Save Karen and the “limits” of Australian democracy #SaveKaren #FreeKaren

KarenLast Friday the Government released a booklet with a set of anti-radicalisation homilies every bit as subtle as the movie ‘Reefer Madness‘.  One in particular spoke of ‘Karen’, the sweet well-meaning lass who became a green Jihadi Jane because she cared too much –  or in the wrong way – about the environmental destruction we choose to call development. By the end of the day a twitter backlash, with the obligatory ironic hashtag,  #saveKaren, had swept across the screens of Australia.

By eerie coincidence this was almost exactly the one year anniversary of Queensland MP’s George Christensen statement that anti-coal protesters were ‘terrorists ‘and ‘green germs’.

Five months earlier there’d been similar claims from Andrew Bolt and Judith Sloan of anarchists and eco-terrorists running amok.

Six months before that the then president of the Australian Coal Association, Nikki Williams, gave a speech at the Sydney Institute which spoke of anti-coal activists and “fundamentalist eco-activism”, drawing a distinction between “ local  people seeking answers and reassurance … political campaigners, whose only objective, by whatever means  and on the basis of whatever cause, is to extinguish the industry.”

The list could beat onwards into the past; this disdain for those who believe in limits is nothing new.

Limits to Growth

The American scientist Kenneth Boulding once quipped ‘Anyone who believes in indefinite growth in anything physical, on a physically finite planet, is either mad or an economist.’ Had he known Australian history, he might have added ‘or settler colonist’.

In the 1880s, South Australian planner George Goyder, who designed Darwin, was derided for warning farmers not to plant wheat and barley north of a certain line.  A run of wet years appeared to ‘prove’ him wrong – you can still see the ruins of the buildings that housed the people who ignored him.  The ‘Goyder Line’ is, by the way, moving south under the influence of climate change.

Forty years later, Thomas Griffith Taylor,  a polymath explorer and scientist  who was a founder member of the Australian National Research Council in 1919, came under similar attack for pointing to environmental limits to the population growth of Australia. Labeled ‘unpatriotic’,according to his entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography

“Western Australia’s education authorities and university senate banned his text on Australia because of his temerity in employing the terms ‘arid’ and ‘desert’.”

Clearly, we take aim at the messengers who remind us that there are limits.

Modern Times

From the 1979 Terania Creek blockade that marked the beginning of environmental non-violent direct action in Australia through the 1980s, the extractive industries decided that protesters were feral extremists, luddites who sought to emulate Pol Pot and Joseph Stalin.  The Australian Journal of Mining ran a column called ‘Know your enemy’, and an anonymous columnist railed at greens and Aboriginal land rights activists.  The response to the 1991 decision to ban uranium mining at Coronation Hill provoked a response in keeping with this. Addressing the Adam Smith Institute, mining magnate Hugh Morgan warned

”This decision will undermine the moral basis of our legitimacy as a nation, and lead to such divisiveness as to bring about political paralysis. …. The implications of it will, inevitably, permeate through the entire body politic, and cause, imperceptibly, like some cancerous intrusion, a terminal disability. ….”

In the 1990s there were (unfounded) claims of environmental terrorism in Tasmania (See Bob Burton’s “Inside Spin”)and the 1998 Esso Longford plant explosion) provoked short-lived speculation of Green Terrorism.

At the end of the 1990s, Hugh Morgan described four reports about emissions trading by the  Australia Greenhouse Office (which, let’s remember, was set up by John Howard, hardly a radical greenie himself) as “Mein Kampf declarations”  (Hamilton 2001, 138)

The Institute of Public Affairs has consistently framed greens as at best well-meaning dreamers and at worst ‘watermelons’ – green on the outside, red on the inside, and accused journalists of alarmism.

Inculcating a State of Fear, framing the enemy
In 2004 Michael ‘Jurassic Park’ Crichton released State of Fear, a novel that hinged (or perhaps ‘unhinged’) on the idea that environmentalists were melting glaciers and causing environmental damage to gain funding and adherents for their religious crusade.  The book found approving reviewers in the IPA’s Jennifer Marohasy, and Crichton’s ludicrous  ‘DDT ban has killed more people than Hitler’ was echoed by Miranda Devine.

In early 2012 a Greenpeace campaign strategy  “Stop the Mining Export Boom” response was reported by the Sydney Morning Herald.    A month later the paper was reporting that ASIO  “has been providing intelligence to the federal government on environmental groups that campaign against coal-mining.”

Mining impresario Clive Palmer then pitched in, claiming  “Greens and the environmental group Greenpeace were tools of the CIA in a plot to undermine Australia’s coal exports”.

Perhaps, as an author counselled on ‘the Conversation’

“We should remember the words of US Senator Wyche Fowler. He argued that a balance of power that was distributed to democratic institutions was meant to keep politicians on their toes, and “bureaucrats from doing something stupid”.”

Why Now and What Next?
Framing people who speak of environmental limits and act on those beliefs as extremists is not unique to Australia. Canadian police and security agencies are framing petitions and protests as ‘attacks’ . In the United States both state and corporate responses to environmentalism have been extremely robust for decades. In the United Kingdom the police ran an expensive and extensive undercover operation against environmentalists.

Ad hominem arguments work not just to distract from consideration of the substance of a position, but also to prevent that view from spreading.   As a perceptive commentator on the Guardian wrote in 2014, the mining interests and their supporters are

“consciously framing the everyday Australians who actually live in these communities, and send their kids and grandkids to school in them, as “fringe” or “radical”. Such a tactic softens the ground for future attacks on democratic participation and community input on the things people have a right to be concerned about: their health, their livelihoods and the beloved natural places which surround them. The last thing the miners want is a community groundswell delaying their mammoth projects. Turning on the community suggests they are spooked by the growing support to protect our national treasures.”

Forty years ago green bans by environmentally-minded trades unionists saved parts of the heritage of Melbourne and Sydney that had been earmarked for destruction.  Forty years hence, will today’s ‘ferals’ have become similar (forgotten) saviours?   Certainly, given the projections for emissions increases and temperature rise, we will be asking who are the radicals – the people who think that economies can and should continue burning enormous amounts of fossil fuels, or those trying to stop them?


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