the Understorey Interview

[August 2010: I just re-discovered this interview from the most excellent newsletter from the Dandenong Ranges called Understorey. It’s from somewhere in mid 2009].

Cam Walker Interview

Cam Walker is the campaigns co-ordinator of Friends of the Earth Australia (FoE), and has worked for that organisation for almost 20 years.

He was interviewed for The Understorey by Kieran Martin.

Cam, could you give the readers some background on FoE, how it began, its aims, how it differs from other groups such as WWF, Greenpeace, the Australian Conservation Foundation, Environment Victoria, etc.?

We were set up by an US activist called David Brower, who wanted green groups to campaign more broadly on social and international issues and on nuclear issues in particular. That was in 1969. It seemed that this resonated for many people as the network spread quickly, initially to western Europe, but then to the global South. Apart from campaigning directly on social and environmental issues, it seeks to challenge the current model of economic and corporate globalisation, and promote solutions that will help to create environmentally sustainable and socially just societies.

FoE has grown to a huge degree over the past decade or so and is now the world’s largest grassroots environmental network. We are active in 77 countries, have around 5,000 local groups and branches (including the 12 here in Australia) and around 1.5 million members and supporters. FoE International is a federation rather than a single organisation, and this means groups can operate in a way that makes sense for their context – obviously it is going to be very different to campaign in Nigeria versus how things are in Australia.

We sit at the ‘social justice’ end of the spectrum of all the environmental organisations, have a focus on working at the community level and we embrace both autonomy in operating style with a commitment to co-odinated global action.

What are FoE’s major campaigns in Australia and in Victoria at the moment?

In Victoria, we work to protect red gum ecosystems and forests, and in support of sustainable forestry. Our climate justice campaign seeks to build alliances around the idea of a ‘just transition’ away from coal and into energy efficiency and renewables. Our anti nuclear and clean energy collective opposes all aspects of the nuclear cycle, and works closely with traditional owner groups affected by this industry. Our real food groups seeks to support localised and sustainable food production, and our water campaign opposes projects we believe are unsustainable, like the desalination plant and north-south pipeline, and campaigns for sensible water policy that accepts that there are environmental limits.

Nationally, our campaigns and projects are anti nuclear, climate justice (which campaigns against false solutions to climate change and for Australia to recognise and accept a fair share of climate refugees), on chemicals – especially pesticide use in drinking water catchments,  forests, and nanotechnology. We are are calling for a moratorium on the research, development and production of synthetic nanoproducts while regulations are developed to protect the health and safety of workers, the public and the environment from the harmful impacts of this new technology.

Population is an issue much avoided by environment groups in Australia. Why do you think that this is so, and what is FoE’s position on this?

We see that the impact of people on natural ecosystems is influenced by how many people there are, how many resources they consume, and the type of technologies they are using in this consumption. In this formula we always say that we must consider consumption rates, not just population levels. This comes from our social justice perspective, which can see there is a historical environmental and carbon debt which has been built up by wealthy nations like Australia because we have consumed so many resources for so long. This means our per capita consumption levels have gone ‘off the dial’ and need to be trimmed back in.

We face a dilemma now because it is clear everyone has the right to live a life of dignity – that is, with sufficient access to clean food and safe water, housing, education, and so on. This all takes resources. But we need to do this in  way that doesn’t burn us all off the planet. So, we use a model that recognises the carbon debt, and acknowledges this right to development in other nations. At present, the average Australian consumes the resources of about 8 average Indonesians, so our focus must be to bring our per capita consumption down to a sustainable and globally fair level. We acknowledge there are limits to the number of people that any system can support, but chose to focus most of our efforts on the population/ environment debate about reducing consumption in the wealthy nations.

How did you become involved in FoE?

Like many people, I have dabbled in various organisations over the years. I eventually ended up at FoE. I was living in the Dandenong Ranges at the time and felt the need to be more involved in activism back in town. Getting involved in FoE was like finding my spiritual and political ‘home’ because its world view was so consistent with mine.

I first met you many years ago when you belonged to an intentional community (as they are called now) at Vesper in Gippsland, and the group joined Upper Yarra Conservation Society because it was the nearest environment organisation  at the time.  Could you tell us something about this era of your life?

I was really influenced by the work of US bioregionalist Gary Snyder (and still am) and wanted to help establish an intentional community in the mountains. A group of us found land on the southern slopes of Mount Toorongo, between Noojee and the Baw Baw plateau. Our vision was to have a part of the community in Melbourne, where we could work and engage in activism, and also to have the farm (about 70 hectares) where we could grow food and build the social aspects of the community. It could have worked, except we fell in love with land that was just too expensive for the incomes we had and we eventually lost the place. Vesper Community Co-op went for about 7 years. I learnt so much about the Central Highlands in that time, we would walk out as far as Baw Baw on long adventures, and I also found how hard it is to grow organic food at commercial scale. It also re-affirmed my desire to live in community, and especially in what some deep ecologists call the ‘mixed community’ –  of humans living well and sustainably and mindfully in the broader landscape.

How did your interests in the environment and social justice develop?

I grew up in Heathmont, near Ringwood. Like thousands of others, my folks had moved out from the city in the early sixties and built out on what was then the urban fringe. It was gorgeous hilly country, mostly open forest of silver leaf stringybark, pasture, orchards and pine forests, and I saw all that disappear by the time I was about 15. I was puzzled and then traumatised that no one seemed to appreciate what was there and what was being lost as the remnant bush was all cleared for lawn and neat gardens and sprawl. That lead me to try and figure out the plants, and the more I learnt the more important these forests became to me.

I was lucky enough to find friends who were into bushwalking and we had wonderful adventures which allowed me to see a lot of beautiful places and a lot of logging coupes. And it kind of went from there. I got involved in left politics, then student activism, then spiritual paths, and then had strong involvement with indigenous  communities, here and in North America.

What are your major interests in the environment?

I work on lots of campaigns, but what it all really comes down to, for me, is how we chose to live. Mindfullness, respect and gratitude are the foundations of my spiritual practise, and I think once you try and cultivate any of these as principles to live by, it automatically calls you to engage in the world. I suppose in many ways I started as a forest activist, but I don’t really have a single issue that is most important to me, I often feel compelled to step into issues where I see a gap in activity, rather than out of a desire to work on a specific issue.

You were recently arrested in a protest about the North – South Pipeline.  Is this the first time this has happened to you, and why did you decide to take such a strong stance on this issue?

My first arrest was on the Franklin blockade. Sometimes I think the Franklin campaign ruined me for life, because after a summer of being on the campaign (and then spending a month rafting the river at the end of the blockade) I found it hard to go back to university. I took a year off, made it to Alaska, and generally learnt lots about how the world is, and how I would like it to be. By the time I came home, at the end of that year, it was pretty certain that I was going to be an activist for the rest of my life.

I think I have been arrested about 14 times, mostly in forest campaigns. But it had been a long time between drinks, so to speak. The North South pipeline action came from watching the news and seeing farmers dragged off their farms and arrested for opposing the pipeline. That got me thinking about how rural people were bearing the brunt of the impacts of this project, but that it was being done for the benefit of Melbourne. I thought it was time Melbourne folk stood up and opposed it.

On 29 March The Sunday Age published an article drawing on a report entitled Review of Victorian Water Supply – Demand Options and Risks.  This was a government-commissioned water plan delivered to the cabinet in 2007.  It strongly advised against both the North- South Pipeline and the desalination plant at Wonthaggi.  Why do you think the State Government is so pig-headed in going against advice from professionals in the area?

I wish I knew the answer to this one. The evidence just keeps building up that there are so many other options. Yet the government continues with its current policy. From the early 1990s, the state ALP had a good position on water – Bracks was opposed to desalination and they had become champions of sensible water management. I think that what happened was that as relentless drought wore on, and water levels were going down and it was becoming a political issue, the Liberals ran hard on the ‘need’ for a new dam and obviously were getting some traction in the press and public’s mind. And I think the state government basically had a failure of courage and pulled the desal and pipeline ideas out of the hat. John Brumby clearly likes ‘nation building’ type projects, so he was always going to be amenable to the idea of major infrastructure, and the ALP has shifted so far to the right in terms of economic policy that it probably makes sense to them to hand our major source of water – the desal plant – to a multinational corporation to run.

Similarly, the State Government rejected advice from its own experts in DSE and allowed another duck-shooting season despite the drought and declining numbers of waterbirds.  What is going on here in your opinion?

This is obviously about politics, but I just don’t know enough to say. The hunting, four wheel driving, and other ‘wise use’ constituencies are strong when they get together, and I assume thats what happened here.

The Federal Government’s response to global warming has been widely condemned as being grossly inadequate by environmentalists and climate change scientists.  What, if anything, do you believe could convince the Rudd government to react realistically to the greatest threat facing the planet?

I hold hope because of the fact that Obama continues to talk about strong action on climate change, in spite of the enormous pressure that must be coming from the fossil fuel lobby in that country. I also see hope in the rising climate change movement that is forming here. I see ever more people and constituencies getting vocal – not just environmentalists, but farmers, business people, churches, trade unions, welfare groups, and and development organisations. When enough of us mobilise, with a strategic vision of where we need to go, and a coherent and co-ordinated political demand, Rudd will have to listen.

Do you think that the new Obama government in the United States will lead to a better world?

It will certainly a far better one than the place that George Bush had steered us to. Apart from anything else, the election of an African American to that position spoke volumes about that fact that things can change, even things that might seem un-imaginable. We have to hope we will see other ‘impossibilities’ made real as well – strong action on climate, a transformation of the US economy under a green jobs ‘financial bailout’, a new place for the USA in global politics …

What are your favourite places in Victoria, and why?

Life really starts at the treeline. I’m most at home in snow gums or alpine places, so I gravitate endlessly to the Victorian alps. I think my very favourite spot is Mount Howitt, a wonderful mountain that feels nice and remote, that sits on ancient trade routes, at the confluence of the Howqua, Wonnangatta and Macalister Rivers.

Who are the environmentalists you most admire?

The people who don’t get the credit or the limelight – the forest blockaders in East Gippsland and the southern forests of Tas, the climate campaigners occupying power stations, the community organisers, the people restoring creeks and planting trees.

Whereabouts on the optimist-pessimist spectrum do you place yourself?

I am definitely on the optimist end of things. I read a lot of climate science and that can be deeply distressing. I think that you need to constantly cultivate a sense of hope to be able to really confront whats happening in the world without giving in to despair or other forms of cop outs.

Are there any ways that you could reduce your own environmental footprint?

I have worked hard to reduce my flying. I am now something of an expert on the particular joys and pains of long distance train travel in Australia. I think the next big frontier is to get better at eating mostly whats in season.

What books/films/documentaries/magazines etc have most influenced your thinking on the environment and social justice?

My earliest memory of being influenced by the arts was a 70’s era sci fi film about the earth running out of biodiversity, probably when I was about 14. There was nothing left, and they put the final remnants of species and habitat onto a space craft, the theory being that, in time, they could be used to start replanting on earth. Our culture has no sense of ‘enoughness’ or any awareness that there may actually be ecological limits to what we can do, and that film deeply influenced my later politics.

I have worked my way through books from most progressive political traditions, but have got the most from bioregionalist and eco-feminist writers. I have always liked fiction that tries to imagine a better future. There are so many eco-apocolyse films and books out there, I think its so much easier to imagine disaster than it is to envisage a good future, one that we would actually want to live in. Ecotopia by Callenbach, The Fifth Sacred Thing by US activist Starhawk, and Always Coming Home by Ursula Le Guin, are some attempts to imagine a different future, and one of the things I like about them is that they are all firmly rooted in a specific place. Disaster tends to be generic, but sustainable futures actually have to be based somewhere.

Nowdays I mostly keep an eye on on-line journals – like Red Pepper in the UK and Grist in the States. The one magazine I read religiously is Orion, which is beautifully  put together, and straddles the boundaries between place, environment, politics and culture.

What do you consider to be the greatest threats to the environment, locally and globally?

We are like the coyote in the ‘road runner’ cartoon: we have raced off the cliff, but we haven’t noticed  and it’s only our sense of momentum that has stopped us from falling yet. In ecological terms, this is called Overshoot – where resources have been so over used for so long that the planets natural systems can no longer support us. The  Living Planet reports put out by WWF show a major and ever growing ‘budget deficit’ with nature – we have over drawn our account for decades now. While we face global climate crisis, there is the biological holocaust as well, the continual loss of species and habitats. Then there is the human aspect as well, as we lose language and cultures as we all become that bit more integrated and generic. And  nuclear proliferation and the threat of nuclear war grows as more and more nations get their hand on the Bomb.

Locally water stress is a pivotal threat, as is continued loss of our remaining old growth. But it is our high consumption lifestyles, taken collectively, that are driving this, so we can all be part of the solution.

What three words or phrase/s do you most dislike hearing?

Andrew Bolt

sustainable growth

‘I’m not a racist, but …’

What makes you angry?

People who should know better, but act as if they don’t.

Fundamentalists, of all hues – religious and economic – who threaten our lives, our cultures and freedoms, and our planet.

The Grand Prix – it is richly indicative of a culture that not only sits by, it actually pours petrol on the fire, while Rome burns.

What gives you most joy?

My kids, my work, being in the mountains, first snow fall of the year, a woodland of silver wattle and poa grass. The way the bush feels ‘right’.  Every year when the rains come again after a long and dry summer. I love the elemental nature of being above treeline – of snow, rock, sky and silence. I love back country skiing, and I have  worked hard  to finally be a half reasonable telemark skier. Boulder fields and deciduous beech and pencil pine and crossing un-tracked country (thank God for Tasmania!)

People, when they rise above the day to day details of living, to demonstrate solidarity – we have seen that writ large after this summers fires.

How can readers help FOE in its environmental and social justice aims, and what sort of voluntary assistance can they give?

We are essentially a volunteer organisation and people are welcome to join us and get involved however they want. Because of our focus on environmental justice, we struggle to attract funds for our work, so we always appreciate financial help. You can find out more via our websites, or if you’re in town, please feel free to drop by our office, food co-op and bookshop in Collingwood.


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