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Environmentalists have crossed the Rubicon

By Max Rheese - posted Friday, 18 December 2009

Environmental advocacy in Australia is increasingly producing perverse environmental outcomes that are changing the way we live, largely as a result of political decisions for electoral gain.

Somewhere after the release of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring and the protest movement of the 60s, environmental advocacy started to stray from the generally useful path it had taken in fighting for improvements to the way we used our forests, water, land and energy resources.

Society can be pleased with the many good outcomes for the environment resulting from persistent environmental advocacy up to about the early 80s.


Timber harvesting was scrutinised until it moved to world’s best practice operations; agriculture was put under pressure to change accepted traditional practices in favour of demonstrably better methods that lessened the effect of necessary agriculture on the landscape. Improvements were sought and gained in vehicle emissions leading to much improved air quality. It is unlikely these and many other improvements to our lives would have occurred without the campaigns led by environmental groups that achieved them. These campaigns led to self evident improvement in the environment and could be, in the main, supported by science and evidence.

These successes were undoubtedly a fillip to the environment movement which saw expansion to the point where many groups became bigger and more influential than their traditional adversaries. For some perspective, at the time of the 2004 Australian federal election the environmental campaign spending of the major environmental organisations was three times the combined expenditure of Australian political parties.

There is nothing wrong of course with the environmental movement organising itself so that it has layers of administrative staff, media officers and a multitude of campaign directors to jet off to Copenhagen, purchase research vessels and take out full page campaign ads in major newspapers to further their ideals, providing they operate in a transparent, democratic manner for the public good. After all, much of the money used to finance these activities comes from the public.

Activities of the environment movement in Australia today display few of these attributes.

In a desire to maintain relevance - not to mention careers and balance sheets - there must always be a campaign to win, whether that is for the good of the environment or not. The low hanging fruit had already been harvested; to stay in business environmentalists became more ambitious.

Campaigns clearly in the common interest gave way to campaigns steeped in ideology.


The changes to native vegetation laws earlier this decade in New South Wales and Queensland saw a neat fit between the ideals of the Wilderness Society, state governments and a federal government keen to meet its obligations under the Kyoto Protocol, even though it did not even ratify this agreement.

Basically, the new laws prevented farmers, many of whom had occupied their properties for three or more generations, from clearing native regrowth. The laws also prevented new clearing. These state laws prompted by the federal government allowed it to claim it was meeting its obligations under the Kyoto Protocol.

On the face of it, this could appear to be a good environmental outcome. Not so. On 20 million hectares of western NSW and southern Queensland thousands of farming families are watching helplessly as native regrowth takes over their long cleared properties with near monocultures. Some properties are now 80 per cent covered with these thick stands of regrowth that preclude any understory or biodiversity. This was a result campaigned for by the Wilderness Society.

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About the Author

Max Rheese is the Executive Director of the Australian Environment Foundation.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Max Rheese

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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