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Book Review: Peter Andrews - Back from the brink - agriculture for Australians

This book paints a picture of the ecological mechanics of this continent, using clear, concise prose. It is a painlessly educative book. The bold claim of its subtitle, "How Australia's landscape can be saved," stands up to scrutiny.

Take a new look at thistles, dock plants and other hardy weeds. Enjoy trialling the author's theories in your neglected front garden or replot your broadacre farm. Re-examine the cause of total re-nativisation in the light of galloping desertification. Peter maintains that his simple hydrological theory holds true for the entire continent. He re-interprets the history of this land; he may well be right.

It is a pleasure to read an inspired ecological work by an Australian farmer for Australian farmers. This book is full of practical experience and experiment. The author tells a tale of several farms in his life, of discussions with other farmers and with scientists. He has acted in his life with confidence and conviction, in accordance with his observations. He has learned and remembered lessons, which he knows to be important and hopes to teach the reader. He has lived his research.

If you break down what he says, he is a systems thinker and he has a systemic theory and methodology, which means that his arguments are logical and testable.

Australian deserts are man-made

I found the chapter, "Australia's deserts are man-made" very satisfying because it linked the removal of trees to the drying of climate. God knows why this isn't being shouted from the rooftops everywhere. (Well, perhaps because you cannot package it and sell it as toilet paper or recycle it as plastic.) Andrews doesn't say this, but I will; we should not wait for climate change policy and practice to be agreed at the global, national or even state level. We can start locally - by paying attention to the landscape and protecting the trees and other plants it already has, and adding many more. Trees lower temperature and increase humidity locally, below and above ground; they are not just carbon sinks.

Peter argues clearly that aboriginal use of fire massively transformed Australia's landscape by changing and reducing the vegetation varieties. The effect of this was drying. On top of this, the effect of 220 years of mechanised agriculture, with industrial fertilisers (like feeding soil vitamin pills and no food, as Alice Friedman writes(1)) and half-baked economic propaganda has brought us right to the brink of ruin.

Landscape Fractals

Without mentioning Gaia - or fractals for that matter - Andrews conveys the idea of Australia as a huge organism with fractal systems which can be managed from micro to macro, using the hydrological properties of trees and other plants, like reeds, and identifying topographical forms peculiar to the Australian landscape. The swale and contour system writ large. But he says it like this, "Unless we all come to understand how the Australian landscape functions and then conduct our agriculture in harmony with it this country is dead. It will collapse, no question."

He describes familiar landscape elements like deeply eroded streams and shows that they are produced by damage to live systems, causing water to flow faster and more forcefully than it otherwise would. The immediate solution is weeds, reeds and trees.[video] The finer choices of trees can be worked out later in cases of emergency.

Reviewer's aside

(Andrews' familiarity with the concepts of erosion, salt and fresh water tables, and transpiration comes as a relief. I could contrast this with three days I once spent at the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT), trying to defend an ancient coastal creek against more development of its catchment. The question of run-off was crucial. Engineers claimed that they could reduce run-off by putting in mechanical devices - basically holes - to retard the flow of water into the creek after rain. Quite apart from the question of biodiverse habitat, this incredibly dumb and clunky non-solution failed to replace the hydrology that trees provide - in their ability to stabilise the water table, through osmosis and transpiration. It completely ignored the heat and moisture exchanges involved in transpiration above the canopies. It was blind to the remarkable ability of trees to vary the amount of water they pump from the ground and transpire through their leaves according to the weather and the moisture in the ground. After a while I realised that the sitting member and the barristers had absolutely no idea of what transpiration was. What was more they did not intend to find out. That was the point where I gave up on Australia's medieval legal system and just another thing that made me an activist. This kind of self-defeating institution that maintains a fatal system is what Australia is up against.)

Why underground water?

The author retells the story of the importance of Australia's underground water, as part of his theory of Australia as a living continent. Why is so much of our water stored underground? Because of the huge risk of evaporation above the ground. With this principle in mind, he has a whole chapter about farm dams - should we damn them or not? Dig them much deeper and shade them, he suggests, and build them along landscape contours and so that the water can overflow usefully. Make your own little flood-plain. There is much more; simple, practical and effective, in line with his hydrological theories.

At the end of the book Andrews congratulates the reader for coming so far, but I found this a direct and refreshing book. Not a hard read. True, some complex bits, which one can always return to. Secondary school children could and probably should read this book.

Fixing the Murray-Darling

Andrews writes, perhaps tongue in cheek, of "well-intentioned people [who] have come up with proposals for constructing a pipe or canal to transport excess water from the tropics in the north to water deprived areas in the south..." Then he says, "(...) yet the objective - bringing excess water to where it's needed - is certainly a sensible one. What's more, we don't need a pipe or a canal. We already have a conduit capable of moving huge volumes of water from one side of the continent to the other at virtually no cost to anyone. It's called the Darling River."

Peter's recipe for fixing the Murray could be undertaken by the people who live and farm there, together. Once again it isn't top down; but bottom up. It requires careful observation of the natural topography and the lie of clay and sandy soil.

It requires vegetation - trees and reeds. Livestock would have to be managed so that they did not destroy the reeds. Peter Andrews reluctantly suggests that the major part of the early work of fixing the river system could no longer be done by native trees. It could be done by willows - the latest in a series of trees which governments have been ripping out. Remember, our land is dying - any plant is better than man-made desert. If the flood plains were restored, the natives might grow back again; at the moment they are all dying. (For more on natives following willows see Peter Andrews video)

Andrews patiently deals with the issue of trees and reservoirs... Governments have been taking trees away from water-reservoirs in the belief that they use up water. This is totally half-baked, since it completely ignores the greater fact that trees shade water stores above and below ground, preventing evaporation.

As Peter Andrews says, talking elsewhere, about irrigation, "In other words, you want a system where there is transpiration, not evaporation."

Human, not corporate

But he isn't talking about millions of kilometers of expensive pvc pipes and engineering works. That is the only reason, I am sure, that his ideas have not been taken up by government and agribusiness and promoted. The engineering and construction and corporate lobbies want a totally prosthetic environment, paid for by the rest of us, to their great profit. They seem to be trying to turn Australia into a huge concrete drain punctuated by retardant basins. (Consider the North-South pipeline currently being pushed down our throats by the Victorian government, or the costly pipelines they have cruelly inflicted on the Wimera-Mallee farming communities.)

Andrews doesn't say we must relocalise government and economy and get rid of centralised bureaucracies and big-engineering; he doesn't say that we should start using our eyes and ears and stop listening to people who are paid to tell us what their masters want us to believe, but that is the message I get out of this book.

Apparently Peter Andrew's story, when first told as television, was the most popular in the history of the ABC program, Australian Story. Obviously a lot of people care about this message getting out. Andrews has created something very valuable and true, which can unite us, city and country.

Here is Peter Andrew's site, Natural Sequence Farming at

(1)Alice Friedemann, "Peak Soil" in Sheila Newman, The Final Energy Crisis, Pluto Books, UK, 2008

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It is clear that, using Andrew's method, our soils and forests could be rehydrated.
This would reduce local temperatures and the risk of fires. The Victorian government's approach to water 'management' seems foolhardy in the extreme and should be reversed. How much did the failure to water gardens around houses contribute to fires and local heat? How much did the bulldozing of dams and the enclosure of water and the removal of trees around water bodies contribute? How much did
I urge all Australians to read his book.

Sheila Newman, population sociologist
home page
Contact sheila [AT] candobetter org or the editor

mike's picture

Peter Andrews doesn't know it perhaps, he certainly makes no mention of it in his book, but he is practicing PERMACULTURE.....

Everything he promotes, from reshaping the landscape so that dams overflow into man made flood flats to introducing exotic species, is all Permaculture. It's unfortunate that often, well meaning Landcare aficionados critically renounce the worth of exotics to bolster bio-diversity. There are only good plants and better plants, unless they are truly weedy like Prickly Pears...


He does acknowledge it, Mike. He says that he thinks he is more concerned with biodiversity.
His contribution is original in that he has tested it on several big farms and he gives us the specifics of those farms. He theorises on water hydrology of this continent, rather than on swales in general. He writes clearly on rehabilitating the country rather than on growing food. It has a different emphasis and it is told from a particular point of view. It is also the story of a personal journey and an enquiring mind. He gives the antecedents of his ideas and they probably were different from Mollison's et al, but came to similar conclusions. All the better having two streams approaching the same watershed. I am inclined to defend Andrews because I really like his writing. That doesn't mean that I don't acknowledge Mollison and Holmgren. I don't have the book here or I would goof off some more today, citing chapter and verse.

Sheila Newman, population sociologist
home page
Copyright to the author. Please contact sheila [AT] candobetter org or the editor if you wish to make substantial reproduction or republish.

Peter Andrews principles as embodied in his two books and in the members of the Natural Sequence Farming (NSF) forum place a different emphasis on what is important in today's world, Permaculture emphasizes a more generalized and complete approach to life which appears (to me at least) to be based on how best mankind can survive in a rapidly declining energy environment. It tends to start with small scale land holdings and seems to evolve from subsistence thinking.

NSF is more about saving a drying land, helping the farmers that try to make a living from it and in so doing provide food and security for us all. I believe the desertification of land is a much more urgent problem than peak energy concerns.

Both have practical examples, and involve people that are working and teaching from actual experience and not just from the academic sausage machine. The are both worthy of study and application.

For those that have an interest I also recommend the work of Allan Savory and his Holistic Management approach. Allan's work has much overlap with both of the above but adds an extra dimension in understanding land management. His work is also based on living, practical examples, in this case involving millions of hectares of land being restored.

Subject was:"P As book"

I'd like a best to get one thanks maggie

There is a clickable link to in the article, but you can also buy the book in many other places. Just ring up your local bookstore and order it.

Thank you, immensely, Sheila Newman for having taken the trouble to write this excellent review and for having let me know about the book beforehand. (The rest is adapted from an e-mail I sent to a visitor who expressed an interest in buying "Back from the Brink").

I can also thoroughly recommend the book. It seems to me that Peter Andrews has discovered a simple and effective means that, if applied systematically, will prevent us from turning Australia into a desert continent and may still make it possible to turn this country back into a moist and fertile land. If an unexpected change in personal circumstances had not prevented me from standing as a candidate in the recent Federal elections, and being more active at the time, I would have used the occasion to ask as many other candidates as I could (Greens, Labor, National, Liberal) why they weren't pushing hard for the adoption of Peter Andrews' ideas.