In Conversation with EFFA Patron Tim Winton

This year, we're proud to have one of Australia's most celebrated authors, Tim Winton on board as festival patron. Winton has been involved in environmental advocacy for over 20 years, and has always interwoven his love of the land into his writing. Growing up in former whaling town Albany, Western Australia, he was exposed to the intersections between humanity and the environment from a young age.

We speak with Winton about Australia's legacy of environmentally inspired art, films that changed his perspective on the environment and the power of a single story.

EFFA: Are environmental filmmaking and journalism more important now than they have been in the past?

TW: People have been making art inspired by the natural world for as long as we’ve been humans. And nowhere in the world is this more evident than Australia where reverence for nature and awareness of our interconnectedness with the environment endures in paint and song and story. That’s a legacy of up to 60,000 years. And that’s something to remember and live up to. So around here this issue has always been important. But the world is changing quickly and our awareness of its vulnerability isn’t really keeping up. 

So, yes, it’s never been more urgent that we think hard about how and where we live and look for ways of redressing the imbalance between our withdrawals and deposits.  We’re literally consuming more than we are returning to the system upon we rely for our survival as a species. It's natural that we'd want to talk about this with one another.

I guess I do it through fiction and essays. Others do it through research and popularising good science and natural history. Some brave folks are working away at investigative journalism in print and on film. You could say we’re living through a kind of cultural awakening on this front. Whenever I’m tempted to lose heart I remember that I went to school in a whaling town. In my own lifetime our attitude to the natural world has changed immensely. But you could also say we’ve been pretty bloody slow to get out of bed and get cracking. Seems to me there’s no time to lose – the bus is leaving and most of us are still in our undies.

EFFA: Can you share an example of when you saw environmental storytelling create practical change?

TW: Well at the simplest level, I’ve heard people give testimony about what it’s like to live in the shadow of a coal terminal, or what it feels like to take tourists out to a coral reef every day when it’s dying before your eyes.  And I’ve seen that most basic kind of storytelling move some decision makers to change tack. I’ve had to go to the halls of Parliament and tell personal stories myself – simply in order to make an issue real to politicians and advisers.  It liberates an problem from abstraction – a personal story is more powerful than you sometimes imagine.

But on a broader level I think The End of the Line sticks in the mind as a force for change. It tells a complex story very vividly. In the 15 years I was a part of the campaign to have a responsible percentage of Australia’s waters reserved as marine protected areas, no other artifact had the kind of practical impact that film did. I think it helped move public perceptions and make some policy changes possible that were previously insurmountable. 

EFFA: Are there any films that have changed your perspective on the environment? If so, which and how?

TW: I think when it came out in 2006 An Inconvenient Truth was a wake-up call for me. It helped crystalise a lot of things that were less clear in my head beforehand. I can’t think of a film that has been more practically consequential, worldwide. It helped create that rare period of consensus about climate change in Australia.  Because of that film Australia came very close to becoming a world leader on climate. That film – and Tim Flannery’s book 'The Weather Makers' – gave the dinosaurs of the hard right got a big fright and they pushed back hard. It caused real panic amongst those who had vested interests, political or financial, in fossil fuel.  Remember it took some time for Tony Abbott to undermine that moment of national consensus. And of course since then we’ve given up the idea of being climate lifters and settled for being leaners instead. (A lesson there in anticipating and managing cultural backlash.)

I’ve seen two good films that have shaken some folks loose from their ignorance and disgust about sharks, too – Shark Girl and Sharkwater. When I was campaigning on that issue in 2010 I got the sense those films helped change some people’s minds. Australians have a pathological problem with sharks. These perceptions are hard to break down.

I was unsettled by Richard Todd’s Frackman. It humanised the issue for me and cut through a lot of bullshit. It was so refreshingly impolite.

And I love WALL-E. It’s a work of art that says so much that still needs hearing. It went to that child-like part of me and snuck up.

EFFA: It could be said that environmental protection / conservation should happen for two broad reasons. Firstly, to ensure nature’s survival. Secondly, as your work seems to suggest, the environment is valuable in that it helps to shape our social and cultural identities. Is it fair to say that your writing has a particular emphasis on the latter?

TW: Yeah, that might be fair enough. I hope to some degree my enthusiasm has been infectious. 

The natural world isn’t just a physical necessity – it’s a spiritual necessity, too.  Denatured places and communities are the poorest and harshest in the world.  This organic world is our home – our only home.  The virtual world we’re tempted to replace it with is hopelessly insufficient.  The first bowl of plastic fruit I saw as a kid was enough to convince me of that. Recorded birdsong in urban streets ­– that’s where we’re all headed if we don’t take the material facts of life seriously.

TW: I really do think Australians, amongst the developed Western citizens of the world, are attuned to geography and nature in a peculiar way. The call of the wild, so to speak, can still be heard here. It’s a fainter call elsewhere. So I think there’s hope for us yet. There’s still something in us that can be appealed to. Deep down I think we want to make a life for ourselves that is fair and decent and clean and sustainable. They seem to me to be pretty grown-up aspirations. But we’re surrounded by a political and business culture that fosters an infantile passivity that is useful to vested interests, even if it’s ultimately hostile to our own chances of survival. My hope is that we push past that shit and grow up. And in the process we have to hear and learn and say some tough things.  There’s obviously a role there for journalism and advocacy. But there’s a role for art as well. 

EFFA: Your writing not only describes the relationship between people and the environment, but also has lessons about how people should treat it. Have you always tried to include these lessons in your writing?

TW: Well, as a novelist, first and foremost, I’m about celebrating beauty, the useless and lovely fact of things. The polemical impulse can be poison if you’re not vigilant about it. I’m a storyteller, not a propagandist. My business is to seduce the reader, let them into my fictional world, not to convince them of an agenda.  But there are lots of ways of letting people ponder, to think about life. I can’t think of a novel that has ever sent me to the barricades, but I have certainly been shaken up by a few and had some things revealed to me I wasn’t expecting. Art plays the long game – a novel or a film can change you over a longer period than you imagine. Emotionally and intellectually. When I was a kid I learnt more from a bit of oblique and whimsical advice than from any coach’s spray. 

As I said before there’s a kind of cultural stirring at work – an international resurgence in nature writing is one sign of this. And a festival like EFFA going national is another.  I’m pretty excited about both. The natural world looms large in our dreams and hopes, our anxieties and preoccupations. So many stories to tell and hear, still such a lot of stuff to discover and pay attention to. Bring it on.

Interviewer: Holly Bodeker-Smith

Image Credit: Jono Van Hest