“We are a danger to ourselves and the rest of life,” musician Shane Howard told the Inquiry into Ecosystems Decline in Victoria on Thursday.
Mr Howard, treasurer for the Belfast Coastal Reserve Action Group and former Goanna band front man, said better legislation, communication, education and funding was needed to stop the destruction of the environment.
“We have created a Star Wars civilisation, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology,” Mr Howard said, quoting renowned socio-biologist E. O. Wilson.
“Before colonialisation, our land would’ve been the Kakadu of Southern Australia,” he said. “This country was intact, environmentally and culturally.”
Mr Howard said that Victoria was facing a painful reality, in which the state is Australia’s most cleared at 66 per cent, with 120 species listed as threatened. Recent summer bushfires pushed many to the brink of extinction.
The inquiry into ecosystem decline has had several public hearings, and has received almost 1000 written submissions. It is due to report back in September.
The group submitted a detailed 42-page document, which covered everything from the history of the Belfast Coastal Reserve – which is between Warrnambool and Port Fairy on the western Victorian coast – to methods of reversing ecological damage.
Mr Howard carried that detail into the hearing, meticulously going through how he believed Victoria’s ecosystem could be saved.
He said the Labor Government’s approach to the environment had been “disappointing”.
Time and time again we saw laws bent and disregarded and lost our faith in parliamentary democracy.
“All the laws are technically there but they can be ignored,” Mr Howard said.
Mr Howard’s colleague and wife, Teresa O’Brien, said that faith in the system had been lost because current environmental laws did not have the capacity to properly prosecute.
“It’s less about the politicians or even the parties … it’s like a policeman saying not to speed but knowing he can’t stop you,” Ms O’Brien said.
In 2016, the group supported the Victorian National Parks Association in taking action against the State Government allowing racehorses to be trained on beaches on the Belfast Coastal Reserve.
At one point, up to 260 racehorses could be trained per day on these beaches.
The Environmental Justice Association wrote on behalf of the parks association saying it was unlawful under the Crown Land Act 1978 but said the response from the government was that the Act was “flexible enough to include horses use on the beach”.
Although the reserve group and the parks association were successful in getting racehorses off the beaches, Mr Howard said it illustrated the kind of rule-bending that was being allowed.
Mr Howard said he believed the consequences of not acting on Victoria’s ecological decline would be disastrous.
“We are on track to deliver our children and grandchildren a hell on earth,” he said. “It’s about being able to live and survive.”
But Mr Howard also offered a road map to regrowth.
He talked about Tower Hill, Australia’s first gazetted national park in 1892, and shared images of the park.
The first was an painting by Eugene Von Guerard in 1855, which depicts a landscape with flourishing bushland.
“By the 1950s it was so … diminished through commercialised activities … the native vegetation was gone,” he said, showing a 1961 photo of Tower Hill.
Von Guerard’s painting was later studied by botanists, who devised a plan to revegetate Tower Hill and enlist the help of school children to plant trees all throughout the park.
“I was one of those children,” Mr Howard said.
We now walk under a forest of our own making in a restored landscape. Not as it was or perfect but significantly restored.
The power of people and willingness of the community is something Mr Howard and Ms O’Brien emphasised to the committee, suggesting a tree-planting workforce as a key action to combat ecological damage.
Ms O’Brien said this couldn’t happen without help from the government – and not just financial assistance.
“[We need] legislation, education, communication and funding,” she said
“We will do the work, but we need help, let’s make this a success.”
Mr Howard finished with another quote from E. O. Wilson, one that spoke of both despair and hope.
“ ‘It is an especially dangerous delusion if we see emigration into space as a solution to be taken when we have used up this planet …. Earth, by the 22nd century, can be turned, if we so wish, into a permanent paradise for human beings’.”