Protecting the Environment

This article was re-worked in March 2009 by Max Darby from and earlier version.

It should be read in conjunction with the article titled World Heritage Criteria



This short article addresses some issues related to the need for Art Teachers to make their students aware of the need to protect the Natural and Built Environments. It also provides ideas that could be used to generate activities in the art program for students at all levels.

What should be conserved from the past for the future?

The Built Environment

Australia has no Stonehenge, no Parthenon, and no Versailles. As late as the 1960’s only a few people cared if something old or odd or beautiful was pulled down. Since then until fairly recent times the destruction of much of our built heritage and history has continued to occur. Even in the most salubrious, suburbs what might be called ‘pseudo-contemporary, Georgian replica monstrosities’ have quickly replaced the wonderfully characteristic Victorian mansions that once graced ‘tasteful’ suburbs such as Toorak in Victoria. The prevailing attitude, it seems, has been that even if the replacement buildings were bland, boring, repetitive and international in style, they must, surely, be better than anything old that Australia had produced. Victoriana wasn’t worth the battle to developers as they looked for every opportunity for fast profit and to rip down another Golden-age bank or another balconied home.

In Australia, the best preserved areas can be found in Tasmania where there are some wonderful examples of ‘real’ late-Georgian architecture, and South Australia, where some magnificent old Victorian establishments have been saved.

Many people throughout Australia are today resisting the on-going rush of development and are restoring old terraced houses to their original beauty and charm. Some battles are won, some are lost but most Australians now know there’s a price on history that’s worth paying, in order to have richness and diversity and a sense of where they’ve come from.

People everywhere have become increasingly aware of and interested in the history of Australia. Despite its relatively short past when compared to European settlement, there are many fascinating aspects of Australian culture to explore. Art teachers need to make a serious attempt to address some of this movement towards preservation in their classes. Today’s students are the tomorrow’s preservers and developers.

Apart from homes and other buildings from the past, articles and objects made and used by our forbears provide valuable information about the life styles of Australian society. Along with growing awareness of the past has come an increased value which people place on objects from the past. Objects that are both utilitarian and aesthetic have become the focus of collectors for a variety of reasons including their aesthetic quality, rarity, uniqueness, historical and monetary value. Many of them reflect the endeavor and hardship which early Australians endured in their battle to survive – household utensils and furniture, early and primitive farming equipment and personal objects including clothing and jewellery.

A study of the history of Australian architectural styles can provide interesting avenues for researching and investigating the changing lifestyles of the people of this country. There are many excellent texts which students can refer to for detailed information concerning early Australian architectural styles. Since many surviving examples of outstanding buildings are available, both in rural and urban areas, students should be given the opportunity to view and experience their qualities first hand.

In Victoria, the cities of Melbourne, Ballarat, Geelong and Bendigo in particular, offer a wide and diverse range of interesting buildings. Of course, many of these were built as a result of the wealth that came with the Gold rush and the development of the interior of Victoria during the middle to late 19th Century. Teachers working in each of these areas could easily develop a trail or walk that provided opportunities for students to view interesting historical buildings and landmarks, and to develop a critical appreciation for the quality of their features and styles.

The Natural Environment

The Natural Environment too has experienced the reluctance by people to accept the need to protect and to better understand its qualities and characteristics. The close relationship between nature and the bush environment, and those who inhabit it, has sometimes been missed or ignored. The recent Australian drought in the South of Australia, shortage of water, changing climate and recent natural disasters have forced home the need to change attitudes to the countryside and it’s wildlife.

The tragic fires in the hills around Melbourne in January 2009, also emphasized the close and sometimes fragile relationship between the beauty of the bush and the well-being , even survival, of the people who inhabit it.  The bush is now fighting back from what appeared just a few weeks ago to be total destruction. (See the photographic exhibition of the recovery of the trees posted under the Home Page menu topic Exhibitions – After the Dark).

To the North, the rich and plush rainforests provide both aesthetic pleasure and an essential environmental gauge of the quality or otherwise of the Earth’s eco-system.  It also provides a protective habitat for the diverse animal, bird and insect life. Issues relating to the destruction of similar environments in South America, for example, have arisen in recent years as enormous areas of natural rainforests and vegetation are removed.

Since Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring was published as long ago as 1960, there has been a growing awareness by the general public of the quality of the natural environment. Silent Spring drew the public’s attention to the potential threat to birds, insects and animals through the widespread use of pesticides. The book was then criticised by some scientists because highlighting the aesthetic loss to humans of having no birds and insects was seen to overstate the problem by focusing on the emotions of untrained citizens.

Since that initial raising of public awareness, not only has much of what Rachel Carson warned become a reality (albeit reduced by more Government controls on the use of chemicals), but magazines, journals, radio and televisions programs are increasingly highlighting the impact of environmental issues on the present and future daily activities of every human being.  Lack of understanding, and in some instances concerns about the complexity of the environment and the impact on it by people, have generated local and global problems about which many citizens have protested vigorously. The extremely beautiful and complex wilderness areas of the Franklin and Gordon River locations in the West of Tasmania, survive today only because of such vigorous protests.

Governments have often been forced to legislate in favor of the environment as a consequence of significant public protest, often by people who had not previously been politically motivated. Opportunities exist today for schools to take greater responsibility in ensuring that students develop the skills, understandings, awareness and interest to involve themselves in shaping their future environment, both through the social processes and in the way they live their personal lives. In many schools, ‘Sustainability’ has become a major focus on students’ educational and social practice and consciousness.  Recognising the links between their own lifestyles, those of other people and the potential for environmental quality or degradation is an important aspect of responsible public participation.

Schools then, and Art teachers in particular, have a role to play in raising what could be termed the ‘environmental literacy’ of the general public. There are numerous art-based activities that a teacher could introduce to classroom practice and research should they wish to adopt a proactive approach to protecting the quality of the environment.

Lifestyles based on an ever-increasing consumption of goods have the inevitable end product of a significantly reduced environmental quality. Young people need to have the opportunity to explore these relationships and be encouraged to develop personal responses which lead them to satisfying, minimal-impact lifestyles. Art classrooms can assist by the teacher setting clear and strong examples of good environmental practice in everything they and their students do, from conserving materials and water to using only products that guarantee no damage to a fragile environment.

Educating for the environment means not only listening and doing, but looking, feeling, exploring and being personally involved.  It means providing the opportunity to weigh up alternatives, to experience some of the social processes, to engage in explorative activities and topics and to consider changes which have already taken place.

Teachers need to ensure that the information they present is well researched and diverse; that the activities in which they involve students are interesting, practical and realistic; that opportunities are provided for students to assess values and that programs help to develop skills which will ensure effective and appropriate public participation in the provision and maintenance of a quality environment.

Dr. Max Darby



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