9 – Distance

I live in a town called Albany, south-east of Perth in Western Australia. Perth is a long way from all other cities and is often described as the most isolated city on earth. Albany is 400 km more isolated than that, which makes my regular travel to other cities rather protracted, to say the least.

Some research has found that farmers are slower to adopt a new farming technology if they are physically more distant from the organisation or person who is promoting the technology. One can easily imagine possible reasons for this. Perhaps the information appears less relevant to distant farmers than to those who are close to the information source, or perhaps they receive less exposure to information about the technology, because the area to be covered by a communicator increases disproportionately as the target range increases, and because communicators naturally prefer to operate closer to home.

I find that distance adds to my challenge in attempting to be a player in national research and policy issues. The reasons why people further away seem less ready to adopt my ideas are probably much the same as for lower technology adoption by more distant farmers.

People know or suspect that the natural environment in Western Australia is unique to some extent, so perhaps it is easy (when convenient) to assume that my analyses of environmental issues are of limited relevance in other regions. Indeed, sometimes this is absolutely true, but sometimes not. I have been frustrated a few times to hear of my work being downplayed because it is assumed to be of relevance in WA only, when I know that it is of high relevance in the region of the critic. For example, some of my arguments about low off-site benefits from salinity management have fallen into this category.

An even more frustrating situation of this type is where a critic exploits my distance away as a way of discrediting my work to others. This has happened too. I am particularly vulnerable if the critic is locally based, as they tend to be. I find that a local visit, like a crusader on campaign, does help to counter such problems. If only it didn’t take to long to go anywhere from Albany.

Still, I shouldn’t complain. I’ve just finished reading a biography of another crusader, King Richard I of England, who made the journey from northern France to Syria (shorter than Albany to Sydney) in the late twelfth century. It took him 11 months to get there (although to be fair he did stop to invade Crete and Cyprus on the way), and the return trip took 17 months (including 9 months imprisoned in German castles while he was held for ransom).

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia