The heroism of real ‘direct action’

The voluntary effort of unheralded private individuals is leading our struggle to contain greenhouse emissions. [11 February 2014 | Peter Boyer]

Protesters block the path of mining trucks at Maules Creek, NSW. PHOTO SUPPLIED BY

A few days ago I got an email about a battle to stop a new coal mine at Maules Creek, northwest of Tamworth (NSW), with photos of scenes we see a lot in these boom times for coal and gas.

Amid painted faces and Aboriginal flags, young policemen watch nervously while people wield banners and placards with pithy statements and stand in front of large mechanical objects.

An activist added his comment on the photos, with an ironic nod to the Abbott government’s climate policy, “This is what real ‘Direct Action’ looks like.”

One image caught my attention. A line of people sits on chairs across a road, among them serious-looking old folk with a banner draped over their knees. One, a man in spectacles and a straw hat, holds a large piece of cardboard on which is painted in bold capitals a single word: crisis.

I know nothing else about the man or the people flanking him. What I do know, from this report and others in recent months, is that the coal and gas protests are bringing together people of all ages and backgrounds, including locals of all ages protesting for the first time.

They have many motivations. Future health threat from coal-dust is one, on top of threats from mining to agricultural and natural landscapes. And there’s the potential to lose local control over land use, which is also driving the “Lock the Gate” anti-gas movement in Queensland.

Underlying all these campaigns is a real fear that a protracted coal boom will bring down the curtain on civilisation. The International Energy Agency says we’re headed for runaway global warming if we don’t keep two-thirds of our currently-known coal, oil and gas reserves in the ground.

Everything seems stacked against us. The financial power of big fossil fuel players and their influence on governments is bad enough, but there’s also our own natural instinct to go after the fast buck because no-one knows what’s around the corner.

No-one votes for poverty, but the problem here is that we’ve become so stuck in the near-term that we’ve lost sight of some important lessons of history. We forget that every boom ends in a bust and every get-rich-quick scheme has losers, in this case all of humanity and its life-support system.

This knowledge underlies the determination of our Maules Creek protesters, as it does countless others around the world wanting to do their bit to put the global economy on a sustainable footing. They know they’re up against it, but they don’t stop.

Burnie-based doctor Nick Towle is one of these people. One of two community representatives on the Tasmanian Climate Action Council, Towle has dedicated a huge slice of his free time over many years to build more resilient lives and communities, especially in his North-West region.

About a year ago he, with his partner Michelle and two other couples, took this dedication to a new level when they pooled their financial resources to buy the disused Penguin Infant School, closed by the Education Department some years before, and turn it into the RESEED Centre.

RESEED (for Renewable Energy, Sustainability Education and Enterprise Development) is a venture made viable not by government handouts but by a sympathetic seller, people willing to risk their savings, and ultimately the support and involvement of the North-West community.

The investment is in the form of a self-managed superannuation fund. Unlike almost all such schemes, this one keeps its money close to home, a much-needed vote of confidence in the economic future of our island.

RESEED Centre will provide individuals and families with knowledge and skills to become more self-reliant while also tackling some broader challenges like building social networks. Its current tasks are a workshop on sustainable transport and installation of a 5kW rooftop solar system.

A successful RESEED Centre will help feed and otherwise support the Transition movement in the North-West. Transition has expanded from a single UK town, Totnes, in 2005 to take in community groups in many countries around the world, including Australia. It’s now a global network.

Transition is about people working together in communities (including local government) to set up initiatives from food gardens to education centres to help people over the hurdles presented by today’s rapidly changing parameters around climate, energy supply and economies.

Transition has boundless potential and possibilities, says the movement’s founder, Rob Hoskins, but it also has its difficulties. He counsels groups to build networks and resources to safeguard against disillusionment and burnout among people devoting long, strenuous hours to unpaid effort.

There are some good signs. Last week saw the release of a UK government “community energy strategy” to recognise and support community-owned renewable energy enterprises. To its credit, Tasmania’s own “Climate Smart” plan opens a door to similar developments here.

The slowly unfolding crisis that confronts us calls for a united front to build communities able to live within natural limits. For that to happen, people must be able to grasp the present reality and future implications of climate and energy issues.

Yet this country’s public discourse continues to be preoccupied with division and discord, even serving to undermine fragile public support for action. The urgency of the situation seems to have escaped the political establishment and the commentariat that it sustains. Crisis? What crisis?

But Transitioners are across it, as are the RESEED team and the “crisis” man at Maules Creek. In pursuit of a viable future they continue to put their hearts, souls, bodies and personal finances on the line. If ever there was heroism, this is it.

• The Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society’s 2014 conference starts in Hobart tomorrow, to be preceded tonight by a public forum on climate and public policy with a panel of eminent Australian climate scientists (6pm, Stanley Burbury Theatre, Sandy Bay).


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