Monday, March 25, 2013

How the environment centres came to be

How the environment centres came to be
My own education about all things ecological really began when my mother became a schoolteacher and took out a subscription to the monthly UNESCO Courier. I enjoyed the magazine very much. My mother usually cut it up for use in the classroom and I took out my own subscription to it at about the time that I began to go to High School. I am grateful to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation for the education that I had from the UNESCO Courier 1956 to 1960. The UNESCO Courier covered a wide range of ecological subjects including the human population explosion.
Prior to the creation of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) in 1973 it was UNESCO that dealt with ecological matters for the United Nations Organization. Two of the institutions that it created to perform that work were The International Biological Program (IBP), a world wide ecosystem stocktaking exercise, and the Scientific Committee for the study of problems of the Environment (SCOPE) which continues in operation to the present day. The operation that formed the bridge to the creation of UNEP was the UNESCO ‘Man and the Biosphere’ program (MAB).
People need to know that the UNESCO web site is a major resource on ecological topics and that it is not searched by Google. UNESCO is still active on ecological matters. The recent Symposium on ecologically sustainable agriculture in Beijing is an example. Serious conservationists should be paying attention to what UNESCO is up to.
In 1972 the United Nations Organisation hosted an international conference in Stockholm. It was called ‘Only one Earth’ and the topic up for discussion at the conference was the need for international cooperation on ecological issues.
The conference identified a need for a specialist United Nations agency to support international action on ecological issues. The new agency was called the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). It set up its head office in Nairobi and held its first meeting in 1973.
Prior to 1972 there was an ‘ecology movement’ in Australia. In 1973 there were ‘conservationists’ and ‘environmentalists’. Since 1973 less and less has been heard of the word ‘ecology’.
I was amazed by that linguistic take over in 1973 and bewildered as to where the word ‘environmentalist’ came from. It certainly did not come from within the ecology movement or the pre-existing nature conservation movement. On reflection I have come to the conclusion that the adoption of the word ‘environment’ was due to the use of the word environment at the Stockholm conference and in the title of the United Nations Environment Program.
There was an important event in Australian politics in 1972 that also had a bearing on the name changes. It was the ‘Its Time’ election when the ALP under Goff Whitlam won government after a generation or so of government by the Liberal/Country Party Coalition.
This program advanced by the ALP at the 1972 election owed a great deal, in an intellectual sense, to the leadership provided by the international students rebellion in the northern hemisphere summer of 1968, and the next few following years. It was the first political program in Australia to take the ecological dimension of reality seriously. It also dealt in a serious way with quality of life as an issue. There was something in the spirit of the times in 1972 that brought the ecological crisis to the attention of the community as a whole.
People like myself who were active in the ecology movement suddenly realised that we also had to think about the social and political dimensions of human life. It was not a welcome discovery.
The people and institutions involved with the social and political dimensions of human life suddenly realised that they also had to think about the ecological (or as they would say the ‘environmental’ dimensions) of human life. It was not a welcome discovery.
A strange sort of a shotgun marriage resulted as the ecologists looked for some social and political talent to help with the task, and the socialists and so on looked for some ecologists to help them with the task as they perceived it. The perceptions of the task were very different, depending on where people set out from. Different enough for the 1973 verbal formula ‘conservationists and environmentalists’ to be a useful description that identified a real social conflict. A conflict that was not widely identified or understood at the time.
The most obvious feature of this merging of political forces was the fact that the social-activist forces outnumbered the ecological-activist forces by ten to one, or even a hundred to one in some places. With the zeal of the convert, social activist types dominated committees and took control of printing presses. The developed ‘ecological understanding’ of affairs was submerged and diluted in the new ‘environment movement’. There was no provision made for ‘in service training’. People from the ecological side of the merger were aware of the conflict, most of the people from the social and political side were not aware of the conflict.
Somebody described it as a conflict between the ‘deep’ ecologist and the ‘shallow’ reform - environmentalist.
This was the situation in August of 1973 when the United Nations Environment Program sat down to its first meeting in Nairobi.
At this meeting the governments of the world agreed to establish a world wide non-government communications system to support citizen action on ecological issues. The system was to consist of an ‘environment centre’ in every capital city and ‘the Environment Liaison Centre’ in Nairobi over the road from the UNEP headquarters.
In the Northern Territory in 1973 there was an organization called The Environment Council of the Northern Territory. It was a forum for discussion among organisations with an interest in ecology and nature conservation matters. Member bodies included the Chamber of Commerce and the National Trust as well as the Darwin Conservation Society. Membership was not open to individuals. Secretariat services were provided to the Council by the Keep Australia Beautiful Council, which had a paid Executive Officer and an office in the Town Hall. Meetings of the
Environment Council took place in the Town Hall. Meetings took place every week and there were in effect two classes of members, those who attended almost every meeting and those that almost never attended a meeting.
Somewhat similar ‘peak body’ organizations existed in other Australian States and Territories but there was no national peak body. The only national conservation forum and information clearing house operation was provided, in a somewhat indirect fashion, by the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF). It was the Council meetings of the ACF that provided the main national forum.
One of the problems faced by the brand new Department of the Environment in the Commonwealth Government was the fact that several of the existing state and territory peak environment groups were not incorporated associations, and public money could not be given to un-incorporated associations.
The Department asked ACF to help it. The deal that was offered to the peak bodies was some public funding in return for the peak body establishing an ‘Environment Centre’ in the capital city and the peak body becoming an incorporated association. During the start up period the Department paid the seed money to ACF and ACF distributed it to the unincorporated peak bodies. I have a vague memory of flying to Darwin with the cheque in my pocket, to attend the meeting of the Environment Council (NT) at which the formal motions were passed that set process of incorporation in train. I was a member of the ACF Council at the time.
The general idea of the environment centres that were set up in 1974 was that they would provide support services to local activists and cooperate with other environment centres and the Environment Liaison Centre (ELC) in Nairobi to create a worldwide information clearinghouse operation. The environment centres were to be open to the public and house a common filing system as a sort of collective memory for the community.
Barbara James was employed to coordinate the operations of the new environment centre in Darwin; and her personal filing system on all things ecological was donated to the centre to kick-start its filing system. Before the centre had completed its first year of operations Cyclone Tracy destroyed the city and completely disrupted all of the normal capital city functions in Darwin.
The impact of Cyclone Tracy on the environment movement in the Northern Territory was grievous. There was a very big population turnover after the event. Before the cyclone the residents of Darwin were very well informed about such matters as the city sewerage system and the ecology of Port Darwin. That knowledge was lost.
Before the cyclone there were extensive social networks and quite a few very active small action groups. All of this was blown away by the cyclone. After the cyclone we lived in ‘The New Darwin’. It was a dis-organised place.
Barbara James at the Environment Centre became the only conservationist in town, by default. In organisational terms the periphery blew away leaving a centre with no one to serve. This was a disaster in its own right.
One consistent aspect of the emerging green consciousness was a faith in small scale and de-centralised operations. It did make logical sense to have a global network of Environment Centres to conduct the main information clearing house function for such a small scale and decentralised network. The radical centralisation found in The New Darwin was something else again, and it proved to be very difficult to reverse it.
There were some other aspects of the situation that didn’t please me. Most of the centre to centre communications from the Darwin Environment Centre were with other centres in Australia. There was very little communication with environment centres elsewhere in the monsoon tropics. This always seemed perverse to me.
From 1975 to 1979 yet another emergency occupied the Board of Management of the Environment Centre in Darwin. It was the campaign to oppose : the use of atomic power to generate electricity and the mining of uranium at Jabiru. The Darwin Environment Centre did play an important Australian national coordinating role in that campaign. The steam went out of the campaign after the Commonwealth Government (under Malcolm Fraser) decided to permit mining at Ranger in 1978.
The Fraser Government was hostile to the Environment Centres. It attacked them by changing the funding formula. The original deal was a subsidy of $1 of public money for every $1 raised by the environment centres. The Fraser Government made it $1 for every $2 raised by the environment centres. This action forced the closure of the Environment Centre in Darwin, 18 April 1982.

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