Culture and Sustainability in Practice

Gazing into the Abyss

This column explores the topic of sustainability: what it is, what challenges and opportunities it presents, and what we can do as individuals and communities to live more sustainably.

Like so many unique Australian ‘outbacks’, Kosciuszko National Park is one of our ecological jewels. Within the context of our dry and sunburnt land this type of snowy, mountainous area is a truly exceptional rarity, representing only around 0.002 per cent of our continental landmass. Despite its unrepresentative size, or perhaps even because of that same rarity, this tiny pocket of alpine wilderness is immensely valued by many Australians. We go there to ski during winter, to see Mount Kosciuszko and to experience the kind of alpine environment you won’t find anywhere else in Australia. Having just recently visited for the first time on a field trip I can say that the place is truly unique. I felt like I was somewhere in Europe, flanked on all sides by tall mountains and inundated with a cold, dry air I’d not felt since my time living in Iceland.

But there’s a problem, you see. Wild horses – what some might call ‘brumbies’ – are literally tearing the park apart. According to the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Services, feral horse population counts are rising at a rate far beyond what the park can ecologically sustain, jumping from 1,700 horses in the year 2000 to 6,000 horses in 2016. They compact and destroy the soil, they shred the river banks, they undermine the biodiversity of species in the park and commit a whole host of other ecological sins. Yet we love them, because they’re a cultural and historical icon.

Last article, I wrote about how culture is important to sustainability – how it’s something we can’t afford to ignore. This article explores that idea by looking close to home, to Kosciuszko National Park, and the brumbies within it, and why it’s been so bloody hard to get rid of them.

The first step to understanding why an invasive species has been allowed to get this far into our ecosystem is to understand Australian culture and history. The best insight into that culture I can think of is the $10 note. When you, as a nation, print something on your currency, you are sending a signal that this person represented or this idea displayed, is part of your national identity. And that’s why these horses have been allowed to breed like crazy and destroy one of our rarest ecological jewels.

Next time you have a 10 dollar note handy, check it out for a moment before squandering it on a pint. You’ll notice three things, hopefully. The first is that the portrait on one side is of A B ‘Banjo’ Patterson, a cherished Australian poet who wrote ‘The Man from Snowy River’ – a poem etched deep into Australia’s consciousness, its cultural heritage and sense of national identity. The poem is, in short, about the horseback pursuit of the young colt of a prize-winning racehorse, which has escaped ‘civilisation’ and returned to the wilds, to mix it up with the brumbies. With this story in mind, you’ll then notice that one horse, situated below Banjo’s portrait to the left, is ridden by a human (that’s the one chasing down the missing colt). There is also a group of brumbies on Banjo’s right, that roam gallantly free.

The basics of everything you need to know about why we’re letting wild horses destroy Kosciuszko National Park is right there on that blue tenner. We glorify the free-roaming horses, and we normalise them as the natural state of the wilderness – the tamed and civilised colt wants to break free from its chains and return to the wild roaming packs, just as nature intended.

Except nature, at least not in Kosciuszko National Park, never intended for there to be horses. The ecological system is not evolutionarily adapted to deal with large hooved animals. That’s exactly why it suffers when 6,000 or so of them are allowed to roam free like they do on the ten dollar note.

The truth is that our culture, our history, our sense of national identity, has somehow been tied up in the existence of these horses. That is a big part of the reason why the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service isn’t given the political freedom, nor the economic support, to start effectively culling horses from the park. They’ve been trying, unsuccessfully, and at great waste of taxpayer dollars, to save the park by tranquilising horses with darts, putting them on trailers, and re-homing them elsewhere. One in five horses that go through this process will die. When you put a wild horse in a trailer it, predictably, reacts with horror, kicking and bucking wildly. Sometimes, that horror is short-lived, and they are released once again to be trained – to be ‘broken’ and ‘civilised’ once again. Sometimes, they struggle too violently, and break a leg or hurt themselves in some other way. Those ones have to be shot.

While seemingly a non-lethal solution, it’s also not a humane solution, as you can imagine. Yet this is what our culture demands. This is the dark alley of good intentions and bad outcomes that our ten dollar note and the associated culture of Brumby reverence leads us down. As humans, with vastly superior neocortices to that of most species, we are capable of far better and more humane outcomes than this. Those same neocortices helped us build guns and helicopters, both of which we can use together to effectively control the wild horse populations – the controversial practice known as ‘aerial culling’ that the NSW National Parks and Wildlife passionately pleads for, but isn’t allowed to pursue because of public and political pressure against it. This comes despite aerial shooting being the most highly-rated ‘humane’ option according to the technical review of the official Wild Horse Management Plan, drafted in 2016. That same neocortex of ours created culture, you see – a truly double-edged sword. We value things that we perhaps shouldn’t, but because of our history, and our culture, things are what they are. Culture, and our oh-so-big brains are what makes us unique and glorious as humans, and yet culture also embeds our human flaws so deep that imagining change seems impossible.

It’s often said that we need to ‘reconnect with nature’ to live more sustainable lives, but this is a trivial and facile summary of a complex issue. When it comes to the wild horses of Kosciuszko National Park, we need to reconnect with our humanity instead; at least the parts of ourselves that separate us from nature, that built helicopters and guns and government policies. We need to remember that we as humans occupy the uniquely odd position of being Earth’s apex predator, and its environmental steward at the same time. And then? We need to go a step further, and shed other parts of us that we feel make us human, too. We need to know what parts of our identity and our culture are toxic, and then act accordingly – recognising that without the environment, we cannot sustain other dependent things, like culture. The task of changing a culture is a big one, but we do it all the time in various ways. It’s a task that takes more than just ecologists; artists and other creatives have their roles to play, just as Banjo Patterson did.

We’ve been trying to control these horse populations for over a decade now, to little effect. The health of the park now hangs in the balance. If we don’t come up with something novel, and soon, all we’ll have left of it will be glorified memories on a ten dollar note. And that’s not good for anyone, even the Brumbies.