Looming climate change tests Lois Levy’s optimism for the future
IT’S EARLY MORNING ON THE BEACH near the Currumbin Surf Club on the southern Gold Coast. The sun is barely above the horizon and the air temperature is still below 10 degrees C as the stoic clan of 15-20 calling themselves the Dingoes gathers, about to brave the chilly water. Lois Levy nods and smiles at the familiar faces she’s seen on many other mornings like this over the past 30 years. The average age of the Dingoes is now mid-70s. Without much hesitation, they all take to the waves, not a single wetsuit between them.
Lois has already done a circuit of her territory around the Currumbin headland and along the creek estuary checking on the creatures and plants. She follows different paths around the locality through the year, listening for the bird calls, enjoying the early light on the water. It’s been her morning routine for most of the time she’s lived at the Coast.
As well as a member of the Dingoes, Lois Levy OAM is a champion of the conservation movement on the Gold Coast. She’s lived there since 1972, long enough to see the city’s population grow from 80,000 to more than half a million. She says that the real drawcard for moving up from Sydney was ‘the thought of living next to the sea’. The friendliness of the people and the laidback atmosphere at the Gold Coast also influenced the family’s decision to settle on the hill at Currumbin. Little did they know at the time, it was to be a lot more than the idyllic seaside life they’d imagined.
Lois had joined the Currumbin Beach Progress Association and the Currumbin Community Group and took an interest in local issues. Then one day, something in the newspaper caught her eye.
‘There was a small notice saying Lend Lease was to develop land stretching from Thrower Drive to Currumbin Rock – the whole north bank of Currumbin Creek. I showed it to Marion and we decided it would only happen over our dead bodies.’
LOIS REMEMBERS 1979 AS A MAJOR TURNING POINT in her life as the Currumbin Creek campaign ramped up. Developer Lend Lease wanted to build residential units, marinas and shops on the north bank of Currumbin Creek. Lois recalls ‘I was aghast because we’d moved to Currumbin because of its natural beauty and thought they were going to spoil it.’
She teamed up with experienced activist Marion Reed who took the lead in the campaign, forming the Currumbin Estuary Protection Association to mobilise opposition to the development.
‘The campaign went non-stop for six months and we used every trick in the book to raise public awareness.’
In those days, the National Party was all-powerful in Queensland, having been in government since 1957. The local member was Russ Hinze, the Minister for Local Government and Main Roads, and the person with the final say on the Currumbin Creek development.
Generally he didn’t give much attention to public opinion. As Lois remembers it, ‘if Russ Hinze wanted to do something, he just did it regardless of what people thought.’ Not deterred, the campaign committee thought there was still a chance that with the state election coming up in 1980, Hinze could be convinced to knock back the development
They invited him to a public meeting in February 1980 at the old bowls club in Palm Beach to talk about the development. About 2000 people turned up – so many they couldn’t all fit in the hall and a lot had to crowd around outside near open windows to hear.
A turnout like that was almost unheard of and people lined up to make it clear they didn’t want their creek turned into another development site.
After about an hour of this, Hinze called an adjournment and went outside to talk to his advisors.
‘He was soon back,’ Lois said, ‘and told us “I’d have to have rocks in my head to go ahead with this development.”’
It was quite an achievement but not the end of the campaign.
‘It took another 10 months to get the land gazetted and we didn’t feel safe until that was done.’
‘We were helped because there was an election and Marion stood against Hinze. We got him to stand on the back of a truck and sign a big scroll pledging he would make the land a fish habitat and conservation reserve.’
Thousands of people now enjoy the walks through Tarrabora reserve – the result of hard work by the campaign group and outrage from everyday people with a love for the creek
Barry Robinson – a leader in the campaign to save the creek – remembers that Lois was a ‘team player with great perseverance and a great love of Currumbin and the estuary.’
AFTER THE SUCCESS of the Currumbin Creek campaign, the group changed its name to Friends of Currumbin and Lois took over from Marion as President. Some years later, Lois was in Sydney and heard about the Total Environment Centre. She came home with the idea of a similar centre at the Gold Coast.
Several groups – the Australian Conservation Foundation, Wilderness Society, Wildlife Preservation Society and others – led by the Friends of Currumbin got together in October 1989 and formed the Gold Coast Environment Centre. Later the name was changed to Gold Coast and Hinterland Environment Council (with the acronym Gecko for short). Gecko’s charter is ‘to advocate for the protection of the natural environment and to educate the community about the value of the unique and highly biodiverse environment of the Gold Coast’s coastal and hinterland regions.’
Gecko is best known for campaigns against proposed developments that threaten the environment such as the Springbrook cableway and the Southport Spit cruise ship terminal. However, most of its work is about communicating the conservation message through activities like environmental education for children, running Green Week each year to celebrate World Environment Day, hosting Clean Up Australia Day, free monthly guest speaker nights and sponsoring bushcare groups.
Lois was the first president of Gecko and continued in that role for many years. In June 2001, her dedicated work was officially recognised when she received the Order of Australia Medal (OAM) for ‘services to the environment, particularly through Gecko–Gold Coast and Hinterland Environment Council and the Friends of Currumbin Association.’
Rose Adams, one of Lois’s long-time Gecko friends, says the OAM was so deserved. ‘Year after year, Lois continues to believe that with knowledge and leadership, people will choose the better way of doing things, that they want to protect the beautiful natural areas we have here.’
IN 2006, FORMER US VICE PRESIDENT AL GORE released his climate change documentary An Inconvenient Truth. Gore was able to tell the story of greenhouse gases heating the earth’s atmosphere in a way that connected with a lot of everyday people. Climate scientist James Hansen said ‘Al Gore may have done for global warming what (Rachel Carson’s) Silent Spring did for pesticides.’
Lois had been aware of global warming for some time but An Inconvenient Truth really brought the urgency of it home to her. She then set about educating herself on what climate change would mean for us and what could be done about it.
Gecko became very active on the issue by promoting Earth Hour, sponsoring a local Transition Town group and running climate change forums for community groups.
This year, Gecko’s efforts are focussed on a conference called Turning Gloom into Boom with the tagline Climate Change for Good. The two-day conference – to be held at the Griffith University Gold Coast campus on 1st and 2nd July – is jointly hosted by Gecko and the Griffith University Climate Change Response Program. The guiding concept for the conference is that many of the actions needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will have economic and social benefits, such as creating new businesses and jobs in renewable energy and sustainability generally.
There are eight conference themes: business, investment, government policies, urban places and spaces, health and well-being, food security, conservation and tourism. These themes will be explored through presentations by some 30 speakers and discussions in 24 workshops for participants. All the workshop facilitators are experts in their field.
For Lois, the main point of the conference is to stimulate ongoing actions. “We don’t want this to be just a talkfest. We want people to carry through with some actions; whether in their personal lives or in their community of influence. There will be an expert mentor group to support those wanting to take further action.’
OVER THE LAST COUPLE OF YEARS, Lois has noticed there’s less fall than before in water temperature during the winter months. While this might be good for the ageing bodies of the Dingoes group, it’s a reminder for us all that the oceans are absorbing much of the increase in temperatures caused by global warming.
‘One thing that alarms me,’ says Lois, ‘is that it’s already too hot on many summer days for a lot of the outdoor activities we once took for granted. I fear my grandchildren will face a much more restricted future because of global warming.’
While the Dingoes won’t see it in their remaining years, there’s a strong possibility the Gold Coast’s famous beaches and surf breaks will be gradually inundated over the coming decades. When the effects of storm surges are added to higher sea levels, the Gold Coast is in the firing line.
Understanding this threat to her grandchildren and others of the next generations, Lois isn’t about to retreat into a quiet retirement. With knowledge comes the responsibility to act.
‘I just hope the penny drops in time for our leaders to stop the worst of climate change. It’s too depressing to think otherwise.’