Friends of the Earth Brisbane began its life in 1972, one year after the launch of Friends of the Earth Australia, as the Conservation Movement Group at the University of Queensland. With just ten key members, who were essentially a group of close friends, the group worked predominantly on conservation issues, focusing especially on the campaign to save Lake Pedder in Tasmania, and on the establishment and consolidation of National Parks locally. The group engaged in some direct action, especially around the issue of rubbish dumping in Miala National Park, but was equally committed to providing opportunities for its members to appreciate natural spaces recreationally. A lack of funding and a lack of organizational capacity provided by staff were consistently identified by the Conservation Movement Group as key impediments to a more ongoing identity.
In 1974, the group formally took on the identity of Friends of the Earth Queensland. Essentially, this followed a reassessment of direction from the CMG group, and a push to become activist in orientation and disposition. FoE Queensland would, from this point on adopt a radical political position, and move to campaign around ‘brown’ issues. It established an office shop-front on the corner of Milton Road and Petrie Terrace in the Brisbane inner city, and retained many of the members from the original UQ group, as well as attracting others who would remain with FoE Queensland for the next ten years.
Through 1975-76, FoE Queensland would begin what its members would look back on as the ‘radical era’. FoE Queensland moved to West End, to the Learning Exchange Office on Boundary Street. From this point on, West End would be a part of the FoE identity, as both radically informed the identity and context of each other. The group would begin three major campaigns: a No-Nukes campaign, that also advocated the end of uranium mining and the expansion of an alternative energy economy; a No- Freeways citizen action group that campaigned for better public transport and held regular bike rallies through Brisbane; and a Radical Ecology group, that would work to articulate the campaigns of FoE into a more comprehensive approach to politics and practices. In addition, there was a People Against Packaging campaign, and some initial work with the Reverse Garbage concept.
FoE Brisbane were to move again in 1977, this time to the West End Resource Centre in Vulture Street. The core campaigns remained, with the bike rallies continuing as a visible FoE initiative. Anti-Nukes and Alternative Energy was supplemented by an Anti-Uranium Shipment campaign. However, the radical position and approach adopted by FoE, especially on nuclear issues, was to place them as one of a number of organisation actively resisting the threats to civil liberties that were enacted under the reign of the ‘Hillbilly Dictator’ of Queensland, Premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Peterson. On September 4th, 1977, Sir Joh would announce legislation that would ban street marches and non-violent direct action. Protest marches, he announced, “would be a thing of the past…. Nobody, including the Communist Party or anyone else, is going to turn the streets of Brisbane into a forum.”
Ever defiant, an anti-uranium rally was held in Brisbane on October 22nd. More than 400 people were arrested and thrown into police wagons, and a newspaper in Melbourne would refer to the mayhem as ‘Joh’s War’. Resistance to the encroachment on civil liberties by the Queensland State Government would be a pre-occupation of FoE Queensland over the next four years.
1978 saw the launch of the first FoEQ Environmental Film Festival. Through 1977-78, FoE also began to forge more enduring links with other organisations and political entities in West End, such as the Red and Black Bookshop, and through developing solid links with SMG and LSO. These links would be important in the coming years, as the battle for the right to be an active citizen in the streets of Queensland ensued.
The Fight for Civil Liberties 1979-1995
In 1979, FoE continued to operate from the Vulture Street Resource Centre, but the Civil Liberties campaign against anti-street march legislation had dominated the agenda of the organisation for several years. Much of the energy for the radical ecological campaigns of FoE Queensland had been sapped by this focus. The bike rallies continued, although now more intermittently. Whilst the members remained committed to the FoE Queensland principles, including libertarian socialist and anarcho-socialist politics and an emphasis on community empowerment through skill development and action, the active campaigning of FoE significantly decreased. In August of 1979, the law against street rallies was lessened: permits were easier to acquire, but the legislation remained. By this stage, more than 2000 people had been arrested, at an estimate cost to the state of $5 million.
In 1981, the core membership of FoE Queensland had decreased to just four, and the major active campaign was opposed to the continued use of lead in petrol. Meetings were now held in the Red and Black Bookshop on Browning Street in West End. In 1983, the group moved to Mitchell St, West End, but by 1984, FoE Queensland was formally dissolved and ceased to operate.
There was a resurgence of Friends of the Earth Queensland, with another group forming in the late 1980s in Mitchell Street, West End, and another short-lived FoE Queensland in the early 1990s, which campaigned on against sand-mining. However, it would not be until 1996 that the seeds for Friends of the Earth Brisbane in its most enduring form would be planted.
Co-operative Activism 1996 onwards
In 1996, discussions among local environmental activists gave rise to a series of meetings about a gap in the environmental organisations operating in South East Queensland. These activists identified a significant shortcoming: most of the existing environmental groups were seen to operate through a largely benign reformist agenda, or to be single issue focused, working on specific issues such as wilderness preservation. These meetings would ultimately form the re-emergence of Friends of the Earth Brisbane, as an attempt to fill this gap by working across single-issue campaigns to articulate a more radicalised version of social change derived from a linkage between ecological integrity and social justice.
Concurrently, many of the people involved in these discussions were also involved in a campaign to prevent the opening of a new sand-mining facility on Stradbroke Island. Towards the end of the campaign, a number of the activists agreed on a vision for a local, autonomous activist organisation that could provide an enduring framework and a collection of resources to work on ecological and social issues. These activists were unified in their belief that the ‘environment’ could not be separated from social and political considerations, and that the interconnections between these elements required a more integrated approach than single issue campaigns could provide of themselves. In 1997, Friends of the Earth Brisbane was re-formed.
Throughout 1997 and 1998, FoEB held meetings to articulate the principles, aims and objectives of the fledgling organisation. The outcomes of these discussions would be later adopted, almost directly, into the FoE Brisbane constitution, and would ultimately underscore the organisation’s future direction.
In 1998, FoEB rented office space at the back of a local business called Justice Products, an ethical consumption business that had originated through the work of radical Christian groups Catholic Worker and the Waiter’s Union. FoE Brisbane occupied a shared space with the Jabiluka Action Group and Nature’s Children, an organic food co-op. These early collaborations would inform the genesis of the FoE organisation.
In 1999, a number of members of the group envisioned a creative recycling and reuse centre and ultimately initiated the formation of an ethically informed worker’s cooperative. As this process evolved, Reverse Garbage would become a key area of interest of the organisation. An attempt to locate an appropriate warehouse space for Reverse Garbage culminated in the move of FoEB to an adjacent, and somewhat larger, office space. Considerable time and energy in 1999 was split between renovating the new office space, and establishing Reverse Garbage as a sustainable enterprise that could be used to not only assist in the financing of FoE, but also provide a working example of the FoE Brisbane ethics in practice.
The campaigns of the late 1990s organised under the name of FoEB were deeply reflective of the group’s origins. The Anti-Nuclear campaign collective evolved from members of the Jabiluka Action Group. Considerable effort during the Jabiluka campaign had been spent creating alliances with indigenous communities, and on this basis, the FoE Brisbane Indigenous Solidarity collective emerged. The Sand Mining campaign collective was a fairly logical elaboration of the remnants of the Stradbroke Island campaign. Additionally, a campaign group was formed around the issue of Genetic Engineering, which was more a reflection of key focus and interest of individual members. Later campaigns, such as the Just Food project and the Food Irradiation campaign would also reflect the connection between FoEB and food politics established through informal collaborations with Nature’s Children.
As the local campaigns of FoE Brisbane expanded, there was an attempt to forge linkages with FoE International. This led to the creation of a Sustainable Societies Collective, which attempted to localize a key campaign focus on the agenda of the Friends of the Earth International confederation. This attempt to collaborate with FoE International also gave rise to an Ecological Debt campaign, which attempted to popularise a more elaborate and encompassing understanding of the forces of economic imperialism during a time when the notion of international debt relief was gaining global purchase.
From December 1999, discussions, workshops and negotiations with the Office of Fair Trading were undertaken to establish an appropriate legal structure for FoEB that would be reflective of the group’s core principles. Eighteen months later, members of the organisation consensually endorsed the FoEB constitution. In May 2001, FoE Brisbane incorporated as an activist co-operative, with constitutionally embedded commitments to decentralisation and consensus-decision-making. The structure of the organisation allows for semi-autonomous working and campaign collectives to pursue individual and specific issues, whilst the central hub, comprised of members active in collectives, co-ordinates the organizational level decision-making and maintenance.