Koalas to Possums to Humboldt’s Web of Life

WEA Environmental History Courses in late 2017 from Janine Kitson

Towards the end of 2017 four environmental history courses were held at the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA, Sydney): Where have all the Koalas gone?;  Possums, Power & the Protection of the Australian Environment; People, Passion & the Protection of the Australian Environment; Alexander von Humboldt.

These courses explored several questions, such as:  Why has the science of ecology been ignored, dismissed and discarded?  Why does deforestation aggressively continue?  Why are we failing to protect biodiversity from planetary disaster?

Where have all the Koalas gone?

This WEA course focused on Australia’s current Koala crisis where their numbers continue to decline.  Already 80% of Koala habitat has been cleared for farming, logging and suburban sprawl.  In 2012 the Australian Government listed Koalas as ‘Vulnerable’ – meaning that without strong protective intervention koalas are heading towards extinction.  This shameful record for Koala protection extends to other native wildlife, with Australia having one of the worst extinction rates in the world.  Again, deforestation, land clearing and tree removals continue to intensify, with demands promoting agricultural, forestry, mining and urbanisation interests.

From the 1880s-1930s millions of koalas were hunted for their furs. The ‘Great Koala Slaughter’ of 1927 decimated Koala numbers from which they have never fully recovered.  David G. Stead (1877-1957) called for legislation to protect the Koala and even wrote to US President Herbert Hoover (1874–1964), then Secretary of Commerce, asking him to ban the import of Koala and Wombat skins into the US.  Herbert Hoover agreed, perhaps remembering his time as a mining engineer in Australia as a young man?

Today’s environmental crisis has intensified with the NSW Liberal-National Coalition Government’s recently passed laws that will accelerate the demise of the Koala.  In 2016 the NSW Government passed laws that seriously weakened environmental protections in their determination to promote economic growth through agribusiness, forestry, mining and housing construction.  Advice from ecology and conservation scientists was ignored and now large swathes of forests and woodland remnants are under risk from broadscale land clearing.  Today, with less wildlife habitat than ever before, more powerful and destructive land clearing machinery, and the knowledge that land clearing releases millions of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, reduces air and water quality and increases soil erosion, it is quite shocking that these laws were passed.  Unsustainable logging continues in native forests, as does ever expanding housing estates.  This increases habitat fragmentation that in turn contributes to road kill, dog attacks and disease.  Extreme bushfires, heatwaves and droughts are also seriously threatening Koala numbers, as subtle changes in climate are changing the chemistry of eucalyptus leaves that Koalas are dependent upon.  The upgrade to the Pacific Highway on the North Coast has cut swathes through core Koala habitat.  However concern for koala habitat is often deflected as ‘green tape’, ‘sterilization of land for development’ and ‘slowing economic growth’.

Good news – there are solutions to saving the Koala and Australia’s biodiversity.  The National Parks Association of NSW (NPA) is calling for a Great Koala Park in northern NSW, that includes publically owned State Forests in Coffs Harbour, Clarence Valley, Bellingen, Nambucca and Kempsey.  This would become Australia’s first large national park dedicated to protecting Koalas.  The NPA is also calling for the NSW Government to repeal their anti-environmental laws; and end unsustainable logging of publically owned State Forests.

Possums, Power & the Protection of the Australian Environment

The first part of this course focused on the threatened Eastern Pygmy Possum (Eastern Australia), Mountain Pygmy Possum (Australian Alps) and Leadbeater Possum (Mountain Ash Forests in Central Victoria).  Even possums in urban areas are under pressure as more and more trees are removed.  Possums are divided into three major families: the ringtail possums and gliders (Family Petauridae); the brushtail possums and cuscuses (Family Phalangeridae) and the pygmy possums and feathertail gliders (Family Burramyidae).  The word ‘possum’ is based on the South American ‘opossum’.  However the only similarities they share is that both are arboreal (tree-dwelling) marsupials.  Possums and other wildlife are under threat from land clearing, fox and feral cat attacks and the consequences of more intense wildfires.

The course also explored the power of ideas from Indigenous knowledge, science, art, education, and conservation groups and movements.  Natural history societies boomed in Victorian times with the popularisation of amateur science.  Many 19th Century citizens challenged the environmental and human degradation that came with the Industrial Revolution.  Many Australians were horrified by the 1890s environmental crisis that culminated in the extinction of many small marsupials, the collapse of the pastoral industry in Western NSW, unprecedented drought and flood, soil erosion, dust storms and rabbit plague.  The 1900s saw the introduction of the new school nature studies movement and the Gould League of Bird Lovers, Bird Day and Wattle Day.  In 1909 Australia’s first wildlife society was formed by David G. Stead. It was concerned about the loss of native birds to the plume trade, the overhunting and poisoning of koalas and possums and the decimation of wildflowers as they were being stripped from the bush.

People, Passion and the Protection of the Australian Environment

There have always been people passionate about protecting the Australian environment.  Often it came at a cost to their personal and professional lives.  Eccleston Du Faur (1832–1915) was so passionate about the beauty of the Blue Mountains and Turramurra’s bush that it motivated him to campaign for NSW’s second national park—Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park.  David G. Stead (1877–1957) was passionate about koalas, other wildlife and marine life.  He campaigned to end the export of millions of koalas slaughtered for their furs in the 1920s.  In 1909 he cofounded the Wildlife Preservation Society—Australia’s first wildlife protection group.  Annie Forsyth Wyatt (1885–1961) was an ardent tree lover who went on to form the National Trust movement in Australia.  Thistle Yolette Harris Stead (1902–1990) was passionate about outdoor environmental education and worked to create outdoor education centres such as Wirrimbirra.  Marie Byles (1900–1979) was passionate about mountain climbing but after an injury she put all her energy into Buddhist meditation to find peace with nature.  Myles Dunphy (1891–1985) was an elite bushwalker passionate about wilderness protection.  Paddy Pallin (1900–1991) was passionate about bushwalking and spent his professional career making and selling specialist clothing and equipment for bushwalkers.  Allen Strom (1915–1997) was a popular lecturer at Balmain Teachers College who became NSW’s Chief Guardian of Fauna.  Jack Mundey (born 1929) was the leader of the Builders Labourers Federation. He challenged the right of capital to destroy the environment and heritage and ignited the Greens movement.  Geoff Mosley (born 1931) is a passionate geographer who has spent a lifetime World Heritage listing Australia’s iconic places, and continues to do so calling for Royal National Park and Antarctica to be World Heritage listed.

Timeline for Conservation Achievements

1967:  National Parks Association of NSW successfully achieves NSW National Parks and
Wildlife Service Act.

1968:  Colong Committee forms to protect the Colong Caves, in Southern Blue Mountains from limestone mining.

1969:  Little Desert in western Victoria saved.

1971:  Kelly’s Bush at Hunters Hill is saved by the world’s first Green Ban.

1972:  Lake Pedder flooded.

1973:  Residents arrested in a violent clash with police at Playfair Street in what becomes known as ‘The Battle for The Rocks’.

1975:  Oil drilling banned from Great Barrier Reef.  Creation of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

1979:  Non-violent direct action forest blockade in Terania Creek, near Nimbin, Northern NSW.

1982-83:  Blockade to stop Franklin Dam led by Bob Brown and Karen Alexander.  6,000 people arrived; 1,272 arrested; 450 people sent to gaol.

1983:  Unsuccessful blockade to stop a road being pushed through the pristine rainforest at Daintree, North Queensland.

Late 1980s:  Battle to end woodchipping old-growth forests near Eden, south-east NSW.

1992:  Fraser Island World Heritage listed and protected from mining & logging.

2000:  Blue Mountains World Heritage listed.

2007:  Australia signs Kyoto Climate Agreement.

2016:  NSW Government unwinds protections against land clearing and protecting threatened species and introduces pro-land clearing legislation.

2017:  Campaign to stop largest coal mine in the southern hemisphere—Adani—continues; as does the fight against the expansion of coal and coal seam gas mining by farmers and environmentalists.

Alexander von Humboldt

This course was based on Andrea Wulf’s recent book The Invention of Nature, The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the Lost Hero of Science (2015).  Humboldt (1769–1859) was a genius in articulating why Nature had to be understood from both a scientific and artistic perspective.

Acclaimed author and historian, Andrea Wulf’s award winning biography celebrates the achievements of Alexander von Humboldt.  This marvelously inspiring book highlights the extraordinarily talented life of this early 19th Century Prussian author, naturalist, geographer, adventurer, explorer, meteorologist.  Up until the end of the 19th Century Alexander von Humboldt was one of the most well-known and popular scientists of his time but became ‘lost’ to the Anglo-American scientific world with the rise of the anti-German feelings of WW1 and WW2.

Humboldt explored South America visiting Venezuela, Cuba, the Andes, and Mexico from 1799 to 1804.  He climbed Mount Chimborazo (Ecuador), which inspired his Naturgemälde illustration that revolutionized the way we understand Nature.  On return to Europe he published many books that proved enormously popular and influenced many including Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, George Perkins Marsh and Ernst Haeckel.

Humboldt’s genius was making calculations, comparisons, and connections on the ‘workings’ of the Earth.  He transformed the understanding of physical geography and meteorology with its connections with climate, biology, botany, geology, geography, art and politics.  He spoke against the rapacious exploitation of colonialism with its accompanying environmental destruction.  Humboldt recognised that deforestation changed the climate.

Humboldt argued that imagination and emotion, along with science, were powerful and necessary intellectual tools to understand Nature.  When people feel depressed about the current crisis of climate change and biodiversity extinction – Humboldt is someone who gives one hope and inspiration to continue the fight to protect the environment.

2018 NPA/WEA Environmental History Courses

Rachel Carson’s Ocean Trilogy

WEA:  Thursday 17 May:  6-7.30pm

Rachel Carson’s ‘ocean trilogy’ cannot be underestimated.  Her ‘biography of the ocean’, written between 1941-1955 empowered readers to understand the fragility of Nature.  These books led to Rachel Carson’s final masterpiece Silent Spring (1962), which many recognise as the beginnings of the modern global environment movement.  Learn about this inspiring American scientist whose message is more relevant than ever, as scientists urgently call for action on climate change and protecting the ocean’s biodiversity.


Sydney’s Marine Conservationist: David G. Stead

WEA:  Thursday 31 May:  6-7.30pm:
David G. Stead (1877-1957) is remembered as one of Australia’s most significant conservationists who laid the foundations for protecting Australia’s unique wildlife.  Less well known is his work as a self-educated marine biologist.  Some say he even lost his public service job in the NSW Department of Fisheries because of his extraordinarily enthusiastic, principled but outspoken views.  This course explores David G. Stead as a visionary marine conservationist and how his legacy continues today.

Wilderness 2018:  The Photography of Henry Gold

WEA:  Thursday 14 June:  10-11.30am:

Henry Gold OAM is one of Australia’s leading wilderness photographers.  Learn about the history behind his stunningly beautiful images that for nearly 50 years have convinced politicians that some places are just too beautiful to destroy.

Following the course, you are invited to join tutor, Janine Kitson on a free excursion to Bondi Beach.  Bring your own picnic lunch or buy your fish & chips at Bondi Beach before visiting the Wilderness 2018 exhibition at Bondi Pavilion Gallery.  There meet Henry Gold OAM who will talk about his photographs and explain why wilderness continues to inspire him.

Politics at Lunch: Saving the Great Barrier Reef

WEA:  Monday 18 June:  12.15-1.15pm:

Adani’s plans to dig Australia’s biggest coal mine in northern Queensland is shaping up to become one of Australia’s most hotly contested environmental debates since the Franklin Dam.  Why do many fear that Adani’s Carmichael coal mine – if it goes ahead – will destroy the Great Barrier Reef?  Has Australia forgotten the lessons of earlier decades when acclaimed Australian poet, Judith Wright led the campaign to save the Great Barrier Reef?  Will future generations condemn Australia if the world loses the largest living structure on the planet that can be seen from outer space?

All courses

WEA Courses in association with National Parks Association of NSW, 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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