May as well put cards on the table. I think we’re fubarred. I think that we’ve now left it “too late” and a grim meathook future is all we have to look forward too. There is probably still time to learn a bunch of new skills, use our technology specifically to soften the coming climate blows. But we (and by we I mean entirely culpable middle-class people like me with freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of information) seem more interested in diverting ourselves, and in believing the soothing bullshit about the Paris Agreement and shiny new technologies.
Right, that said, I went to a bunch of mostly excellent sessions at the Adelaide Festival of Ideas today. (Saturday 14th) One of them was on environmental justice (forms of justice – energy, climate, transitions, are a big topic with academics, btw). With my “even though we’re fubarred we have to act as if we’re not blah blah Gramscian optimism blah blah” hat on, I asked the panellists my curly “if you had a time machine and could warn your younger self” question. The answers were interesting, but imo incomplete. So this blog post will take you through
- the outline of who said what during the panel
- my question and the gist of the panellists’ answers
- the answer I would have given
oh, there’s also
- how the panel could have been done differently
- an appeal from GetUp! about the Federal Government trying to bully them into silence
The panel was chaired by Andrew P. Street, and the panellists were Peter Owen, (who heads up the South Australian Wilderness Society), Mark Diesendorf (who has been working on renewable energy – as a scientist, activist and policy wonk – for four decades), Professor Fiona Haines (a criminologist, has written The Paradox of Regulation) and Miriam Lyons (who has worked for various outfits, is now with GetUp! Of which more later). The format was simple – questions from the chair to each of the speakers, and then the floor would be open for questions from the audience (which was very white, and very old – where are the young people? Does a Festival of Ideas not appeal? Are they all working second and third jobs to pay for their smashed avocado toast?)
Street started with a very good question – “what got you involved in environmental action/activism?”
For Diesendorf it was the realisation that his PhD thesis – on the physics of the centre of the sun – was being used by hydrogen bomb makers at Lawrence Livermore. That led him into activism with groups like Scientists for Social Responsibility.
Fiona Haines had started out looking at white colour crime – her PhD had looked at how companies responded to the deaths of workers, and she then looked at the impact on trade practices from mass She made the (entirely valid and frankly terrifying) point that we are at a tipping point, with the oceans emptying of fish while filling with plastic, heatwaves getting hotter… (see blog post about Wednesday’s event at the Adelaide Sustainability Centre).
Peter Owen told of playing on the (closed) mouth of the River Murray in 1981, and later realising birds and dolphins were disappearing. His father getting sued over Hindmarsh Island bridge protesting led to an interest in law. (This is the clearest case of the four of how “significant life experiences affect environmental action”, i.e. unstructured and unsupervised play in ‘nature’ before the age of 11 may well lead to a life long passion for “the environment”). He and the Wilderness Society are now trying to stop oil companies taking a great big and very unhealthy bite out of the Great Australian Bight…
Miriam Lyons said that she was an environmental activist – taking examples of “pollushun” to school show and tell before she could spell, and sending a protest letter to Indonesian dictator Suharto about rainforest destruction when she was 6 or 7. Contact with legendary public servant John Menadue and mutual frustration about the left being good at saying what it was against but not what it was for led to the creation of the Centre for Policy Development. Frustration with the ALP’s ability to adopt progressive rhetoric without the policy follow through has led her to other work, including Get Up! She gave a shout out to its work on a policy blueprint to make the energy transition fairer. (Not sure if she was referring to the 2016 Homegrown Energy Plan, done with Solar Citizens, or something newer).
Street then mentioned that lots of things don’t work when trying to get change, and asked the panellists to talk things that DO work.
Lyons gave the example of what Get Up! did after the 2016 election when the Turnbull government tried to abolish the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (history lesson – it had been set up under the Gillard government as part of the Clean Energy Future package – both ALP and Greens claim credit for the idea. Crucially, the Greens insisted it not be under the control of the then-Energy minister Martin Ferguson, who now chairs the advisory board of the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association). GetUp! took a decision to make ARENA’s work tangible, putting up billboards in the marginal electorates where ARENA had funded projects, getting supporters to do emails, phone calls and the physical delivery of reports to the MP’s office. She said “whenever you’re being told that you’re being counter-productive/you’d catch more flies with honey” it’s not true and you’re very close to winning if you go a bit harder.”
Owen mentioned that TV media matters for ‘maximum impct, with actions that are bright, colourful and positive. Commercial TV coverage is worth far more than ABC. He pointed to the Wilderness Society commissioning its own oil spill impacts study when BP refused to release the work it had done, which was expensive but worth doing. He argued that both the Coalition and the ALP have been captured by the fossil fuel industry. He referenced a UN SDG report in the last week that shows Australia as the worst country in the world when it comes to climate action.
Fiona Haines said there were two things that make a difference. Firstly, understanding the importance of political risk. Government responses to disasters (not just environmental – could be a factory fire/collapse etc) is framed by political risk i.e. dealing with the political and economic fallout from the disaster. This they do in two ways (1) by reassuring people that they are safe and secure (or that they are the only party that can do so) and (2) by protecting their revenue and the conditions for capital investment. Dealing with the physical, technical and engineering elements is secondary to this and gets pushed aside. We can’t expect governments not to do deal with political risk (it is part of a capitalist democracy’s DNA) .– but the challenge is making sure they see that they do so in a way that also deals with the physical aspects of the disaster. Understanding this can help direct public campaigns and outrage a little better. Secondly, Secondly she spoke on CSG protests and AGL’s divestment, saying that it’s a complex story, including the fact that AGL only had limited exposure in any case, and that investors guides to the market had made a difference. (See Haines et al. 2016. Taming business? A critical analysis of AGL’s decision to divest from coal seam gas). For Haines, it’s not about individual pressures/tactics but how the pieces fit together (exactly. It’s synergies and consistent/persistent pressure(s) not singular moments).
Mark Diesendorf related the story of Franklin Roosevelt telling a civil society pressure group “you’ve convinced me, now get out there and make me do it.” He said that lobbying is useless without further pressure, with positive results coming from community groups (Solar Citizens, 100% renewables, ACF, Greenpeace, Get Up!)
So, that all took rather a long time. There was only time for one question and I got lucky (i.e. I am a huge white middle-class male who put up his hand early and made eye contact with the chair). What I said was something very similar to this:
Thanks to the panel. In 1988 there was a Greenhouse 88 conference that many people in this room probably remember. We’ve known about this problem for thirty years, but it’s getting worse. So, if the panellists had a time machine and could go back then, what advice would they give? Do we need to do more of the same – more marches, more people dressed in penguin costumes, or do we need to do something ELSE, something different?
Here’s my best approximation of what the panellists said. It’s followed by my critique/attempt at an answer to that question.
Lyons: Be unafraid about how risky our situation is Don’t worry about frightening people into inaction if you have a proportionate action to suggest/help with. “The world is burning – change your light bulbs” is no good, but “the world is burning we need to get the right promises from politicians and then hold them to account” is better. Honesty about the scale of the problems and the scale of the solutions is needed. If we go through the lens of politicians and CEOs about ‘achievability’ we get nowhere. We need to drag the political opportunity structures over to the physical activity level.
Owen: Incrementalism has been wrong. We’ve got to go flat out. There’s no future in 20-30 years if not dealt with immediately. We’ve been in a ‘transitions’ phase for three generations. When war approaches, we down tools and act, collectively.
Haines: I was at a community event in NSW, where the town was split on the subject of fossil fuels excavation nearby and someone said “why is it wrong to care about the Great Barrier Reef?” The context was that they were getting grief from other people in town who thought caring about the environment meant not caring about human well-being. So, we have to have justice as part of what we talk about.
Mark Diesendorf was cautious on the war mobilisation analogy (see his work on this, with a former PhD student, Laurence Delina– “Is wartime mobilisation a suitable policy model for rapid national climate mitigation?“), and pointed out that social change is slow and hard, that social movement activity is hard.
So, good answers in as far as the y go, but mostly addressed to ‘messaging’ and ‘mobilising’. Here’s what I’d have (tried to) say. Underneath are some hyperlinks to other things I’ve written.
Over the last thirty years we’ve made a series of what can be termed mistakes, but seemed like good ideas at the time. We’ve spent time, credibility and energy within ‘consultative’ policy development processes which ended in minimal and tokenistic action or NO action, leaving us demoralised and discredited.
We’ve tried to build common cause with some unions – see the Green Jobs Unit, the Green Goldrush campaign – but have been naïve about the power of a few unions who see coal jobs as basically sacrosanct.
Above all else, we’ve confused mobilising with movement-building. It’s easier to get people out for a march or a protest. These can invigorate, give hope. But they can also lead to people thinking ‘I’ve done my bit’, and they suck up enormous amounts of time and bandwidth. They can lead to a cycle of emotathons…
It’s even more important to grow social movement organisation groups, so they can hold meetings that are welcoming, appealing to new people, that can absorb the energy and skills of people who can’t come to endless meetings and don’t necessarily want to be part of activist subcultures. This panel is an example of this – a set of experts at the front of the room, telling the assembled rows of ‘ego-fodder’ the truth. We should have been more interested in creating links among you, and finding out what skills, knowledge and connections you have, and what skills, knowledge and connections you need to become powerful active citizens. We’ve got to stop meeting like this.
We need to go to people – especially old people, poor people, minorities etc and listen, and work with not at or on. And we are doing that – “powerful conversations” – but we needed to be doing it 30 years ago.
- Get your fucking game face on (on the things activists need to do)
- The case for ‘loose co-ordination’ by a non-secret secretariat (The nuts and bolts of holding meetings that capture energy, skills and ideas)
- Social Movement Learning: Partisan Collective and “Activist Skills and Knowledge” (on a tool for finding out what skills, knowledge and connections people have and want.
- The Defiant Ones (an academic and activist are handcuffed together. Hilarity and harsh words ensue).
- 2019: How we blew it again (In which I rant on ‘absorptive capacity’ and kill off David Attenborough).
What could have been done differently?
- Keeping all four of the speakers to short (2 to 3 minute) answers, via a ‘clap clinic’ system. That would have left more time for questions.
- Have a ‘turn to the person next to you and get help forming or honing your question’ two minutes.
- Ask the audience to do reflections on ‘what is environmental justice’ etc. that can be shared on the website.
Marc Hudson is finishing his PhD. No, honestly. His writing on (on climate policy, renewables etc) has appeared in The Conversation, reneweconomy.com.au and in various Australian newspapers He is researching an article on the “Greenhouse 88” conference (especially the Adelaide element). If you were at it, he would love to hear from you. Also, please pass this on to anyone who was at the event.
Phone: 04979 32031
That GetUp! Email.
We haven’t seen anything like this before.
The Turnbull Government recently passed new police state laws that threaten our movement’s ability to campaign for a fair, flourishing and just Australia.1,2
Actions that merely harm the government’s reputation on political or economic matters can now be prosecuted as serious national security offences. So peaceful blockades of Adani coal operations, or exposing the truth about child abuse on Nauru to the UN, could carry prison sentences of up to 25 years.3
Don’t think they’ll do it? Well, in what independent MP Andrew Wilkie has called “an act of bastardry”, the Turnbull Government just authorised the prosecution of ‘Witness K’ and their lawyer for exposing potentially illegal actions by the Howard Government.4,5
It’s all having a huge chilling effect on GetUp’s campaign plans. That’s why today all of us, as GetUp’s lead campaigners, are taking the unusual step of contacting you, together.
We urgently need to build up our people-powered Civil Defence Fund to get the best, ongoing legal advice on how these new anti-democratic laws apply to our campaigns. But it doesn’t stop there, because if we can gather enough ongoing support we’re going to prepare for a potential constitutional challenge – that could see these laws struck down in the High Court.
But in order to take on the power of a government hell bent on suppressing truth and dissent we need a fresh new tide of members to join our GetUp Crew, who make a weekly contribution to support our work.
Last night we held frantic teleconferences with whistleblowers and activists who want to shine a light on the abuse of children in Australia’s detention camps on Nauru. The question we asked each other was: could we face a 25 year prison sentence for doing so?
And if Stop Adani activists blockade roads to coal ports or mines, Attorney-General Christian Porter may decide to prosecute this peaceful act of protest as “sabotage” – punishable by up to 7 years behind bars. He could do the same for protests against the secretive TPP trade deal, breaches of international law or even people protesting against Australia going to war.6
This is the same Christian Porter who authorised the prosecution of Witness K, and their lawyer, for exposing the Howard Government’s dodgy spying operation against East Timor, to swindle the impoverished nation out of billions in natural resources.
That’s why we need to build up a people-powered fund to give us access to the best legal firepower available, to ensure these laws don’t erode our ability to campaign, or indeed our democracy.
We urgently need to know how these new anti-democratic laws could impact our campaigns. And we have a legal brief ready to put into the hands of a high-powered law firm with a track record of beating back abuse of government power.
We’re also in this fight for the long haul. We’re ready to talk to some of the best barristers in the nation about a possible constitutional challenge. Can you imagine being part of a landmark High Court case to defend the freedom of political speech?
But we’re up against the full might of a Federal Government that’s on a mission to bully, silence and raze its political opponents to the ground. We can’t do any of this without a brave new tide of supporters joining our GetUp Crew.