Why Environmental History Matters

Janine Kitson, Member of National parks Association of NSW

Since 2014 fourteen two-hour environmental history courses have been run at the Workers Educational Association, Sydney (WEA), under the banner of the National Parks Association of NSW (NPA).

The NPA’s connections with the WEA date back to the 1970s when courses on natural history were run there.  So too are there connections with the Nature Conservation Council of NSW who had their first meeting at the WEA when Allen Strom used the powers of the Fauna Protection Panel Act to gather NSW’s flora and fauna societies to meet in 1955.

Likewise the WEA has strong links to the bushwalking movement with its Ramblers Bushwalking Club, established in the 1930s, that continues to this day.

WEA Sydney’s college – WEA House – is located at 72 Bathurst Street, a short walk from Town Hall railway station and a couple buildings down from the iconic ‘Paddy Pallin’ bushwalking equipment and clothing store.

Although one might consider the WEA as a typical ‘community college’ – it is much more than that.  Founded in 1913, it has a tradition of over 100 years in supporting adults in their study of the arts, humanities, and sciences.  The WEA evolved from the School of Arts movement cherishing learning for learning’s sake.  In its early years, WEA partnered with the University of Sydney, to help working men and women access higher education.  It is one of the few non-profit community-based adult education organisation that continues with democratic management structures involving students, tutors and representatives from unions including the NSW Teachers Federation.

What is Environmental History?

The term ‘environmental history’ was coined by American scholar Roderick Nash in 1972. It is an interdisciplinary study that crosses into ecology, the natural sciences, geography as well as social, labour, education, forest, garden and art history.  It also has links with economic, agricultural, mining, transportation and energy history.

Environmental and Indigenous History

Australian environmental history is inextricably interwoven with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history and the devastating impacts of colonialization.  As the squatters and settlers moved inland, Aboriginal people were often brutally dispossessed of their land, suffering illness, death from introduced diseases and destruction of their traditional lifestyles and practices that depended upon the land.

Environmental Movement – a reaction to the Industrial Revolution

In many ways the modern environment movement continues to be a reaction against the despoliation, land clearing and pollution that emerged in the late 18th Century with the Industrial Revolution and continues to intensify to this day.

Comparative Studies

The NPA WEA course ‘Royal and Yellowstone – the World’s first National Parks’ provided fascinating insights into English and American environmental history.  Australia seems to have been influenced by many 19th Century UK values that viewed natural areas and parks as important for human health.  Australia was also influenced by the early 20th Century US wilderness tradition that espoused the importance of valuing Nature for its own sake.

America made an enormous contribution in the modern environment movement when Rachel Carson raised the alarm about the dangers of the post WW2 chemical and nuclear age.  Her book Silent Spring (1962) continues to warn us of the looming silent spring that will come if we do not tackle climate change and biodiversity collapse.  Indeed BirdLife Australia is warning that there will be a silent spring, not only for the Great Barrier Reef, but for Southern Black-Throated Finch if the Adani Carmichael Queensland mine goes ahead.

History of Achievements

Environmental history celebrates the many environmental achievements such as the national park system, World Heritage listings and environmental protection legislation such as the 2005 NSW Native Vegetation Act to end broadscale land clearing.  This proud environmental history is now being rewritten by the current NSW Government who unashamedly continues to allow these environmental protections to be unwound and weakened.

History of Movements, Groups and Ideas

Environmental history explores how attitudes towards the environment have developed and changed over time.  It considers the different movements that contributed to the environment such as the naturalist movement; the bushwalking movement; the ornithologist movement; the parks and playground movement; the nature studies movement; and the permaculture, bush regeneration and Landcare movements.

Biographical History

Many of the NPA WEA courses highlight inspirational environmental pioneers who contributed to its history.   Recently there has been a release of excellent memoirs and biographies such as Allan Fox’s biography of Allen Strom, Anne McLeod’s biography of Marie Byles and Geoff Mosley’s memoir Repaying My Debt, A Conservationist’s Tale.

Dr Peggy James’ Cosmopolitan Conservationists—Greening Modern Sydney (2013) provides fascinating insights about conservationists living in Sydney in the 1920s-30s who worked for beautiful, clean, green and abundant natural spaces.  Peggy James argues that these 1930s conservationists – many of them quite conservative – had influence and were able to modify the excesses of environmentally damaging activities. However this critical mass of influential citizens has been replaced by corporate influences.

History of Accumulated Impacts

Environmental history shines light onto the antecedents of current environmental crises.  One of the reasons why koalas are under so much stress is because they never recovered from the massive fur hunts of the 1920s.  Sydney’s Blue Gums – with less than 3% remaining – are under threat because of extensive 19th Century logging.

New Course Initiatives at WEA

The NPA WEA courses have been held on Saturdays from 10-12noon under the category as a Social Science. However recently the course Books Celebrating Nature (27.5.17) was listed as a Sydney’s Writers Week Festival course.   A new ‘Politics at Lunchtime’ course on Where have all the Koalas gone?  will be held on 6th November, 2017.  New Thursday evening courses are planned for those who wish to attend after work.

A new distance education discussion group course about the Australian environment is now available, called Possums, Power, People, Passion and the Protection of the Australian Environment.  This enables anyone living in regional NSW, who can’t attend a WEA face-to-face class, to get together and form a study group, where materials are posted to them.

Of course all these initiatives would not be possible without the support of the NPA Office particularly NPA’s Operation Manager, Fae Barton’s wonderful support.

Ideas for new courses are always evolving.  If you have an idea for a course please contact Janine Kitson.  Or if you wish to become a WEA tutor and run your own NPA course, information is available on the WEA website.  Environmental History matters – particularly when there is so much history that the NPA can celebrate!

NPA WEA Courses, since 2014:

  1. Early 20th Century Sydney Conservationists, 23 August, 2014
    1. 2.          Thistle Harris and David Stead:  A Partnership committed to Australia’s Wildlife, 29 November 2014
    2. Three Women Conservationists – A housewife, a lawyer and a teacher:  Annie Wyatt [1885-1961], Marie Byles [1900-1979] and Thistle Harris [1902-1990], 28 February, 2015
      1. Allen Strom — a remarkable Chief Guardian of Fauna, 20 June, 2015
      2. Myles Dunphy – ‘Bushwalker Extraordinaire’, 29 August, 2015
      3. Wirrimbirra – the Sanctuary, its People and its Legacy, 7 November, 2015
        1. Australian Wilderness Photography – How it influenced a nation, 19 March, 2016
        2. Allen Strom & Allan Fox—untiring allies in conservation & education, 4 June, 2016
        3. Bushwalking Conservation – Paddy Pallin & Tom Moppett, 20 August, 2016
        4. Rachel Carson & Marie Byles – two exceptional women who loved Nature, 15 October, 2016
        5. Yellowstone & Royal – The World’s First National Parks,  4 March, 2017
        6. Geoff Mosley: Repaying my Debt – A Conservationists’ Tale, 25 March, 2017
        7. Books Celebrating Nature, 27 May 2017
        8. Battle of the Blue Gums, 10 June, 2017



Upcoming Environmental History Courses at WEA

Eccleston Du Faur – A Man of Vision

Saturday 2nd September, 2017  10am-12noon $35

Eccleston Du Faur was an important figure in late 19th Century Sydney.  Many of his legacies – Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park, the Art Gallery of NSW, the Grose Valley, Mount Wilson are something Sydneysiders are indebted to.  Discover how this public servant, scholar, scientist, conservationist and patron of the arts was driven by a vision that saw nature as art and art in nature.  How is this vision relevant today? NPA WEA Course, WEA House, 72 Bathurst Street, a short walk from Town Hall railway station.   Tutor:  Janine Kitson. Bookings essential.  Contact WEA, SYDNEY Ph: (02) 9264 2781  http://www.weasydney.com.au


Calls for a Nuclear Free World

Thursday 2 November, 2017   6-8pm $35

The Australian Red Cross continues to call for a nuclear free world.  Along with 132 states, it supported the United Nations Prohibition and Elimination of Nuclear Weapons Conference in Nagasaki in April 2017.  How is this call a continuation of work from such people as Albert Einstein (1879-1955) and Rachel Carson (1907-1964)? Both spoke fearlessly about the dangers of science and the need to make peace with the planet. NPA WEA Course, WEA House, 72 Bathurst Street, a short walk from Town Hall railway station.  Tutor:  Janine Kitson. Bookings essential.  Contact WEA, SYDNEY  Ph: (02) 9264 2781  E: info@weasydney.nsw.edu.au   www.weasydney.com.au


Where have all the koalas gone?

Monday 6 November, 2017
12:15pm – 1:15pm  $15

Will today’s children ever see a koala in the wild?  When the last Tasmanian Tiger died in Hobart Zoo in 1936 it heralded in its extinction.  What now awaits the fate of Australia’s wildlife – such as our iconic koala – as governments unwind ‘green tape’?  Will we soon have to confront our children’s question – “Where have all the koalas gone?” NPA WEA Course, WEA House, 72 Bathurst Street, a short walk from Town Hall railway station. Tutor:  Janine Kitson. Bookings essential.  Contact WEA, SYDNEY  Ph: (02) 9264 2781  E: info@weasydney.nsw.edu.au  www.weasydney.com.au


Possums, Power & the Protection of the Australian

Saturday 11 November, 2017  10am-12noon  $35

Why is it so rare to hear about Australia’s biodiversity crisis?  Learn about some of Australia’s threatened species including the Sydney’s Pygmy Possum, Victoria’s Leadbeater Possum and Kosciusko’s Mountain Pygmy Possum?  Understand the power of ideas, science, art, conservation groups and movements that successfully argued for the protection of Australia’s environment.  Reflect on recent successes and failures and consider solutions for the protection of the Australia’s environment?   NPA WEA Course, WEA House, 72 Bathurst Street, a short walk from Town Hall railway station. Tutor:  Janine Kitson. Bookings essential.  Contact WEA, SYDNEY Ph: (02) 9264 2781 E: info@weasydney.nsw.edu.au  www.weasydney.com.au

People, Passion & the Protection of the Australian

Saturday 18 November, 2017  10am-12 noon  $35

Who are the people who argued for the protection of the Australian environment? What made them so passionate about saving Australia’s wildlife, forests and landscapes?  What were their interests, concerns and motivations?  What have been the key environment campaigns of the 19th and 20th Centuries?  What contemporary issues continue to passionately engage people in calling for the protection of the Australian environment?  NPA WEA Course, WEA House, 72 Bathurst Street, a short walk from Town Hall railway station.  Tutor:  Janine Kitson. Bookings essential.  Contact WEA, SYDNEY  Ph: (02) 9264 2781  E: info@weasydney.nsw.edu.au  www.weasydney.com.au


Alexander von Humboldt – Lost Hero of Science

Thursday 23 November, 2017   6-8pm  $35

This book study – The Invention of Nature, The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the Lost Hero of Science by Andrea Wulf (2015) examines the life of Humboldt (1769–1859), a genius in articulating why Nature had to understood from both a scientific and artistic perspective.  He was a friend and mentor to many – including Joseph Banks, Goethe, Darwin, Thoreau, John Muir, and Ernst Haeckel.  An incredibly inspirational biography. NPA WEA Course, WEA House, 72 Bathurst Street, a short walk from Town Hall railway station. Tutor:  Janine Kitson. Bookings essential.  Contact WEA, SYDNEY  Ph: (02) 9264 2781  E: info@weasydney.nsw.edu.au  www.weasydney.com.au

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