Quantum Words Interviews: Andrea Gaynor

By Charmaine Manuel in conversation with ANDREA GAYNOR | 12 Nov 19
Steven Penton/Flickr CC BY 2.0

Andrea, can you tell us a bit about the field of environmental history? How did it emerge and what are its aims?

Andrea provided us with a co-authored article which addresses this question. We provide here an extract from the article “Can Environmental History Save the World?”, published in History Australia, 5.1, 2008, pp.1-24. The extract has been edited for brevity.

While environmental history’s roots stretch back to the 18th century, it only emerged in the USA as an area of historical inquiry and teaching in the 1970s… Some saw the ‘new’ sub-discipline as part of the more general expansion of the scope of history then underway. Nash, for example, placed it within the framework of New Left history, calling for attention to the ‘biota and the land itself’ when writing history ‘from the bottom up’…. By the late 1990s, environmental history in Australia was the subject of a handful of university courses and a substantial corpus of articles, books and theses.

Donald Worster has claimed that environmental history was ‘born of a moral purpose, with strong political commitments behind it’. This was no less the case in Australia where many of the early writers held in common a belief that Europeans in Australia had done a great deal of damage to the environment. They were interested in knowing how this had come about, at last partly in order to understand how such damage might be ameliorated or avoided in future. For some, knowing where we had gone wrong in the past seemed an important stepping stone towards a more environmentally-friendly future. Others seemed to have been content just to rescue the environment from ‘the enormous condescension of history.’


In what ways can historians help to solve environmental problems (as opposed to scientists)? Is the scientific establishment open to collaborating with researchers from the humanities, and what opportunities are available for such collaborations?

I’ve had a few collaborations with scientists, mostly around historical baselining but also getting communities to think about environmental change over different time periods.

Some of the roles of environmental history are: explaining present environments, sorting the enduring from the ephemeral, mitigating loss of institutional/community memory, inspiring and empowering communities working for positive change, holding wrongdoers to account and illuminating the complexity of environmental problem-solving


Alison Whittaker has written about how lack of access to the right to water has affected the lives of Indigenous peoples. To what extent historically have these considerations been taken into account in the urbanisation of Australia in the last 100 years? Moving forward, how can or should water policy be shaped by Whittaker’s call for ‘water justice’?

The provision of water in urban areas has played a crucial role in human welfare and living standards. We have come to regard access to clean water and sanitation as a basic human right and most urban Australians benefit from such access. However, this access has been closely tied to accommodation.

Indigenous people living in informal camps across metropolitan Perth as late as the 1970s did not always have secure access to sufficient clean water and sanitation. This could have flow-on effects. For example, children who were unable to wash were excluded from school, which contributed to cyclical marginalisation and poverty.

There is also an issue in that in various contexts water taken for urban use can also have a negative impact on Indigenous places. For example, in south-western Australia, Noongar culture, identity and spirituality is based to a significant extent on groundwater-related environmental features (such as wetlands), and these can be threatened by over-abstraction of groundwater for irrigation and Perth’s scheme water supply (around 40% of which currently comes from groundwater).


The prospect of ‘water wars’ has been known to be a possible result of diminished water resources, particularly between nation-states. Do you think such eventualities will occur with respect to Australia, on either an international or a domestic level? Are they in some ways already occurring?

We are certainly seeing political conflict over water along the Murray, with angry farmers in Tocumwal – some of whom have seen their water allocations reduced to zero – throwing an effigy of Water minister David Littleproud into the river. Some of the water flowing past them is bound for Adelaide, as well as other producers downstream and environmental flows. We have historically also seen conflict over water for urban supplies in Perth, for example in the 1970s when what was then the Metropolitan Water Board sought to tap groundwater reserves in the southern suburbs and were opposed in the courts by market gardeners in the area who didn’t want their activities and access curtailed. And conflict over water is not only about supply – for example in relation to the proposal to raise the wall of Warragamba Dam for flood mitigation.

So yes, there is already conflict over water in Australia, and as populations grow and climate breakdown sees rainfall declining across southern Australia, we will need to become much more clever about how we use water if we are to avoid more conflicts over water at a domestic level.

What do you see as being the future of water in Australia, and how might this be affected by the growing awareness of climate change? What policies or ways of thinking might be implemented to ensure the sustainability of the human-environment relationship for the decades that follow? 

We are seeing a range of places running out of water. Water is currently being carted into two towns in southern Western Australia and water carting may soon commence supplying Denmark, a town on the south coast of WA with a historical annual average rainfall of over 1m. Several towns in NSW are approaching ‘day zero’. The costs of running out are, however, inequitably spread. Scotdesco, an Aboriginal community on the edge of the Nullarbor plain, is outside the area for subsidised water delivery so it pays $1400 for a semi truckload of water whereas communities inside the subsidised area pay just $280.

So there is a need to recognise water as a basic human right that should be provided fairly to all. We also need to recognise that water is a precious resource and will become increasingly precious as average rainfall declines further across southern Australia due to climate breakdown.

Western Australia’s Water Corporation has recently been screening ads that start with the bald truth: “Climate change is real”. Perth already relies on desalination for around half of its water supply, and Water Corporation is looking to expand wastewater re-use as well as desalination capacity. Yet the consumption per capita for Perth is the highest of any major water utility. While most Australian capital cities are reducing their per-capita water consumption, we have a fair way to go in encouraging a water consciousness among urban people. Many urban Australians have benefited greatly from a centralised, affordable, safe water supply, but it is time to build a greater sense of shared responsibility for water, rather than it being just another commodity.


Right Now is a proud partner of Quantum Words Festival, Western Australia’s first writers’ festival dedicated specifically to writing about science, creativity and the spaces in which they intersect. Quantum Words is running in Perth from 8-10 November 2019. Find out more about the festival here, and more about the Quantum Word speakers here.