depletion caused by overpopulation. They then turn their discussion to the politics behind the failures of environmental policies in both nations and offer a blueprint for what must be dramatically changed to prevent worsening the environmental crisis.
Although focused on two nations, Killing the Koala and Poisoning the Prairie clearly has global implications—the problems facing the United States and Australia are not theirs alone, and the solutions to come will benefit by being crafted in coalition. This book provides a vital opportunity to learn from both countries’ leading environmental thinkers and to heed their call for a way forward together.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226270678
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 10/05/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 240
File size: 7 MB

About the Author

Corey J. A. Bradshaw is the Sir Hubert Wilkins Chair of Climate Change in the Environment Institute at the University of Adelaide in South Australia. Paul R. Ehrlich lives in California, where he is the Bing Professor of Population Studies and the president of the Center for Conservation Biology at Stanford University.  He is the author or coauthor of many books, including, most recently, Hope on Earth: A Conversation, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

Read an Excerpt

Killing the Koala and Poisoning the Prairie

Australia, America, and the Environment

By Corey J. A. Bradshaw, Paul R. Ehrlich

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2015 Corey J. A. Bradshaw and Paul R. Ehrlich
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-27067-8



Americans can do anything.

JULIA GILLARD, former Prime Minister of Australia, addressing the US Congress in 2011

Trees cause more pollution than automobiles do.

RONALD REAGAN (1981), former President of the United States

Man and the environment are meant for each other.

TONY ABBOTT (2014), Prime Minister of Australia

I know the human being and fish can co-exist peacefully.

GEORGE W. BUSH (2000), former President of the United States

Paul, you've been tackling the plutocrats, science denialists, and evidence-free ideologists for longer than anyone I know. Does it make you angry or frustrated (or both) that it seems to be getting worse and not better?

I (Corey Bradshaw, henceforth C.J.A.B.) remember asking Paul that question in 2009 as we ate lunch on the Stanford University campus near San Francisco, California. We had just met after being introduced by a mutual colleague, Professor Gretchen Daily, also of Stanford University. I was visiting the university for the first time and had been invited by Gretchen to give a presentation of my research to her lab group. Paul and I had hit it off immediately.

There are few scientists more famous in my field than Paul Ehrlich — he has a long and celebrated career of top-notch science, has written dozens of popular books, and is, of course, most famous for his first book, The Population Bomb (1968), which triggered decades of debate about human overpopulation. I was understandably both nervous and elated to be in the presence of such scientific royalty. I cannot recall the specifics of his response to my question — it had something to do with keeping your sense of humor and maintaining your internal environment with good wine — but the man's vibrant, cutting intellect, sense of humor, and emotively filled diatribe (this book will give you a comprehensive overview of that subject) impressed me immediately. This was a scientist nearly two generations my senior who could fire off passionate and erudite arguments with military precision. I had to get to know him better.

I (Paul Ehrlich, henceforth P.R.E) rarely run into youths who have the good sense to agree with me on virtually everything. How could such a young man have figured out how the world works with relatively so little experience with it? I'm part of a gang of old farts who are desperately trying to change the world that our grandchildren are facing, and here was a brilliant ecologist barely out of his academic diapers concerned about the fate of his beautiful three-year-old daughter.

Several dinners, bottles of wine, and deep conversations later in the presence of our families, we decided to write this book. We took it in turn to visit each other's country, so the subject material grew as we identified more and more reasons why Australians and Americans have a lot to learn from each other's mistakes. There is an almost spooky similarity in the environmental and political problems both of our countries are experiencing, even though the origins of them are often utterly divergent.

Yes, there are many similarities between Australia and the United States. Just think about the rough dimensions of our two countries: both nations are large, with Australia just slightly smaller than the forty-eight contiguous states of the United States. In fact, Australia is the world's sixth-largest country, covering 7.69 million square kilometers (2.97 million square miles). The entire United States, with its fifty states, is the world's fourth-largest country (or third, depending on what China is currently claiming), covering 9.83 million square kilometers (3.79 million square miles). Both cultures are derived originally and principally from what is now the United Kingdom, despite being today a mix of hundreds of other cultures. English, or what approximates for English in each, is the dominant language, but with rapidly rising language minorities, such as Spanish in the United States and Mandarin Chinese in Australia. Both are examples of super-consuming, overdeveloped, rich, literate countries, but with two Americans consuming the same amount of resources as three Australians. But both have footprints more than threefold that of Costa Rica or Chile. Australia and the United States each spend roughly the same portion of their gross domestic product on education, and both have (by standard definition only) highly educated populations. They are among the leaders in environmental sciences, along with the United Kingdom and some European (especially Scandinavian) nations and Japan, with China moving up fast. Both are top greenhouse gas emitters, with each country producing today about fifteen times as much per person as does India.

We think Aussies and Yanks (to use Australian parlance) generally get along well for a number of reasons. Both countries have a frontier spirit; both threw off the British yoke (although Australia keeps some of the royal regalia around for obscure and sentimental reasons); people in both nations tend to be direct and enjoy the out-of-doors and off-color jokes. Today there are over 60,000 US-born people living in Australia, mostly in Sydney and Melbourne, and about 90,000 Australians in the United States. In 2011, 460,000 Americans visited Australia, and 1.2 million Australians visited the United States. These affinities and our strangely convergent personalities are probably why we two hit it off immediately. But above all, we do not like pussyfooting around.

Of course, there are some big differences between Australia and the United States too — many of environmental significance that we discuss in detail in this book. We are not just talking about their wildly different floras and faunas. Although comparable in size, the United States is about ten times as densely populated as Australia. The United States might be ahead in income per person, but the continuing of Ronald Reagan's "Hood Robin" program of redistributing wealth from poor to rich has put the United States well behind Australia in fairness of wealth distribution. Australia's more fragile environment is indicated in many ways, such as Australia having the highest number of recently extinct mammals compared to every other country in the world. Both nations had large indigenous populations and treated them (and still largely treat them) very badly, but the US record was probably worse — although ask Australian Aborigines, and they might have cause to disagree with that assessment. Both countries are nations of immigrants, although the timing and composition of immigrant waves were radically different. Many early European immigrants to both countries were convicts, but both are now very efficient at growing their own. Indeed, there are twice as many people in prisons than living on farms in the United States. In Australia there are closer to nine times as many people living on farms as are incarcerated, although in 2014 the latter number hit an all-time high of 33,000. The United States is also way ahead in the department of gun violence, in part due to an insane lack of controls on guns and ammunition (based on a silly misreading of the US Constitution). The United States also has a Supreme Court justice who has seriously considered the notion that your next-door neighbor carrying shoulder-launched, anti-aircraft missiles should be constitutionally protected under the United States' infamous "right to bear arms" Second Amendment. The bottom line is that the United States has roughly five times the proportion of people in prisons compared to Australia, but a larger proportion of Australians are victimized by crime because relatively more Australians live in big cities compared to citizens in the United States.

Disturbing trends shared by the two nations are increasing right-wing, corporate control of much of the mainstream news media, with incredible power vested in the hands of the Murdochracy, that gang of morally questionable individuals producing "news" sources like Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, and the Australian. These promote the trend toward plutocracy and theocracy in both nations, where a politician is toast (hold the vegemite) if he or she does not at least pretend to believe in supernatural entities — the obvious exception being former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who is an atheist and resided at the Lodge (the official residence — analogue to the White House) with her unmarried male partner. Neither nation deserves the major blame for the Murdoch stain on the human race — he was born in Australia and naturalized in the United States, and buys influence for the greedy of both nations.

Despite their reputations for technical know-how and a can-do spirit, the world that supports Yanks and Aussies is obviously going down the drain at an alarming rate, and even many of our colleagues appear content to let it happen. We often see the media portray so-called "debates" — especially with respect to climate disruption — between the evidence-wielding majority of scientists versus the data-free opinions of the corporate-backed and ideologically crazed "denialist" pundits. But there is no "debate" — it is a bare-knuckle street fight, and when many more scientists appreciate this unfortunate reality, the world will be much better off. The way we see it, when politicians, corporations, and special-interest lobbyists threaten our grandchildren, the gloves must come off. Fortunately for scientists like us, we have knuckles hardened by real data. To paraphrase Naomi Klein, in her critique of international capitalism, The Shock Doctrine, "The business plan of the oil industry is to destroy the world." Ours must be to prevent them, and others of their ilk, from achieving that goal. We cannot allow Australia and America to remain close allies in the war on the environment.

The following chapters in this book weave a comparative story of our two countries — a story that we contend has important global implications. Chapters 2 and 3 focus on the rise of pre-European and post-European societies in the two countries, and how humans have irrevocably altered their natural environments. Chapter 4 explains why without intact ecosystems, we are overall poorer nations. Chapter 5 lays out the current state of that damage in both countries. Chapters 6 and 7 summarize the evidence for rising toxicity and the continuing pressure of overpopulation (yes, even in Australia!). Chapters 8 and 9 deal with the politics of environmental policy failure, driven mainly by greed and religious conservativism. Chapter 10 spells out clearly that we have almost no time to turn these backward policies around, and chapter 11 sets up a blueprint on what we must change to avoid the worst environmental and political crises.

The deep historical, cultural, economic, and military ties between our two countries should not be ignored, whether or not they are understood or appreciated by most of their citizens. Many Australians still aspire to emulate the successes of the United States, in politics, foreign policy, industry, business, technology, and academia, but fail to learn from the colossal mistakes that the United States has made in each one of these areas. Americans, on the other hand, would do well to adopt some of the great Australian approaches to managing society. But none of this is possible without the continued functioning of both countries' life-support systems — their natural environments. For too long their citizens have been biting the hand that feeds them, so it is high time we make some sweeping changes to our societies to fix the damage already done and to avoid the ensuing catastrophes that are increasingly imminent. Australia and America are great nations, but we are both highly susceptible to our own greed and stupidity. Let's change that.


Enter the Naked Ape

This is our land. It goes back, a long way back, into the Dreamtime, into the land of our Dreaming. We made our camp here, and now all that is left of our presence are the ashes and the bones of the dead animals the young men had killed. Soon even our footprints will be carried away by the wind.

S. M. COUPE, Historic Australia (1982)

Whitefella comin'.

After the title of D. S. Trigger's book, taken from Aborigines' warning to others of the impending arrival of European colonists

The most recent evidence suggests that as much as 120,000 years ago, human beings started leaving Africa, Homo sapiens' evolutionary cradle, and began the war on the environment — the monumental task of screwing up the rest of the planet. Despite our ruthless efficiency at achieving that inadvertent objective, the history of human occupation in Australia and North America could not be more different. Yet the influence of those early people on the ecosystems of both regions ultimately converged. Humans have a remarkable capacity to adapt to pretty much any suboptimal condition that Earth's environment can throw at them, because our capacity for survival is embodied in our striking ability to evolve culturally and modify our surroundings to suit our needs. There is no better ecosystem-engineering species on the planet. Sadly, this efficiency also means that when enough of us get together, we can do a surprisingly large amount of damage to our own life-support systems. We are specialists at sawing off the proverbial limb upon which we are sitting.

We will start with Australia because humans arrived there long before they ever showed up in North America. The first Australians arrived about 50,000 years ago from the Indonesian archipelago, making the Aboriginal ways of life some of the most ancient in situ (surviving) cultures on the planet. Indeed, outside of Oenpelli in the Northern Territory, P.R.E. and his wife, Anne, were thrilled, along with their friends the ecologists Andy Beattie and Chris Turnbull, to view an amazing display of rock art. A hundred meters or more of low rock underhang was decorated with paintings, often overlaid, some of which were said to date back 10,000 years or more. Yet the same day and a mile or so away, they could see the lineal descendants of the artists now doing their paintings on special paper imported from England. The early Aborigines also developed some important advances in stone tool-making and invented some of the earliest forms of open-water transport. Those first people arrived by small vessels across the Arafura and Timor Seas separating the Australian continent from the many large islands that today we call Indonesia, Timor-Leste, and New Guinea. They found a massive continent teeming with food. Wallabies, kangaroos, wombats, marsupial tigers, crocodiles, giant terror birds (Genyornis), barramundi, goannas, cockatoos, snakes, turtles, and many small marsupials made up the delectable smorgasbord that a talented hunter armed with a simple spear could acquire with relative ease. There were also many native plants such as yams, macadamia nuts, and various fruits that complemented the meat-rich diet. What a paradise those remote northern shores of Australia must have looked like to those first humans!

Yet it was far from a gentle land — northern Australia is to this day a region of intense extremes. Its weather system is infamous for its brutality to living things. Unlike the monsoons typical of the lower latitudes immediately to Australia's north, which are characterized by several "wet" seasons interspersed by periods of relatively little precipitation, northern Australia's rains come only once annually after an extended period of intense dryness. From C.J.A.B.'s personal experience, we must emphasize that the gradual and relentless increase in humidity and heat before those first rains arrive is almost enough to drive one insane. The brief ensuing wet season lasts a mere two to three months, with often no appreciable rain falling during the remainder of the year. This boom-and-bust cycle of available water means that all life — humans included — had to evolve or adapt quickly to survive this astonishing variation in the availability of life-giving water.

Not only is the extreme monsoon of the north a burden, some better-known aspects of Australian climate and geography also conspire to challenge life. Australia is the most water-stressed of the inhabited continents. Jared Diamond unflatteringly described Australia as the "driest, smallest, flattest, most infertile, climatically most unpredictable, and biologically most impoverished" continent on Earth. The characteristic red dust, scrubby vegetation, and peculiar rock formations, so often reproduced on tourist pamphlets, make up a substantial proportion of the country's land area — approximately 40% of its 7.69 million square kilometers (2.97 million square miles) — is considered arid shrubland or desert. Most of these arid lands sit squarely in the middle of the continent-country, with only the coastal fringes having climate patterns conducive to forest growth. But even the more vegetation-friendly parts of the country are subject to intense variation from year to year. The climatic phenomenon known as the El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) can bring heavy rains, floods, and cold fronts one year, and extreme droughts the next, with little apparent predictability. The last few years of record high temperatures, intense heat waves, and disastrous floods in Australia are not only testament to its innate climate variability, these phenomena are probably getting worse as the planet warms. Including savannas with tree canopy cover greater than 20%, Australia had a mere 30% of its total area covered by forests when Europeans arrived some 200 years ago. Since then, while forests have dwindled to cover less 20% of the country, the total area of desert has changed little.


Excerpted from Killing the Koala and Poisoning the Prairie by Corey J. A. Bradshaw, Paul R. Ehrlich. Copyright © 2015 Corey J. A. Bradshaw and Paul R. Ehrlich. Excerpted by permission of University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Preface  Prologue
1 Ausmerica
2 Enter the naked Ape
3 Remorse
4 Biowealth
5 Liquidated Assets
6 Sick Planet, Sick People
7 The Bomb is Still Ticking
8 Ignorance and Greed
9 Theocracy
10 Circling the Drain
11 Save this House
Acknowledgments  Notes

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