Monday 9 September 2019

What Bob Brown said (at the TravelDAZE sustainable travel event)

One of the highlights of attending Travel Weekly's TravelDAZE sustainable travel event a couple of weeks ago was seeing Bob Brown, former Greens senator and long-time environmental campaigner, in person, and listening to his inspiring keynote speech. In his trademark regional Australian drawl he didn't pull any punches about the predicament we earthlings are facing right now, but he was also full of informed hope and fired-up to do something about it. 

How great is Greta?
I'm thinking about Bob this week because there's a Global Climate Strike happening next week, on Friday 20 September 2019. Unlike other climate action strikes inspired by Swedish 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, who kicked things off in August last year by skipping school every Friday to stage a one-girl protest outside Sweden's Parliament, this one isn't just for students. 

It's for everyone, of all ages, all over the world. And if earlier climate strikes are anything to go by, it's going to be huge. I'm going to the Global Climate Strike in Lismore, my nearest city (there'll be strikes Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane; find other cities worldwide here). I thought I'd share Bob's talk here, to get us all in the climate-action mood. 

Here's a lightly edited transcript of what Bob Brown said at TravelDAZE on 28 August with some of his own pictures of natural places he loves. (Who knew one of Australia's best-known conservationists was also an accomplished photographer?)


Bob Brown - pic by New Matilda
"I’m Bob. I was first hit by conscious awareness at Trunkey Creek on the old Coachy Road between Bathurst and Goulburn. My dad was the local policeman, my mum had come off a dairy farm and she said, 'Whatever you do, look after nature' and it’s been with me ever since.

The word ‘sustainability’ of course comes from Gro Harlem Brundtland, the Norwegian Prime Minister, who was commissioned by the United Nations in the 1980s to look at the fact that humanity seemed to be overshooting its ability to live within the bounds of the planet. She talked about the need for us to have a sustainable relationship with this little earth of ours. Since then, we’ve had 2 billion more mouths to feed.

Some time after Gro Harlem Brundtland’s time, we reached 100 per cent use of the living resources of the planet. We’re now at 170 per cent. That's why every morning we wake to fewer forests, fewer fisheries, less arable land, more mouths to feed, to a million species facing extinction and the extinction rate now over 10,000 times the background extinction rate from natural attrition – due to the fact that the planet cannot deal with nearly 8 billion of us.

There were just two and a half billion of us when I was at Trunkey Creek and we're headed for 12 billion this century, with everybody wanting to consume more on a finite planet that simply doesn’t have more to give.

Bob & Stop Adani activists
So we’re in the greatest crisis of human time. It’s not coming. We’re in it. And yet today we have Australia’s minister for resources saying that coal is a great product and the more we can sell of it the better. 

While up at the Adani mine site in central Queensland, which has now been given the go-ahead by the environment ministers in Canberra and in Queensland, the Wangan and Jagalingou people, headed by elder Adrian Burragubba, are calling for people to go and camp with them on that site - I'll be going up there - to protect their sacred lands, which have songlines going right down the Darling River and through to the ocean, which the Adani mining operation will destroy if it goes ahead. 

And if the rest of the Galilee Basin is opened up, this will more than double the Australian greenhouse gas output into our atmosphere, when Australia is already the worst polluter per capita on the planet as we’re also the richest people per capita ever to have existed on this planet. 

I’m just stating the reality of the crisis that we are in because it is time for action.

But I want to come to the matter before us, which is tourism.

Tarkine forest, Tasmania
Pic by Bob Brown
Last year, a friend of mine took a busload of 17- and 18-year-olds from Shanghai out to the great forests of Tasmania and had trouble getting them out of the bus because they had never been in a natural environment in their lives and they were frightened of what might happen to them. 

We’re now in a world where there may be 50 cities of between 20 and 50 million people, most of them not able to get an experience in a true natural environment in the next couple of decades. What to do about this?

The spread of human beings across the planet is of course disastrous for natural environments, and if there’s one thing I do today it’s make a plea for our national parks. 

After decades of people putting themselves in front of bulldozers – Margaret Thorsborne, who was 91 when she died last year, there’s a famous picture of her, this woman with her handbag over her arm standing against the bulldozers at Hinchinbrook Island where a developer was coming in to clear the mangroves 20 or 30 years ago – today we’re not only needing to protect what is left of nature, and there’s quite a lot, but we need to consolidate the protection of the areas that are protected because they’re being invaded. 

Nature-based tourism is such a fabulous part of the human endeavour because it does bring us back to what's important. There are the great cultural icons of the world of course, the human-based manifestations of creativity, although Gaudi, the great Barcelonian architect who designed the Familia Sagrada, that great cathedral which after 120 or 130 years is nearing completion now, said that all human creativity comes from the great book of nature. It’s nature, of which we are part, on this finite planet, that we have to protect.

Bob Brown's tourism action plan
I've put together a list of things we might do (see pic, right). I’ll pick a couple out.

One is: Pay proper respect to the indigenous people left in their indigenous lands and that includes the Wangan and Jagalingou people who are calling on people around the world to sit with them, to protect their sacred lands [against the Adani coal mine] because it is part of the sacred planet for which we have no substitute.

Another is: Reward ourselves with starlit nights in the wild. It is extraordinarily important if we’re going to look after this planet, that we re-engage with it. I know as a campaigning conservationist, since I left my medical practice to get into the job of 'preventative medicine', that is protecting our environment, which is so important to the human soul and therefore human wellbeing, that it is imperative to spend time out under the stars at night – by the way Scorpio is right overhead at the moment, it’s magnificent. 

Bob & a bluegum, Tasmania
Pic by Paul Thomas
And of course that means days immersed in nature too, walking to where we camp, living close to nature, as our 100 BILLION forebears have done until this little blip in history where we’re technologically not only transforming the planet but transforming our own appreciation, or lack of appreciation, for the fact that we cannot do without this earth, which gives us everything. 

But it can do without us. As it’s done without the dinosaurs. The only difference is that the dinosaurs didn’t see that asteroid coming, 65 million years ago. We know what we’re doing and we can turn it around. We have the technological wherewithal. We have the ethical background, if we only take it on. We have the ability for restraint. We’ve shown in two World Wars that within three months of an emergency we can use 15 per cent of our gross domestic product to protect ourselves and yet 2 per cent of world domestic product put to it now would stop the climate emergency in its tracks. 

[At this point in his talk, Bob took us on a little trip by showing some of his own photographs of some of his favourite natural places, most in Tasmania, all threatened by tourism developments from resorts to roads. For brevity, I've omitted this section but included some of his pics.]

Bushfire haze near Huon River
Every second of every day, whether we’re in Sydney or Hobart or Timbuktu, is one degree Centigrade hotter than when I was a boy, due to burning coal, oil, gas and forests. And the prescription for our society at the moment doesn't seem to be 'let’s move to the technologically available alternatives of renewable energy' or 'instead of destroying trees, let's plant more' but to put the foot on the accelerator. 

There’s an enormous disjunct in thinking here and the tourism industry has a great potential role to play in getting us out of this wrong mindset into the constructive and sustainable mindset of the future. 

Another point on my credo for nature-tourism: Insisting that the people who destroy and injure nature are properly arraigned. That means, charged and penalised. We, for example, should not be a planet in which more whales are being harpooned. We should not be a planet in which more great forests are being felled. 

Not a black-throated finch,
but a fantailed cuckoo
We should not be a planet in which coal mines, as well as having the impact on climate change, are directly threatening species. 

This little bird on my lapel pin is the black-throated finch. At the Adani mine site there are 400 left, it’s the most important population as it heads towards extinction. They’re about to clear the woodland on which this bird depends, to open it up for coal extraction, to burn for profit – that’s all there is to it. It’s completely unnecessary. 

In India, as in Australia, renewable energy is now cheaper than coal-fired energy. But if you’re friends with the prime minister and when you build your power station to burn your Queensland coal next to the Bangladeshi border to sell across the border and your prime minister clears hundreds of people off that land and gives you tax breaks for putting the power station there, well, you’re sitting pretty. And when you are opening a coal mine in Queensland in which you intend to put $3 million into family or company trusts in the Cayman Islands, then you’re onto a good thing. But I don’t think the minister is going to take that on.

Bob & Paul's old house in Tasmania's
Liffey Valley, which they donated to
Bush Heritage Australia
What I do think we can take on, as people who respect and want to present nature to our fellow human beings, is to create a travel industry that is going to be ethical and able to survive into the future with pride in its chest and to back those environmentalists on the front line trying to protect national parks and threatened natural areas, knowing that it’s taking part in the protection of the planet upon which we all depend. 

Ladies and gentlemen, it's a beautiful planet, we’re a beautiful species, we need to bring out the best in ourselves and each other and turn around this ship of state so that our children, our grandchildren and everybody who is on this planet after us will thank us for having been here. Thank you all."


  1. He as a passionate and resounding speaker!

    1. He sure is, Briar, thanks for reading the post, and wasn't his talk - and the whole TravelDAZE event - well timed with the climate march and today's UN Climate Summit. It's all happening!