How do we live with significant environmental change – and how do we adapt? That’s one of the crucial questions at the heart of La Trobe’s new Centre for the Study of the Inland.
Launched earlier this year, The Centre brings together some of our key disciplinary strengths, including Archaeology, History and Social Sciences.
To find out more, we spoke with History Professor Katie Holmes, a leader in Australian history whose research expertise includes environmental history.
Spotlight on the Murray Darling Basin
The Centre has six key research areas: water; landscape and land use; pastoralism and agriculture; settlement and mobilities; resource extraction; and climate and environmental change.
It has a broad focus on inland Australia and specifically on the Murray Darling Basin, which both matches our research expertise and maps La Trobe’s unique geographical footprint.
Importantly, the Murray Darling Basin is a significant geographical area that’s home to two million people.
‘It’s one of the key water systems in Australia,’ explains Professor Holmes, ‘so examining environmental change and issues around sustainability in the Murray Darling Basin is absolutely crucial to the future of those aspects of Australian economy, society and population.’
Solving tomorrow’s challenges by examining the past
Among the key research areas of the Centre, Professor Holmes says a team of archaeology researchers are delving into Australia’s deep history to ask: how did Aboriginal communities 50,000 years ago adapt to environmental change?
‘In my own work, my research team is looking at the Mallee and how Indigenous and settler-Australian there have been both agents of environmental change and also adapted to it,’ she explains.
Professor Holmes’s team asks ‘what lessons can be learnt from their experience’ and use their findings to inform future land management practices that are both sustainable for the environments we live in and communities we’re part of.
‘At the moment, Australia – like many other parts of the world – is facing significant de-population of rural areas,’ Professor Holmes points out. ‘We can’t actually sustain a structure whereby everybody lives in the city and there’s one sole worker out there in the rural areas.’
‘We have to think very hard about those issues going into the future,’ Professor Holmes adds.
‘As an Historian, I believe passionately that we need to understand the past – including the deep time past – in order to better plan and prepare for the future.
‘We also need to incorporate good environmental understanding, good creative thinking and imaging around what’s really important for the health of a community.’
Strength in numbers: interdisciplinary connections
As History Professor Katie Holmes explains, environmental change creates profound challenges for us as a community and ‘big challenges require more than one disciplinary approach and solution.’
The Centre also aims to forge connections with ecologists and environmental scientists. ‘Some of the problems that inland Australia has requires us to understand the ecological history and present.’
Professor Holmes says you can’t look at long term solutions around water without understanding the environmental needs of river systems.
‘Nor can you look at long term solutions around water unless you take into consideration human needs and the investments people have in water, whether that be irrigation and agricultural purposes, or recreation and personal attachment,’ she adds.
‘We hope to bring those interdisciplinary approaches together in order to think more holistically about both the past as well as the future inlands.’
The ‘inland’ as a concept
The inland is both a place and an idea. Professor Holmes points out, ‘in the Australian imaginary, the space of the inland has been really powerful in shaping a sense of who we are as Australians.
‘Other ways of thinking about the inland are in terms of Indigenous Australians and their experience of the inland as a place where land has been something that’s been fought over and not ceded. It’s a place of identity and movement.’
Examined with this lens, Professor Holmes says the Centre’s work is not only relevant to Australia but also international work.
Where to from here?
The Centre aims to become an international centre for advanced studies in this field, attracting scholars from around the world who are working on topics related to the study of the ‘inland’.
The Centre also welcomes PhD student involvement. Professor Holmes says, ‘there’s a lot of potential for students to get involved and be working within one discipline or across disciplines.
‘It’s really important PhD students are working in these fields.’
Lastly, Professor Holmes adds, ‘we’re really hoping the Centre will become a very important place for research and a go-to-place for advice around policy.’
Find out more about our Centre for the Study of the Inland.