Throwing pebbles and making waves

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Timing is important when to comes to bringing down dams

By David Salt

Sometimes you throw a pebble into a dam, it creates a ripple, and then disappears without a trace. Sometimes, however, you throw a pebble, and the ripple it creates forms a wave that grows and grows, sweeping away the status quo.

Sometimes the wave from a well-timed throw of a pebble can change the world. Consider the rise of environmentalism in Australia. There are many stories about people and campaigns which sought to save some precious piece of the Australian environment. One of the highest profile of these was the campaign to save the Gordon River in Tasmania.

This was a battle to stop a ‘wild’ river from being dammed for hydro-electricy. It was a case of economic development vs wilderness but it also tapped into a number of other tensions as well – state rights vs international obligations, jobs vs the intrinsic value of nature. However, this was not the first time this battle had been fought in Australia (it wasn’t even a first for Tasmania). In the years prior to the battle for the Gordon River another high profile battle had been waged over the pristine Lake Pedder.

Paradise drowned

Lake Pedder was a beautiful and remote mountain lake in remote south west Tasmania. It was formed about 10,000 years ago during the last ice age and was known for its unique brilliant white and pink quartzite beaches. And by remote I mean it was extremely difficult get to and was only really enjoyed by a few hardy bushwalkers. It was also in a region targeted by the Tasmanian Hydro Electric Commission for hydro development; in other words, damming mountain valleys for water storage for hydro energy production.

The fight to save Lake Pedder raged for years but it was ultimately lost in the early 1970s; even though the Federal Government had promised to compensate the Tasmanian government for any economic losses if it stopped the project (an offer turned down by the Tasmanian state government).

It was the flooding of Lake Pedder that saw the birth of the United Tasmania Group – the first Green political party in the world. Despite the protests and demonstrations, more than 240 square kilometres of Tasmania’s wilderness were drowned and the original lake is now 20 metres underwater.

Lake Pedder was lost, and looking back from the vantage point of 2019 it seems unbelievable that such a unique environmental asset was destroyed on the altar of economic development (and that loss occurred with Australian governments flaunting their national and international responsibilities). But times were different back then.

Sea change

However, the Lake Pedder campaign led to sea change in the broader Australian community, a sensitization to environmental values, and it was during this period (the 1980s) that the campaign to stop the Gordon-below-Franklin Dam took off.

It was the same contest of values at play but the actors in this drama this time around threw pebbles that had resonance with the broader community.

As we now know, the battle to save the Gordon River was won and it was never dammed. But possibly just as important was that this campaign was the genesis of the political party the Greens, and an environmental movement that saw that community resistance could sway government intent. The Greens were led by one of the head pebble throwers, Bob Brown, who remained its leader for several turbulent decades.

For the times they are a changing

Throwing pebbles of dissent made no difference for Lake Pedder. It was lost. The times weren’t favourable. But that campaign helped energise public resistance against further economic development (that failed to balance environmental concerns) and a subsequent campaign generated a wave of dissent that actually made a big difference. And that difference marked a turning point for the environment movement in Australia.

Which actually begs the question: Is it the pebble or the timing of the throw that matters? In other words, if the times are right, ripe for change, then any pebble will do. However, if the times are not right, then it doesn’t matter who throws the pebble or how well they throw.