Story & photos David Lowe
In Australia, it’s not easy being green. There are no monuments to those who have risked their lives and liberty in the defence of Australia’s unique and precious ecology.
When the protectors win, their reward is a surviving chunk of the world they have fought for, whether that’s Kelly’s Bush in the case of the green bans, or the Franklin River in the 1980s, or the unpolluted air and water of the Northern Rivers of NSW in the 21st century, saved from gasfields.
Australia’s original environmentalists, those who were here before and after European contact, paid a heavy price for their defence of country.
The first Australians were fighting for their lives, as well as their home – these two things were completely intertwined. More than two centuries on, it’s become clear that we’re all in the same boat, even if some of us don’t yet want to admit it.
The idea of healthy human life in the absence of a healthy natural world is dangerous nonsense. This is the only home we have. Whatever the battlefield, the fight for our environment and our fellow species is fundamentally a fight for life and reality, in the face of invented, abstract concepts such as economic growth and shareholder profit.
The truisms of a thousand protest banners – no jobs on a dead planet, no Planet B – have become self-evident, no longer even controversial. But the environmental fight continues. If anything, it has intensified.
Through the lens
As a film-maker and photographer, I’ve watched defenceless protectors with their hands locked beneath the ground being jack-hammered out, and bleeding from crowbars.
I’ve seen farmers being dragged across forest roads, peaceful grandmothers crying with pain after being assaulted, and other brave people still somehow smiling after many hours of lying in the mud, or high up trees, or in cages.
In spite of a long history of this kind of thing in Australia, there’s a strange wilful ignorance in this country when it comes to courageous environmental activism. Heroic behaviour which would be lauded if conducted by people wearing khaki, or other uniforms, is largely unvalued and unseen when it comes literally in the defence of Australia, by ordinary citizens.
A few years ago, I witnessed hundreds of innocent people opposing coal seam gas being assaulted by riot police near Grafton, resulting in multiple injuries and eighteen arrests.
We managed to get the footage to the city in time for the news, only to have the entire story bumped by a minor bushfire near Sydney.
How many people know that Bob Brown was violently assaulted by youths with a wheel brace during his defence of the Franklin? Or that Jack Mundey lost his union job after defending The Rocks and other heritage sites? Or that Brenda Hean was probably murdered for trying to save Lake Pedder?
Australian volunteers serving with Sea Shepherd in defence of the Antarctic whale sanctuary were almost drowned when Japanese whaling ships attempted to crush and capsize their ship.
Closer to home
In 2013 I was filming Drew Hutton, one of the founders of the Australian Greens and the Lock the Gate Alliance, when he had his wrist seriously damaged at the age of 66 by a policeman dragging him out of the path of a gas-drilling rig in Doubtful Creek in Northern NSW.
The legendary Benny Zable, whose Greedozer character with gas mask and ever-evolving signs has been a memorable part of many protests, has also been arrested, hurt and imprisoned on countless occasions, simply for drawing attention to the truth.
Knitting Nannas and elderly war veterans opposing coal and gas have been mistreated, humiliated and bumped around in paddy wagons. Families and communities have been divided.
In Queensland, I’ve interviewed reluctant activists who were dying from cancer after having coal dug or dumped next to their towns, and met others who have been driven crazy after being surrounded by gas wells and/or mines.
There are numerous cases of unusual cancer which have gone unreported due to confidentiality agreements with mining companies. Suicide is not uncommon.
In the Liverpool Plains of NSW I’ve met farmers and traditional owners who have lived in sword of Damocles situations, for decades in some cases, with mining developments poised to destroy all that they hold dear, while being neither officially approved nor rejected. This is a particularly cruel form of psychological torture. While never describing themselves as activists, this is what these people must become, for their own sanity.
For all the tabloid talk of ‘professional protesters’, this is rarely a paid role. In fact, many people who have stood up for the environment have been rewarded with fines, post-traumatic stress syndrome, expensive court cases, failed marriages, hostility from family members and economic hardship.
So why do they do it?
Love and responsibility
Murray ‘Muzz’ Drechsler, who spent many years fighting to save the Leard Forest from becoming a coal mine, amongst other struggles, told me that for him it’s all about love for mother nature, and a deep understanding of that love. ‘If you love, then you actively protect what you love,’ he said.
Georgina ‘George’ Woods has spent many years living close to Australia’s biggest coal export port in Newcastle, and has opposed fossil fuels via her involvement with groups including Rising Tide, Greenpeace and Lock the Gate. She began her environmental activism as a child, writing letters to foreign consulates and embassies imploring them to give up whaling.
She told me, ‘What prompted me then and still does now, is my deep reverence for the extraordinary biological diversity of this planet. Its evolutionary history, its genius and beauty are awesome to me and I feel very strongly bound by a duty to conserve and honour it.’
For Benny Zable, whose brother is Arnold Zable, and whose parents escaped from the Holocaust, his lifelong artistic activism for the environment, peace and social justice ‘stems from bearing witness to seeing beautiful places and communities destroyed’.
By bringing together his dance and graphics expertise in a unique form of protest theatre, Benny has made a significant contribution to progressive discourse in Australia.
Today he continues to do exactly what Ralph Nader suggested when asked, what is the most effective and potent action?
‘To eyeball people one at a time to influence change,’ said Nader.
While Australians continue to eulogise a small group of selected rebels from our history, such as Ned Kelly and those who stood up at Eureka, Benny Zable’s section in the National Museum of Australia was removed following pressure from a prime minister.
Instead of being normalised, and respected, our best activists continue to be tagged as ‘extremists’ by mainstream voices. In reality, the extremists are those who threaten the living world which sustains us all, in pursuit of short term profit.
Drew Hutton told me, ‘These people don’t believe in limits, and that’s one of the problems that this mentality has. They wake up every morning thinking they’ve got to have unparalleled, untrammelled, irresponsible if “necessary” economic growth.
‘They say we’ve got to have extra consumption, we’ve got to have extra production, and if we don’t, then our lives are meaningless.
‘All those other things like community bonds and a wonderful family life, and good friends, and a feeling that the natural environment is where it should be and you’re part of it – all those things mean nothing to them.
‘What a sterile, senseless life that is. They want to impose that on the rest of us. That’s where resistance begins. We have to do that just to keep ordinary, basic, decent human values alive, in the face of it.’
But as the toll on the human and natural world mounts, and as the climate emergency has worsened, many activists have struggled in the face of apparently unwinnable battles. What sustains them?
George Woods told me, ‘I used to say “the beauty and genius of the natural world” but in the last year, the destruction of forest ecosystems in the fires of climate change have made this source of strength vulnerable.
‘Mostly, I am sustained by looking at and thinking about things that are bigger than me and reflecting on my irrelevance,’ she said.
‘Reading and learning about the social and environmental struggles of the past helps with this, as does reading in ecology and natural history.’
For some activists, poetry and ocean swimming provide context and separation. For others it’s meditation, or fishing, or music.
For Muzz Drechsler, anger is both an energy and an obstacle. ‘I get angry with people who don’t stand up for something other than themselves, people who believe Murdoch media. It’s hard to sit back and relax – I always have to be doing something for the cause. Self care is hard to put into place.’
The ethics of activism
For many activists, myself included, there’s a strange internal tension between feelings of power and powerlessness.
Once you have been part of a movement that’s won a battle against great odds, it is harder to settle back into the anaesthetising idea that one person can’t make a difference. Unlike most members of society, you are no longer off the hook. The cause may seem almost unwinnable, but if there’s a chance that it’s not – and there always is – it becomes unethical not to act.
For Benny Zable, the difficulty of the ‘hopeless’ cause makes it ‘worth doing non-violent actions that are demanding – it makes for trying harder to communicate your point convincingly across to the public.’
As George Woods puts it, ‘Taking right action and acting out of love are always worthwhile, regardless of the outcome.’
Muzz Drechsler told me, ‘I don’t like losing but I don’t do it to win. I do it because this is how I choose to show my love of Mother Earth.’
Many activists, particularly women, are reluctant to dwell on the personal, human costs of their activism. The wounds are just too deep.
That said, most have told me they had ‘no choice’ but to stand up. Sometimes there are regrets however.
At the Bentley Blockade, Drew Hutton said, ‘I’m such a driven personality, and I get into a project like this and various others in my life, and it consumes me.
‘I can’t think of any other way of doing it than 100%, so you become so self-absorbed sometimes that you get selfish. Me anyway.
‘And I forget to think that there are people around me, and those closest to me, my loved ones and my friends, who’ve got their needs too. And I’m thinking about my family, my kids, my wife. I should have thought more in my time about how I needed to give them support.
‘It’s something that I regret, and I wish in a way I could have it over again so I could do it better. I was thinking a little while back I didn’t want to be like that character in Dickens’ novel Bleak House – he was satirising Florence Nightingale actually.
‘There she was devoting herself to all these wonderful worldwide causes, and neglecting her own family. He pilloried the character for that. It rings a bit of a bell actually.’
Some activists who lose connections with their real families because of their activities and beliefs find a new family among their fellow protectors. This sense of having found one’s ‘tribe’ can be a powerful thing, especially in dangerous situations.
The resulting bonds can be similar to those felt by soldiers in war-time.
For Muzz Drechsler, ‘The positive is finding a very loving and supportive family in other activists.’
Benny Zable told me the friends he’s met through non-violent activism have greatly enriched his life.
For George Woods, ‘It’s hard to describe the positives or negatives that environmental activism has brought to my life since my whole adult life has been so inextricably bound up in it. It has created my friendships, my vocation, my loves and formative experiences.’
Some environmentalists describe activism as their rent for living on the planet, or use the analogy of an immune system. One common comment is that in spite of all the difficulties of this path, they wish they had become active, and educated, sooner.
Drew Hutton, who is also a historian, says the key lesson humans need to learn is that everyone has to acknowledge limits. ‘We can’t have everything we want, we can’t have our every desire and every passing fancy,’ he said. ‘Once you acknowledge limits, you operate within those to lead a happy and fulfilling life.’
But a sustainable Australia which lives within its limits still faces major birthing pains.
As the various COVID recovery plans have shown, many governments have become little better than mouthpieces for the fossil fuel industry, even as that industry sees the writing on the wall internationally.
Recognising their effectiveness, the penalties and risks for environmental activists have increased greatly in many jurisdictions in recent years, while corporations face minimal fines for pollution and other bad behaviour.
In 2020 it was revealed that the daughter of activist Ben Pennings was followed to school, his wife placed under surveillance and his family threatened with a raid of their home for Ben’s temerity to publicly stand up to the Indian miner Adani.
The traditional owners of the land in Queensland where Adani want to mine, including Adrian Burragubba (who has been bankrupted in his fight against the corporation), face arrest if they step on to their own country.
The ecologically precious Bimblebox Nature Refuge, having been saved from clearing by a combined community and government effort, now faces wholesale destruction due to Clive Palmer’s insatiable desire for more material wealth, in the form of another coal mine.
Winning and losing
When it comes to environmental campaigns, defeats tend to be quick and devastating, while victories are usually slow and fragile. Because all environmental victories are temporary, there’s no finish line in environmental activism. It’s an endless, cross-generational struggle. That said, some wins in Australia have sent out substantial ripples.
The Greens have gone from being a group of fringe ratbags in Tasmania in the 1970s, where the movement began, to becoming a global political force.
In Australia the party has recently doubled its representation in Queensland and won an unprecedented six seats in the ACT election.
In NSW the logging in Terania Creek was stopped by organised non-violent activism, the Rocks were not bulldozed, the rainforests adjoining coral reefs in far North Queensland are now a World Heritage area, the Mary River is flowing free, and Fraser Island has gone from being a loggers paradise to a tourist paradise.
Bylong, a beautiful valley in NSW and the birthplace of Peter Andrews’ innovative natural sequence farming, has been prevented from becoming a Korean coal mine.
The Northern Rivers of NSW has not become a gasfield, despite the best efforts of several gas companies and the NSW Government.
Further south, at Gloucester, a place with an entirely different history, and culture, invasive coal and gas were stopped in their tracks by a determined whole of community effort, led by the inspirational Julie Lyford.
The ANZ bank, which took activist Jonathan Moylan to court some years ago for a hoax fax claiming they were getting out of coal investments, have just told the Australian Stock Exchange they are doing exactly that.
All of these wins were due to environmental activism. However some positive effects from activism are not immediately obvious.
In my own case, I was drawn to live near Terania Creek because of the legendary stories of the successful forest protection campaigns there, which took place when I was a child.
Decades later, I found myself on the frontline with some of my childhood heroes, like Hugh and Nan Nicholson, when the area came under threat again, this time from unconventional gas. A win at Bentley, near Lismore, led to more successful campaigns around the country.
As Drew Hutton pointed out at the Bentley Blockade, which united people from all walks of life and came close to being a showdown between thousands of citizens and 900 riot police, until the NSW government blinked first:
‘This does what great social movements have always done. Even if they set out to do one thing, like improve the status of women or bring about racial equality or oppose a war – they tend to have much wider ramifications. They change the culture and they change politics. They usually make the world a better place to be for everyone.
‘Hopefully this will set us on a path to building an environmentally sustainable land, and a much more sensitive relationship with the land. We’re still learning to live here. It’s about finding a new relationship with the land, and learning about what Aboriginal people have done for so long, working out how to live with the land and how to respect it.’
Fighting for what you love
Fighting for your home – literally, and non-violently – bonds you with country like no other activity.
In contrast with modern Australia’s beginnings, as a bunch of unwelcome strangers huddling on the edge of a strange and hostile continent, environmental activism offers a way to meaningfully belong and contribute to the place that you live, while always listening and learning from those who were here before.
In some ways, the loneliness of the long-distance activist is nothing compared to the loneliness of the non-activist, who believes he or she cannot make a difference, and so remains isolated and helpless.
Although protectors continue to be vilified in the mainstream media, scientific warnings continue to be ignored, and ecologically illiterate politicians continue to be elected, these are not good arguments for being a bystander.
History proves that groups of motivated people acting together can do extraordinary things, whether that’s going to the moon, curing disease or starting revolutions. Saving humanity from itself is now shaping up as our greatest challenge by far.
In the struggles ahead, our frontline environmental protectors deserve nothing less than our love, respect, and support. If we are truly Australian patriots, we need to honour them, and join them.