My hackles were raised last month when the Guardian asked readers to vote for Australia’s best beaches. Accompanying the poll was a series of articles, many of which spruiked our ‘spiritual’ connection to the coast, bringing to mind the smiling and mostly white kids in red-and-yellow lifesaving caps spliced in Australian tourism ads between dramatic shots of Uluru and a gang of roos.
Give me a break, I thought. By most conceivable metrics, we hate the beach.
Two weeks before the poll began, Victoria’s planning minister overturned a ban on horse training at a beach near Warrnambool – a stretch of coast Parks Victoria says is known for its ‘wild and unspoilt nature’. The move could see up to 160 horses per day tramping through significant breeding ground for hooded plovers, one of the top 20 priority birds in the federal government’s Threatened Species Strategy.
Meanwhile, thousands of cars were arriving at New South Wales’ Hyams Beach (reputed to have the world’s whitest sand), making a mockery of the area’s 400-vehicle capacity, with many tourists turned away. A member of the Hyams Beach Villagers Association told the Australian Associated Press that ongoing damage to the beach environment meant it had become ‘loved to death’.
In Queensland, weeks earlier, a local environmentalist called for four-wheel-drives to be banned from the beach at internationally protected Bribie Island, where she said dune systems were being destroyed along with habitat for migratory nesting turtles.
Isolated examples? Perhaps. But they’re symptomatic of our contempt for the coast. We ‘love’ the beach because of whatever enjoyment we can squeeze out of it (free swims, warmth, Instagram fodder) and godspeed to anything – endangered species, for example – that stands in the way.
Daily examples of the great Australian tradition of wrecking the coast can be witnessed at any beach frequented by humans. It’s the people brazenly walking their dog off leash alongside fenced-off nesting areas of the hooded plover. It’s the unsupervised kids sliding down dunes alongside signs that scream ‘Keep off!’ to minimise erosion. It’s the family trudging back to the car, the plastic remains of their picnic strewn like entrails along the beach behind them, en route to the mouths and stomachs of marine creatures or, in extreme cases, to the ocean’s most remote depths.
And that’s just the small stuff. We’re posing existential threats to our marine environments on an unprecedented scale, thanks to our addiction to fossil fuels. The debate about our Great Barrier Reef – the world’s biggest single structure made by living organisms – now seems focused on how much of it is dying from coral bleaching (a result of warming ocean temperatures), rather than if it’s being killed off.
Rising sea levels threaten marine ecosystems, communities and nations throughout our region, including Fiji, whose Prime Minister urged Prime Minister Scott Morrison in January to not put the coal industry ahead of the welfare of Pacific peoples.
In my home state of South Australia, it’s the spectre of global oil companies that want to drill the Great Australian Bight, home to the protected southern right whale, endangered sea lions and more than 36 species of dolphins and whales. It is a threat that extends all the way to Sydney.
I had always vaguely thought that ‘doing the right thing’ – picking up after myself, giving hooded plovers a wide berth and reducing my use of single-use plastics, for example – meant doing my part in the fight against these threats. What a cop-out. It was like I was trying to empty the sea with a teaspoon.
Some notes on who I am:
- The family home where I’ve spent the majority of my 32 years lies 50 steps from where the waves meet the shore at Brighton Beach, 16 kilometres south-west of Adelaide. Not a day has gone by at that house that I haven’t looked out at the gentle azure or the chaotic maelstrom of brown and grey or one of a million other moods of the waters in the Gulf St Vincent and not felt an overriding sense of calm.
- I’ve barely missed a week in the surf since catching my first real waves as a pre-teen on the Fleurieu Peninsula. The sea informs and enriches my stories, and I’ve experienced, and read and written extensively about the therapeutic benefits of surfing, which is being increasingly used to treat mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder. Surfing is one of the reasons I get up in the morning and through it I’ve enjoyed vantage points of the coastline that relatively few ever get to experience, swimming regularly with pods of curious dolphins.
Some notes on my complicity:
- My family home, like millions of others along the coast, was originally built atop a natural sand dune system. Now, mostly destroyed, the dunes’ natural cycle of erosion and rebuilding remains irrevocably interrupted. Beach living at its finest.
- The surfboards and bodyboards I ride that have provided me so much joy, are flotillas of toxic petroleum-based materials, just like the wax atop my boards and the wetsuits keeping me warm.
Peter Owen is Director of the Wilderness Society in South Australia. In 2016 he was named Australian Environmentalist of the Year by the Bob Brown Foundation, and his team has been instrumental in the protection of vast areas of the South Australian coast – notably through the declaration of the state government’s 19 Marine Parks.
I called him on 24 January as we sweltered through Adelaide’s hottest day on record, when the temperature reached 46.6°C. I wanted to ask him how I could redeem myself in the eyes of Neptune and Poseidon, or whatever ocean god is currently crippled beneath the weight of our collective greed.
Can a concerned individual who tries to do their part have a material impact when governments, lobby groups and industry seem uninterested in doing theirs?
‘Obviously we need to do the things we can do as individuals, changing our lifestyles – buying food without plastics, consuming less overall, changing our diets, living sustainably, things like that,’ said Owen, who also spearheaded the formation of the Great Australian Bight Alliance, a collection of local groups and environmental organisations fighting against oil drilling in the wilderness area. He continued:
But then it’s also getting involved in the collective, in groups that are trying to achieve some of these bigger scale changes. A big change requires a collective voice because in a democratic system it’s all about the numbers.
The Alliance, for example, is a collective of a whole lot of big environment groups, and now thousands of people have joined, and it’s a platform for groups and individuals and businesses and others to stand together in opposition to what’s being proposed.
But it’s also people getting involved in their local area and engaging with or writing letters to their council, their local members, and asking them to act on your concerns. And it’s not just sending letters into the ether, but following up, hounding, asking what they’ve done, asking what their party position is, how they’ve addressed things. That starts to put them on notice. And by asking the dialogue to be ongoing, they’re going to slowly build community concern around that dialogue.
Democracy ceases to exist if we don’t engage, or if we only engage once every three or four years on election day. Every time I go into Parliament House, there are lobbyists from the big end of industry that is actually causing a lot of the problems we’ve been talking about. Everyone in parliament, they invest a lot of money, and if these [lobbyists] are the only people the politicians are talking to, and the community’s not engaging … you can see how the situation eventuates.
Owen said community involvement has already had huge impacts on the ‘Fight for the Bight,’ particularly in the form of local government action.
‘There’s now something like 12 South Australian councils and three, possibly four in the next few weeks in Victoria, that have passed resolutions in the past 12 months raising serious concerns about what’s happening in the Bight.’
‘That’s quite phenomenal,’ he explained:
And an almost unprecedented thing where councils across Australia, representing a significant proportion of the communities there, have passed resolutions essentially opposing what the state and Commonwealth Government – who have become so divorced from their responsibility to represent the interest of the electorates they hold – are trying to do. The councils are stepping into the void created over many generations of parties at the state and federal level being heavily influenced by, in this case, the fossil industry.
We don’t regularly experience this, but that’s what’s starting to evolve, and it’s people getting involved in these campaigns, engaging in their communities, that’s driving this change and that’s exciting. That’s the way change happens. You get involved.
Does that mean you’re hopeful about the state of our beaches, I asked, wondering how he presses on in the face of apathy.
‘I live in hope,’ he replied. ‘I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing if I didn’t believe it was possible. We have to believe what we’re doing in order to create a liveable future. We have to step up and fight. We do have a very healthy coastline – relatively if you look to situations on a global scale – across Southern Australia, and I don’t believe the community’s willing to allow governments and corporations to put that at risk, to allow the fossil fuel industry to massively expand given the impact it’s having on our climate.’
I put down the phone inspired, but not entirely convinced enough people have got it in us to fight the fight.
I re-read the Guardian’s beach poll coverage days later and find it more nuanced than it first appeared to me, perhaps due to my frustration about my own personal failings.
There’s the fluff, yes, but there are also reflections on acceptance and diversity in beach culture and, indeed, ruminations on some of the threats to our coastline I mention above.
As in the case of my chat with Peter, these include glimmers of hope, sometimes where I least expect them.
There is hope in a story by John Pickrell, former editor of Australian Geographic, in which he claims that education and ‘fostering in children a love of the wildlife they encounter is a significant step towards a brighter environmental future.’
There is hope also in a story by BirdLife Australia’s Sean Dooley detailing the tenacious efforts of volunteers to save the hooded plover from extinction in the face of neglect and ignorance from other beachgoers. He’s a more patient man than I.
Perhaps that’s the recipe: mustering hope, finding collective ways to amplify our individual voices, and a dogged, unrelenting hounding of our councils and politicians.
Weeks later, the need to step up the fight makes itself known. Norwegian oil giant Equinor has pushed further ahead with plans to drill in the Bight, publishing its draft environment plan for public comment with a tight 30-day deadline.
I’ve peddled the link to mates and family, signed up to volunteer in the fight and will soon join hundreds of people at a local beach paddle-out to raise awareness about the issue. It’s the kind of thing I’d always said I’d get around to doing, but never did. It’s a small step, but I’m finally getting involved to help drive change. And, like Peter said, it’s exciting.
Image: Liz Lawley / Flickr