In his speech, Dr Henry said water extraction from the basin this year amounted to 93 per cent of the average natural flow to the sea. In the past decade flows into the Murray-Darling had been below average. ”In three of these 10 years water extraction actually exceeded inflows.”
Elsewhere, there had also been ”massive environmental destruction” as a consequence of fishing, hunting, forestry and farming practices.
Evidence pointed to ”a disturbing conclusion: conservation arguments appear to have influence with decision-makers only when it is too late”, he said.
”If the history of our engagement with this environment has taught us anything at all, it should be that we have been blind-sided by our arrogance. It should have taught us humility.” There was a rapidly expanding body of research pointing to a hard-wired fallibility in human interaction with the environment.
One of these was the ”free-rider” problem, where one factory might spew out noxious gas with negligible impact on air quality because other factories did not.
The free-rider problem explained why it was ”virtually impossible to get governments to agree on global action to address climate change”.
But more recent findings were adding a worrying aspect indicating that, psychologically, humans are unable to grasp the scope of big environmental dangers.
This was shown by studies which found that, when questioned, people would be prepared to pay no more money to save 200,000 birds from drowning in an oil spill than to save 2000 birds.
‘The human mind does not cope well with ‘millions’ of things, so we ‘cheat’ by substituting a more accessible mental image of a representative individual.”
That same mental image tricked people into thinking that the issue at hand, whatever it was, affected just that one individual.
Dr Henry also cited the fate of the Tasmanian tiger, whose extinction followed the payment of bounties to exterminate it, but which in this century was the subject of a $1.25 million reward for the capture of a live animal and an attempt to clone one from a preserved embryo.
”A century ago we were paying people to slaughter these animals. Today we are prepared to spend millions to bring them back from the dead.”
Dr Henry also spoke of the folly of the poisoning of quolls in the 1850s to enable the propagation of rabbits and hares in the Lake George area.