Friday essay: the Australians who pioneered self-sufficiency, generations before Nimbin

By Rachel Goldlus, July 12, 2019 candidate in environmental history

Whitlanders in the 1940s. Established in 1941 near the base of Victoria’s Mount Buffalo, this Catholic community celebrated the ‘dignity of                             manual labour’ and was led by a charismatic athlete and former judge’s associate, Ray Triado.Joe Pisani

The term “self-sufficiency” commonly evokes images of communes, yurts and 1970s hippies, most likely living off the land in northern New South Wales. More recently, it has been linked to an explosion of interest in solar powered “off-grid” living, tiny houses, ethical food networks and complementary health practices, along with a hipster-driven return to the artisanal and hand-made.

But these are just a small part of a much larger story. Australians have, in fact, dreamt of going back-to-the-land since the latter part of the 19th century. Those who embraced an ethic of self-sufficiency included anarchists, suffragists seeking opportunities for unemployed women, Catholic agrarians wanting to nurture both the soul and the soil, and a grassroots collection of organic farmers trying to bring attention to “Mother Earth”.

Each of these pioneers looked beyond “unhealthy” cities to the land as a source of salvation, seeking answers and alternatives to some of the problems of industrial modernity, and sharing in a vision of “the good life”.

 A century before today’s ‘off-grid’, tiny house fans, Australians sought solace by going back to the land

Dirty, corrupt cities

The story begins in the late 19th century when urban reformers across North America, England, Europe and Australia started to identify a decline in societal values and standards, sparked by economic insecurity and rapid social change. With growing anxiety around “dirty and corrupt” cities, a transported image of the English “rural idyll” became a ready source of inspiration.

In Australia, this idea was equally shaped by the romance of bush ballads, alongside the popular landscape art movement. But rather than simply gaze at the landscape or go bush-walking on weekends, a number of urban Utopians wanted to get back to nature, hoping to reimagine and reconstruct society.

David Andrade was one of them. Born to Jewish merchants in Collingwood in 1859, he grew up with an acute sensitivity to the inequalities he saw around him. After co-founding the first Anarchist Club in Australia and spending years publishing and speaking across Melbourne, Andrade came up with a bold vision he called “Social Pioneering”. It envisaged opening up “agricultural, pastoral and industrial pursuits” for people with no access to land, bringing them closer to nature and basic subsistence living to avoid the dangerous economic fluctuations of the market.

David Andrade pictured in the

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