Bob Brown ... old enough to know better. Illustration: Simon Letch
Senator Bob Brown is old enough to know better. Literally.
At the weekend, the Greens' leader blamed the coal industry for the floods currently devastating large parts of Australia. In the media release headed "Coal barons should help pay for the catastrophes", he argued for an increased tax on the coal industry to "help pay the cost of the predicted more severe and more frequent floods, droughts and bushfires in coming decades".
The Greens leader, who was trained in medicine, is a very effective politician. It's a pity, however, that he does not spend more time reading history. Born in December 1944, Brown was almost 30 when, in January 1974, the area around Brisbane was inundated with water - in a flood which killed 14 people.
If Brown studied history he would know that there were numerous floods in Brisbane in the 1890s - in 1890, 1893, 1896 and 1898. Eighteen ninety-three was the worst year, with the height of the flood measured at more than nine metres. The history of the time is documented in Ronald Lawson's book Brisbane in the 1890s, which was published a year before the 1974 flood.
Lawson had this to say about the two floods that afflicted Brisbane in 1893: "Railway lines were temporarily cut, the river blocked, the bridges destroyed, warehouses inundated, and stock ruined. Furthermore, since most workers' homes were in low-lying areas, the floods exacerbated the plight of many of the unemployed."
In 1893 the working class tended to live in the low-lying areas, close to the river. By 2011, these areas were very much the preserve of the more affluent, who were encouraged by the Brisbane City Council, especially during Jim Soorley's time as lord mayor (1991-2003), to embrace the Brisbane River.
During the past week, the Premier, Anna Bligh, has been praised widely for handling the flood crisis in Queensland. She deserves this. Campbell Newman, Brisbane's Liberal lord mayor, has also put in a sterling performance. Newman's military background has equipped him well for crisis management. But there is more to it than this.
Newman approaches the crisis with considerable authority. He has been one of the few senior Queensland politicians who have told it as it is. Newman's message is blunt. Brisbane was built on a flood plain. This explains why there has been so much flooding of Brisbane - in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. Put simply, Brisbane has flooded in the past and, sadly, it will flood again.
When Brisbane flooded in 1893 and 1974, at levels higher than last week, no one blamed global warming in general or the chief executives of coal companies in particular.
In his statement at the weekend, Brown overlooked the fact that the reason the flood peak was higher in 1974 than 2011 turned on the construction of the Wivenhoe Dam, which was opposed by environmentalists of the day.
What has been particularly valuable about the extensive media coverage, particularly on ABC News 24 and Sky News, has been the focus on older Australians in Brisbane and in numerous towns on various rivers. They remember past floods in Queensland, NSW, Victoria, Tasmania and South Australia, just as older Victorians, who experienced the bushfires of Black Saturday 2009, remembered Black Friday of 1939.
Writing in The Age last Friday, Ellen Sandell declared that "these floods should be a deafening wake-up call". She is national director of the Australian Youth Climate Coalition. Sandell wrote: "As a young person who will inherit the world being created now, I want us to start talking about what needs to happen to prevent this kind of tragedy from occurring again and again. I don't want to live in the kind of world we are previewing right now."
Sandell is a true-believing environmentalist. Pity she does not know more history. There has always been droughts and bushfires and floods in Australia, before and after European settlement. There always will be. If Sandell does not want to live in this kind of world, then the only solution is personal emigration. The problem is that most countries, over the ages, have experienced weather disasters. It's called nature.
The problem with so many environmentalists turns on their capacity to exaggerate, which is exacerbated by a lack of historical awareness. There is much of the eco-catastrophist in lawyer/politician Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, film and book. Yet he remains a hero of the green movement.
It's much the same with the American academic Paul Ehrlich. The thesis of his 1968 book The Population Bomb was that "the battle to feed all of humanity is over". Ehrlich predicted that "in the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions will starve to death". He even prophesied that Australia would close its borders in 1974 to prevent a fever pandemic.
None of this happened. Yet Ehrlich is still making predictions of doom. He was interviewed on the Radio National Late Night Live program a year ago, but no one spoke about false prophecy. It's much the same with Brown. Eco-catastrophist seers are rarely held to account for unfulfilled predictions or historical amnesia.
In recent years, there has been much public funding of environmental causes. Brown's ahistorical approach to weather disasters indicates Australia should put more resources into history courses. Let's start with the Brisbane floods of 1893, 1974 and 2011.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of The Sydney Institute.
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