Advocating for the natural world

Professor Kath Bowmer

Professor Kath Bowmer

by Institute Advisory Board member Prof Kathleen Bowmer

Now I’ve finally retired from the academic and scientific rat-race I have the luxury of reflecting on a career of over forty years in natural resource management. It’s been a roller-coaster ride to maintain the energy and credibility needed to support my region and its communities in water science and policy. Fortunately several colleagues, particularly Geoff Syme and Blair Nancarrow, provided early grounding in socio-economic disciplines to add to my background in biophysical sciences; and chairing a river management committee over five years ensured some close encounters with a diversity of stakeholders.

During that time I have become increasingly aware of my incapacity to deal with the needs of Indigenous people, perhaps rather frightened of being politically incorrect and ignorant of the correct approach and permissions needed to communicate. However Treahna Hamm, my Indigenous artist friend, has shared with me the values and solace to be found in the natural world. I love her

Paradise Overkill by Treahna Hamm

Paradise Overkill by Treahna Hamm

etchings in the lining of the possum cloaks that have been on display in Albury and I am pleased to own a print of Paradise Overkill (a hand coloured etching, pictured right with permission) which describes her reaction to the planned building of a tourist resort on the Murray River.

The format of a traditional fish trap is used to contrast with the trappings of modern developments. Yes, a picture’s worth a thousand words! I now realise that I have always found a personal rejuvenation in nature, so that socio-economic descriptions of ‘sense of place’ and ‘non-market valuation’ take on a very personal flavour. In my watercolour painting I try to paint to capture the spirit of the landscape, especially appreciating the value of the natural world in riverine environments. My inspirations include John Wolseley, John Borrack, Frank Hodgkinson’s Kakadu paintings and, of course, many Australian impressionists.

The conflict between water needs for the environment and consumptive use for cities and irrigation remains topical, unresolved and emotional, and many academic publications are critical of lack of progress in achieving justice and fairness. This applies not only to water sharing and natural resource management more generally, but also to other critical issues world-wide (the recent ABC RN Big Ideas podcast is an excellent review). Yet the principle of consultation, debate and explanation remains prominent even at the highest political level, as espoused by our new Prime Minister in the last few days, and lampooned in popular programs such as ‘Yes Minister’ and ‘Utopia’.

On a more positive note there is plenty of recent literature on frameworks for ‘achieving deeper democracy’ (e.g. Manwaring 2014) and on market based solutions which may sometimes take some ‘sting’ out of decision-making for agencies. Also, as my distance from science and the scientific method increases, it seems to me that we should take greater note of the role of artists, writers and poets, and of Indigenous knowledge. For example the e-book ‘Buckingbong to Birrego: Walking into Country’ describes a 50 km walk from the Murrumbidgee to Birrego station, during which artists presented installations and performances made for each place. ‘Local elders, farmers and community members gave talks and fostered discussion about history, possible futures, and the inextricable ties between our bodies and the nourishing, productive terrains through which we walked’.

Artists and writers are powerful advocates of the value of nature and can stimulate conversations about future options and sustainability that we all hope for.


Bowmer, K.H. (1999). Water and landscapes: Perceptions from myth, memory, art, advertising and the media. In ‘Preserving Rural Landscapes’. Eds Robertson, A.R. & Watts, R. CSIRO Publishing, Melbourne. Chap. 5, pp. 43–50.

ABC Radio National Big Ideas. Citizens’ Juries: Leadership for a New Democracy, Podcast 9 July 2015

Manwaring, R. (2014) ‘The Search for Democratic Renewal’, Manchester University Press.

The Cad Factory, National Museum of Australia, Wiradjuri Condobolin Corporation and Graham Strong (2015) ‘Buckingbong to Birrego: Walking into Country’

About ilwscsu
The Institute for Land, Water and Society is one of four Centres of Research Excellence within Charles Sturt University, Australia. Its principal focus is on integrated research which contributes to improved social and environmental sustainability in rural and regional areas.

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