In Hobart in August, Winter was just pushing into Spring. An imported daffodil bloomed in the park. A forest raven cawed a spectacularly mournful song from the eucalyptus trees beside Seven Mile Beach. Mount Wellington dominates the city. Its flanks are rainforest but snowploughs were clearing the way to its summit. The city streets were empty at night. Tasmanians hibernate in the cold months, we were told. So it was encouraging to watch Fullers Bookshop fill up.
This was the most southerly venue for the booktour in which James Thornton (pictured outside Fullers) and myself have been sharing Client Earth with the world. Any further south and we’d be chatting with penguins. Extra special on this occasion was the person who had volunteered to host and interview us. Till 2015, Christine Milne was a Senator and the leader of the Australian Green Party. She surrendered that role, her new book tells us, not to retire but to trade the run to Canberra (and what is clearly some absurd largely male jockeying in the Australian Senate) for being a global green activist.
On the morning of the event, Christine gave us the deepest, most informative briefing on Australian environmentalism you could hope for. As in most western-style democracies, it seems, Australia has a political schism: progressives on the one side, and on the other … I don’t know the positive term for the other, but let’s say defenders of the status quo.
In environmental terms, the status quo sees things in terms of ‘natural resources’ which are exploitable for economic benefit. Christine Milne’s An Activist Life is the story of a woman given a sense of being by the natural world. Brought up on a dairy farm in north western Tasmania, she discovers her planet is under threat. She has to come out fighting.
‘The history of the struggle to protect Tasmania’s wild places and natural beauty has been largely written out of the Tasmanian story,’ Christine writes. This book is a strong corrective. The first big trigger for change was her decision to take direct action to oppose the building of a dam to block the Franklin River. For this she was sent to prison. ‘Thereafter I knew I could do anything, because I could survive the worst that governments could do to me for taking a stand.’
That battle for the Franklin River became a truly international campaign. As Christine wrote in our own copy of her book, ‘Change comes from the periphery in the law, politics and even the geographical end of the earth herself!’ Australia is at the forefront of climate change – prone to its effects, and replete in natural wonders and the fossil fuels that would spur its own demise. This book educates the ignorant, like me, in keen elements of that Australian environmental and political story. It reaches out too; into Sri Lanka, asylum seekers, and LGBT+ rights among others. The book sniffs out injustices, and then treads a warrior’s path to confront them. Much of family life is sacrificed to such a rigorous path but much is gained too. My being gay remained one of my mother’s keenest regrets. That Christine had a gay son prompted her to lead campaigns for LGBT rights. Here’s a heartening update from her book, date stamped 2017 and the Global Greens Conference in Liverpool. ‘In spite of many African countries making homosexuality illegal—subject to a life sentence in in Uganda and Sierra Leone; punishable by death in Sudan, northern Nigeria and southern Somalia—the African Greens supported an amendment to the charter to end discrimination against all LGBTIQ people… our African delegates had put their lives on the line for social justice.’
One live campaign, which closes An Activist’s Life, is Christine’s mission to preserve Murujuga, ‘the world’s largest and oldest rock gallery’, after the Western Australian government’s decision ‘to make the area a heavy industrial site for bringing gas onshore.’ We need to know such stories. Come to this book to find them. This is a humanized tale, illustrated by objects that have deep personal resonance for Christine. It also carries a direct message, led by example, that anyone who cares about our degraded planet and human rights challenges needs to keep hearing. ‘Get off your ‘apolitical’ or ‘disillusioned with politics’, ‘disempowered’ or ‘self-indulgent’ backsides and start doing something about it.’