Sandra Nicholls is an active member of the Brahma Kumaris and an environmental educator. She has been involved in bush regeneration at their retreat centre at Leura in the Blue Mountains of Sydney and is now engaging in the community near Ballarat, Victoria.
Integrity applied to a person means they are honest and have strong moral principles (Oxford Dictionary) which are not changeable. It can also mean a state of being whole, undivided and undiminished (Macquarie Dictionary). Applied to the environment, integrity means keeping ecosystems intact and applying our moral principles, which means valuing all forms of life equally.
In this article I will cover why environmental integrity is at risk, what we can do about it and why we need different approaches than those that have been used in the past to no avail.
An ecosystem is a biological community of interacting organisms such as plants and animals and their physical environment. Ecosystem services are the benefits provided to humans through the transformations of resources (or environmental assets, including land, water, vegetation and atmosphere) into a flow of essential goods and services such as clean air, water and food. No one part of an ecosystem is of more value than another. Niche species work together for the benefit of the whole. This is very far removed from the way human societies in general operate.
Our First Nations people managed ecosystems sustainably for many thousands of years. Land was selectively burnt (called ‘firestick farming’) according to the seasons to promote the growth of grasses for grazing animals that were hunted for food. Native yams in great abundance were a staple food in the grassland ecosystems. Chains of ponds were common in the creeks and rivers. These also provided food such as fish and eels as well as drinking water in dry times. The resulting parklike landscape of south-east Australia was commented on by many early settlers. This unfortunately didn’t remain as European settlers introduced hard hoofed animals that destroyed the delicate balance of the prolific grassland ecosytems (Gammage 2011). Regrettably, much of this knowledge and environmental integrity has either been lost or ignored over the years since European settlement.
Environmental integrity means that ecosystems are retained in their original state. We live in a world where intact ecosystems are becoming rarer and rarer with each passing day. Reasons for this are many and include land clearing for urban development and agriculture, mining of natural resources, pollution, and the increasing frequency of natural disasters such as bushfires and floods. With an increasing human population worldwide and high immigration in Australia the situation can only get worse as more land is needed for housing and food production. It seems that environmental integrity is becoming a rare commodity indeed.
There is also a lack of knowledge about the complexity of ecosystems and their importance for maintaining life on Earth as we know it. Scientists are still discovering new species and the role they play in ecosystem health. The more they learn about ecosystems the more there is to learn; they are so complex. For example, there is no wastage in natural ecosystems: everything is recycled. Humans have invented the term ‘circular economy’ whereby resources are used and then recycled or made into other useful items so that there is zero waste. Natural ecosystems have been doing this for millions of years.
Key indicators for the loss of environmental integrity include the loss of species. Australia has the highest extinction rate of mammals of any country in the world. Climate change is leading to either species extinction or a movement of species to more favourable climatic conditions that can have negative effects on intact ecosystems by, for example, displacing other species still resident in the ecosystem.
Various unsuccessful solutions to ensure environmental integrity include:
- Biodiversity credits This is where a developer buys land with some conservation value away from his/her project area to compensate for land clearing. The question here is: how is it possible to calculate the value of the ecosystem lost and is the purchased property of similar value to the lost ecosystem? Clearly, a monetary value cannot be applied to ecosystems services.
- Environmental laws and regulations Environmental impact assessments are meant to consider the damage that a particular project will do to an existing ecosystem. Again, the complexity of this task is usually underrated. Environmental conditions of consent are usually applied to enable the project to go ahead but the cumulative effects of many projects are not required by law and is rarely considered. Lack of enforcement and monitoring of environmental controls is another problematic issue.
- Environmental activism This can take many forms such as street or project site protests such as blockades, tree sitting, obstructing demolition vehicles etc., petitions, letter writing, court action and protesting at decision-making meetings such as at local council meetings. I have never attended a street demonstration because when I was 16 I was caught up in a political demonstration during the Vietnam war. The crowd surged forward and, being short, I became afraid as I couldn’t see a way out. Unfortunately, except for court action, all of these forms of activism can be ignored or downplayed by the decisionmakers, mostly government bodies and large corporations. Such activism often causes division in the community. It can be successful if enough people become interested in an issue but this is rarely the case.
As a personal example, I grew up and lived for 55 years in a Sydney suburb adjacent to a national park and blessed with many native remnant, mature street trees mainly eucalypts such as turpentines and angophoras but also significant exotic trees such as oaks. When the local council changed its ‘tree preservation order’ to allow any non-indigenous tree in the Shire to be cut down without approval, tree loppers had a field day telling residents they could cut down almost every tree that did not grow in the national park. I and a friend listed all the trees we could discover that were being felled and presented a detailed report to a council meeting. We spoke to our local councillors, put up posters, ran petitions, took photos of the carnage (before, during and after each felling) all to no avail. It was distressing and time consuming and ultimately unsuccessful. I still grieve for those trees, such an important and loved part of my childhood.
However, the form of environmental activism that can be successful is where a campaign is backed by science and the support of many environmental organisations. For example, the listing of the Greater Blue Mountains National Park as a World Heritage Area (WHA) by the United Nations in 2000 due to its unique flora, fauna and landscape. Organisations pushing for the listing included the Blue Mountains Conservation Society (BMCA), the NSW National Parks and Wildlife state government department and the Colong Foundation. Respected local environmental activists were also instrumental in gaining support for the nomination.
It is encouraging to know, however, that some acts to maintain or improve environmental integrity can work. Here are some examples:
- Rewilding This is where large areas of land are simply left to return to their natural state. Examples include the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea and ten areas of about 100,000 hectares each in Europe managed by Rewilding Europe (Flannery 2018) .
- Wildlife corridors on farmland that link with corridors on adjacent properties to enable undisturbed animal movement. In this case, ideally trees should be underplanted with native shrubs and grasses.
- Education on the role of improving soils, and growing and maintaining native plants to increase biodiversity and environmental integrity. Local botanic experts can advise on the provenance of plants. Replacing exotic plants with natives uses less water in the long term.
- New environmental laws For example, the Human Rights (Healthy Environment) Amendment Bill 2023 recently introduced by the ACT government seeks to address the impacts of climate change and shore up the environment for future generations. It adds that a healthy environment includes "clean air, a safe climate, access to safe water and to healthy and sustainably produced food …. [with] healthy biodiversity and ecosystems" (The Age newspaper 9/11/23 p. ).
- Individual actions can include maintaining natural areas on private property; growing food to encourage insect life for pollination and biodiversity; composting; regenerative farming; conserving natural areas under government schemes and private foundations such as Trust for Nature, Land for Wildlife, the Bob Brown Foundation, etc; financially supporting conservation groups; and investing in sustainable companies.
We need to respect the environment as essential for our wellbeing down to the level of each animal and plant. We can show this respect by sending good vibrations to the environment and by not spreading negative vibrations and anger at environmental demonstrations. We should do our best to conserve resources, by living simply and only buying what we need. Think before you buy, reuse or recycle. We can lead by example by joining or, better still, starting a local environmental group or a community garden. I did both in my Sydney suburb, walking the talk is important. I now belong to a Landcare group where I live.
Personal integrity is essential so that others can trust you to lead them in the right direction towards environmental integrity. Recognising your ‘sphere of influence’ and working in that space can lead to more effective change.
We also need to spend time communing with nature. This will inspire us to become active in the environmental sphere. There is so much we don’t know. The practice of ‘dadirri’ by First Nations people involves deep listening in the bush to discover its messages and knowledge. The American nature poet, Mary Oliver, says this so simply in her poem ‘When I am among the trees’:
Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.
And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
And you too have come Into the world to do this,
To go easy, to be filled with light and to shine.
Gammage B 2011 The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines made Australia. Allen & Unwin.
Flannery T 2018 Europe: A Natural History Text Publishing Melbourne.
Oliver M 2020 Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver Penguin Books.