Down to Earth

Article excerpt

NOT BORN YESTERDAY

Environmentalists tend to be rather one-sided and reticent about the past. While they delight in cataloguing the environmental sins of our forbears, they often write as though their own ideas sprang de novo out of the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s, or else came from a noble lineage of engaging rebels whose political and social beliefs were perfectly in tune with contemporary fancies. It often comes as a surprise to supporters of the Australian Conservation Foundation, for instance, to learn that the people who founded the organization in the mid-1960s included Malcolm Fraser, Sir Garfield Barwick and Sidney Baillieu Myer.

I recently spent a couple of days looking through old newspapers and magazines to ascertain how attitudes to the environment had changed since 1950. I came away from my modest review with some interesting and salutary reminders of the way in which perceptions of the past can be distorted to suit the political requirements of the present.

My reading of copies of the Melbourne Age printed over a number of months in 1950 revealed the expected concern with post-war reconstruction and economic development, and many stories celebrating the Snowy Mountains scheme and other large infrastructure projects. Nevertheless, the public was periodically reminded of the importance of conservation and the baneful legacy of previous over-exploitation of natural resources, although the space given over to these issues was certainly less than at present. And while the economic aspects of conservation were often stressed, aesthetic and moral considerations were not ignored.

Thus The Age was running a series of advertisements from Carlton and United Breweries titled 'Save Our Native Fauna', which included a substantial amount of information about individual species such as lyrebirds, discussing their behaviour and their habitats. Service groups organized conservation displays: in July 1950, for instance, a 'Conservation Week' was held in the Hamilton district of western Victoria, inaugurated by the local Rotary Club with the assistance of 30 local groups as well as the State Forests Commission, Soil Conservation Authority, Agriculture Department and Education Department.

In the same month, The Age editorialized under the heading 'Heritage in Lands, Forests and Rivers' about the obligations of the current generation to stop the destruction of Nature. It wrote that while "practical men and women who have a deep attachment to the state of Victoria, its mountains, forests, rivers and lands will endorse the plans of the new Minister for Lands and Forests to make better use of the Crown reservations...there can be no lasting and beneficial policy of land settlement here, or anywhere else, without an accompanying forest and soil conservation consciousness."

This recognition of the importance of conservation is hardly surprising. It cannot be denied that European settlement of Australia took a heavy toll on the environment, even though it brought other benefits. But pressure for bushland to be reserved for the protection of flora and fauna and for public recreation goes back to the 1860s in Australia, and the world's second National Park (after Yellowstone in the United States) was established by the NSW Government south of Sydney in 1879. Tasmania and Victoria introduced legislation to protect native species in the 1860s and '70s. By 1940 the southern mainland States had created soil conservation authorities, and projects to rehabilitate land after mining had been introduced. Interest in environmental issues continued to grow during the 1950s and early 1960s, and increased media coverage was given to stories about conservation and pollution. Voluntary conservation societies grew strongly during this period and branches of the National Trust were established in all States. Victoria passed a Clean Air Act in 1956, and other States soon followed.

Although a commitment to environmental causes is now one of the distinguishing characteristics of the political and cultural left, it was not always so. …