I enjoyed reading this book, though some of it is challenging, in places even offensive.

Those of us who have lived as activists, experiencing the real life ordeals and the cut and thrust of conservation campaigns, are accustomed to receiving endless critical messages. At times it seems that environmentalism is the only profession which everybody in town believes they could have done better.

Mostly such messages arise out of disempowerment and cynicism in the community. Also out of anger and denial, as the movement has seen it necessary to spruik consumer lifestyles and challenge commercial vested interests. So we learn to develop a thick skin and shrug it off.

It is tempting to do likewise with this book. To pass it off as yet another piece of gratuitous advice we could do without. Yet Patriots is a worthwhile read, and a useful contribution to environmental debate.

In fact, the book is a genuinely sympathetic and supportive historical account of environmental activism in Australia. Its weakness is in its polemic. That whole, enormous activist history, rather than neutral, is judged from the vantage point of the author’s own worldview.

William Lines thus places himself at the centrepiece of the book. In that respect he is honestly transparent, if seemingly arrogant. Arrogant because, from his self-made pedestal, Lines is variously disparaging and dismissive of dedicated lifelong campaigners such as Bob Brown and Judith Wright, giving the impression that he could have done it so much better.

For instance, at the historic moment when the High Court gave its verdict on the Franklin River, Lines observes that Brown’s optimistic public response was naïve. Lines cynically observes that the High Court decision was “at best a minor setback to conquest of nature in Australia”. In other words, this great legal victory should have been talked down.

What Lines, acting the political scientist, fails to grasp is that academic political science cannot be the sole mainstay of the activist movement’s thinking. Bob Brown has been one of the most empowering figures in Australia’s activist movements. He is acutely aware that the make-or-break of the movement’s effectiveness and growth is empowerment and optimism, in a pernicious social climate where everything goads concerned citizens into desperation, fatalism and scepticism.

Out of his eternal optimism, Brown’s statements can sometimes read as being hyperbolic, but Brown is under no illusions. With his determined, optimistic philosophy he has drawn thousands into the passion of activist circles.

At this point I switch to defence of the author. Lines’ writing certainly lacks generosity to those committed people he criticises, but he has every right to express a political ethos and we ought to invite such inputs into our internal discourse, not put up blinkers.

I believe Lines’ critique also has much substance. His undercurrent argument - that the environmental movement has allowed its nature-based core belief to be compromised by anthropocentric language and worldview - is an issue that deserves much more internal debate that has taken place.

If the environmental movement had been always naively truthful to its idealistic self then it would have remained totally marginalised and ridiculed, unable to talk with society at an interface that could produce results. In that mode it also subject itself to accusations of elitism and eco-fascism.

Knowing this, the movement has been drawn into engagement with government, media and business using their language and priorities. For example, the much abused ‘Ecologically Sustainable Development’ (ESD) thrust, that took so much energy out of the movement’s sails in return for questionable results. 

This divide is a grey area, contentious and potentially fractious. How to interact with bureaucracies and how far to go without becoming compromised? There has not been nearly enough internal debate surrounding this quandary.

William Lines does us a service by calling attention to this much needed debate. I wholeheartedly side with the author in that sections of the movement have, I believe, become unwittingly so enmeshed in useless governmental / corporate processes as to totally undermine their original aims. 

It is never easy being green, so environmentalists tend to be impatient with armchair commentaries. I think for good reason. And the movement is painfully aware that it exposes itself to exploitation and division by the mass media if its internal debates spill over into the public domain.

Yet there is also a real danger in closing our ears to outside advice. Any social movement, if it wants to remain vibrant, has to invite a continuous internal discourse - about where it is going, what it believes in, what its optimum strategies for change ought to be.

I therefore enjoyed reading Patriots. It contains much valid substance, if we can forgive the author’s somewhat obdurate, ungenerous style.

Chris Harries

Patriots: Defending Australia’s Natural Heritage, by William J Lines. University of Queensland Press, 2006

Chris Harries is a Tasmanian based activist, writer and social advocate. He is a former adviser to Green MP, Senator Bob Brown.

Chris Harries A review

Out of his eternal optimism, Brown’s statements can sometimes read as being hyperbolic, but Brown is under no illusions. With his determined, optimistic philosophy he has drawn thousands into the passion of activist circles.