The Greatest Challenge

A speech to students graduating from the School of Natural Resources, Gatton College, University of Queensland

11 December, 1998

by John Sinclair

By qualifying at this illustrious institution, you have joined an elite corps of graduates.

When I was a student here, there was a saying that there was nothing you didn't learns at Gatton and that was almost true.

However let me say that one of the most sobering bits of advice I received in my life came from another Gatton graduate, John Park.

He was my first "Boss" in the Education Department. On my first day as an organizer of Junior Farmers Clubs, John Park took me out onto the roof of the old Treasury Building in Brisbane and said, "You think that because you are a graduate from Gatton College, you are smarter than the average and a cut above the rest.

"Let me point out that society need cleaners and sanitary collectors more than they need you.

"So don't get any airy-fairy ideas about being superior.

"Everyone has an important role to play and everyone must be respected."

With that sobering injunction, I entered a much wider world with a greater appreciation for my fellows, whatever their backgrounds or vocation.

You are now similarly stepping out and will be confronted by many challenges.

However I would like to nominate the greatest challenge which will confront you as you enter this bold new world.

When I left Gatton College, 39 years ago, the world was a much better, healthier and less crowded place.

You belong to the first generation of Australians whose heritage is an environment in much worse condition than it was bequeathed to your parents.

In 39 years, Australia's population has more than doubled.

The area of land cleared has quadrupled.

The area of land badly degraded increases exponentially.

The area of true wilderness has been decimated.

The four great life support systems of air, water, soil and genetic diversity are being polluted, depleted, eroded and / or degraded at an alarming rate.

To arrest and reverse that decline is the greatest challenge confronting humanity today.

Environmental problems affect more than just humanity; they threaten all life on earth.

It is not much good having prosperity in monetary terms if the global environment continues to become impoverished.

As more and more people clamour for a greater share of the shrinking pie of global resources, the probability is that global peace is will continue to diminish.

It is more than coincidental that the areas of greatest conflict are the areas where there is currently greatest competition for resources.

My generation has become complacent about the environment.

They think that it is adequate to see out their lifetime.

It therefore falls to your generation to stop the environmental degradation.

You can't escape the issue of addressing the declining state of our air, water, soil and genetic diversity.

You must also address the root cause the growth in demand of a growing global human population.

But don't be deterred by this seemingly daunting task.

By tackling it you will grow intellectually and emotionally.

Even when you may be losing, you will find that accepting the challenge is both exciting and rewarding.

When I began to campaign for Fraser Island almost 30 years ago, it seemed like a lost cause. Mining leases already covered over 10,000 hectares; the island had been logged for over a 120 years and the government was determined to exploit its resources to the limit.

I had only a rudimentary understanding of ecology gained a decade earlier while here.

But as I launched into this project, I benefittted again from the wisdom of my mentor, John Park.

He taught me most of what I know about leadership.

He also explained that the formal education which we gain from school and tertiary institutions only lays the foundations on which to build.

The better the foundations, the more we can build upon them.

He urged me to continue my formal study to build better foundations for lifelong learning.

That led me to spend the next 17 years of my life pursuing external studies through the University of Queensland, at St. Lucia and Armidale.

Despite this, I can attest 28 years as an adult educator, that the bulk of our life-long learning comes from informal education.

What I learnt informally was more useful, more relevant and more helpful to meet my challenge than any University lessons.

Informal learning is painless and continuous much easier than external studies.

I didn't have to attend any classes. It just occurred naturally mostly in very convivial circumstances, such as around the camp-fires and on safaris.

That made the thrill of discovery and realization all the more pleasurable.

From a battery of lawyers I gained an understanding of tactics and strategies.

From scientists I discovered more about ecology and geomorphology than I had even imagined.

From others I gained all sorts of wisdom. It was enriching and exciting.

It enabled me to successfully prosecute the Fraser Island campaign.

It helped me make the transition to computers without a lesson.

I mention this to indicate that if you are inquiring and adventurous, you will learn enough from the informal process to undertake tasks which initially seem impossible.

By cultivating a good network, by being receptive, and by accepting challenges, you too will grow intellectually to meet whatever task confronts you.

You have no option if you want a better future for yourselves, your children and grandchildren.


If you think the problems are insurmountable, let me tell you the story of Curitiba on the Atlantic coast of southern Brazil.

It is the same size and on the same latitude as Brisbane.

Yet despite the third worl poverty, through the efforts of Jamie Lerner, in just five two year terms as mayor, this city developed the most efficient public transport system in the world.

It has many other stunning local government accomplishments.

Curitiba demonstrates what can be accomplished despite the odds stacked against it.

If the population of Curitiba can now enjoy a vastly improved quality of life through the efforts of one man, then think what can happen in Australia if your generation puts in a team effort.

A whole generation needs to change its values base to one concerned with delivering a sustainable future for all life on earth animals, plants and humanity.


My challenge was to save Fraser Island.

Jamie Lerner's challenge was to save a city.

Your challenge is to save life on earth.