The White Spaces on the Map

Catching a bus or a train through a landscape is a different experience to flying or driving. When flying, the land beneath you (if you can even see it) exists as a sort of backdrop or postcard, as in nature documentaries when they have panning shots of mountain ranges, or an establishing shot of a forest.

Yes, it’s there, but not as a story in itself.

Driving is a little like this too, and one tends to be travelling too quickly or be focusing on the road or be chatting with others in the vehicle or be driving along a fairly ugly road whose flanks are strewn with litter. The drive along the highway between Canberra and Sydney, for example, is not one to lift the soul.

Catching a bus or a train is different, as they tend to go slower and one tends not to be the driver. Buses are higher than cars, so there is a view over the safety rails and above other traffic. Trains wend their way through the landscape on their own terms with such sweet charms (even the demonstrably rubbish ones we have in Australia) that you simply cannot argue with them.

So why this exploration of different modes of transport?

Well, one day late last year I found myself on the Canberra-Sydney bus once more. Usually I eat a book on that trip (like the memorable afternoon I started Oil and Honey shortly after leaving Central and had finished it before crossing the border) but this time I elected to simply stare out the window and try not to be too upset by that raspberry thicket, that paddock of African Love Grass, that deep scar of an erosion gully, those rabbits …

It struck me then – New South Wales exists. Australia exists! The whole, enormous country, every sunburnt square centimetre of it is out there. Not just as a backdrop, or something you fly over, or a vague notion of space between the cities; no, every blade of grass, every rabbit twitching her nose, every pebble, every billabong, every dirt track, every cattle station, every mountain.

They exist. For millions of square kilometers around me, the country was breathing quietly as it has done for so long.

I think Conrad was wrong – a central theme of Heart of Darkness is the white spaces on the map. As a child the protagonist sees all the blank spaces that cover Africa and his heart is taken by the desire to fill them in; to cover this blankness with lines and symbols and things named after various monarchs. Creepy colonialism aside, it’s just wrong, really.

Think of New South Wales. It’s a bit boxy, has Sydney in it, it’s Australia’s most populous state but gets very hot and dry very quickly when you get west of the mountains, so most of them live along the coast. You may imagine it like this:


Well sure, but two years ago I was at the Macquarie Marshes, which are here:


I had no idea that such a beautiful, biodiverse place existed in NSW. I had never even imagined it. When we were there the storm clouds were rolling in and the air was electric with it and the light was watery and orange in that soft afternoon way and I nearly wept because it was so damn beautiful.

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I’ve also been to Eden, on the south coast. We saw whales, dolphins, and turtles. We caught wallabies, pootoroos, possums, Antichinus, rare birds, and lizards in our traps. We saw seals lying on the rocks and playing in the waves and I squealed like a four year old because they were just so sweet.

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I haven’t been to Broken Hill yet, or any of that desert country.


I will though, because blank spaces on the map aren’t blank spaces, they’re just bits of country you haven’t seen yet, haven’t smelt or touched or swum in yet.

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Soft afternoons, bright mornings, hot suns, crashing waves, breaking ice, trees whistling in the wind, rivers rushing, blue moonlight, rocks covered in snow, stinging desert sand, the cloying smell of rain hitting the tarmac at five o’clock of a summer evening. Every tiny bit of the country exists and sometimes that thought just blows my mind.


Poverty, Agroecology and Gobalised Food

If current population trends increase, global production of food will have to increase by 70-100% by 2050.

With current food production practice, meeting this demand is highly unlikely and yet the UN Millennium Development Goals (UN MDG) seek end poverty and extreme hunger. The  humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa (in July 2011 the UN declared a state of famine in Somalia, the first in the 21st century) is testament to three things:

  • Poverty reduction is currently one of the most pressing global issues;
  • Food production systems need to be overhauled in order to promote equal distribution of food; and
  • Food sovereignty should be strongly encouraged in all countries.
The first UN MDG is to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger by 2015. It’s currently 2014.

A possible way to address the above points is encouraging the growth of agroecology.

If there are any doubts regarding the need for countries around the world to independently source their food, one story from the 2007-2009 global recession will remedy this.

In late 2007 food prices rose dramatically around the world and the price of staple foods such as maize and rice almost doubled, causing food riots in more than 20 countries. This wasn’t because of drought or poor crop yields – there was plenty of food for sale – but because food has become a product on the global market and so is subject to fluctuations in the world economy.

In 2007 global food prices rose dramatically…
oil and food
… but not because of a lack of food.

So although there was enough food available few could afford it due to the collapse of the worldmarkets. The food sovereignty offered by agroecology would go a long way buffer this by the strengthening of local markets; food prices in Africa and Asia would no longer be intrinsically linked to the prosperity of banks in America.

Agroecology is a more sustainable agricultural system than conventional ones as positively it address three big drivers of change: climate change; biodiversity; and food security. The system is also more resilient to change, needs less human input, has more stable net productivity, and are better equipped to take full advantage of the ecological services in place.

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The triple bottom line is the point of agroecology. I really could just picture this one photo and do away with all the hundreds of words of explanatory text.

The best examples of working agroecology systems can be found in Latin America and the practices there can be used as examples of how to implement this system.

Movimiento Campesino a Campesino (MCAC)(Farmer to Farmer Movement) is a movement that has established itself in Central America over the last three decades. It promotes farmers learning from other farmers, sharing information between them in order to find the best possible ways to produce food. This has been found to be the most effective way of communicating sustainable practice quickly and on a large scale, and it offers good results small landholders are more likely to listen to and connect with their peers.

Flowcharts are nice. Information flows in conventional vs campesino systems.

For example, when soil conservation practices were introduced into Honduras through MCAC yields for hillside farms rose from 400kg per hectare to 1,200 – 1,600kg per hectare due to healthier soils. This easily accessible network of information is a central part of agroecology as currently one of the biggest barriers to food production in developing countries is a lack of available knowledge/technology.

As an agricultural system, agroecology should be broadly implemented on a global scale to stabilise food security, use natural resources sustainably, protect biodiversity, and alleviate poverty through the formation of stable markets.

To do this, governments must take responsibility in engaging with farmers, research facilities, NGOs and industry to ensure that the system works in the most efficient way possible. Several recommendations have been made on the subject;

  • Governments must put in place mechanisms to empower small farmers (such as partnerships and financial aid). This also ties in with article 1(B)(6) of the International Food Security Agenda (1993).
  • Current subsidies on conventional agriculture must be dismantled so agroecology becomes more economically rational on an industrial scale than conventional systems
  • Equitable markets should be developed, emphasising fair trade to create both income for farmers and sustainable food supplies for their regions.
fair trade
Of course, it’s not all up to governments. As a consumer, you can chose what you buy and therefore what kind of industry and philosophy you are supporting.

Sustainable agriculture should be developed with emphasis on local knowledge and involving farmers directly in formulating research agendas and technological innovation. Solutions must be site-specific be focused on information systems rather than capital.

For this, systems thinking must be used in order to ‘work smarter, not harder’ using practices like agroforestry and polycropping in order to boost yield with minimum input. Most recommendations focus on policy change  which could be difficult to implement in capital focused countries like Australia. This is because of three things;

  • Agroecology has often be branded as anti-capitalist by supporters of an entirely unregulated market
  • Implementation would require an overhaul of current food production systems in Australia
  • Demand for food that cannot be produced locally is high; would require a large social shift in ways of thinking.

Agroecology should be encouraged and supported in developing/more socialist countries with current knowledge and understanding while more research is needed to develop a viable way for industrialised/neo-liberal countries to do the same.

Morality and the Triage System

This post first appeared on a biodiversity blog that we set up for a course last semester. That blog can be found here: It is really great and you should check it out!

She’s so cute!!! PHOTO: Atlas of Living Australia.

Look at this photo of a baby koala. Sqqquueee!!! She’s so cute! Look at her fluffy ears and big nose and button eyes!

We know that koalas are on the decline in all States and Territories except Victoria; we all know that these insanely cute marsupials are facing habitat loss and degradation due to agriculture, new roads, expanding urban areas and forestry. We know they took a hard hit when they were hunted for their soft, thick pelts in the early part of last century.

Enter the triage system. ‘Triage’ is a term mostly used in medical circles and it means prioritising patients based on the severity of their injuries.

In conservation it means using a decision support system to decide which species or system to preserve: What are the chances of this species doing well if we support it? How much will it cost? What’s the cultural significance of the species? It is rare or taxonomically distinct (i.e. has few living relatives)?

For something like the koala, it will do pretty well in these questions; it’s a big draw for tourism, it’s important in Australian culture, it’s the last of its family (Phascolarctidae) and it’s cute and fluffy so when policy makers and groups want to protect it people say ‘Ahh, how nice.’

The darker side of the triage system is that not all animals are cute and fluffy, not all of them have a high social standing and so the funding just won’t be allocated to them because they don’t meet the criteria.

Think of the Grassland Earless Dragon. These lizards are tiny, about 1.5cm long and they live in the grasslands of NSW, the ACT and Victoria. The little dragons have been facing habitat degradation from farming (mostly grazing) for decades and are now threatened by the spread of wind farms as well, farms set up along the ridge in the grasslands they call home.

I haven’t heard of earless dragons before, I hear you say, are they cute? Yes, they are, they’re gorgeous!

That shouldn’t matter though, we should protect all species, regardless of their cuteness or social utility. We created the problems they are facing – habitat destruction and fragmentation, pollution, invasive plants and animals, climate change – so we should fix it.

Morally, it’s not okay to push another species (never forget that we are merely clothed apes; Homo sapiens, the cousins of chimps and gorillas) to the point of being endangered then say ‘Oh, but you don’t meet the cut/fluffy/social utility/inexpensive criteria so you’re just going to have to make do.’

Funding is always limited and resources always scare but the bottom line is that humans don’t have the right to decide the fate of other species* because we have decided other things are more worth our money; everything should be protected.

We need to change our values so that the triage system becomes obsolete because there is always enough funding to conserve everything.

Look at this little dragon. Can you look him in the eye and tell him he’s not precious enough to protect?

This little guy is about 1.5cm long and lives in the Australian grasslands. He’s beautiful! PHOTO: Museum of Victoria.

*The debate around humans messing with evolution through making some species extinct while preserving others comes in here. It’s a really interesting line of thought and I recommend you follow it.

Interested in finding out more?

Earless dragons in Victoria:

Koalas in Queensland:

Koalas in Victoria:

Conservation Triage:

You Are A Closet Geographer

Yes, you are.

Don’t try to deny it.

You’ve looked at the sunset and wondered how much is natural or just smog, you’ve eaten an apple while wondering where it was grown, you’ve muttered about how the inadequate public transport in your city is ruining your life.

These are all serious issues in geography, so congratulations on your status as a geographer!

You right now: Oh my goodness, I’m a geographer! PAINTING: Johannes Vermeer


Geography is what we call a mild superpower. You’ll never fly or lift a building or punch around corners, but you can use your geography skillz to help make our world a little better.

If you deduce that your sunset is to smoggy you can buy a bit of renewable energy to reduce pollution. Climate change: solved.

If you don’t know where your apples are coming from, buy them directly from a local farmer next time and they’ll be able to answer all of your questions.  Food sovereignty: achieved.

If the public transport in your city isn’t great, vote for people who will make it more effective, sustainable and equitable. Democracy: in action.

Look at you go, you mild superhero!

You have gotten over your denial about your status as a geographer and have started helping this little planet of ours be a bit nicer.

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Look how happy she is now that you’ve gotten over your denial and are helping! PICTURE: meme-chan3

Sacred Places

sacred adjective 5. regarded with reverence.*

What is a sacred place? How do they relate to geography?

If we go with the above definition, a scared place is a place regarded with reverence. As we’re talking geography, let’s make it a natural or natural/human interface where people feel reverence.

It is important to have such places, and to hold them dear and protect them, otherwise geography sort of falls on it’s sword. What’s the point in sustainable agriculture if we don’t care about rivers and soil health? What’s the point of National Parks if we don’t respect and interact with biodiversity and wild places? What’s the point of stopping logging if rainforests are meaningless for us?

Logging in the Amazon: it’s probably not a great idea. PHOTO: Stephen Ferry/Getty

In short, why interact meaningfully with the Earth’s natural systems if we have no reverence for them?

It may be a big ask for every part of the natural system to be a sacred space, but everyone should have one. A place to connect to and recharge in. Where you feel the wind in your hair and the water on your skin, where you squint in the sun, and hear leaves rustling and watch birds and sunsets and small kids playing with dogs.

Though I haven’t seen much of it, I love Australia’s environment. Salt bush plains, Tasmania’s alpine areas, rainforests, open woodlands, agricultural areas, the aridity of the Flinders, marshes replete with water-birds, the wilderness of the NSW South Coast, it’s all amazing and you should see it. I love it all, but my sacred place is a few beaches along the NSW Mid-North Coast where I grew up. It’s the border of land and sea and sky, where Norfolk pines and beech trees and rainforests and banksias all rub shoulders. It’s where I learnt about the threat of climate change to the ocean, to agriculture, to human health.

North Sapphire Beach, near where I grew up. The Island is Split Solitary and is in the Solitary Islands Marina Park, where warm tropical and cold Southern Ocean currents mix, creating unique and intense biodiversity.
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Underwater in the Solitary Islands Marine Park.
Grey Nurse Sharks hanging out in the Solitary Islands Marine Park. They are gentle, beautiful creatures but sadly are critically endangered.

I study ecological decline for (theoretically) about 60 hours a week.

It’s highly stressful, learning about it all the time, hearing about boundaries and tipping points and dead canaries  that have all been ignored, so when I go to that part of the world it’s like a tonic, and I remember why it’s so important for us to study geography. I go back to study refreshed and ready to solve some wicked problems.

Storms at Jetty Beach.
Sunset at Secret Beach.
Sunset at Secret Beach.
Evenfall, Hills Beach.

Up until about 1908 no-one really admitted to seeing beauty in the Australian landscape, and then Dorothea Mackellar penned My Country.

Now we’re allowed to love it and be reverent, and it is because I share those feelings that I study geography.

A clear day at Sawtell Beach.
Sunset at Jetty Beach.
A shack and friend and I built one summer.
Me at Hills Beach.
Banksia silhouettes, Hills Beach.
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Spilt Solitary (the further island) and South Solitary. Growing up my sister and I just called them Lighthouse and First Island respectively. This is the view from the verandah of the house I lived in in high school.
Sunset at Hills Beach.

*Definition from the Macquarie Dictionary, Federation Edition. 

All of the photos in this post are my own.