Some things never seem to change. Some things change in unexpected ways.
By Peter Burnett
What might be described as the ‘modern environmental era’ is often dated from the publication in America of Rachel Carson’s hugely influential book, Silent Spring, in 1962. This book, which dealt with the impacts of the indiscriminate use of pesticides such as DDT is widely credited with spawning modern environmental action.
Don’t cry over spilt oil?
It was not until the late 1960s that environmental awareness really took off however, accelerated by a spate of major pollution incidents including the shipwreck of oil tanker Torrey Canyon off Cornwall in 1967 and two incidents in America in 1969, a huge oil spill from a drilling platform off Santa Barbara, California, and the spontaneous ignition of the heavily polluted Cuyahoga River near one of the Great Lakes, Lake Erie.
These events helped propel the world’s first comprehensive environment law, the US National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, known as NEPA, through the US Congress with an overwhelming 372-15 vote in the House of Representatives and unanimous support in the Senate. Shortly afterwards, Americans celebrated 22 April as ‘Earth Day’, an event marked in America by an estimated 20 million friendly marchers in various cities.
All this consensus and community spirit in America seems strange to the contemporary observer.
Meanwhile, in Australia, things were getting electric
Environmental concern was also rising dramatically in Australia. These international events were influential, but the dominant issue at the time was the proposal to dam the pristine Lake Pedder in Tasmania, known especially for its stunning pink quartzite beaches.
The protests began in 1967 when the Tasmanian government, led by Premier ‘Electric Eric’ Reece, revoked Pedder’s National Park status as a precursor to damming the lake.
The campaign to save Lake Pedder failed, but it did spawn a number of political and policy firsts with enduring impacts, including the formation of the United Tasmania Group, now seen as the world’s first green party, and a campaign to secure federal intervention to stop the dam.
Some things change, some things don’t
Sixty years later, one thing about Silent Spring that still speaks strongly to us is the response it elicited. The chemical industry launched a fierce campaign to discredit Carson and to frame the real threat to society as pest insects, not insecticides.
Unfortunately but not unsurprisingly, this kind of ‘hard ball’ response is still found today, a recent Australian example being then-Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s campaign to portray a fixed price for carbon introduced in 2011 as a ‘tax’. Only some years after Abbott had won government on the back of this campaign would his then Chief of Staff, Peta Credlin, acknowledge that ‘it wasn’t a tax as you know… we made it a tax … [T]hat was brutal retail politics …’
Our inability to find a collaborative way of dealing with what are, after all, shared problems, remains our heaviest policy shackle.
On the other hand, while federal intervention didn’t save Pedder in the 1970s, it did save the nearby Gordon-below-Franklin (‘Franklin’) dam in the 1980s.
In fact, the Hawke Labor government came to power in 1983 on the back of a promise to do just that. Even my conservative mother wrote ‘No Dams’ on her ballot paper, something I still find hard to believe nearly 40 years later.
The Pedder campaign and the subsequent campaign to block the nearby Gordon-below-Franklin dam a decade later present a graphic illustration of just how rapidly environmental politics and power could evolve.
The Pedder campaign failed where the Franklin campaign succeeded. Pedder was protected but its (State) protected status did not save it; the Franklin was saved by gaining that status (federally).
Federal intervention failed in the case of Pedder but succeeded for Franklin. More accurately, federal intervention in the form of federal offers, in effect, to buy Tasmania out of its development plans, failed in both cases; federal intervention ultimately succeeded for the Franklin because of federal legislation.
The Commonwealth was able to use a Constitutional springboard, World Heritage listing, that did not exist at the time of Pedder. By the time of the Franklin controversy this springboard had come into existence by dint of Australia’s ratification of the World Heritage Convention in 1974. (The full legal mechanics of this, including the High Court battle over the Commonwealth’s World Heritage Properties Act 1983, are a story for another blog).
And when things do change, sometimes it’s forever and sometimes maybe not …
But the Lake Pedder story may not be finished. Now there’s a campaign, fifty years after it was flooded, to restore the lake to its original glory. They say restoration is possible.
Unfortunately, for many things environmental, restoration is not possible. But dialogue about our shared environmental problems, including the need to invest in restoration, remains possible, no matter how unlikely it may appear at present.
About as likely as the restoration of Lake Pedder.
Post Script: This is the first instalment of a new series of occasional blogs I am working on that reflects on environmental policy failures and successes, and the lessons they provide. The series has the working title of ‘policy lessons’.
Image: The shores of Lake Pedder prior to it being drowned in 1972 for a hydro-electric scheme. (Photo by Stefan Karpiniec, CC BY 2.0)