Population and Pedder: the United Tasmania Group

Jun 13, 2024
Part of a set of images of Lake Pedder, southwest Tasmania, taken between late 1968 and mid 1972, prior to the lake being enlarged by the construction of three dams

With what passes for Australia’s population debate in the spotlight again, some history might prove illuminating, especially environmental history.

The United Tasmania Group (UTG) formed on 23 March 1972 at Hobart Town Hall, under the leadership of botanist Richard Jones, as the threat to flood Lake Pedder reached a climax. The lake came under threat in the late 1960s, despite being in a national park, and was flooded in 1972 by a state Labor government even though Gough Whitlam reportedly offered premier Eric Reece a blank cheque to protect the lake.

It is generally agreed that the UTG was the world’s first environment-focused party to contest elections, beginning with the Tasmanian election in April 1972.

It contested 10 federal or state elections in total, without success, and peaked in about 1977 with some 500 members. Its philosophy was outlined in its pamphlet A New Ethic, written by journalist and political scientist Hugh Dell.

Far from being a single-issue party, it advocated against economic and population growth – but also emphasised the need for ethics in politics above all else (one is reminded of the community independents movement from Cathy McGowan on). UTG’s history and policies are compiled here.

Paul and Anne Ehrlich had published The Population Bomb in 1968 and established the organisation Zero Population Growth (ZPG) soon after. Friends of the Earth formed in 1969 in the US due to a split within the Sierra Club (formed in 1892).

The first Earth Day was held on 22 April 1970 in the US and about 20 million Americans took to the streets – unimaginable now despite the problems being an order of magnitude worse. Joni Mitchell released her anthemic they-paved-paradise song ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ in April 1970.

John Coulter, later to be a senator and leader of the Australian Democrats, established ZPG in Australia in 1970 and in 1971 appeared on ABC TV’s Monday Conference to discuss overpopulation (when Australia’s population was about 12.7 million).

The population problem was a hot issue with environmentalism in full swing as part of the anti-Vietnam war, anti-nuclear, back-to-the-land counter-culture with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) still fresh in people’s memories.

The Club of Rome-commissioned Limits to Growth was published in early March 1972 with a big impact, where population numbers rose with production – and where both could collapse under most modelled scenarios.

At about the same time, US president Nixon’s Rockefeller Commission issued its ‘Report on Population Growth and the American Future’ that found few benefits and many risks to growth.

Ecological economics emerged in the 1970s, led especially by US economist Herman Daly, who never shied away from population policy.

In sum, the population problem was a serious environmental issue at least 50 years ago, although the first World Population Conference was held in Switzerland in 1927. Largely neglected or downplayed since then (including by the UN) the problem is even more acute today, with an increased risk of mass suffering from war, famine, pandemics and general environmental collapse.

Sadly, environmental groups have been polarised on the issue, including the Sierra Club in the US (its board adopted a ‘neutral’ position on immigration in 1996) and the Australian Conservation Foundation here (Ian Lowe was ACF president from 2004-14 and discussed the subject in a book chapter I asked him to write).

The split is to some extent a science v humanities approach and disagreements about ethics (reducing suffering) and ecocentrism v anthropocentrism.

The Australian Greens changed its population policy in 1998 from a more ecocentric one to what some might see as a more nuanced approach in the wake of the Pauline Hanson ‘racism’ controversy.

Other environmental groups stuck to their original principles, including the NSW Nature Conservation Council (influenced by Hayden Washington), Doctors for the Environment Australia (although that may have been ‘nuanced’ recently), Sustainable Population Australia, steady-state economy groups, and UTG.

It is often said that UTG evolved into the Tasmanian Greens (Bob Brown was involved in both) but that simple story is contested by remaining UTG stalwart and retired academic Geoff Holloway, who was state secretary of UTG from 1974-77 (and from 2016 onwards) and is responsible for its current journal. The reasons for contesting this are explained on p3 of UTG Journal No. 6.

The proto-Tasmanian Greens first had success as Independents, then as Green Independents from December 1991 – although the NSW Greens had formed in 1983. (BLF leader Jack Mundey had instituted union ‘green bans’ in Sydney from about 1973 to protect both the natural and built environment from commercial overdevelopment – the word ‘green’ may have sprung from that, hence the NSW Greens being early adopters of the label. But note that Petra Kelly’s German Greens were founded in 1979.)

The Tasmanian ‘Green Independents’ became the ‘Tasmanian Greens’ from August 1992.

Bob Brown wanted the Tasmanian Greens to merge with the Democrats rather than other mainland-based Green parties, but when that fell through the Tasmanian Greens became part of the Australian Greens in August 1992.

Conclusion

Population concerns, springing from the biological sciences, have been part of environmentalism since at least the 1960s when the ‘modern’ environmental movement began. The ongoing imperative for sustainable population levels is in no way antithetical to treating immigrants with the dignity and rights they deserve – governments are at fault, not immigrants. We are all immigrants or descendants of immigrants.

Population concerns are continually vindicated – by data from the planetary boundaries framework, global footprint assessments, the biodiversity crisis (the sixth mass extinction) and the climate emergency. Few readers will know that the IPCC in 2022 said: “Globally, GDP per capita and population growth remained the strongest drivers of CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion in the last decade … GDP per capita and population growth increasing emissions by 2.3% and 1.2% yr-1, respectively”. (Also see here and here.)

Besides our duty to current human populations, we have a duty to all sentient creatures and future generations, as the UTG well knew. Lake Pedder was flooded in 1972, but that lost fight produced valuable lessons for saving the Franklin River when dams were announced for it in 1978.

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