By, Christine Milne, UNEP Global 500 Laureate awardee, 1990
I have been an environmental activist all my life.
But it is hard to think of a time when things have been more dire than they are now.
Raging fires and floods, cyclones- have been devastating the planet and people from California, to Australia, France to Bangladesh, and Somalia.
I often speak to young people whose whole life have only experienced loss.
Loss of coral reefs, loss of forests, loss of Arctic ice and the ever-diminishing chance of achieving 1.5 degrees.
They march for the climate, they march against more coal mines and gas. But it’s gut wrenching when they turn and they say to me, ‘is there really going to a liveable future.’
I don’t know what to say to them.
But what I can say is, never, ever give up. Adopt optimism of the will because you never know when the dam wall will break.
Unlike the younger members of our community, and like many of you, I have been around long enough, to see some great global environmental wins.
When the world came together, for example, to sign the Montreal Protocol to protect us all from the UV radiation and the hole in the Ozone layer. I’ve watched the signing of the Madrid Protocol to protect Antarctica for all time, and of course the movement for the decommissioning of dams and the brining down of the Elwha Dam in the US.
I’m particularly lucky because I have been part of some big wins for the planet, especially in my home state of Tasmania. It’s been upfront and personal for me as I was part of the campaign to stop a hydro-electric dam on the Franklin River in Tasmania.
I was also a part of leading the campaign against a multinational pulp mill at Wesley Vale in 1989, and the doubling the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area a year later in 1990.
I know what it feels like to have a big win for the planet.
It’s what inspires and sustains me.
From my own experience, I know that a small group of committed people can change the world and I want those young people who are now despairing to feel exactly the same way.
But you don’t win them all. At least, not the first time around. And this is where Lake Pedder, the gift of hope to the next generation comes in.
Most people, including the majority of Australians who live outside Tasmania, have no idea where Lake Pedder actually is.
Formed at the end of the last Ice Age, it is a magnificent, alpine, glacial outwash lake in the south west of Tasmania, now in the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area.
It was surrounded by mountains and framed by sand dunes and a most exquisitely beautiful, pink quartzite beach, long enough for light planes to land on. Its remoteness contributed to its pristine wild beauty, and it was a favourite getaway for those who were prepared to make the pilgrimage.
When in 1967, the state government announced its plans to dam and completely submerge Lake Pedder, to feed a hydroelectric dam, a global movement of artists and scientists, musicians and nature lovers from all over the world rallied to protect it.
This was long before colour television, the internet, the huge marches and advertising that form part of the modern environment movement. This was one of the first environment campaigns in the world. There was no environmental activist handbook, and despite our best efforts, the decision to dam and flood Lake Pedder was confirmed.
As the deluge of water flowed in and the beach was swallowed by the rising water of the impoundment, people collected sand and the unique Pedder pennies, small quartzite stones rimmed by ferromanganese, that are very specific to the lake.
It was a final gesture of defiance, and an expression of faith that the struggle was not over. That one day the sand and the Pedder Pennies would be returned to the shore.
The fight against the flooding of Lake Pedder was unsuccessful. But it inspired a whole generation. It led to the formation of the United Tasmania Group, the world’s first Green Party. The ethic of putting environmentalism at the centre of politics was born. Now, there are Green Parties in more than 90 countries around the world, and it all started rippling it Lake Pedder.
Fifty years later, it’s time for Lake Pedder to be the flagbearer of a whole new global movement.
Let me explain.
So many of the Earth’s ecosystems have been overexploited, damaged, degraded, as a result of overfishing, logging of forests, mining, major pollution incidents and agricultural chemicals. It has got to a point where we as a human community are struggling to be able to feed ourselves and to clean water.
It’s time to recognise when we, or those who have gone before us, have made some very bad calls, and we need to go back and undo it, repair it or restore it.
The United Nations has recognised just how urgent this problem is and it has declared the whole decade from 2021 to 2030 as the Decade of Ecosystem Restoration.
A decade dedicated to halting the degradation of ecosystems across the planet in order to end poverty, address global warming, and prevent mass extinction. Lake Pedder is a prime candidate for ecosystem restoration. And the timing is perfect because it coincides with the 50th Anniversary of the inundation of the lake.
There are those who say that it can’t be done, that after fifty years under the water, who knows whether the beach will still be there, or whether vegetation will be able to re-establish.
Science has provided the answer. Earlier this year we sent down a submersible craft and it found the beach and the dunes exactly as they were, covered by just a few millimetres of sediment.
Dr Anita Wild, a specialist ecologist has also confirmed that the peat soils, so necessary for revegetation, are also intact. She found that draining the 242 sq km impoundment will result in more streams and more habitat for creatures like platypus.
Of course, the drawdown of water will have the be managed carefully. We have to make sure there’s not going to be additional erosion. We have to be quite confident that we’re not going to see a degradation in the peat soils. Managing visitor numbers during the restoration will also be vital, to make sure that the Earth is given its best chance to heal itself.
But the good news is, from an ecological perspective Lake Pedder can be restored.
Some people argue that there are more urgent threats, like addressing coal mines and stopping new gas wells, than reversing a decision that was made 50 years ago.
But it is not a question of Either Or, it’s And.
We need to protect what’s left and restore what’s been degraded. There is room for everybody’s activism in restoring nature, not just those who’ve been involved in environmental campaigns before.
The great thing about restoration is that it’s a healing process. It brings people together, it provides local employment, it inspires people, gives people hope that we can actually put right the wrongs of previous generations.
It gives hope that we can get ecosystems functioning again. Without functioning ecosystems, we have less food, less clean water, and less resilience as the planet heats up.
The situation with the global environment is dire, and there’s a lot of doom and gloom. But Lake Pedder is a victory story in the making.
Whether you’re a young person looking to be part of your first positive environmental campaign that’s really positive, or whether you’re a baby boomer wanting to leave something better for your grandchildren, or even a traveller who’s keen to get ‘hands on’ in a restoration project – there’s room for all of you.
We didn’t save Lake Pedder the first time around. But we never ever gave up.
And I look forward to the day when I can walk onto the beach in Lake Pedder and tip on the sand and the Pedder pennies that I have, that have been given to in trust by those who didn’t live long enough to see this day.
They never gave up on the restoration of Lake Pedder, and neither have I.