Australian Rainforest Conservation Society ; Formerly Executive Director of The Wilderness Society
I grew up in what was the farthest, most remote suburb of Newcastle, in a place outside Swansea called Caves Beach. We lived on the very last street of that area, on the border of about 50 miles of completely undeveloped coast. That meant my brother, sister and I effectively lived in the bush, and our recreation was doing all the stuff that kids do—bushwalking and bird-watching and those types of thing. I was very lucky with my family: my parents’ idea of a family holiday was to go to the remotest parts of the outback—Central Australia, the Kimberley , the Gulf of Carpentaria. We’d go out there hunting and fishing, and getting to know the locals. I grew up watching nature documentaries, and my main interest in life became adventure travel. I decided I wanted a job with no career involvement, where I could make a lot of money quickly and go off on the next trip. So I became a bricklayer. In the ’70s and ’80s you could make a lot of money as a bricklayer. In 1975, as a 20-year-old, I was making $1,000 a week after tax.
Before I got involved with The Wilderness Society I would work for six months and then travel for six months. After a year hitching around South America in 1980, I came back with a view to becoming an adventure documentary maker. My original plan was to train myself to make films. I’d then illegally cross the border between Papua New Guinea and Irian Jaya and climb Carstensz Pyramid, which is a 17,000-foot mountain with its own glaciers right on the Equator, surrounded by Dani tribesmen with penis gourds and the whole thing. I’d use the money I’d make from a film about that to then cross illegally into Burma, where they’ve got another 20,000-foot mountain. That was going to be my lifestyle. So I went down to Tasmania to train for climbing on big rock walls, but instead I drifted into vertical caving and white-water rafting and bushwalking. And everywhere I went in Tasmania to get to these fabulous wilderness areas I had to drive through miles and miles of forest totally destroyed by the woodchip industry and be chased by log trucks. I got so sick of watching places that I really liked being destroyed that I decided to join The Wilderness Society as a volunteer. And that was the beginning of what some people would look back on and call a career, though a career was never my plan.
I come from a working-class background. I’m a bricklayer tradesman who spent 20 years on building sites. What I now know, but didn’t know then, is that I was a very unusual person, not just in The Wilderness Society but also in the environment movement. There are very few people in the environment movement who aren’t tertiary educated and middle class. So, of course, I was quite a culture shock. Well, it was a two-way culture shock really: it was a culture shock for me to be surrounded by all these middle-class people, and it was quite a shock for them to have someone like me in among them. I walked in calling the women ‘sheilas’ and things like that, which scandalised everybody. So I had a few rough edges that needed to be knocked off. I had a lot to learn. But it didn’t matter, because I was a volunteer, which meant people were moderately tolerant anyway, and I also had a whole lot of practical skills that nobody else there had. I was a rock climber, vertical caver, white-water rafter and bushwalker with a whole lot of practical building skills. Of course, I don’t have many of the constraints a lot of middle-class people have. They’d rather die and have their agenda destroyed than be impolite. I don’t have that problem. If all I have to do is offend a few people who are destroying the environment, I’m really comfortable with that, and I can’t tell you how different that makes me. It also makes me very controversial. Everyone says, ‘Did you see how impolite he was? God!’ The fact that I’ve just saved everybody’s bacon, again, for the 150th time, well, that makes it tolerable but never entirely forgivable, if you know what I mean. I’m still one of the very few working-class people involved in the environment movement and probably the only senior leader in the history of the Australian environment movement who didn’t go to university. I can’t think of another one.
I don’t think enough effort goes into recruiting people in working-class areas. Every time some working-class people turn up, most middle-class environmentalists are intimidated by them. So, if I’m around, I become the ‘redneck liaison officer’. My job’s to go over and have a chat with them, and within 10 minutes I’ve got them onboard. It’s not that hard. I’ve had the advantage of spending 30 years trying to figure out how to straddle both worlds. And I’ve done well enough. I can’t say that the cultural suspicion around me in large chunks of the environment movement has entirely abated but I’ve become an acquired taste among the people I care about. So that’s good enough. I’m turning this into a bigger issue than it is in some ways, but it actually is a substantial issue if you want to be a leader, a senior leader, in the environment movement in Australia.
When I joined The Wilderness Society in Tasmania in 1985, one of the first things I was asked to organise was a blockade against logging at Farmhouse Creek . We had no money and no people, so we had very modest ambitions about how that would be achieved, but I could see very quickly that, if you wanted to be effective there, you had to have proper communications. Technology had moved on since the Franklin Blockade of 1982–1983 but this was pre-internet days. I came up with the idea of UHF radios. But UHF radios only work in a straight line. They don’t go over mountains or through mountains. Farmhouse Creek is at the end of the Picton Valley, which is a dead-end valley with the Hartz Mountains National Park between it and the rest of civilisation. I worked out that wherever the blockade was, we could have one person perched up on top of Hartz Mountain, living in a tent, and they would have line of sight across to the township of Cygnet, where there were phones. So with three relatively cheap UHF handheld radios, I could get out of this blind valley and get a message back and forth to Hobart within three or four minutes. We went through the database, found people who had a house at Cygnet, rang them up, and they were quite happy to play the communication hub at that end. Then I just got a series of my bushwalking friends to man the tent up on top of the Hartz Mountains while we did a blockade down in the valley. And in the first Farmhouse Creek blockade, we were the only people who could get communication in and out. The police and all the journos had to drive back to the closest township, Geeveston, to use a public telephone.
During the Farmhouse Creek protest, I also thought it would be useful to have me sit up a tree. I’d heard about people in Oregon doing it but no one had ever done it in Australia. The rope work was quite easy ’cause I was a vertical caver and rock climber. I wasn’t worried about sitting 30 or 40 metres up a tree, as long as the tree wasn’t going to fall over. So I rounded up some of my rock-climbing mates again and we found a bloke with a bow and arrow. We picked a tree that was marked to be cut down smack in the middle of the road they were trying to build. We picked a tree that didn’t have any limbs for 30 metres and fired an arrow with fishing line attached over a branch. We used the fishing line to pull up a cord and then used the cord to pull up a caving rope. Once I was up in the tree, my friends on the ground used a pulley to haul up a little platform that I could tie off to the tree. I pulled the rope and everything up, and suddenly I’m 30 metres up a tree and there’s no way for police to get anywhere near me ’cause it’s just a clean barrel. I’m well beyond the height their cherry pickers can reach.
On the Farmhouse Creek protest, I organised the people for the blockade, got them all there, got all the communication organised, then went up the tree. That provided enough focus and organisation for The Wilderness Society to attract people to the site. When Bob Brown was beaten up there and got arrested, the whole thing suddenly took off as a major national issue, and by the time I came down the tree, I was something of a celebrity. Having been considered with great suspicion by a whole lot of people in The Wilderness Society up to that point, suddenly I was accepted as a blockade specialist. So that’s why I say that after about a year I was playing a leadership role in The Wilderness Society at the Tasmanian level. I spent the next three or four years organising various blockades and getting arrested all over Tasmania . By then, I had no money, my car had been destroyed by driving up and down logging roads to blockade sites, and police had confiscated all my caving and climbing gear. I had nothing. So eventually they scraped together enough money to pay me to keep doing what I was doing. I became the State Manager for The Wilderness Society , along with a friend of mine, Greg Sargent, who was the other blockade specialist at the time. That was 1988. After that, I was in some kind of paid role in the organisation until 2010.
As a leader, I’ve spent a lot of time walking into situations that everybody else has given up on. They just go, ‘Well, using our normal tools, this problem can’t be solved, this area’s going to be destroyed.’ If you come from the premise that every bit of wilderness we’ve got is precious and important, and the time for destroying wilderness is well past, then I think we should be prepared to do everything by every peaceful means to protect it. That doesn’t mean that no one gets upset, or companies don’t get destroyed, or bureaucrats who have built their careers on destroying wilderness don’t end up out of a job. I’m not worried about that at all. I don’t think we should use violent methods, but I’m totally relaxed about consequences for people who destroy wilderness, and that’s a level of comfort well beyond most people in the environment movement. So, what has happened to me a lot in my last 30 years is, some controversy will break out, the rest of the environment movement is incapable of solving the problem from there, and then usually they’ll whistle me up and ask me to fix it. By this stage of the game, all the subtle methods of fixing the problem are over, so if you’re going to get involved, you’re going to end up doing things that are controversial. No guarantee of success. And even if you do succeed, everyone’s going to say, ‘Wow, that was ugly.’ I learnt this the hard way, mate. At one level, I’m very altruistic, so I didn’t care. But then, of course, people would say, ‘The problem with Alec is, he’s a bit controversial.’ Well, yes, one of the reasons I’m controversial is I just spent the last five years solving their problems for them. So, for a period I got used as the environment movement’s hit man.
There are many different styles of leadership, and although a lot of people would concede that I’m effective, a lot of them would never approve of my style. They like the outcome, just not how it happened. But the problem is, without me to get that outcome, that outcome was never going to happen. This is the circular argument you get into. My wife, Virginia, is much loved in the environment movement, and there are a whole lot of problems she can solve that I can’t. But there are also a whole lot of problems I can solve that Virginia can’t. That’s why we’re an excellent team.
One of the key things in any leadership role is building relationships. The campaign against the Jabiluka uranium mine in the late 1990s was a global campaign because we had to get the World Heritage Committee involved. To do that you’ve got to have IUCN onboard. I have a very simple analysis that says if you want to be effective at the World Heritage Committee meetings on natural World Heritage sites—or mixed ones, as about half the Australian sites are—you’ve got to have a good relationship with both IUCN and ICOMOS . For that reason I go to each of the IUCN congresses and help a whole lot of people out there. An IUCN congress generally goes for 10 days, so I’ll go there with a certain amount of things I have to do, I’ll get those things done, and then I’ll spend the rest of my time helping other people from around the world. I’m a lot more experienced at these things than many other people, and I’ve done that for the last 25 years. The result is that when I’ve got a problem, like I had with forestry company Gunns in Tasmania , and I need help, these people won’t necessarily drop everything to help me but they’ll take a phone call, they’ll listen to me and they’ll try and find a way to help. So, with both Gunns and the Jabiluka campaign, I called in favours from around the world from people I’d already done favours for at IUCN congresses and other forums. I do it because I believe in whatever these people are doing, but the result of it is that when I need help they’re at least prepared to see what they can do. To me, most of leadership is about relationships, some of it’s about good ideas, and some of it’s about tackling issues that everyone agrees have to be tackled.
Environmental leaders should be people in a hurry to get key components of the environmental agenda finished. Not ‘participated in’ but finished. We don’t want people to participate in climate talks. We want the climate fixed. We don’t want them to participate in negotiations around forestry . We want the forest protected. People who are in a hurry take short cuts, and that’s a good thing. Governments and industry are brilliant at processing people to death, and if you’ve got people who are comfortable with process, it’s really easy to do. I never liked process. I only ever put up with a process when I couldn’t get a faster outcome. And that level of urgency has got to be in whoever is in the leadership role. I think environmental leaders in Australia right now are far too complacent and far too comfortable with timetables set by governments. I’m not interested in the government process. If you want to waste your time on that, that’s great. I’d rather take out the perpetrators. Most organisations in Australia now are just far too timid. One of the reasons they’re timid is they’re far too reliant on government funding. They spend their time getting involved in government processes which they know from the beginning will never deliver a worthwhile environmental outcome. They do this to get a little bit of government money in order to spin a little bit off for the advocacy they should be doing. My argument all along has been to forget government processes. Get out there and make your own money and then go after the perpetrators. Don’t rattle around inside government processes, which were never designed to actually deliver an environmental outcome.
I think the global environment movement has been useless on climate change , partly because they were naïve. Don’t get me wrong here: setting up a government process that accepted that climate change is a problem and something should be done about it was a good thing, but the people who set that up then became captured by their own creation. The fact that it continued to fail meant they just tried a bit harder. But what advocacy organisation in the world believes problems are going to be solved by government processes? No one. No one with a brain. So why would you do it on climate change ? You wouldn’t. You’d set up the government process and then you’d go after the perpetrators one by one and start bludgeoning people to a point where the government process became relevant, because it’s usually the last aspect of the campaign that comes into line, not the first. But that became a substitute for the advocacy work that the global environment movement should have been doing all along. As a result of the continued failure and acceleration of climate damage, some of the bigger players are finally saying, ‘Well, actually, maybe we’d better get out there and do what we should have been doing in the first place, which is [get rid of] some bad players.’ Good idea, just 20 years too late.
I’ve had very good relationships with the media most of the time. I say in all modesty that I’m generally considered good media talent ’cause I tend to use very colourful language. But equally important, I actually say things of real substance. So if I think the prime minister is full of crap, I’ll say that the prime minister is— maybe not ‘crap’, but something pretty close. By the time I finish everyone knows exactly what I think. And a lot of people don’t do that, particularly in the environment movement. So what you end up with is bland nothing. For that reason I’ve been a ‘go-to’ person for media on a lot of issues. Also, because I know exactly what’s going on, and within the limits of what’s prudent and appropriate, I’ve kept them as much up to speed as I could. For instance, at the World Heritage Committee meeting in Phnom Penh where we were getting those 170,000 hectares on the World Heritage List, I didn’t talk to the media at all, other than as background, because I thought it was more important that the government at the time got their message out about what a good job they were doing on protecting these forests. But when the government changed and they tried to take 74,000 hectares out again, I went back to my usual conflictual role with the government. At the meeting in Doha, what we had to do was beat the government up and cause some political pain. So, on that basis, I was quite happy to do media. And after we won in Doha, I spent a couple of days demanding the resignation of the minister responsible, ’cause I thought it was important that people knew who was responsible and that they’d failed, and that they’d done Australia a huge amount of damage, all of which was true.