Doug Cocks

CSIRO Wildlife and Ecology, Canberra, ACT

(Paper to Fenner Conference Visions of Future Landscapes, Canberra, May 1999)


The paper begins by recalling the country's natural features and the past land use/management decisions which have produced today's rural and peri-urban landscapes. It touches on how utilitarian and other perceptions of Australian landscapes have changed with time.

The remainder of the paper develops a simple model, and gives examples, of how Australian landscapes might evolve in coming decades. It is suggested that gross change at continental scale would be surprising but that, at local and regional scale, very real forces for no-change stand to be perceived as having been overwhelmed by social, technical, environmental and economic forces for change, particularly towards more intensive land uses. And the degree to which such change is balanced between seeking post-materialist and materialist ends will depend on community attitudes and how these are mediated by an evolving institutional framework.



It was 400m years ago that the land around this building began to emerge from the sea and start taking the shapes we now see---the marine sandstones of Black Mountain, the lava flows of Mt Ainslie and the effervescent Mt Painter which threw rocks from Belconnen at least as far as the spot we are standing on. But because it had no human presence, a true terra nullius, this land, by definition, did not become landscape until the arrival of the Ngunnawal people some thousands of years ago. The word landscape entered the English language, along with herring and bleached linen, as a Dutch import at the end of the sixteenth century. Landschap, like its German root, landschaft, signified a unit of human occupation (Schama 1995).

Ever since people arrived here, like a canvas which is continually being over-painted, each generation sees the ghostly figures of past inhabitants and their handiwork through the wet paint, even as it is seeing its surroundings in contemporary terms. While there may be a cultural core of shared ideas about past landscapes, such visions are also highly personal. Thus I personally see the quartz implements of yesterday's hunter-gatherers everywhere when I roam the banks of the Molonglo-Murrumbidgee---glinting in the pinescapes first planted by relief gangs in the great depression and scattered around the 'outcrop' factories. I see European axemen clearing the lower slopes of the hills around us and stop to gaze at the remains of their post-and-rail fences. And as I come to my own time in this landscape, I see protestors gathering in vain to stop the building of the Black Mountain tower. What do you see?

Or, more to the point of today's talk, what did they see, these dead generations? Adopting Charles Dodgshon's views of how hunter-gatherer societies regarded the passage of time, the Ngunnawal would have viewed their ancestors as living in a landscape and seasonally-cyclical environment identical to their own (Dodgshon 1998). Not only was the landscape the direct source of sustenance for the Ngunnawal; the enormous body of knowledge required for survival was mapped, as an aide-memoir, onto the physical landscape and passed down by story-telling.

Remnant records, poetry, painting, literature, artefacts and, more recently, photography and film all offer clues as to how our European predecessors perceived and used the landscape. Australia's excellent historians have sieved much of this evidence and given us a distillation of those post-1788 perceptions. In writing about changing perceptions of the land, the venerable George Seddon (1976) particularly notes such works as Keith Hancock's Discovering Monaro (1972) Les Heathcote's Drought in Australia: A problem of perception (1969) and Geoffrey Blainey's Tyranny of distance (1966). How well such would survive a volley of post modern deconstruction I do not know.

It would seem that we came only slowly to accept that Australia's outstanding natural attributes are a dry climate and a geologically ancient land surface. Taken together, these factors have produced landscapes which, by global standards, are noteworthy in at least the following ways (Cocks 1992):


Some of the land use implications of this situation have been:

Some spectacular historical misjudgements

Let me further consider the case of agricultural landscapes. Because European settlers had to learn to understand the Australian environment from scratch, it is inevitable that they should have made misjudgements as to the consequences of various land management practices. Amongst the more spectacular of these have been misjudgements as to:

Such technical misjudgements have been an important factor in explaining Australia's changing land use patterns since European settlement. And the social fallout from such misjudgments undoubtedly helped to create an image of Australia's inland landscapes as ungenereous and unforgiving. This view, focused on the exploitability of the landscape, changed slowly from perhaps the time gold was discovered---a pleasant surprise---and as farming technologies that seemed to be subduing the landscape into productivity began to appear. It was only with Britain's entry into the Common Market in 1973 and the resources boom that never happened that this rosier view darkened once again. Now that the unrelenting historical decline in commodity prices is accepted, that period of beneficient landscapes is even seen as a delusion that has locked us into an economic structure which has no future.

Other perspectives

In addition to changing utilitarian perceptions of Australian landscapes, several other changing historical perspectives can be readily identified. There is a scientific perspective which can be generalised as one of ever-increasing understanding of the processes at work in landscapes and empirical knowledge of what those processes have created. There is a conservation perspective which, from about the turn of the century, has been one of increasing fear for the survival of diverse ecosystems and their component species. There is an Aboriginal perspective that I would not presume to identify beyond recognising a central concern over a declining standard of 'caring for country' or, in my language, landscape management.

Amongst European Australians there has been an evolving spiritual-emotional-aesthetic perspective on non-urban landscapes which defies easy analysis. They have complex and ambiguous reactions to 'the bush' in all its forms. Aboriginal lawyer Pat O'Shane has said white Australians are frightened of the place. Park planners have told me that an axiom they follow in designing walking tracks is that Australians will not venture more than 600 m from their cars.

Nonetheless, while the majority may not respond passionately to their ugly-beautiful land, Australian landscapes raise powerful emotions in many of us. To no small extent, this is because modern Australia has produced a group of extraordinary painters who have `crystallised the mute stirrings of our responses to the land'. Fred Williams discovered that the Australian landscape just goes on and on. And had anybody ever seen a country town before Russell Drysdale painted pictures like `Sofala'? Now it is hard to see one any other way. Every time you take a trip to the back country, you see Drysdales all over the place! (Laurie Thomas, Australian Nov. 19 1968).

It is not just the painters who have deepened our perceptions of Australian landscapes of course. It is writers like George Seddon and Eric Rolls. It is poets like Judith Wright and, dare I say, Dorothea MacKellar. It is composers like Sculthorpe. And, for many here today, it is particularly scientists. Let me pay tribute in passing to a handful of the many scientists who have been important in developing my perceptions of landscapes: Christian, Stewart and Mabbutt of land systems fame; the continental-scale resource mappers Carnahan, Northcote and Nix; and that trio of big picture thinkers---Flannery, White and Ollier. From my own Division of CSIRO I have been enlightened by Ratcliffe, Tongway and two Braithwaites; and, from Water and Land Resources, by John Williams.


Let me turn now to some brief comments on contemporary landscapes before indulging in a little future-gazing. At this moment, from Tasmania to Arnhem Land, the Australian landscape is a fleeting synthesis of all that humans and nature have ever done to the land. However, the short-term balance of power in that partnership has now moved firmly into human hands in rural landscapes, just as has been the case in urban landscapes for centuries. The turning point in this annexation of nature by culture was the introduction of the tractor perhaps, the first instrument for flexibly applying large quantities of fossil energy to the land.

Humans change landscapes by changing land use and land management practices. In the foreword to the 1939 edition of their classic text Land utilisation in Australia, Wadham and Wood (Wadham et al 1957) say that land utilisation is usefully viewed as a matter of balance between land uses, a balance which can be tipped one way or another by technological advances, commodity and other price changes, evolving individual and community attitudes etc. Sixty years later this is still an insightful way to view land-use change although a full list of those `tipping factors' would be long.

What Wadham and Wood do not say is that land use change is a one-way street, an ongoing process of intensification within and between uses. Nor do they say that it is a process characterised by perennial and pervasive conflict.

Land uses can be put on an ordinal intensity scale ranging from `pristine non-use' to `highly intensive', the latter involving some mix of high human presence, high energy and materials throughput, landform sculpting, surface hardening and vegetation modification. Where we are here, the intensity scale runs from near-wilderness in the Brindabellas to highly intensive in Civic.

Within historic time scales and under historic cost structures, a tract's use normally progresses, in fits and starts, from less to more intensive. Conversely, it is expensive, and from difficult to impossible technically, to return land to a similitude of a former less intensive use. Exceptions can be proposed and debated (eg reafforestation, restoration ecolgy) but the general tendency is clear.

The significance for this forum of this observation is that it follows that land use options, whether considered locally or nationally, and whether being perceived by public or private land managers, narrow over time. Ultimately it has been public recognition of the `practical irreversibility' of the process of land use change which has led to concern for the gradual irrecoverable loss of values associated with less intensive land uses.

A second major source of land use conflict is perceptions of uncompensated external impacts or spillover effects associated with land use change and expressed in the NIMBY or 'not in my back yard' attitude.

Spillovers and/or irreversibilities can be uncovered in most contemporary land use issues including:

(a) issues concerned with the location and management of major land uses such as urbanisation, agriculture, mining, recreation, forestry, parks and physical infrastructure.

(b) issues concerned with the management and use to be made of critical regions and resources such as coastal lands, arid lands, alpine areas, water resource areas, forests, minerals and soils.

More specifically, what are some of these isues? Urbanisation is and will continue to be the single most important source of land use conflict. In the major metropolitan fringe areas (within a half day's drive, say) rising demands for accessible sites for diverse uses will be bumping against a fixed supply of land, eg as seen in the displacement of agriculture by urban subdivisions. Other contending peri-urban uses are active recreation, base minerals extraction, water catchments, hobby farms and landscape appreciation.

Agriculture comes second to urbanisation as an issue generator, generally as a land use under threat from subdivision and hobby farms as noted but also from uncertain markets, costs, erosion, salinity and mining. On the other hand, there is concern about intensive agricultural practices, particularly the use of fertilisers and chemicals and factory farming.

In contrast to agriculture, mining (notably of uranium, bauxite, coal and beach sands) is seen as a strongly competitive land use with significant impacts on Aboriginal lands, farmlands, recreation and conservation areas, scenic landscapes, water catchments, forests and fisheries. The other side of the mining issue appears as a concern for the `sterilisation' of valuable deposits in national parks, heritage areas, catchments and built-up areas.

Overall, while issues cannot always be seen in tight geographic terms they are more likely to be found where population pressures are high; where scarce, accessible, versatile, fragile or particularly attractive resources are involved; and around industries experiencing changing economic fortunes.


Now that we have some feel for historical and contemporary landscapes and perceptions thereof, we can turn to how things might change over coming decades.

Continental landscapes

At a continental scale, I for one would be quite unsurprised if there were little change in what might be called landscapes from space. Despite what appears to many as breakneck change in land use around them, it is extremely doubtful, assuming a reasonably orderly world, that the gross pattern of land use in Australia as summarised in Table 1 will be startlingly different in another fifty years.

Table 1 Land use in Australia---the broad picture

(Percentage of country)

Arid and semi-arid grazing 43.7
Unused land 26.0
Non-arid grazing 17.4
Extensive cropping 5.8
Nature conservation reserves 3.5
Forestry 2.0
Transport corridors 1.2
Intensive cropping 0.3
Urban land 0.1

Note: Size of country is 7.7 m sq km.

Source: State of the environment in Australia 1985

The reasons for this macro-scale inertia are fairly obvious. The pastoral and other arid-semi-arid lands have few foreseeable alternative uses and they occupy 70 per cent of the continent and dominate national land use figures. A best-bet scenario for the sparselands is one of emerging and disappearing islands of mining, tourism and settlement in a sea of pastoralism which is itself ebbing and running at the margins.

Non-arid grazing and extensive cropping both have some prospects for expansion and contraction at their geographic margins under the influence of climate change, technology and product prices but major shifts would leave most observers surprised.

Of the remaining land uses in Table 1, even large proportional changes will make little difference to the face of Australia as viewed from space. For example, at plausible rates of population growth, urban areas could conceivably double by the middle of next century (Cocks 1996) but this still represent less than one per cent of the country.

Of the global-scale forces which could overturn this perception, massive climate change is of most interest to the present audience (Walker et al 1989) but, from a broader perspective, is only one of several contingencies which could rework the face of the continent, eg war, uncontrolled mass migration.

Local landscape change

Descending to the local and regional scale, there will be ongoing forces for landscape change and inertial forces opposing change. Thus, all regions carry customary, institutional and geographic constraints that make change from the past less likely. For example, while the nodes and links of the national transport system will continue to be upgraded, their coverage has stabilised. A rapid rise in transport costs would dampen landscape change dramatically. Conversely, population movements, technological change, economic restructuring and political attitudes are all examples of powerful forces promoting landscape change. And because our perceptions are attuned to what has changed rather than what has not, we will almost certainly see ouselves living in times of rapid landscape evolution, characterised by ever-intensifying land uses.

Political and community attitudes

Consider political and community attitudes as a source of landscape change. It would be surprising but not totally surprising if, over coming decades, Australians became more concerned with environmental, social and sustainability issues and less with economic growth (Ellyard 1998 p128). If this were to happen, it would be plausible to foresee a stabilised population but with each person placing a large, light footprint on the landscape. For example, there could be:

If however economic growth remains Australian society's dominant goal we might anticipate seeing, for example:

Institutional arrangements

Political and community attitudes, whether pro-growth or post-materialist, must find expression through various institutional arrangements. Thus, currently, community decisions to question certain land uses in certain situations can emerge from any of a range of social technologies including land use zoning schemes, environmental impact assessment processes, formal management planning, enlightened cost-benefit analysis and the application of environmental standards.

While these social technologies are now being used less extensively by governments, they show no sign of disappearing, just of continuing to undergo change. Specifically, stakeholders are participating more directly in land-use decision-making rather than just being corporately consulted, no matter how sympathetically. Simultaneously, we are seeing the emergence of self-help groups, such as Landcare groups, confident of their capacity to manage change without depending heavily on government.


This completes my simple model, with examples, of how Australian landscapes might evolve in coming decades. I am suggesting that gross change at continental scale would be surprising but that, at local and regional scale, very real forces for no-change stand to be perceived as having been overwhelmed by social, technical, environmental and economic forces for change, particularly towards more intensive land uses. And the degree to which such change is balanced between seeking post-materialist and materialist ends will depend on community attitudes and how these are mediated by an evolving institutional framework.

Mine has been a small excursion into a large topic and I regret that time has not permitted me to talk about seascapes and townscapes as I have about rural and peri-urban landscapes. And while I am not here today to weep for lost landscapes I would have liked to have been able to discuss how we might better go about designing future landscapes. Perhaps these are matters that will get an airing from later speakers.


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Cocks D, 1996, People policy: Australia's population choices, University of New South Wales Press, Sydney.

Cocks KD, 1992, Use with care: Managing Australia's natural resources in the 21st century, University of New South Wales Press, Sydney, 340 pp.

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Williams J, 1989, Land degradation: Evidence that current Australian farming practice is not sustainable, in Management for sustainable farming, Proceedings 16th National conference, Australian Farm Management Society, 1-23.