How far has environmental radicalism come since the 1990s?

Part 1 – The Past

In 1994 I decided to study a degree in Environmental Science.  When I announced my intentions, there were raised eyebrows and eye rolls.  One particularly colourful Uncle gave me no end of grief – I was officially labelled a ‘greenie’ and my very agrocentric family hoped that this was a passing fad.  I quickly became an expert at clarifying my position, finding examples where enviro-ag-economics stacked up and appeased them by stating that Environmental Scientists were earning good coin in the mining industry (mining ranking higher on the scale of acceptability).  However, for the past 20 something years, aided by major social changes, I’ve eventually worn the critics down.  Agriculture has never been so closely associated with green ideas like environmentalism, conservation, sustainability and vice versa.  But is this close enough or as close as we are ever going to get?

Recently I’ve gone back to Uni.  Now I’m studying towards a Masters of Environmental Management.  My Uncle might still label me as a greenie and have the odd crack, but the societal acceptance is….acceptance.  When I tell people what I am studying the comments are more like ‘That sounds amazing’, ‘We need more environmentalists in the world’, ‘How fascinating’.

In one of my subjects titled ‘Sustainable Agriculture: Issues and Viewpoints’, I partake in online group discussions around the readings that we have been issued by the lecturer.  (I’m studying online).  This blog is a digression from one of those online discussions.

It started with a post from a fellow student.  Referring to a paper written in the 1990s.  My fellow student (presumable younger than me) commented that in terms of addressing our ecological dilemmas in agriculture, we hadn’t come very far.

At this point I feel overwhelming deflation and begin a process of inward reflection.  20 years represents half my life and for this second half, I’ve spent a good deal of it criss-crossing between the agricultural – environmental divide, banging on about environmental sustainability – hence my deflation.

In my first year of University there were only a dozen or so Environmental Science students.  It was new, it was very broad and it had very little to do with agriculture. You could pump leaded petrol at the bowser, fridges still had CFC’s, there was little to no recycling where I lived, you could buy cigarettes without a photo of ghastly consequences, in fact you could still smoke at the pub, and somewhere in my closet was a pair of stonewashed Levi’s.  Damm straight, I was a trend setter at least I thought I was.

I was the secretary and treasurer of the local Landcare Group.  The rest of my family never came to the meetings.  My Dad, although tentatively supportive, point blank refused.  So, I attended on our behalf.  We wrote grant applications to improve biodiversity and planted tree lines in open paddocks that were 3-5m wide with a mix of Eucalyptus, most likely from WA seed stock.  Job done – bring on the critical habitat and reduction in the water table.

Oh, if only it was that simple.  Nowadays you can’t just plant a tree line, it must be wide, connecting, with local native plants and not just trees but understory too.  My point is, although we progressed undeterred, the science behind what we were doing was still evolving – and still is.  So, while we may have planted the wrong trees in the wrong places, at least we planted them.