One of Australia’s foremost environmental activists, Bill Ryan, has died in Sydney at the age of 97.
Bill was a part of the legendary Kokoda campaign during World War II, in which Australian troops finally stopped the southward advance of the Japanese army in appalling, mountainous conditions. Wounded in action in 1942, Bill later returned to fight in New Britain.
After the war he worked for the PMG, along with his son, Colin. They were both involved in the struggle to improve workers’ rights at Telstra.
After he retired, Bill’s beloved wife Joyce died, and Bill’s life temporarily lost all meaning. But concern for his grandchildren (and then great-grandchildren) motivated him to become an environmental activist, undaunted by the fact that he was almost blind and had trouble walking.
‘What sort of a world are we leaving for them?’ he wondered.
Using a specially modified computer, Bill was able to stay on top of the latest science of global warming. He wrote letters and lobbied politicians. When that got nowhere, he joined civil disobedience campaigns to actively do something about the climate emergency, putting his own frail body on the line. His ever-supportive son (and expert sign painter) Colin was frequently arrested alongside him.
Bill came to particular prominence during the struggle to save the Leard Forest from coal mining, but he was also tossed into the Hunter River alongside Josh Fox while supporting the Pacific Climate Warriors, marched with the Knitting Nannas in Narrabri, blocked railway tracks carrying coal trains, went to Parliament House in Canberra to educate politicians, blockaded Adani subsidiary Downer, and took the long train ride into Martin Place week after week to highlight the insanity of Santos’s Narrabri gas project, where he became a familiar sight on his walker, educating Sydney-siders one on one.
I got to known him in the fights to save Gloucester from gas and coal, and to stop Santos in the Pilliga, but Bill was an integral part of innumerable campaigns, most of which came under the banner of climate change. He couldn’t remember how many times he’d been arrested. His concern for environmental and social justice powered all that he did.
His gentle humour, integrity and passion moved all who met him.
As Bill put it, ‘People who are producing these fossil fuels and having them burnt throughout the world, they’re the enemy.’
In 2018 Bill won the John Davis Climate Award, which was presented at Parliament House in Sydney, and two months ago he shared the inaugural John Kaye Memorial Award for Social Justice and Environmental Protection, alongside fellow activist legend Jack Mundey.
Vale Bill Ryan, a true Australian patriot whose courage and smile will be long-remembered.