Julie McIntyre reviews Rohan Lloyd, Saving the Reef: The Human Story Behind One of Australia’s Greatest Environmental Treasures (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2022).


The title of this superb book has two meanings. Saving the Reef locates environmental campaigns to prevent oil and mineral extraction in the Great Barrier Reef between 1967 and 1975 within a longer and broader past of government, scientific, touristic and unionist perspectives on the fate of a more-than-human wonder. Saving the Reef also points ahead to the challenges, especially from a warming climate, to halting the loss of coral and other organisms that comprise the Reef’s globally significant ecosystem. The double meaning of the title mirrors an inherent duality in views of the Reef that is the most compelling feature of this history: should it be treated as resource and exploited, or an ecology and conserved?

Drawn from Rohan Lloyd’s PhD thesis, Saving the Reef traces how individuals and institutions have struggled to reconcile the Reef’s vulnerability to destruction from resource extraction by humans and its more-than-human threats (predominantly the crown-of-thorns starfish) with its wondrous aesthetics and economic benefits through tourism, alongside the Reef’s contribution to the storehouse of human knowledge about the natural world. How can the Reef be useful to the settler colonial Australian economy and society and yet appear and function as if it is untouched?

In aiming to account for institutional responses in the period leading up to and following the Royal Commission into Exploratory and Production Drilling for Petroleum in the Area of the Great Barrier Reef from 1970 to 1975, Lloyd interprets a wide range of source material. This includes state and federal government policy debates on Reef sovereignty and exploitation. He has sought public perspectives on drilling and mining the Reef in addition to going beyond the participant-based history of Reef activism by conservationist and poet Judith Wright that Iain McCalman foregrounded in The Reef: A Passionate History (2013).

The activist voice is strong in McCalman’s well-received history. It is, however, historically incomplete, according to Lloyd. While Saving the Reef acknowledges that McCalman offers more analysis on the Royal Commission than Wright, Lloyd, more dispassionately than McCalman – but with no less of a protective impulse – steps the reader through the finer points leading to the historical confluence of debate and deliberation between federal and state governments, and the High Court, that coincided with the reporting of the Royal Commission. While Lloyd makes Indigenous people visible it is to a lesser extent than McCalman, who foregrounds stories of Indigenous-settler encounters, conflict, and cooperation, it is not a flaw that the human story Lloyd arrays is primarily a settler colonial one. Lloyd aims to historicise how the Reef was saved from fossil fuel extraction by people who were for the most part non-Indigenous, cognisant of the absence of First Nations people from these decision-making processes as a failing of settler colonialism, not a failing of traditional owners who were marginalised from political power.

Shell hunting on outer reef, Great Barrier Reef, 1973. National Archives of Australia, A6135, K21/8/73/22.

The first chapter of Saving the Reef summarises British expeditioner and settler accounts of the Reef, conveying a dawning non-Indigenous awareness of the vast extent and beauty of a magnificent “wilderness” that was to come into conflict with the later emergence of intentions to drill and mine. Tension between settler colonial perceptions of the Reef’s natural beauty, biodiversity, and economic utility is an important throughline in Saving the Reef. Australian colonial historians are familiar with primary sources replete with an imperial and colonial gaze directed onto the potential of the more-than-human world for economic exploitation as well as pure and applied scientific curiosity and the determination to conserve ecologies. Lloyd is equal to the methodological challenge of bringing together these different types of evidence. In doing so he addresses one of the most salient questions in this age of environmental catastrophe: how to understand drives for economic progress and ecological conservation as concurrent paths to the present and how they might converge and diverge in future. The author engages with this key focus by further developing the dichotomy inherent in activities affecting the Reef in Chapter Two: “Exploitation and Enjoyment.”

Competing perspectives on how humans used the Reef became more acute in the 1950s, as documented in Chapter Three, setting the scene for the Save the Reef campaigns of the late 1960s and early 1970s as a “tipping point.” The origins of the Save the Reef campaign among individuals and a cluster of different organisations are detailed in Chapter Four. There are many players and many acronyms to master to follow the fast-paced narrative. In the challenge to balance a multifaceted history, there are concepts that are not adequately explained to the lay reader, such as Darwin’s displacement theory. Otherwise, Lloyd deftly handles complex and enlightening material.

Chapters Five through to Nine lope through entangled histories. They contextualise the process and outcome of the Royal Commission, the establishment of Commonwealth Government sovereignty over oil and mineral rights, protection of the Reef from extractive industries through the new Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, and the switching of the developmentalist Queensland into conservation mode after years of determination to permit oil drilling. Lloyd traces the emerging coral reef scientific community in Australia and overseas in relation to rarely  harmonious state and federal governments responsible for Reef policies. He presents the intentions and actions of various conservation groups that were at times in concert with, and at times at odds with, unionists and scientists.

The presentation of narrative argument traces an arc of time from the late eighteenth century to the present. Amid the detailed explanation and analysis contained in these orthodox historical chapters I appreciated the interleaving of ethnographic essays, a device that is becoming more common in History theses and books. The first of these essays, Knowledge, speaks to the challenge of reconciling First Nations’ knowledge of the Reef with and through settler colonial perspectives. The essay titled Catchment shows that the Reef is inextricably linked with the land across which water flows into it. “Seeing” is about tourism as a force of conservation and preservation. “Science” establishes that political economic values are tied to scientific funding and that science is integral to both Reef exploitation and conservation. “Change” laments that the accelerating degradation of the Reef’s lifeforms by climate change render the formation of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority less of an enduring protective measure against the collapse of the Reef ecosystem than was once considered by its advocates and architects. These essays will be welcomed by students and general readers, as well as scholars, as informative and reflective of contemporary intersectional themes.

Lloyd’s searching attention to detail is persuasive, at no time preachy, and demonstrates the great importance of historical clarity on policymaking. He planned “this book to be a source of hope: a positive reminder to see the Reef, imagine the Reef, and to save the Reef.” Buy two copies of Saving the Reef and post the spare one to an influential citizen you judge to be in need of its learnings on the value of conservation politics.



Julie McIntyre
Julie McIntyre

Dr Julie McIntyre is a Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Newcastle. She is the award-winning author of two books on the role of winegrowing and wine culture at the intersection of histories of economy, society and environments. Her research fellowships include an Australian-American Fulbright Scholar Award and Research Affiliation at the National Museum of Australia. She is working on a global history of Australia for Princeton University Press.