H3 vs CO2 – of Bob Brown, documentaries and our doom

The following blog post is about Bob Brown (the Australian activist and politician), documentaries and their function in wider social movements. Readers of a nervous – or G/green – disposition may want to look away…

Two disclaimers/scene setters. First up, Bob Brown. The man is clearly a mensch, with oodles of physical and moral courage, and a lifetime of challenging stupid rules and decisions by powerful people, often successfully. He has a track record of building organisations that stick around, and has mentored people who have gone on to do good things. We obviously need more Bob Browns, and people with a half or a quarter or an eighth of his guts and intelligence. Nothing that comes next is meant to diminish that, and in fact, it’s meant to help us with the question of how we do that.

Second up. The H3 versus CO2 gimmick title. H3 stands for hopium (there was plenty on display last night, at the showing of ‘The Giants’, heroes and hagiography. You can have heroes without resorting to hagiography (‘writing about saints’) and it is better for everyone if you don’t.

Last night there was a fundraiser/film showing for the South Australian Greens. The film was ‘The Giants‘, a beautifully-made but slightly problematic (imo) film about the life and work of Bob Brown. It’s a film worth seeing – intelligent, thought-provoking, excellent use of archival footage. It splices between Brown’s life, told chronologically, and the other ‘Giants’ – Huon pines in Tasmania. There are various talking heads minus the heads – we hear the voices of ecologists, friends of Brown, usually while our eyes feast on graphics or beautiful footage of (endangered/doomed flora and fauna. At various points there is very confronting footage, in living colour, of various bigots spouting their bile (it put me in mind of that excellent James Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro. These two films, about gay men who had to flee their homelands to survive, before returning to fight the good fight, are probably worth an extended reflection by someone better equipped than myself).

There’s a couple of clever and under-stated comparisons between what goes on in forest ecosystems and human political systems (though as the film-makers surely know, this could be pushed too far, and they don’t). There’s lots else to recommend it.

And, as almost always with me, there’s a big but…

Or several.

The first is nothing to do with the film-makers themselves, but the organisers of the event. Yes, it was great to have Greens senator Sarah-Hanson Young to speak beforehand (she is in the film too). Yes she spoke well, especially on the subject of the frankly terrifying way that the Liberal Party and Labor Party here are forcing through anti-protest legislation. But the organisers (as I feared) seemed not to understand that a film showing like this is a chance to help foster more loose links between people – something as simple as ‘turn to the person behind you and say hello, chat for a couple of minutes’. And this is quite normal, that people are brought together, to sit alone/with people they already know, not encouraged, enabled to mingle. Nope, they’re basically ego-fodder. It hasn’t worked to build social movements at the speed we need to. It won’t.

The second is with the film itself. It’s a celebration, I get it. It doesn’t need to be ‘balanced’ by interviews with forestry executives bemoaning how Brown got between them and better cocaine, or Greg Combet and other ALP goons slinging mud. The clips of fucktards (to use the correct academic term) like Peter Dutton were enough. But is a celebration really what Brown would want, or what we need? A couple of years ago, in exact same venue, I sat through an excruciating and worse than useless documentary about Australian climate activism. This was much better, sure, but STILL doesn’t really help us.

Where was Brown reflecting on mis-steps, missed opportunities, mistakes at a personal level, at the level of the organisations he has been part of? Where is Brown reflecting on the Adani fiasco (the film is remarkably silent on the 2019 election, for example). Where is Brown reflecting on the challenges ahead, in an era when it no longer seems ‘history is on our side?’

I’ve read some of Bob Brown’s books and essays. He has some useful things to say about some of these questions, but none of it was on display yesterday in the film.

Yes, heroes can inspire. But heroes can also intimidate (whether they mean to or not), and they can interfere (whether they mean to or not) with the process of reflection, learning, strategising, accelerating that is (was) surely necessary to get us off the ecocidal, suicidal trajectory that the main parties (and NGOs) seem determined to lock us into.

Ultimately, the film-makers made the film they wanted to make. They made it extremely well, should be applauded for it. But it is not, in my opinion, enough. It is a missed opportunity.

4 thoughts on “H3 vs CO2 – of Bob Brown, documentaries and our doom

Add yours

  1. Marc, heroes come and go, for this you can blame the media. Bob Brown did some good things, but to many he is history. Sadly, it is a case of the Bob Brown’s of this world versus the corporate $billions.
    History has shown who mostly wins.
    The mass only moves when it is bitten on the bum.

  2. Marc:

    I saw ‘Giants’ myself yesterday in BrizVegas & yes it took me back to 40yrs ago beginning adulthood at Uni at a time of life where ‘sense, debate & reason’ seemed as if would be fundamental to ‘progress’ and ‘conscience & awareness’ would lead to ‘enlightened’ decisions for society .. the ‘tide of history’ on our side lifting all boats equally .. how naive & idealistic !!

    .. decades since actually far more messy .. but what is the individual to do? .. surely The Bard summed it up so well: “to be .. or not to be” (.. Bob Brown’s career examplary)

    .. looking at ‘the state of the world’ now it’s clearer that most of what actually happens isn’t always predictable .. similar perhaps as to which way a ball might roll under a scrum .. ‘would be rallying calls’ carried on changeable winds .. the words of demagogues, vested lobbyists & wise prophets compete and every-now-and-again ‘cut through’ & coalesce around ‘a point of action’ ..

    .. clear-eyed knowledgable commentary from skillful communicators – such as yourself – is important !!

    .. Bhuddists highlight a principle of ‘non-attachment’ … and I wonder about how opposition figures in say Russia or China get through their day .. and note with alarm the trends also in our english-speaking world curtailing ‘right-to-protest’ and so on .. wondering myself how anybody could effectively stand in the way of say a Joe Stalin or a Pol Pot .. or a Donald Trump ..

    “Climate” as a man-made social issue, guessing, will be increasingly subject to thermo-dynamics .. and likely mostly unpleasant to watch .. but .. hopefully .. we’ll also see inspiring & effective efforts ahead ..

    “All the world is a stage …”

    Thanx for your posts Marc .. I often have a look at them ..


    1. HI Pete,
      thanks for commenting. You put your finger on it – that sense of hope, that a different trajectory was inevitable, then downgraded to likely, then downgraded to possible is now missing. People seem (rightly, in my opinion) of the thought that it is too late to avoid all but the truly most horrible impacts, that whatever we do, things are going to get a lot worse. Hard to keep going if you believe that…

      All best wishes


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