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Climate Change Answers Can Come From Deserts

December 14, 2009

Australians can learn much from their deserts and from desert people about how to cope with climate change and scarce resources.

That’s the message of a new book released today by the Desert Knowledge CRC and CSIRO Publishing.

“Dry Times: Blueprint for a Red Land” argues that desert plants, animals and people have been surviving and thriving for thousands of years on scarce resources and uncertain climates ““ and they have the systems to cope with uncertainty which urban society lacks.

Written by former DKCRC CEO and CSIRO principal research scientist Dr Mark Stafford Smith, and Julian Cribb, the book distils three decades of “desert wisdom” – the rules of survival as practiced by the people and wildlife.

“With the knowledge embodied in our deserts, Australians can reshape the human story. This is exactly the kind of wisdom the world needs to help survive the 21st century, a time of growing resource scarcity and unpredictable climates,” Dr Stafford Smith says. “There are a lot of lessons from the Australian deserts which apply worldwide nowadays.

“Desert Australia teaches us new ways to live and co-operate, to manage difficult landscapes, isolation, lack of water and energy. Governments can learn much from the immense value of what desert people, especially desert Aboriginal people, know.”

A key message of the book is that desert people know, from long and harsh experience, what is the best way to organize themselves and develop their industries and communities. External approaches, though well-intentioned, often fail because they do not appreciate the full picture or conflict with one of the basic rules for desert survival.

“This is a compelling argument for desert people to be given a bigger say in shaping their own destinies, and in running their own lives and institutions.” Mark says.

“Dry Times” describes what drives deserts and their inhabitants: unpredictability, variability, sparse populations and resources, remoteness, local knowledge, cultural differences and social uncertainty. It explains how these have led to various strategies that enable both people and wildlife to prosper amid otherwise harsh surrounds.

“Besides seeming hot, dry and empty, deserts are also enormously rich ““ but the richness is concentrated in certain places and at certain times, like when the rains come,” Dr Stafford Smith says. “All living creatures, including us, obey certain rules to take advantage of this fact.”

Desert strategies include mobility ““ the need to keep on the move as resources come and go and networks form and reform: this applies to fly-in/out miners, Aboriginal communities, pastoralists and migratory desert birds. They include exploiting rich local resources like the coolabah exploits the billabong, or the miner exploits the orebody. They include building knowledge networks, like Aboriginal people or desert businesses on the internet. They include expanding in the good times and retreating in the bad, like paper daisies or tourism ventures. They include forming links with other species or big players such as mining companies or governments.

“These are clever strategies for survival ““ and they work very well,” says Dr Stafford Smith. “However deserts have disadvantages too, especially the fact they are often ruled or influenced by people who live outside the deserts and who don’t always appreciate what is involved or why desert people do the things they do.

“We call this the problem of “distant voice”: it means if you live in a desert your voice is often not as heard by the people who run governments or the economy as the voices of people living in cities or on the coast. It’s a phenomenon desert people live with constantly and need to make adjustments to,” he said.

“But we also believe that, in many cases, desert people know best. They understand their own needs best, and they ought to be listened to more by those developing national policies, to ensure these policies do not conflict with the desert drivers and rules of survival.”

The bottom line, say the authors, is that in the resource-scarce, increasingly uncertain 21st century, Australians and people the world over need to pay much closer attention to the deserts ““ and what they can teach us all about the rules of survival.

“Dry Times: Blueprint for a Red Land” has been released by CSIRO Publishing and is available online and in bookstores.

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