The Rangeland Journal The Rangeland Journal Society
Rangeland ecology and management

The ‘desert syndrome’ – causally-linked factors that characterise outback Australia

Mark Stafford Smith

CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems, PO Box 284, Canberra, ACT 2601, Australia. Email:

The Rangeland Journal 30(1) 3-14
Submitted: 8 November 2007  Accepted: 18 January 2008   Published: 1 April 2008


The desert knowledge community has been motivated by the assertion that outback Australia is characterised by a set of features that are not individually unique, but which together cause it to function in ways that are fundamentally different to other physical and social environments. This paper sets out to appraise this assertion. It documents the evidence for the individual features – (i) climate variability at various scales in space and time (climate variability), (ii) widespread low and patchy primary productivity (scarce resources), (iii) sparse, mobile and patchy human population (sparse population), (iv) distant markets and decision-making (remoteness), (v) further perceived unpredictability in markets, labour and policy (social variability), (vi) limited research knowledge and persistent traditional and local knowledge (local knowledge), and (vii) particular types of people, culture and institutions (cultural differences). It then assesses whether there is evidence for the hypothesis that these features are causally linked to act as a consistent syndrome. This can only be partially confirmed as yet, but, if true, implies that management and policy for the region must recognise that the causal links are unlikely to be easily broken. The key consequence for desert people is that they should put more time into planning and managing for their apparently careless treatment by the environment and bureaucracy, and less time railing against it, because it will not go away. The key consequence for sympathetic outsiders is that there are great opportunities to create a policy context in which desert innovation can thrive in response to the ‘desert syndrome’.

Additional keywords: arid zone, dryland, local knowledge, settlement pattern, sparse population, variability.


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