5 Things I have Learnt from studying Environmental Science

I’m currently doing a BSc at the Australian National University, double majoring in Environmental and Landscape System Science and Geography. Internet was asking me what I’ve learnt so far, so I made a list!

Although I still have a semester to go (and Honours!), here the five most important things to know about environmental science, brought to you by the Fenner School of Environment and Society and Internet’s questions.

5. Environmental Science is a Fashion Victim

There are fashion trends in everything and environmental science is no different. Back in the 90s the Big Thing in international environmental talks was sustainable development, with all all-star cast of the Brutland Report, Limits to Growth and the 1992 Earth Summit – the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio. Agenda 21 was born, nations who were at war with each other sat down and talked about sustainable development, Severn Suzuki was the *coolest person ever* and the triple bottom line was the new creed;


But today we all know that the Big Thing is climate change. Divest! Emissions trading schemes! Carbon dioxide! Fossil fuels! REDD+! Ice caps! More buzzwords!

One of my lecturers often laments this dramatic shift in focus; she argues that just looking at climate change is too simplistic as it doesn’t fully capture our degraded relationship with our home planet. How do we solve this problem? We study geography! Yay!

In a more physical geography sense, back in the 90s and early 2000s the Big Thing in land management in SE Australia was salinity. Salinity was set to become the Armageddon, the end of days, the Battle of Hogwarts. Salinity was It. However, the drought broke in the late 2000s and salinity never became the disaster it was meant to be. Lucky!

Now the big thing that everyone is researching and talking about and pulling their hair out about is overgrazing.

In Australia roos contribute to the overgrazing problem, necessitating culls. Picture: the ABC

See Internet? Fashion victims.

4. Environmental Science will shift your World View

Especially if you study the more ‘society’side of it; human geography, human ecology,  stakeholder based qualitative things, sustainable development etc. You will see our society in a new and increasingly complex way that will force you to realise the incredible inter-connectedness of it and, ultimately, the fragility of our inter-dependant gloabalised Western hegemony. Nowhere is this more evident than when considering the global food market.

In short, this will happen to you:

Picture courtesy of the Fenner School Society.

3. Stakeholders

You can boost your marks by about 5 points by having a version of this paragraph in an assignment;

“There needs to be a strong emphasis on stakeholder collaboration and resilience building in light of a rapidly growing population and increasing threats from climate change.”
2. People don’t like anything that doesn’t fit their worldview
This makes point four harder to accept. The obvious example here is climate change; Australia being the intellectual backwater that we are, the media and politicians still talk like climate change is a debated idea, and still act as if it’s just a quite theory of little real world impact.
I experienced this first hand a few weeks ago when I was talking to a third year economics student whose father is a contractor. We were on an hour long bus trip and she was telling me how her father is contracted by farmers to put fertilisers on pasture and crops. I said something about paddock trees and how there aren’t enough of them to stop erosion and do all the great things they do and she launched into a tirade about those ‘bloody greenies’ who ‘don’t know anything about agriculture’ and are trying to ‘driver farmers into the ground’.
Yep, totally. Sorry if my three years of studying environmental science doesn’t quite fit in with your economics world view of ‘Cut down all trees, ???, profit!’.
‘Bloody greenies’? Seriously? Yes, I absolutely want to drive farmers into the ground. Because, you know, I find food overrated and I don’t actually want employment when I graduate after doing HONOURS IN SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE. (At this point Internet would like you to know that she hates those people. She said it, not me.)

Turns out trees do help with salinity! Picture: The Australian Academy of Science (but what would those bloody greenies know? They don’t study economics; their dads aren’t contractors!)

1. Goats and Fire

The most important thing I have learnt in the last three years is that if you have a problem – any problem – it can’t be solved by grazing it with goats, setting fire to it then grazing it with goats again.

Any problem. Ever.


Weekly Writing Challenge: Dialogue. About goats.

Hello everyone! I’m taking part in a weekly writing challenge to shake it up. Check it out:

It is night, and raining. A YOUNG WOMAN sits at a computer, headphones in, typing with one hand. Her chin is resting in the other. The audience can hear the tinny sound of electro-house music and the clattering of keys. Enter THE BOYFRIEND. She doesn’t notice. He taps her gently on the shoulder.

YOUNG WOMAN: (startled) Gah! Dude, you scared me.

THE BOYFRIEND: You’re still here how I left you this morning! What have you been up to all day?

She takes out her earphones and turns to face him, excited.

YOUNG WOMAN: Soils! Soils are amazing. Well, goats and soils. See, they had too many woody weeds, then they put goats on it to make it better, but the goats messed it up, so now the soil is unhappy because there isn’t any clay and so there’s a film and basically it’s all just terrible.

THE BOYFRIEND removes his jacket, sits down in the armchair next to the desk and looks at her intently. He likes hearing about what she’s learning.

THE BOYFRIEND: (patiently) … Right. And what are woody weeds?

YOUNG WOMAN: (impatiently) They’re woody shrubs that grow in the Australian rangelands and are unpalatable to stock. The rangelands are, like, 80% of Australia, but this case study is from the semi-arid region between Broken Hill and Cobar, in the south-west corner of New South Wales.

What Australian grasslands of that area are meant to look like. There’s a overstory of trees and an understory of grasses and forbes and nothing else.
woody weeds
An area over run with woody weeds; the middle story. Note the absence of an understory.

THE BOYFRIEND: So where do the goats come in?

 YOUNG WOMAN: Well, removing woody weeds mechanically or chemically is really expensive, and they tried burning it but it doesn’t always work. That’s one of the main maxims in Australian geography; if there’s a problem, set fire to it and ask questions later.

THE BOYFRIEND: (laughing) So they put goats in? Where did they get the goats from?

YOUNG WOMAN: That’s the beauty of it, see. You just fence off a whole lot of feral goats that are out there anyway, and the expense of the fence is offset by the profit made from the goats. There’s a growing market for goat in Australia, especially goat that’s Halal. The goats start off eating all the yummy things, like the forbes and perennial grasses, but then they go on and eat the woody weeds. Unpalatable doesn’t worry goats!

THE BOYFRIEND: Forbes? Isn’t that a town in central New South Wales? And how does this relate to soils being unhappy?

YOUNG WOMAN: Yeah, it is a town too, but forbes is another name for ‘herb’, something that’s not a grass or a shrub but is still a little plant. So they put in heaps of goats. Like, heaps. Out there the stocking rate is 0.3 DSE per hectare, which means that for every hectare you should only have 0.3 of a dry sheep equivalent. This is the amount of resources needed to support a ewe that doesn’t have a lamb. A cow is equal to about 15 DSE, a pony or light horse has a DSE of 10, and so on. So this place is at 0.3/ha, and they go and put in 4 goats on every hectare! This is so they can really eat the weeds down, put that many goats puts pressure on the soil. See, the soil is usually alumino-silicate aggregates coated by clay, yeah? But the goats grind it all together and the clay comes off. You following?

clay runoff
Soil particles are covered in clay (happy soil), but then goats come in and rub it off. The clay forms a film on the surface when it rains, and water can’t get in (sad soil).

THE BOYFRIEND: Yep. The area has a DSE of 0.3/ha, but you run it at about 4/ha and the clay gets rubbed off the soil particles. What happens then?

YOUNG WOMAN: Well, usually the water would just infiltrate into the soil and there’s basically no run-off at all. No erosion or anything, just lots of water for the plants, but because the clay has come off the soil it forms a film on the surface and the water can’t infiltrate into the soil. There’s lots of run-off which causes erosion, and the plants can’t access the water.

THE BOYFRIEND taps his nose thoughtfully. 

THE BOYFRIEND: Hmm, doesn’t sound too good. Anything else?

YOUNG WOMAN: Yeah, dust. Because the soil is made so unstable by the goats they lose massive amounts of topsoil via wind erosion. This is a serious problem in Australia and is very costly, both environmentally and economically.

Sydney Harbour in the 2009 Australian dust storm. I was 16 at the time and it felt like the apocalypse had come.

THE BOYFRIEND: So … goats solve one problem but create a few more?

YOUNG WOMAN: (sadly) Pretty much. If you can figure out how to solve the woody weeds problem they’ll basically make you Australian of the Year and you’ll be a gazillionaire.

THE BOYFRIEND: That’s a shame, goats are otherwise so cool.

YOUNG WOMAN: (excited, looking to a future of solving problems with goats) Yeah, geography is awesome!

So that was my night last night. More or less a true story.

Goats are awesome.
What a cutie!