Warwick Frost reviews Hutton and Connors, A History of the Australian Environmentalist Movement

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Drew Hutton and Libby Connors, A history of the Australian environment movement, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1999, 324pp, $29.95PB and $90HB. ISBN 0 521 45076 4 pb; 0 521 45686 hb.

In 1994 I was interviewed on ABC Radio regarding the history of forest clearing for agriculture in Australia. At one stage the interviewer had to stop and start the whole interview again (fortunately it was prerecorded). She had been completely thrown by my comments about nineteenth century efforts to protect the forests. As she explained she only thought of environmental protection as a modern trend – an invention of our generation. It had never occurred to her that there was a history of environmental concern and action.

Such a view is unfortunately widespread. Perhaps it is part of a stereotype that we today are clever and sophisticated and people in the past were not. In recent years we have had a great increase in studies of Australia’s environmental history, for example Geoffrey Bolton, Spoils and spoilers (1981 and 1992); William Lines, Taming the Great South Land (1992); Tim Flannery, Future eaters (1994); John Dargavel, Fashioning the forests (1997) and the Special Australian Issue of Environment and history (1998). These works tended to focus mainly on environmental destruction and therefore reinforce the view that little thought was given to conservation in the past. True, all the above gave some information on conservation and as far back as 1976 J.M. Powell, Environmental management in Australia 1788-1914 gave a specialised coverage of the topic (though only to 1914), but all in all what we have is fragmentary.

What has been lacking is a broad, comprehensive history of conservation. Hutton and Connors have filled that gap with this excellent publication. Well written and researched it is a must for anyone interested in Australian environmental or resource history.

Its scope is ambitious, covering over 200 years of European settlement and the history of the six states and two territories. They have achieved a good balance between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, even though I would suspect their strongest interest was in the last 30 years. As we have now almost come to expect in modern works, there is a small collection of well-chosen vivid photos.

This is a strong work for four main reasons. The first is its evenness of coverage. It’s certainly a field where critics would complain if one environmental campaign or battle was overlooked, but no discrepancy is apparent to this reviewer. By being so thorough in its coverage it is of value to all, from the first year student to the specialised researcher.

The second is the authors attempt to give some structure or shape to the patterns of this history. Instead of a long narrative they have tried to distinguish periods and trends. As a result the book is broken into five sections each representing a wave or period in the development of the environment movement. Distinguishing each period are changes in objectives (for example conserving resources for future use or preserving wilderness for its own sake) and methods (quiet lobbying or spectacular demonstrations).

That the authors are not afraid to voice their own strong opinions is the third strength. One would not expect a book on this topic to be bland and it certainly isn’t.

The fourth strength is the extensive use of interviews by the authors as sources for recent environmental campaigns. Those sections based on these primary sources are clearly more interesting than those based on secondary sources.

In a work of this scope there are bound to be some faults. The author’s attempt to fashion a structured explanation for the development of the conservation movement as a political movement is laudable, but leads to problems. Too much space is occupied with dense political theory and jargon which surely would only be of interest to a small minority. Sometimes the results are so confusing as to be amusing, as on one single page dealing with the 1980s where we have references to the ‘Deakinite consensus’ [their capitalisation], ‘Right Deakinism’, ‘Left Deakinism’ and ‘Australian Deakinism’.

More worrying is that as the authors are interested in defining a political movement, they appear at times to be selective in what is covered and deemed important. For example a great deal of attention is paid to the Jack Mundey and his work in preserving heritage in Sydney, because he saw this as part of a radical reform agenda. In contrast those mainly conservatives who fought for heritage in Melbourne at the same time and were arguably more successful, are not included, presumably because they did not see themselves as a political movement.

However, these are minor faults in what is an excellent and stimulating book.

Warwick Frost teaches tourism at Monash University. He has a strong research interest in environmental history, especially forest clearance and the environmental impacts of the Gold Rushes.