Lessons from the Franklin


Twenty-five years ago, in 1983, the people of Australia saved a wild river in a struggle that went down in Australian history. That same year, my parents brought into the world a kicking, screaming, bald baby girl: me.

A lot has changed in the 25 years since that year the river was saved, but two things have remained the same – the Franklin River continues to run, and people keep fighting to protect the environment as new struggles arise.

The need for people to join together to win victories like the Franklin is greater now than at any other time in our history, because we now face a threat so huge that it dwarfs the scale of any environmental or social justice struggle ever faced before – global climate change.

I just turned 25, and I look back at the Franklin campaign with profound gratitude to those who dedicated their lives to saving it, for the sake of my generation, when I was too little to help in any way. From the bottom of my heart, I thank everyone involved in saving the river. No matter what part you played, you made a difference and left an incredible legacy for all of our grandchildren.

When I was in primary school, my parents took my sister and I to Tasmania and we witnessed the majestic forests in the area that would have been dammed had the campaign failed. I remember being awed by this place, and it had a big impact on my decision, a few years later, to set up an environment group at my high school.

I have now been an environmental organiser since I was 14. Eleven years, almost half my life, treading the same path of those brave students, doctors, teachers and others who made their way to the Franklin.

What can young climate campaigners today learn from the Franklin victory?

From speaking with those who were involved in the campaign, the most important ingredient in the victory seemed to be the passion, the courage and conviction of the idealistic Australians – students, farmers, teachers and everyone in between – who dedicated years of their lives to be part of the struggle. They knew they were right, they believed they could win, and they worked damn hard to make it happen.

Similar passion is exploding in the climate movement today – primarily from young people, who are building this movement at an exponentially fast rate.

Another lesson we can learn is the importance of institution building in the environment movement. Ongoing social movements require institutions to support them and provide opportunities for those who want to get involved to do so in a meaningful and effective way. The Franklin campaign created a number of institutions, most famously the Australian Greens and The Wilderness Society.

This is a lesson that the conservative right has also learnt, investing millions of dollars in think tanks, scholarships, communications infrastructure, training programs and organisations large and small.

And it’s a lesson the youth climate movement has taken on board too, with the formation of groups like the Australian Student Environment Network, Centre for Sustainability Leadership, OzGreen and the many high school groups springing up all over the country, supported by the Australian Youth Climate Coalition and other groups.

Empowering, and listening to, youth voices on climate change is one of the most strategic things the Australian community can do right now. The 25-year-olds of today weren’t around in 1983 to save the Franklin, but we are here to save the climate now, and we won’t back down when it’s our future at stake.

In 25 years from now, we’ll know if the Rudd Government got it right, or messed it up. Last week, NASA’s Chief Climatologist James Hansen testified to the US Senate that we need to get carbon dioxide levels down to 350 parts per million of carbon (ppm). Currently, we’re at 385ppm. Even Ross Garnaut is only modeling 450 and 500 ppm scenarios – already way beyond the climatic tipping points that will most likely spell disaster for large parts of the world due to extreme weather events, drought, agricultural decline, sea-level rise and species extinction.

This week, Ross Garnaut releases his report on the design of the emissions trading scheme. Just like in the Franklin campaign, there will be a backlash from the polluting industries and from some members of government. Just like in the Franklin campaign, there will be a movement of ordinary Australians fighting to overcome those lobby groups. And just like in the Franklin campaign, this movement will be led by students and young people.

For the sake of the kids born this year, just like those born in the year the Franklin was saved, we have to think long-term about climate solutions. Of course energy and petrol prices weren’t going to stay the same forever. Of course we will have to fundamentally redesign our economy and our society to deal with climate change.

But of course, we already know that people power can and must find a way to win – and I thank the Franklin campaigners for giving us an example of how to do it.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.