KD Cocks and BH Walker

CSIRO Division of Wildlife and Ecology
Lyneham, ACT, Australia, 2602.


With relatively minor exceptions, the process of land use change is one of intensification and the narrowing of future land use options.  This has led to community concern for the gradual irrecoverable loss of values associated with less intensive land uses; in particular concern for the availability and functional capacity of the BEMWA resources- biodiversity, earth materials, water and air.  Concern extends to the functionality of these resources in industrial, amenity and service roles.

Such losses, called, inter alia, environmental costs,  are never wholly avoidable despite the hopes behind the sustainable development concept.  What is realistically possible is conservative development, meaning that land uses with environmental costs exceeding economic net benefits would be proscribed as options through the application of extant and emerging social technologies such as land use zoning, environmental standards and environmental impact assessment.

The paper presents some general and some more specific speculations about land uses susceptible to proscription under the conservative development criterion.  Most major land uses stand to be challenged to a degree, particularly in densely populated regions, regions of economic opportunity and/or in regions recognised as having high conservation value.  Proposals involving a leap in intensification or loss of remnant or old-established land uses will be more liable to assessment for proscription.  Several regions are identified where joint assessment for exclusion across members of a suite of land uses would not be surprising (eg Kimberleys); also some regions and situations where particular land uses stand to be challenged, eg irrigated cotton, high country developments, integrated forest harvesting.

Rather than list intensification trends at length and predict which challenges to intensification might succeeed, the paper discusses prospects for the development of social technologies which evaluate community concerns about the environmental costs of land use intensification.  It is suggested that a blending of the existing procedures of the Resource Assessment Commission for regional resource inventory and evaluation and the existing resource allocation procedures of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority would form a highly  defensible core for a new generation of option defining technologies.  The social importance of having a rich suite of social technologies for addressing intensification issues is emphasised.


Keywords: sustainable development; conservative development; social technologies; impact assessment; land use planning; land use intensification


Paper to symposium on `Land use and land cover in Australia: Living with global change' Australian Academy of Science, October 1993.

The process of land use change

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.

Fifty plus years later this is still a perceptive way to view land-use change although a full list of `tipping factors' would cover many pages.  And yet, 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 (note, not land ownership) in Australia as summarised in Table 1 will be startlingly different in another fifty years. 

The reasons 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 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.  At present rates of population growth, urban area will double by the middle of next century (National Population Council  1992).  There is an interesting but unresearched possibility that areas classifiable as forest will decline due to nutrient exhaustion under ongoing harvesting (Hallsworth 1977). 

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.

However, even if this conservative prediction turns out to be correct, the gross figures will probably mask significant exchanges of uses beween regions and major transformations in the way land uses are implemented (form of technology employed etc), albeit still falling within broad categories such as `forestry' or `intensive cropping'.

This qualification suggests a second useful way to look at land use change in Australia - as a process of intensification within and between uses. 

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 imports/exports, landform sculpting, surface hardening and vegetation modification.  A unidirectional sampling along the intensity scale, typical for coastal New South Wales (say) (Figure 1), might read wilderness, extensive recreation, forestry, pastoralism, agriculture, rural subdivison, residential development, industrial development.  Within a single broad use such as forestry (say), intensification is exemplified by a technology progression such as light selective logging, heavy selective logging, integrated harvesting, intensive production forestry.

Within historic time scales and under historic cost structures, a tract's use normally progresses, in fits and starts, from less to more intensive.  Land use change is a one-way street - Intensification Street.  Conversely, and perhaps more accurately, it is, de minimis, 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 is public recognition of the `practical irreversibility' of the process of land use change which has led to concern for the gradual irrecoverble loss of values associated with less intensive land uses.  Just what are these values?

Impacts of land use intensification on natural resource values

Even as they generate social and economic benefits, land use intensification processes tend to consume, to ration and to reduce the functional capacity of natural resources, notably biodiversity, earth materials, water and air- the so-called BEMWA resources.  In natural systems, the functional capacity of a resource is measurable against its capacity to continue playing its baseline role in the full range of natural cycles including the nutrient and hydrologic and in gene pool development.

More concretely, concern over the impacts of land use intensification on BEMWA resources takes three main forms:

(a) decline in the availability and functionality (notably productivity) of natural resources valued by primary or resource-based industries.  These are tourism, mining, farming, forestry and fishing and the natural resources they depend on (industrial natural resources) include, for example, soils, water supplies, landscapes, forests, rangeland and fish stocks. 

The concern here is essentially economic - for the viability or sustainability of primary industries which are degrading or depleting their natural capital at some positive rate. 

(b) decline in the availability and functionality of natural resources valued for their direct contribution to people's physical and spiritual health - amenity resources.  Examples of amenity resources include air for breathing, water for drinking, biodiversity for marvelling at and landscapes for playing in.

(c) decline in the availability and functionality of natural resources valued for their capacity to provide environmental services, that is, to maintain/improve the functioning of natural resources with productive and/or amenity values.  Most environmental services can be viewed as processes of recycling and channeling materials and energy (but see Van der Ploeg and Vlijm 1978). 

Examples of service resources include vegetation for scrubbing the atmosphere, wetlands for depolluting water supplies, ecosystems for recycling nutrients through the food chain, soils for regulating runoff, biodiversity for controlling parasitic and pathogenic organisms, beaches for absorbing wave energy.

The phrase `decline in the availability and functionality  of natural resources' is an accurate but cumbersome description of community perceptions of the negative consequences of land use intensification.  Common shorthand alternatives are `environmental impacts', `environmental costs', `loss of environmental quality' and `natural resource dysfunction or depletion'. 

All these are negative terms and the positive terms `sustainability' and `(ecologically) sustainable development' have sprung up as `ideas in good currency' to express the hope that land use intensification without any associated decline in the availability and functionality of natural resources might be possible. Sustainability in this sense is a chimera as an elementary knowledge of entropy and the laws of conservation of energy and mass confirms.

What is realistically possible, and probably worth pursuing, is conservative development meaning that decisions to intensify land use are undertaken only when economic and other benefits are assessed under due process as high enough by community standards to outweigh the inevitable environmental costs.  A necessary but not sufficient condition for legitimate change is being proposed. 

Conversely, conservative development means that land uses (or sets of land uses) with environmental costs exceeding economic net benefits will be excluded as options.  This is the first theorem of conservative development and the infant discipline of natural resource accounting grapples with how to convincingly operationalise it.

Exclusion rules and the identification of land use options

At the present time in Australia, community decisions to exclude certain land uses as options in certain situations can emerge from any of a range of extant social technologies including land use zoning schemes, environmental impact assessment processes, enlightened cost-benefit analysis and the application of environmental standards.  Future institutional arrangements for excluding land uses as options in a socially acceptable way are discussed later in the paper.

Meanwhile, rather than attempt to identify the tacit and overt exclusion rules which have guided (or constrained) the intensification of Australian land use to date, we turn to speculating as to which land uses under what conditions are leading candidates for exclusion assessment in coming decades irespective of what social technologies then reign.  Discussion is restricted to exclusion assessment founded on decline in the availability and functionality of natural resources.

Some generalisations about candidates for exclusion assesment

Based on discernible trends in Australia and overseas, several generalisations suggest themselves:

1. It is difficult to identify a single major land use likely to go unchallenged on environmental grounds in coming decades.  This includes urbanisation, agriculture, aquaculture, mining, recreation, tourism, defence, forestry, conservation reserves (yes) and physical infrastructure.  Even wilderness can be challenged for exacerbating loss of the habitat patterns resulting from traditional burning and for harbouring feral animals and plants (Flannery 1989).  `New' land uses designed to reduce environmental impacts, directly or indirectly, are less rather than more likely to be challenged, eg `organic' farming, hardwood plantations, ecotourism.

2. Environmental challenges are more likely to occur in peri-urban regions and in high profile natural regions including coastal lands, arid lands, alpine areas, water catchments, forests, mineralised areas and oceans.

3. Environmental challenges are more likely to occur when a proposed land use change involves a big rather than a small movement along the intensity spectrum, particularly when the change is from an undisturbed state.

4. Environmental challenges are more likely to occur when the existing land use is long-established and when the existing land use is remnant in some sense (Smit and Kristjanson 1989).

5. Environmental challenges to the legitimacy of existing uses (cf. proposals for change) will be based on both on-site and off-site impacts on water, air, biodiversity and earth materials.

6. Environmental challenges to intensification are both less likely and less likely to succeed in hard economic times. 

Some particular examples of land uses which are candidates for exclusion

By regions

Widespread joint assessment for exclusion involving a suite of land uses can be foreseen in a few large geographic regions: Cape York, Kimberleys, Top End, Central Australian Ranges, South-west Australia, South-east coastal rim (Gladstone to Adelaide), mainland and Tasmanian high country.  These are regions simultaneously rich in both diverse `development opportunities' and in  places of high conservation value, ie with high amenity and service values (Cocks 1992).

By industrial sectors 

New technologies may remove some of the following from the environmental agenda but, given that the problems identified are difficult and that technology is only one of many factors determining the nature of intensification, this cannot be assumed.


. Murray-Darling Basin - irrigation areas, particularly cotton areas; salinised areas, acidified areas and any proposals involving vegetation clearing

. cropping activities which increase nutrient loads on Great Barrier Reef waters (Kinsey 1991)

. all cropping involving high levels of chemical inputs

. cropping involving short rotations and intensive cultivation schedules (ironically, mice densities during the current plague are highest in areas practising minimum tillage (G. singleton, pers.comm.))

. summer cropping in erosion-prone areas of north central Queensland (Williams 1989)

. all extensions of broad-acre cropping onto marginal lands


. Queensland and New South Wales poplar box woodlands suited to use of arboricides

. high country grazing

. low viability arid and semi-arid rangelands such as Kimberleys, Barkly Tableland, Gulf country


. integrated harvesting for woodchips, any logging of `old growth' forests, plantations on marginal agricultural land


. offshore oil and gas production, particularly near ocean and coastal areas judged to be of high conservation value, eg whale calving grounds, mangrove forests

. all mining in areas of perceived high conservation value eg Shellburne Bay

. mining operations producing intractable residues, eg cyanide residues from gold mining, radioactive spoil

Fishing and mariculture

. extensive and semi-intensive husbandry of crustaceans, molluscs and fin fish in all estuaries with significantly urbanised catchments

. all `overfishing' of commercial species

Tourism and recreation

. hotel developments involving high numbers of rooms in non-urban areas, particularly isolated and coastal areas

. all snowfield developments

Water supply

. any big dam/water diversion, any sewage disposal scheme without tertiary treatment

. any proposals threatening significant groundwater contamination or rapid groundwater drawdown (Ghassemi et al 1991)


. all enterprises generating significant soil, airborne  and waterborne residues

Urban development

. urbanisation encroaching on open space and natural systems in the coastal zone

. urbanisation encroaching on high value agricultural lands such as sugar and horticultural lands

Major infrastucture

. utility corridors dissecting forested and other semi-natural lands

. all major structures in non-urban areas, eg spaceports, rocket ranges

By technologies

. any major developments not making maximum use of `environmentally friendly' technologies such as recycling, renewable energy and `whole of life management'.

. harvesting of native fauna

By resource type

. any proposals involving, in an extensive way, vegetation clearing (particularly rainforest, brigalow, mallee, saltbush) or, more insidiously, the cleavage of intact habitats

. further threats to rare or threatened species, particularly from clearing and from feral plants and animals.

. losses of `environmental' (habitat-conserving) flows in rivers (eg periodic flooding of the Barmah forest), loss of water quality including its habitat quality

. traditional uses of areas with visible and extensive soil degradation

Role of extra-market social technologies

The above list identifies a number of plausible land use changes.  But it also amounts to a de facto prediction that the legitimacy of a very large proportion of new resource-based enterprises involving intensification of land use plus a not-insignificant part of existing primary industry will be questioned on environmental grounds in coming decades.  It can be futher predicted that, while powerful economic forces for land use intensification can be foreseen, a strong countervailing community concern for environmental quality will slow, divert, modify and even stop much of this change.

Factors clearly standing to accentuate or moderate those predictions include the state of the economy, the profitability of and improvement in `environmentally friendly' technologies, evolving concepts of environmental rights and of the scope of property rights, levels of social conflict, particularly between industrial and environmental groups.

Several well-established social technologies which can produce community decisions to exclude nominated land uses for environmental reasons under particular circumstances have already been mentioned.  Environmental impact assessment is used to screen single-site development proposals whereas land use planning and zoning are used to identify a spatial pattern of permitted and proscribed uses across a target area.  While environmental standards (eg emission standards) are applied to new developments, their main role is to control the environmental impact of existing land uses. 

Other social technologies for controlling environmental impacts, although not necessarily to the point of exclusion, include offset agreements, pollution taxes, subsidies for implementing pollution controls, emission trading.  In addition a range of devices primarily for improving market operations have been argued to also reduce environmental impacts of land use intensification, eg auctioning access rights to natural resources.  Consideration of macro policy influences such as trade agreements, national income levels, population levels etc is beyond the scope of this paper.

The appropriateness of existing social technologies

Social technologies, per se, will not directly affect the incidence of challenges to land use intensification under the conservative development criterion.  Rather, their role is to process received challenges and their calibre will determine how acceptably challenges are resolved.  The question of interest here is whether today's social technologies will be seen as appropriate in principle and as technically adequate for excluding land uses under the conservative development criterion in a socially acceptable way in coming decades.  Are there alternatives for instance?

Space permits only a few short observations on this question.

Clearly Australia is going to see an ongoing push to maximally develop market-based social technologies, economic instruments, for achieving an optimal balance between the benefits of land use intensification and the costs of environmental protection (Young 1992, Fisher and Thorpe 1990).

Simultaneously however, even amongst hard-line market economists there is an ongoing softening of attitudes towards the legitimacy and use of extra-market social  technologies such as land use planning and environmental standards.  This is more than just the normal grudging acceptance of the need for intervention in the face of everyday market failures such as pervasive externalities. 

It owes something to the wider recognition amongst economists that it will be a long time before private property rights (eg to air, water, genetic resources) and personal environmental rights (eg to a particular quality of environment) are comprehensively extended to cover all resource-related community values.  Also contributing is an acceptance that precautionary devices like minimum safe standards of resource use and management (Ciriacy-Wantrup 1952), while imposing constraints on markets, are a reasonable insurance against the possibility of encompassing environmental disaster.  The advocacy of respected establishment economists like Pearce (Pearce and Turner 1990) has helped here.  A further factor is the clearer recognition that extra-market social technologies are essentially equity-seeking and that this is a legitimate task of government, one compatible with the so-called new interventionism.

While both industry and conservation interests would prefer a social climate in which their own values dominated, both recognise the political reality that bargaining will occur (the forests `resource security' debate for example) and that evolving land use patterns will reflect `wins' and `losses' for all parties.  Extra-market social technologies for identifying land use options, either geographically or by land attributes (eg no logging of steep slopes), provide the interfaces at which such bargaining can occur.  They are tools for narrowing the domain within which bargaining between stakeholders may be required or, conversely, for pre-identifying potential `hotspots' where bargaining is likely to be required.  Let it be emphasised that they are not tools for identifying a single `socially preferred' land use.

Scoping tomorrow's social technologies

The initial identification and ongoing monitoring of socially unacceptable and not-unacceptable land uses at both site and regional scale requires social technologies covering at least the following component tasks:

1. Collation of a core of information which allows assessment of how each stakeholder's values would be affected by alternative patterns of land use options across a target region

2. Identification of `exclusion zones' for particular uses so as to define a pattern of conditionally permitted land use options across a target region

3. Assessment of impacts of particular proposed projects against either uniform or context-sensitive (situation-specific) environmental standards.  Industry has argued hard for recognition of the `assimilative capacity of environments' when setting environmental standards (AMIC 1993).

4. Audit and monitoring of extant land uses to ensure ongoing conformity to environmental standards

Each of these four tasks would benefit from having access to a choice of social technologies and ideas for new social technologies should be actively and systematically pursued (Platt 1966, Cocks 1992).  However, what is more immediately relevant is to see that an integrated core technology for seeking conservative development could be built from and around existing sucessful Australian models, notably the core procedures of the Resource Assessment Commission and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.

A RAC and Reef model for identifying land use options

Since its establishment in 1989, the Resource Assessment Commission (RAC) has completed inquiries into the Coronation Hill mining proposal and the use of Australia's forests and is completing an inquiry into the use of the Australian coastal zone.  The forests inquiry was widely recognised as effectively exposing the range of values and information needing to be considered in forest allocation and management.  If the success of the RAC approach is confirmed in the coastal inquiry, the approach that body is developing - based on submissions plus independent analysis of all available information (Mills 1991) - would appear to be an acceptable way of building an information base for allocating and managing other large regions.  The RAC focus on sizeable regions is central to its appeal; it provides context for more local decisions.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) is arguably Australia's most successful experiment in large-area natural resource management.  At the heart of this success is a series of carefully developed zoning schemes which attempt to ensure that sites regarded as attractive by particular user groups will be available to those groups provided that the environmental-social (and, perhaps, economic) costs are not unacceptably high.

The systematic application of RAC- and GBRMPA-style procedures to the country's major resource regions would address the first two tasks above, which together can be summarised as `informed zoning'. This would still leave a need for acceptable social technologies for environmental auditing and monitoring (Task 4) and project impact assessment (Task 3). 

As regards the latter, the Canadians have much to teach us.  They are the world leaders in actively trying to improve environmental impact assessment (EIA) procedures and have developed elaborate arrangements for public inputs to assessment hearings and have broadened the scope of impacts to be considered to include social as well as bio-physical impacts (Sadler 1986). 

The Canadians are also in the forefront of developing  procedures for considering project impacts in a regional setting, the starting point for establishing context-sensitive environmental indicators.  It is not enough to consider (say) just the first `pulp mill' proposal on the New South Wales north coast.  It must also be asked how many pulp mills might eventually seek to establish in the area and what the cumulative impact of these might be, recognising that residue sinks differ in capacity between regions.  This, in turn, might lead to a reconsideration or a relocation of the first proposal. In this way, the long-term development of an area can be planned with region-wide ceilings and thresholds being set for environmental indicators. 

More generally, the main demands of a social technology for setting environmental indicators are that it choose indicators which are operational but meaningful and that it set limits of acceptable change for those indicator values, ie values at which ameliorative action is triggered.  These are conceptually difficult and resource-consuming tasks, particularly if inter-regional differences are to be sensitively recognised. 

Somewhat spasmodic activity in this area in Australia has come to a head recently with the formation of the  Australian Environment Standards Council and Commonwealth Environment Protection Agency (CEPA) which had a charter to produce national state of environment reports (CEPA 1992).  It is too early to decide whether CEPA procedures will provide an adequate model for setting environmental indicators in coming decades.

(Since writing, state of environment reporting has been transferred to another part of the federal Department of Environment).

The final component (Task 4) in an integrated social technology for managing land use options is environmental auditing and monitoring (Buckley 1990).  Here, State environment protection agencies have a strong `chemicals' focus which may serve as a model for monitoring and regulating air and water quality in coming decades.  However, theirs is a model which will have to be massively re-jigged if it is to address the range of issues surrounding the monitoring and management of quality and quantity in the BEMWA resources.

The point being made is that Australia already has institutions and social technologies which, provided they are allowed to evolve and adapt to social realities, can demonstrate how to legitimately incorporate `sustainability' criteria into social perceptions of land use options.  This is not to pretend that RAC, CEPA and GBRMPA are without critics (Quinn 1991).


Caveats aside, the gross pattern of land use in Australia is unlikely to change markedly in coming decades.  At a finer scale, there undoubtedly will be considerable change, determined in part by jousting betwen powerful economic forces for intensification within and between uses and countervailing forces concerned for the environmental costs of that intensification. 

The paper, purposely, has not attempted to identify a full canvas of current intensification trends in Australian land use nor made a prediction of where these might collectively lead.  That would require a juggling of all Professor Wadham's `tipping factors' (markets, values, technology etc) which time, blessedly perhaps, does not allow.

Concentrating, as requested, on the environmental component of this balancing process, the paper identifies a number of the foreseeable conflicts, both in general and more specific terms.  Even on this smaller canvas, time and the effect of other factors does not allow us to convincingly pick winners and losers.  The fallback of conditional prediction, attempting to hold those `other' factors constant, when they are not, seems sterile.

What has been offered as a more productive contribution is a discussion of the challenge of developing the social technologies, particularly extra-market ones, which will be needed to improve on the unmanaged, unsupported, expensive and lengthy processes by which most intensification debates are currently resolved.  It is suggested that existing models for components of an overall technlogy, such as the Resource Assessment Commission's information-gathering procedures and Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority's allocation procedures provide a starting point.



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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