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.

Aboriginal Australians decidedly lost that battle. In fact, it was not until 1992 that the landmark High Court ruling in the famous Mabo versus Queensland case gave native title a real legal footing in challenges to public land ownership. While indigenous organizations today directly or indirectly own about 20% of Australia’s land, claims by Aboriginal groups invoking native title laws are still a common occurrence today.

But protectionist notions were not restricted to the Aboriginal struggle for rights and recognition at this time; there were in fact smatterings of utilitarian environmentalism expressed even among the early European governors. Even as far back as 1803, and only five years after the First Fleet landed in the area that was eventually to be called Sydney, the Governor of New South Wales, Philip Gidley King, ordered that trees along the Hawkesbury River were not to be cut down due to erosion concerns. His orders went largely unheeded by the development-hungry colonists.

Later in 1865, a report issued to the Victorian Parliament complained that over-exploitation of forests would soon leave little timber for the requirements of other industries such as mining. Other government botanists, clergyman, doctors, private citizens and even early feminist artists also complained bitterly about the wanton destruction of forests as the colonial wave passed through the country. For the most part though, their cries went unheard or were completely ignored.

Australia’s first national park was created in 1879 on the outskirts of Sydney. While the establishment of the 7300-hectare ‘The National Park’ (as it was known, now the ‘Royal National Park’) was most likely inspired by the creation of Yellowstone National Park in the US seven years earlier, the two areas had very different purposes. Yellowstone was created primarily to preserve its natural wonders from development for the benefit of all Americans, whereas ‘The National Park’ in Australia was created primarily for the sport and recreation of the 200,000 citizens of the colony’s largest urban centre, Sydney, only 20 km to the north. As such, preservation was an extremely low priority, with uses such as ornamental plantation, zoological gardens, race courses, artillery ranges, mining, timber felling, livestock grazing and deer husbandry all permitted.

Although these decidedly non-conservationist activities were eventually excluded, their legacy still weighs heavily on the region’s biodiversity. Subsequent parks were established around the country, and as for ‘The National Park’, primarily as recreational respite from urban living around the country’s major population centres — these included Belair in South Australia (1891), Ku-ring-gai Chase north of Sydney (1894), Witches Falls and Bunya Mountains near Brisbane (1908), Cunningham’s Gap also near Brisbane (1909), Lamington near the Queensland-New South Wales border (1915) and Mount Field in Tasmania (1915 — later revoked, then reinstated).

The first Australian national park created more in the spirit of Yellowstone was probably Mount Warning in the far northeast of New South Wales in 1929. This was followed by Dorrigo Mountain in 1930 and New England National Park in New South Wales in 1937. Australia’s largest national park, Kakadu National Park in the far north of the Northern Territory, was declared in three stages between 1979 and 1991.

Many modern Australians have their own romantic notions of how those early European Aussies managed to break that English ideal and become the ‘true-blue’, bushranger types lauded in poetry, literature and film. After shedding the perceived uppity and delicate sensibilities of the English gentry, the archetypal image of the hard Aussie ‘bloke’ emerged. By the mid-19th Century, the view that Australia was a vast, untapped resource of mineral and agricultural wealth, ripe for exploration, gave the (mostly male) pioneers the aura of the imperturbable ‘frontiersman’. Whether a miner, prospector, surveyor, trapper or timber cutter, the noble pioneer fighting the harsh land to feed his family and do his bit for the development of the nation soon become the stuff of legend. Able to survive off the land with nothing more than a rifle, billy and swag, the Aussie frontiersman is still celebrated in the unofficial national anthem and bush ballad — Waltzing Matilda.

Indeed, the archetype persists even in today’s eating habits – Australia is the only nation that regularly partakes in the consumption of its national emblems. This image also contributed to the rise of unions in Australia the following century, and is probably at least partially responsible for the now-dwindling socialist components of Australian governance today, including public health care, and unemployment and housing subsidies.

The Second World War, and to a lesser extent, the First World War, saw another change in the Australian culture for development. Following the economic lull of those periods of world crisis, Australia, like many other countries, adopted a hunger for land development that gave rise to a massive economic boom in the 1950s and 1960s. Aided by schemes to reward the returning Diggers with entrepreneurial and employment opportunities, development clicked up several gears, where the very notion of ‘natural resource’ became synonymous with ‘commodity’.

It is this era that spawned the massive vegetation-clearing schemes of Western Australia and Queensland, and the likes of corrupt politicians such as Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen, hell-bent on removing as many trees as possible in the name of ‘progress’. Indeed, the only reason the Great Barrier Reef was spared Queensland’s lust for exploration and mineral extraction was the intervention of the federal Labor government; it was not because of popular protest that the Reef exists at all today. But even that success is under massive threat — nearly half of the coral in the Great Barrier Reef has been destroyed in the last 30 years.

But it was the rising environmental collateral damage of this development push that finally persuaded some Australians to adopt the first sentiments of environmentalism. Indeed, it might shock people to learn that Australia’s environmentalism’s birth came so late, despite its early gestation in some societies and reserves, and having access to the literature and ideas emanating from the US.

The defining moment came about when a Tasmanian hydroelectric proposal threatened to flood a small lake — Lake Pedder — in the central highlands. The lake itself had been declared a national park in the 1950s, and so its threatened existence became a rallying point mainly for bushwalkers and field naturalists. Indeed, bushwalker clubs had become increasingly popular since the 1920s, and formed a mounting voice in the preservation of natural landscapes. But the outcry grew rapidly beyond that small demographic, with the lake becoming in 1967 the focus for a national debate that generated two state elections, a decade of state and federal lobbying, federal interference in Tasmanian state politics and years of political vitriol.

Although the struggle to save the lake ultimately failed (it was flooded in 1972), ironically the affair ignited a wholesale paradigm shift in Australian land-use policy. Combined with the publication of the book The Fight for the Forests by two Australian National University philosophers in 1973, these events sparked the creation of the world’s first ‘green’ political party — the United Tasmania Group that contested the 1972 Tasmanian state election — and dealt a major blow to the forest industry. This is probably the one event in the history of environmentalism where Australia leapfrogged the US. The United Tasmania Group also became the forerunner of one of the country’s most prominent environmental non-government organizations, the Australian Wilderness Society, and the political party ‘The Greens’.

Although national parks had a rocky start in Australia and were not created expressly for the purposes of wildlife conservation, they did provide the framework for eventual conservation legislation. The Wild Life Preservation Society was formed in 1909 to preserve intact the “typical fauna of Australia” in response to concerns about dwindling wildlife populations around Sydney. The next major form of legislation appeared in the New South Wales Fauna Protection Act 1948 that governed land reserves around the state for protection and study of native fauna and flora, although it was not until 1967 under the auspices of the National Parks and Wildlife Service that fauna protection had any legal teeth at the federal level of government. Finally, the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC) came into existence as the major national legislation which today enforces legal issues surrounding biodiversity conservation and restoration – it is the Australian equivalent of the US Endangered Species Act.

CJA Bradshaw & PR Ehrlich



2 responses

30 06 2020

Nice piece. Lovely summery. There’s one significant typo. The Mabo decision was 20 years later in 1992. https://www.nma.gov.au/defining-moments/resources/mabo-decision


30 06 2020

Oops! Thanks. Corrected


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