“We can be pessimistic, give up and help ensure that the worst will happen, or we can be optimistic, grasp the opportunities that surely exist and maybe help make the world a better place.” – Noam Chomsky.
Three thorny questions remain after the Australian premiere of the film Wild Things: A Year on the Frontline of Environmental Activism in Brisbane last night.
- Is a sustainable environment possible under capitalism?
- Will state and federal governments allow strike action in schools over climate change?
- Will Adani ship mega-tonnes of thermal coal out of central Queensland in the same way Gina Rinehart is already?
It would have been good to hear the panel’s views on these questions – particularly Bob Brown on Q 1 and Sally Ingleton (Director of Wild Things) on Q 2. Both were present at the Q & A session after the well received film. About fifty (50) supporters of direct action turned up for the premiere in Brisbane.
Wild Things: A Year on the Frontline of Environmental Activism is a film about three environmental struggles – against the Adani coal mine in central Queensland, saving the Tarkine forest in Tasmania and the student strike for climate action. But the film does more than that. It covers environmental struggles that led up to this period of environmental activism: the attempt to dam the Franklin River (TAS) in 1976-7, the proposed uranium mine at Jabiluka (NT), the campaign to stop logging in Terania Creek in northern NSW and the BLF’s struggle to save “The Rocks” in Woolloomooloo, a harbourside, inner-city eastern suburb of Sydney.
The filmmaker, Sally Ingleton, tells her story through some of the key protagonists – a school girl from Castlemaine, a medical doctor in Tasmania, an anti-Adani activist in Queensland and the father of the modern environment movement in Australia, Bob Brown – the former leader of the Greens in Australia put up some of the money for the film. All of these key people professed their resolve, but it must be hard to continue in the face of opposition from the police and courts backed by the big end of town, not to mention the daily grind of organising camps in remote locations taking up time, money and energy.
The lens through which we saw the key activists highlighted their courage, tenacity and skills, but grass roots activists have other lives: studies and jobs – often a long way from mines and logging. I remember well the tenacity of one grass roots activist who rode his bicycle from Brisbane to Terania creek to join the blockade come winter or rain. When in town, John would camp out in the backyard of Spring Street West End, without a tent and often without a blanket, so hardened was he to living in the outdoors. It was he and others like him that had Terania Creek declared a National Park protected from the logging.
While the narrative of the film was told by key activists, there were some cameo appearances. For example Coral Wynter, long time member of the Democratic Socialist Party, perennial socialist candidate in state & federal elections and a major contributor to Green Left Weekly. Mind you, that was not how Coral Wynter was portrayed in the film – the caption beneath her name read ‘Retired Scientific Research officer’ (or something like that).
There was a scene in the film where there was a confrontation at the gates of a pipeline manufacturer contracted to supply pipes to Adani. This was later reported in an article Protesters converge to halt Adani’s coal mine written by Coral Wynter. Coral participated in blockade of the gates of the company, Vinidex, in an industrial part of Townsville and gave an eyewitness account:
We were blocking two gates, 20 metres apart. As we put up our signs and banners a huge semi-trailer drove past. The driver then did a U-turn on the grass verge and drove straight towards the six women holding a banner at the gate. The brave women held their ground. He then inched further and finally stopped with the bull bars of the truck at chest height all the while honking his very loud horn. The coward refused to come out of his truck. The semi-trailer was blocking the whole road, so cars and vans coming off the roundabout drove onto the verge to get around it. Another car drove directly at us on the second gate and only swerved when he was at our feet. The driver of a second car yelled obscenities and headed for Jasmyne, an Aboriginal friend who was holding a First Nations flag. When the semi-trailer driver finally dismounted, yelling more obscenities, he was told by our legal observer that the police were on their way and that he could go to jail for his dangerous driving. He yelled back that he was going to “get one of us some day”. His hands were shaking and sweating profusely. The police came, banished our filmmaker and eventually breathalysed the driver (refusing to show us the result). No charges were laid and the driver was free to go.GLW September 27, 2019 Issue 1239 Australia
Notwithstanding the title, the film was four years in production covering a period prior to the Covid pandemic but including the devastation of the bushfires over the summer of 2019-20. The focus was on the use of blockades to stop logging, mining and to gain attention for climate action. This was supported by rallies in capital cities. There was a brief but unsuccessful foray into regional Queensland by Bob Brown but most of the activists and their support came from the capitals in Tasmania, Victoria, NSW and Queensland. But why should the struggle rest on the shoulders of individuals like Bob Brown (politician), Dr Lisa Searle (GP and organiser of forest blockades in Tasmania’s Tarkine), Harriet O’Shea Carre (school student and climate change activist) or Andy Paine (activist, broadcaster and organiser at Camp Binbee near the Adani Mine)?
The filmmaker did not attempt to canvas in any depth the views of workers engaged in mining and logging, she concentrated on the activists and their supporters in the cities. When I asked Sally Ingelton about whether she attempted to engage with union organisers, the film director said that workers and their unions come to rallies like the students school strike.
The environment movement simply can’t short circuit this necessary link with the workers movement and the organisers whose job it is to initiate collective action on behalf of union members. Sally Ingleton portrays the green bans organised by Jack Mundy from the NSW Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) as an example of unions taking action on environmental and social issues. Mundy came from the industrial wing of the Communist Party and took action to help his members obtain affordable housing in inner city Sydney, places like Wooloomooloo. As if to underline the industrial nature of the dispute over the Rocks one of Mundy’s speeches (portrayed in the film) refusing to demolish houses in the Rocks was given inside the NSW Industrial Relations Commission.
Protagonists for climate action are aware of the impasse that exists between the environment movement and the organised working class, but little is being done on that front. Not since the 1990s have I heard a proposal for a Red-Green alliance.
The BLF’s green bans strengthened that union because it made them part of the broader movement for social change and opposition to developers profiteering in the Rocks and at Kelly’s Bush. There is little evidence that such links to the organized working class exist now. Unions are often written off as being hostile, yet many unions want to have a transition from coal. The CFMEU mining division is trying to save as much as it can for its members whose backs are to the wall with ruthless mining employers like Rinehart, Twiggy Forrester and Adani. One problem for the union is most of the mining jobs are in management, not at the coal face.
Nor did the film attempt to analyse the defeats experienced by the environment movement around issues like Uranium mining, sustainability and whether any real change is possible under capitalism. Her focus was positive and, like Bob Brown, optimistic. She concentrated on victories, not defeats. There was some but not much treatment given to alternative economic arrangements. Present at the launch of the film via zoom, Bob Brown derided Bill Clinton’s declaration “It’s the economy, stupid” with the retort: “Its the environment, stupid”.
There was a telling point in the film when Bob and Hazel Hawke appeared on screen at the time of Labor’s 1983 election victory. Even before the film captured Hawke’s announcement that his government planned to save the Franklin, a section of the theatre audience cheered. The struggle to save the wild rivers of Tasmania was eventually settled by the High Court which allowed the government to invoke its foreign affairs powers to stop the Franklin Dam.
I found the audience response to Bob Hawke surprising. Surprising because it was Bob Hawke’s government that authorised the mining of uranium in Australia and, at the same time, his government’s failure, despite promises to the contrary, to introduce Aboriginal Land Rights legislation to protect country. This was despite the success of its predecessor, the Whitlam government, in introducing land rights in the Northern Territory. Perhaps Hawke has managed to engineer a place in the lexicon of environmental heroes through the adulation cultivated at Queensland’s main altenative event, Woodford.
This uncritical portrayal of Labor’s failings was both puzzling and ironic. The film portrayed the Mirrar activist Jackie Katona’s resolute defiance to uranium mining backed up by civil disobedience. The film highlighted the victory, but failed to point out that uranium mining continued in nearby Kakadu national park throughout the period 1983 till 2020. The closure of Northern Territory Ranger uranium mine had nothing to do with activists, long since exhausted by trade offs by governments of every stripe, but the slump in uranium prices exacerbated by the Fukushima meltdown in Japan. So it was the economy that brought an end to uranium mining. Ironically Bob Brown pointed this out after the film saying that the Adani mine may become ‘a stranded asset’.
The film and its musical score captured the beauty of rain forests in Tasmania. I wondered whether it may be the tourism industry rather than paper pulp manufacturers that, in the end, may do more damage to these ancient habitats.
The filmmaker, Sally Ingleton, said that she would be trying to get the film and a student kit that goes with it into schools. I wish her luck with that given the antipathy of State and Federal governments to the school strikes for climate action.
The film is well worth seeing as it provides an insight into how far the environment movement has come given the impact of the mobile phone, the internet and social media. It also hints at how difficult it is to sustain single issue struggles.
More about the film can be found at https://www.wildthingsdocumentary.com/
30 Jan 2021