Immutable Australia – until ecological vandals got hold of it

Noah’s Ark is the legend of a catastrophe. The impact of the great flood apart, the only species to make it into postdiluvian times were those floating on a wooden raft in an endless sea. Australia was one such raft.

Gondwana-ForestIn The Timeless Land (1941), Eleanor Dark observes:

“Here it was as if the pulse of life in plant and beast and man had slowed almost to immobility, taking its beat from the land itself, which had all eternity in which to change. Here life was marooned, and Time, like a slowly turning wheel, was only night and day, summer and winter, birth and death, the ebb and swell of tides.”

Somewhere between 66 to 67 million years ago, dinosaurs became extinct. Twenty million years before that, Australia, Antarctica and South America still formed part a land mass called Gondwana. At that time Antarctica was not covered in ice, even though it was at the South Pole, and animals passed freely throughout the continent. So there were dinosaurs in Australia – evidenced by finds in the 1980s and 1990s at Dinosaur Cove in Victoria and Lightning Ridge in New South Wales as well as the pelvis and nine back vertebrae of a huge new type of sauropod found in 2005.

In the south of the country, around the New South Wales and Queensland border, are the Gondwana Rainforests of Australia. They include the most extensive areas of subtropical rainforest in the world, large areas of warm temperate rainforest and nearly all of the cool temperate rainforest of Antarctic beech trees. A wide range of plant and animal lineages with ancient origins in Gondwana survive only here and provide the principal habitat for many threatened species of plants and animals.

Human habitation of the Australian continent is thought to have begun between 42,000 and 48,000 years ago, possibly with the migration of people by land-bridges and short sea-crossings from what is now South-East Asia. These first inhabitants may have been the ancestors of today’s Indigenous Australians. The first records of European mariners sailing into the waters of what they labelled Terra Australis Incognita (unknown southern land) date back to 1606.

Gondwana-Rainforest-mapBut it was not until the winter of 1791 that the process of British colonisation of Western Australia began in earnest when George Vancouver claimed the Albany region in the name of King George III. After that Europeans slowly began to take over the land and, ultimately, to wreak destruction upon it. Germaine Greer’s recently published book White Beech: The Rainforest Years (2013) is a passionate reaction to that destruction:

“For years I had wandered Australia with an aching heart. Everywhere I had ever travelled across the vast expanse of the fabulous country where I was born I had seen devastation, denuded hills, eroded slopes, weeds from all over the world, feral animals, open-cut mines as big as cities, salt rivers, salt earth, abandoned townships, whole beaches made of beer cans…”

In a glowing review on the NewStatesman web site (6 February 2014) Richard Mabey concurs:

“South Australia is now one of the most ecologically compromised regions on earth, assaulted by open-cast mining, clear-cut logging, bush clearance, salinated rivers and an immense cast of invasive organisms from every other continent… [Germaine Greer] wants to rescue a bit, create an ark for the native wildings of her birthland. More specifically, she wants to restore – though repatriate might be a better word – the ancient Gondwanan forest of which Queensland still has some fragments.”

The environmental movement in Australia was the first in the world to become a political movement and Australia was home to the world’s first Green party. The movement reached a peak in Australia in the 1980s when popular Australian culture began to embrace the environmental messages of rock bands like Midnight Oil with singles like “Power and the Passion”.

Under the conservative Keating Government, the economy became the dominant issue and environmental policies were not a mainstream political issue for over a decade. Later, in what has been described as “a great leap backwards”, the  conservative Liberal-National coalition headed by Tony Abbott has decided to disband a climate advisory body and to backpeddle on environmental issues.

On 11 February 2014 The Independent newspaper asked “Is Tony Abbott’s Australian administration the most hostile to his nation’s environment in history?” The article noted that, “Critics warn that moves by Tony Abbott and his Environment Minister, Greg Hunt, will not only degrade the country’s most outstanding natural assets, but make Australia an international laughing-stock.”

If Germaine Greer is to save what’s left of Australia’s environmental heritage, she has her work cut out. But meanwhile, Good on ya, mate! Oh – and read her wonderful book.

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