From Desert Syndrome to Desert System: Developing a science of desert living

From Desert Syndrome to Desert System: Developing a science of desert living Journal Article

Dialogue: the Journal of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia

  • Author(s): Stafford Smith, DM, Huigen, J
  • Published: 2009
  • Volume: 28

Abstract: Global research over the past decade has increasingly emphasised the fundamentally linked, or ‘coupled’, nature of what have been called human-environment or social-ecological systems. One strand of this thought focuses on drylands. This strand was originally triggered by debates on the nature and causes of desertification, where differing social and biophysical science paradigms put blame respectively on the socio-political factors, or on the biophysical nature of drylands and their climates. Clearly both were part of the story, a view synthesised by a Dahlem conference in 2002 and further refined to five principles stated as a ‘dryland development paradigm’ in 2007. From this thinking have followed many threads related to the interactive nature of humans and their environments in drylands, including those of Australia. At the same time, a homegrown and grassroots set of concepts was being developed under the rubric of ‘desert knowledge’ in central Australia. These ideas were pioneered by Bruce Walker at the Centre for Appropriate Technology in Alice Springs (see his article elsewhere in this volume) but taken up by a diverse group of organisations, people (Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal) and governments. The movement has spawned several complementary organisations, in particular, Desert Knowledge Australia, the Desert Peoples Centre and the Desert Knowledge Cooperative Research Centre, all seeking to operate across the Australian deserts. A series of worthy ideas and approaches has emerged from the various workings of these organisations; these have recently been synthesised as concepts to underlie a ‘Science of Desert Living’, drawing on the principles being espoused for drylands internationally. A key step in this endeavour was to identify a suite of ‘desert drivers’ - interlinked characteristics of desert regions (described below) that appear to underpin many of the features that various researchers have identified in compartmentalised studies of the biophysical and social functioning of desert Australia.

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Stafford Smith, DM, Huigen, J, 2009, From Desert Syndrome to Desert System: Developing a science of desert living, Volume:28, Journal Article, viewed 02 December 2023,

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