Interviewing Scott Ludlam is hard – it’s a case of who gets to ask the most questions. Ludlam is intensely interested in the unfolding situation in Lismore on the eve of the second town-centre evacuation in a month, and he wants to know why – ‘Why is this happening?’
Of course the question is rhetorical – he knows why, we all know why – but he wants to know if I know why, and if I know, why doesn’t the rest of the planet get it? The answer is: we are literally drowning in humankind’s insatiable appetite for fossil fuel energy in the form of coal and gas. And he’s stumped.
‘We’ve spent 30 years on climate change – showing people graphs and charts and saying, “Do you understand how terrifying this is?” But now, you don’t need the graphs and charts anymore.’
We are sitting in the Tree not Bombs café in Lismore, a place where displaced residents and volunteers and emergency workers can come and get a free feed and rest their weary selves before heading back into the fray. It’s 28 March – one month to the day after devastating floods drowned the Northern Rivers, and we eye the SES in disbelief as they come toward us with a warning to get out of town as the new event is about to start.
After asking about my home and my safety, Ludlam says that everybody’s got a story of somebody whose thing was worse than theirs: ‘All the way to hell.’
A familiar feeling
The former Greens Senator for WA has personally felt the sting of the coal monster and the gas demon. His home near the fire-devastated NSW town of Cobargo was saved during the 2020 fires, but he and his family were in and out of the house for six weeks and spent their fair share of time in evacuation centres. ‘This feels familiar. It feels like Cobargo a week after the fire ripped through, with people’s stuff out in the street. People are shocked. It feels familiar, but not in a good way.’
Ludlam’s original plan had been to come to the Northern Rivers to talk about his latest book Full Circle: A search for the world that comes next, but his trip has turned into a tour of the devastation.
‘The book was written during and after the fires that happened on the east coast in 2019–2020. But really, the book is a study of how social movements work, and sometimes it seems, how they fail. How is it that networks of ordinary people under-resourced without a lot of money, generally without formal training – that are thrown onto the front line – how is it that sometimes they prevail? Sometimes you get a revolution, sometimes you stop a mine, sometimes it’s a gasfield. I’m fascinated by how social movements work.’
And that’s where Ludlam’s interest resides – in what people do when the chips are down, and the water, or fire, comes up.
‘I’m fascinated by how social movements work, so I wanted to try and gather together stories of how people work effectively – not just domestically, but from people I know overseas who’re really generous with their time, in the context of climate. We’re up against the most powerful industries on Earth and we’re out of time. And we don’t really have the option of not succeeding; that’s where the book came from.’
Though Ludlam is no longer in the Senate, he still has a Green heart and he was here two weeks ago, in part, to support Mandy Nolan. But, does he miss the political life himself? ‘Not, really. I miss this stuff. I miss the campaign stuff. The ability to actually get out and meet people. The thing that I miss the most is that I don’t have an office that I can go back to and actually start actioning things.’
So, is the pen mightier than the sword? ‘No, the pen’s necessary. I don’t know about mighty, but I’ve appreciated the opportunity to not be on any kind of frontline and to travel and talk to people and write and just slow down. The thing that Mandy’s going to discover, to get elected, is that you don’t have time to think because that’s just it – it just comes at you. And so your job is then to deal [with things], triage, do as best you can. But you don’t have time to have deep, philosophical thoughts about how social meetings work. You just do the work.’
The SES guy frowns at us and says he really means it, we have to move along.
And the rain begins to fall…