Opinion

We can save the Great Barrier Reef because we did it once before.

Find out how a poet, a painter, and a forester helped save the Reef from destruction once before, and how we can save it again.

Image by Jeff Winslow. Sourced via Flickr Commons

In 1965 John Busst, a drop out painter and a bit of a bohemian, who had lived for many years on an island in the Great Barrier Reef, read in the newspaper that a coral reef near where he now lived at Bingil Bay on the mainland was going to be mined for fertilizer. This incident marked the beginning of a campaign engineered by three Queenslanders to save the Great Barrier Reef; Judith Wright, a poet, John Busst, a painter and Len Webb, a forestry scientist. These three became close friends as they fought together to alert Australians and the rest of the world to a potential atrocity that was taking place off their northern coastline. The attempt to mine Ellison reef in 1965 for sugar cane fertilizer was the beginning of a decade-long war which generated enough support to defeat the State Government of Joh Bjelke-Peterson who had zoned 80 percent of the Great Barrier Reef (which in acreage is like 80% of Japan) for oil, gas, fertilizer and cement use. And those three ordinary citizens mobilised people like you, who mobilized others all over the country to do something about it.

It seems to me that, fifty-two years on, another ‘Ellison Reef moment’ has arrived thanks to the exhaustive tracking of Great Barrier Reef coral bleaching just published in Nature by the distinguished Reef scientist Terry Hughes and his Centre of Excellence. I’m sure you will have heard members of the government repeatedly claiming to be investing large amounts of money to save the reef – specifically: they claim to be improving the water quality of the Reef.  This would undoubtedly be a good thing if they achieved it, but sadly it will not save the Reef. Indeed, the Governments, both Federal and Queensland, are studiously avoiding mentioning the one thing that is absolutely essential to save the Reef, which is of course to work strenuously with other countries in the world to keep global greenhouse gas emissions below the two degrees of warming which will prove utterly both for the Reef and many other of our ecosystems. To the extent that they are investing at all, it is in peripheral matters in order to divert attention from the real issue.

In fact, these two Governments are investing much more heavily in what is responsible for killing the reef rather than in trying to help it. This investment is of course in the mining, transport, sale and burning of coal. Among other things, the Federal Government is providing the billion dollar loan to build a railway line to carry tonnes of coal from the Adani Mine to load the 80,000 container ships a year that will travel along the narrow, shallow, fragile Reef channel, which will, as a result, need constant dredging and be extremely vulnerable to oil-spilling accidents. That sum of money could instead have been used to try to save the greatest marine ecosystem in the world, or even to offset the plight of the 75.000 people who work in the tourist industry and generate seven billion dollars a year in revenue for Australia.

Terry Hughes brings us terrifying news, but he also tells us in his calm, gentle, authoritative way that the reef can be saved. WE CAN SAVE THE REEF: there is just time to do it, but the window of possibility is closing fast, and we absolutely must act now. Everyone of us, every citizen of this country who cares can do something needs to lobby the politicians, even if you live a long way from the Reef.  All Australians will be diminished and diminished forever if it dies.

Remember those three — the poet, the painter and the forester. They campaigned themselves into the ground: they lobbied politicians of every stripe, as well as unionists, scientists, students, schools, workers, Indigenous custodians and business people; they wrote countless letters to newspapers; they spoke at scores of meetings, visited schools, wrote books, poems, and stories. During that decade of war, Judith lost her hearing completely and John Busst campaigned throughout it with throat cancer — until he died on the eve of success. Judith wrote his epitaph on a small memorial outside of Bingil Bay: ‘John Busst/Artist and Lover of Beauty. Who Fought that Man and Nature Might Survive.’  If these three ordinary, caring citizens could help to save the reef once, we are asking you to take advantage of the chilling knowledge just been revealed by Terry Hughes and do something about it.


Iain McCalman is currently a Research Professor of History at the University of Sydney and Co-Director of the Sydney Environment Institute. Over his long academic career, Iain has established a national and international reputation as a historian of science, culture and the environment whose work has influenced university scholars and students, government policy makers and broad general publics around the world. He is the author of The Reef —A Passionate History. The Great Barrier Reef from Captain Cook to Climate Change (2014). In 2007 Iain was awarded the Officer of the Order of Australia for Services to History and the Humanities. He is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia, and the Australian Academy of the Humanities and the Royal Society of  New South Wales.