Environmentalism and the Australian Mainstream – The First Time

Bob Brown claims that the Australian Greens will become a mainstream political party in the next few decades.

This play for the center is a significant challenge to Australian political culture and social tradition, and the Australian Greens would not be the same organisation should they win a share of the Australian mainstream.

We know this because emergent groups challenge traditional structures all the time. The usual result is that both change and a number of compromises are established. However, the challenging group generally changes more and the values of the traditional structure are reinscribed upon the emerging popular movement – rendering it noticeably different.

Between 1857 and 1934 such a process was evident in Australia.

A proto-conservationist movement sharing much with the modern day Australian Greens emerged. It had a wide base that included hobby botanists, scientists, middle-class advocates, public servants, workers and literary types. Indeed the pre-environmentalist ethic was spurred by the fear of industrial scale destruction of the environment, much like the modern day movement has been invigorated by a concern about global climate change.

Eugene von Guérard's 'Ferntree Gully in the Dandenong Ranges,' completed in 1857, is a visual representation of the growing appreciation for the natural, unimproved Australian environment

The first wave conservation movement has a traceable development over 77 years. During this time the movement confronted an Australian radical nationalism that was informed by settler colonial narratives of the environment. As the Australian historian Ann Curthoys has argued, the white male settlers of the frontier considered the natural environment as the adversary of man.[1] Frontier ideology underwrote an ethic of improvement, competition and submission that defined colonial interactions with the environment.

While the first wave conservation movement developed a philosophy antithetical to this environmental understanding, many other aspects of the movement were either informed or defined by their relationship with mainstream frontier ideology.

The two movements of frontier ideology and first wave conservation existed together at the turn of the twentieth century – one mainstream and one emergent. So what was the result of the emergent challenge to traditional ideology?

To answer these questions it is necessary to trace the development and progression of the nascent first wave conservation movement from its very misty origins in Australia in 1857.

In this year Gertrude the Emigrant was published by the native born botanist, Louisa Atkinson. The novel is one of the first coherent testaments to the tension between the appreciation of the unique Australian environment and the tribute to the social structure of the ‘bush.’ Atkinson places a social order comprising of noble bushmen, dependent wives, mothers and daughters, dishonorable squatters, and fascinating savages, amongst the setting of a worthy and appreciable Australian bushland.

Atkinson’s characterisation is complicit with the dominant conceptions of Australian radical nationalism that developed towards the end of the nineteenth century. However, her depiction of the environment is exemplary. The author incidentally establishes some of the earliest positive descriptions of the Australian bush during a thorough tribute to the very structure which perpetuated its destruction.

Atkinson did not seem to associate the two ideologies directly. Her novel shows that they existed contemporaneously, while closer to Federation public figures and intellectuals were making an explicit connection.

In 1876 Revered William Clarke of the Royal Society of New South Wales identified the ideological tipping point in first-wave conservationist thought – “that civilisation has destructive as well as conservative tendencies.”[2]Clarke linked environmental improvement with social conditions by concluding that forest clearance was bound to have “various effects on climate and sanitary conditions.”

Some thirty years later, Walter Froggatt, the president of the Naturalists Society of New South Wales expressed an intellectual critique of frontier ideology. He derided the bushman for thinking that the “lizard is a wood adder abounding in venom, and should be killed on sight,” and other “queer ideas that are just as incorrect.”[3]Froggatt represents the emerging field of scientists and public intellectuals who contrasted learned attitudes with the ignorant ones inherent in traditional Australian mythology.

Despite this complexity, scientific and naturalist societies remained the domain of the wealthy urban classes and in no way represented the mainstream.

By 1934 Myles Dunphy, a recreational bushwalker and environmental activist, was able to communicate a very confident, sophisticated and sustained critique of the results of traditional environmental attitudes to the mainstream. He drew upon the science of Clarke and Froggatt to engage with the ethic of improvement, but his writing evokes the complexity of Atkinson’s 1857 novel.

While Froggatt attacked the figure of the bushman, Dunphy’s Mountain Trails Club embraced the ‘practical mateship’ of fraternal equality that this figure represented. Those in the club even commonly referred to one another as “bushman.”[4]

Dunphy helped establish multiple National Parks in the Blue Mountains and popularised recreational bushwalking. However, the reason he achieved this was because he took the conservationist message to the mainstream in regional newspapers and general meetings, and explicitly tied it to the key figure of frontier ideology – the bushman.

If the Australian Greens are to fulfill Bob Brown’s ambitions and move into the political mainstream, the organisation needs to adapt some of its more strident criticisms of Australian society. In the way that Walter Froggatt’s disdain of the bushman was abandoned in the pursuit of more important environmental aims, the Australian Greens need to be prepared to sacrifice some significant and hard won intellectual principles in order to become a mainstream political force.

J.R. Hore


[1] Ann Curthoys, ‘Expulsion, Exodus and Exile in White Australian Historical Mythology’ in Journal of Australian Studies, Vol. 23 No. 61, 1999, pp. 1-19.

[2] Rev. William Clarke, ‘Effects of Forest Vegetation on Climate’ 1876 in Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales, edited by A. Liversidege, Sydney: Charles Potter, acting government printer, 1876, vol. 10, p. 180.

[3] Walter W. Froggatt, ‘Presidential Address’ 1906, The Australian Naturalist Journal and Magazine, edited by J. Rainbow, Sydney: S.D. Townsend and Co. Printers, 1906, vol. 1, p. 6.

[4] Myles Dunphy, ‘The New Conservators’ 1975, in Myles Dunphy, Selected Writings; Compiled and Annotated by Patrick Thompson, Sydney: Ballagrin, 1986, p. 9.

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3 comments on “Environmentalism and the Australian Mainstream – The First Time

  1. samwyper says:

    Hi Jarrod,

    I found your blog post very interesting and it’s good to see you engaged with non-mainstream history. I must confess I did find your overall thesis a bit sweeping.

    Whilst your criticism reflects popular perception, there are a number of factors that show The Greens have moved beyond being a fringe party.

    The greens have successfully negotiated on legislation within the parliament rather than changing their policies. Recent examples include the carbon tax, funding for environmental programs and the stimulus package. This means that while they will continue to hold high ideals, they will need to compromise on these in order to get legislation passed.

    Moreover, concerning your implied criticism of The Greens narrow supporter base, they are already beginning to appeal to people beyond their traditional base. For example, The Greens have recently formed strong alliances with farmers around the protection of prime agricultural land, food security, and mining.

    The danger of The Greens giving up their ideals is best illustrated in the modern Labor Party. Once a friend to workers, now most would now be hard pressed to state clearly what the Labor Party stand for. Recent polling reflects this attitude.

    • jarrodhore says:

      Hi Sam,

      To a certain extent I agree with you, my major essay was a study linking the development of first-wave conservation with the mainstream Australian understanding of frontier ideology. I didn’t mention contemporary Australian debate once. I included it in this post to try and make my research more relevant.

      To begin with, in my mind, the fact that the Greens negotiated with Labor and compromised some aspects of policy (which the organisation has admitted to) in order to satisfy their broader political and social goals, leads me to believe the process I alluded to is already beginning. Anyway, that’s my opinion, I wanted to address some of the points in your post.

      While the Australian Greens of 2011 are certainly not a fringe group (I think they broke through that barrier upon going past 10% of the popular vote and maintaining this support for quite a while). Indeed in my post I attested to their broad base across many social groups. However they are also quite clearly an emergent political force and not a mainstream one.

      The societies, organisations and individuals that made up first-wave conservation were also certainly not a fringe group. They had influence in some achievements worthy of comparison to those of the modern day Australian Greens including the establishment of the world’s second National Park (Royal National Park), the establishment of forestries and fauna protection, and the beginning of a number of public health projects that concentrated on working class living conditions.

      Your point about the alliance with farmers kind of touches upon what I’m trying to convey. There is undoubtedly a tension between the interests of farmers when it comes to coal seam gas, food security and mining, and their interests regarding other matters of Greens principle like action on climate change (which, having worked on a number of farms, I can attest is pretty sensitive).

      Lastly, I don’t mean to convey that I dislike the Australian Greens, and I apologise if it comes across this way. I actually really admire their party structure and think it is certainly the most democratic party structure going around, I also really like the fact that they exist in Australian politics.

      I only wanted to point out that to break through into a mainstream political force (probably between 30 to 40% of the popular vote consistently, which is what Brown sees happening at some time) there are a certain number of principles (I don’t know which ones yet) that in my opinion, the party will likely have to live without, or change. Which is what happened at the turn of century.

      Thanks so much for your comment. Sorry for the long reply as well, I finished exams and don’t have much to do.

      Jarrod

  2. kmcqatmc says:

    Hi Jarrod, found your post really informative- liked the parallels drawn between past environmental fringe groups vs. mainstream ideology and todays challenges the Greens face.

    Myles Dunphy sounded interesting, I guess the problem with taking pure environmental thinking to the greater public and compromising ‘intellectual principles and ideas’ in order to garner greater support can have a ‘green shopping bag effect’- where the deeper ideology changes needed for mass change are neglected, but people are still taking their green bags to the shops in their cars!
    Dunphy possibly didn’t have to mediate such vast difference in terms of lifestyles and ideas between the two conservationists and the mainstream as today, hence his success.
    Engaging topic!

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