A brief history of environmentalism in Australia since European invasion

29 06 2020

A (heavily) modified and updated excerpt from our 2015 book Killing the Koala and Poisoning the Prairie

The Australian awakening to its environmental dilemmas was a little more sluggish than elsewhere in the New World. Not only did Europeans arrive in Australia en masse only about 250 years ago, they had a more limited view of their new landscape, and were, at least initially, constrained by the harshness of their new home. Those mostly British settlers brought with them the fully formed ideas of development and progress shaped by centuries of land use in the Motherland. That ideal of conquering wilderness and transforming it into the bucolic landscape typical of the English countryside was their driving force.

The early settlers viewed the Australian bush as ugly and monotonous, features that could only be overcome by human occupation and cultivation. This neo-classical view, homesickness and the Romantic desire to transform their homes and farms into an image of those from their homeland, were defining forces in early Australian history. Unlike in Europe, though, where there were cultural taboos associated with forest degradation — bound in mysticism, spirituality, folklore and politics — no such restrictions applied to the unfamiliar Australian bush.

In fact, the Australian government passed the Crown Lands Alienation Act in 1861, which was designed to ‘open up’ the colony to settlement, and penalized landholders for not clearing the land (via a forfeit of the land back to the Crown). That single Act guaranteed the deforestation wave would continue for over a 100 years. That, and the persistent desire to make the new land look as much as possible as the old, has ensured that continuing demise of Australia’s biodiversity.

Figure 3.3-Clearing for Agriculture

Clearing for agriculture in early settlement. Anonymous, Government Farm at Castle Hill, circa 1803. Watercolour, 24×35 cm. Permission to reproduce courtesy of the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

Interestingly, clashes over land use between the settlers and Indigenous peoples were probably some of the first demonstrations of what today we would call ‘environmentalism’ in Australia. Aboriginal nations were intent on preserving their way of life (and indeed, their lives) in the face of the settlers’ onslaught. But this was seen, at most, as a mild inconvenience for the new Australians who in response invoked the idea of terra nullius — that no one owned the land, making it available to anyone (white) who wished to ‘improve’ (clear) it. Read the rest of this entry »