Warm as a hot cuppa on a cold day, and bracing as a dip in the Franklin, Bob Brown’s candid, often humourous memoir unfolds the improbable life story of the policeman’s son from Trunkey Creek who grew up to confront presidents and prejudice on behalf of our beleaguered planet and its least protected inhabitants .Geraldine Brooks
This week’s book snap is also a catch up for the Gaia Reading Challenge 2020 hosted by Sharon at Gum Trees and Galaxies. I picked up this memoir by Bob Brown at the Lifeline Bookfest and it was a very enjoyable read.
Bob Brown is well-known to Australians as a passionate and committed environmentalist and one of the leading founders of the Australian Greens. His memoir, titled Optimism, chronicles his journey into environmental activism, the life changing impact of the Franklin River campaign and his evolution from activist to politician. Brown tells his story in a straight forward and humorous manner through a series of short chapters that move back and forwards through his life. Apart from Brown’s passion for the environment, his high regard and generosity for fellow activists and green colleagues and humility shine through.
In 1976 Brown took a journey down the Franklin River in Tasmania, Australia. At that time, the Franklin River was one of the few wild rivers left in the world but there were plans to construct a dam. As the rafters turned a bend in the river they were shocked to discover that work had already started on the dam. Brown explains:
That adventure altered my life. It drew me into the Franklin River’s turbulent history until the threat of four dams being built in its gorges was finally removed seven years later.
The experience led Brown to a life of environmental activism, out there in the world, “where forests are smashed down, more A-bombs are built, human rights are exchanged for oil, and resources are thieved from people who have never needed to read or write.” His first major campaign was joining the Tasmanian Wilderness Society’s battle to save the Franklin River. This battle would take seven years and culminate in the largest act of civil disobedience in Australia – The Franklin Blockade. From December 1982 to March 1983, over 2600 activists peacefully blocked access to the dam site, risking icy water, machinery and the prospect of jail time. Over the course of the blockade 1200 activists were arrested and over 400 were jailed, including Bob Brown (Crowley, 2003.)
After the Franklin campaign, Brown entered the Tasmanian Parliament as a Green independent but it was not his first attempt at entering the political fray. Many might not be aware, but the world’s first Greens party was established in Tasmania in 1972. While none of the candidates, including Brown were successful, the United Tasmania Group earned themselves a place in history and paved the way for other Greens parties. Brown recalls the words of Dr Richard Jones, who had recognised “the pointlessness of pursuing ecological wisdom with the old parties and proposed to his companions that a new party based on ecological principles be formed.”
By 1990 Brown was the leader of the Tasmanian Greens and in 1996 he entered Australian politics at the national level as the leader of the Australian Greens in the senate. He would hold this position for the next 16 years, helping to cement the Greens as the third force in Australian politics. Today the Greens continue to gain support from an electorate that is becoming increasingly aware of the importance of preserving and protecting the natural environment. A stellar political career that all started with a journey down a river on an inflatable dinghy.
While Brown is now retired from political life, his passion for the environment, social justice and the challenge of climate change is still as vibrant and fierce as ever and he has some very sage advice about our responsibility to the earth and each other.
Common sense requires that Homo sapiens live within Earth’s means. We have to tighten our belts, treat and empower everyone as equal, and respect the people and our fellow creatures, who will breathe Earth’s air in the future, as we respect ourselves. Humanity will govern a long-term and sustainable relationship with its unique planet, or not govern at all.
Brown, Bob. Optimism: Reflections on a Life of Action. Hardie Grant Books, 2014.
Crowley, Kate. ‘Saving the Franklin: A People’s Rebellion in a Distant Forest’, Island, No. 93-94, Winter-Spring, 2003, pp. 34-43.