The Supply Crisis and Degrowth

Normally I’m the type to skip straight past the finance section in the news, eyes glazed over. But in the second half of 2022, as whispers of economic crisis and global recession got louder, I figured I should try to get my head around what was happening in the world of economic markets and reserve banks.

This article is not the place to get a detailed analysis, but it seems the issue is a “supply crisis” where not enough stuff is being made (“supply”) to meet the consumer demand. This is due to a mix of factors including: covid enforced factory shutdowns that slow down production of all kinds of objects, natural disasters affecting food harvests, sanctions against Russia affecting oil and wheat markets. With few options at hand, governments through reserve banks are raising interest rates to stop the flow of credit into the economy and therefore restrict people’s spending (“demand”) power. The combination of the two seems likely to stop economic growth around the planet, bringing about a “global recession” – which will have further flow-on effects to the economy if companies lose profits, lay off workers, who then have less money to put into the economy, etc. Of course, the losses will ultimately be most felt by those who had the least to begin with, who also had the least power to control how any of this happened.

I don’t know enough nor do I have the desire to write an analysis of our economic situation and government responses. But what I do want to point out is that if we take a step back, we can see that the “supply crisis” is hardly an overnight development.

Look at the causes I just mentioned. Natural disasters? We have known for a long time that the resource extraction demanded by our ever-growing economy is likely to lead to increased natural disasters, but we had neither the desire nor the ability to stop. The wave of disasters we have seen in recent years (and the costs) seems likely to continue, and to plan for the future not accounting for this seems extremely foolish. Our food system, meanwhile, is hardly sustainable anyway – prices are kept low by environmentally unsustainable farming practices, but at the same time vast amounts of perfectly edible food is wasted at each step of the supply chain. It is quite likely we will have continuing issues regarding food production.

What about energy prices? Well for one our energy use is driving us towards environmental crisis no matter what the price. Our extraction and distribution of these valuable resources is also driven by the greed of a few unscrupulous companies rather than a proper analysis of human need. Then there’s the Russia situation. The fact that our own lives have been affected by sanctions placed on Russia’s war-mongering government leaves us with the unpleasant but unavoidable conclusion that it is our global demand for fossil fuels that has in fact financed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the extreme imbalance of power that has developed in that country. You can extend that analysis to Iran, Qatar and Saudi Arabia – all oil exporting countries who have been in the news for human rights abuses in 2022.

Then there’s the manufacturing issues. The situation we are in, where global manufacturing is concentrated in a few countries, didn’t happen by accident – it was a deliberate move by companies to move operations to where it was cheapest by avoiding environmental and human rights legislation. When the cramped and unsafe environments created for maximum efficiency turn out to be perfect for spreading disease and their closure affects the world; it’s not an unfortunate accident – it’s the direct result of decisions made by those companies.

I could list other examples, but my point is that if we look at the situation holistically we see that our “supply crisis” has been going on for a long time and will continue to for the foreseeable future – we just happen to be at a point in the turning of the wheel where we Western humans are the ones on the receiving end of an ever-destructive system.

We will probably continue for a while to hear about various responses to our current situation, but there is one possibility you are unlikely to see mentioned by any mainstream voices. That is the idea of “degrowth” – that maybe the real problem is not our economy contracting, but our economy growing.

You won’t hear it because in our religion of economic growth, degrowth is the ultimate blasphemy. Economic growth is our only metric to measure the progress of humanity, the governance of nations, whether a job is a worthwhile use of our time, the value of objects, whether we are useful and successful individuals.

But economic growth is hardly a universal good. It in fact is permanently running a race against our use of our planet’s finite resources. It continues to drive increasing greenhouse gas emissions, even as the world has come to see the necessity of decreasing these for the sake of our climate. It has relied on and perpetuated an exploitative and unjust global political situation. It has removed the human scale from our economy (a word once derived from the Greek term for “household”) – taken basic needs like food and housing and turned them into scarce commodities by the invisible magic of financial markets. It has developed technologies that crush the possibility of artisanal work, but then forced us to slave our lives away in esoteric and obscure jobs that we’re never sure are contributing anything meaningful to the world. At times it actually takes rational individuals and lures them into its own insanity – people investing their money in crypto-currency and Non-Fungible Tokens in full knowledge that these things have no real-world value.

In contrast to this, degrowth is a philosophy that has the possibility to intervene in our perpetual financial crisis and to liberate us from the madness of insatiable economic growth. But in a world thoroughly indoctrinated in the religion of economic growth, it is not one we are likely to hear from political parties or corporate media. Imagine the popularity of a politician promising us all less money and less fancy new gadgets. The voices proposing degrowth are left on the fringes, written off as crazy while inwardly cursing the fact that our coercive system forces our complicity if we want to survive.

But degrowth is still possible – at a societal level and at the very least on an individual level. We can work less hours, buy less stuff, share more, refuse to be a passenger on the kamikaze flight of economic growth. Then we can personally enjoy some of the advantages that come from living in pursuit of real life needs and joys rather than abstracted monetary growth. The less time we spend in service to the mighty dollar, the more time we have for the things we really care about – raising good families, working on the causes we most believe in, following our passions and curiosities. By figuring out what we really need; and how we can build resourceful networks and communities to support each other; we can free our lives from the worst dictates of economic growth and be a witness to the rest of society that another way is not only possible, but beneficial.

At the very least, those of us living for degrowth have little to fear from the fallout of a global recession. It is a life spent building a different kind of wealth, one that can not be suddenly crushed by the irrational and indifferent hidden hand of financial markets.

Degrowth is quite possibly going to be the ultimate destination for a system built on an uneasy foundation of environmental and human exploitation. If that happens, we as a society will have to choose between the destruction of financial crashes or a situation where the losses are equitably distributed and where it is humans, not the abstracted “economy”, that we act to protect. In a world of permanent financial crisis, voluntary degrowth may help us to find a way out


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My top 10 songs of 2022

Another year ends, and the little break before we get back into our routines is a chance for reflection. For me, this involves looking back at the year and what music I loved. I have to admit, 2022 was a year when seeking out new music played a smaller role in my life – getting married and clocking up thousands of kilometres of travel didn’t leave much time for it! Still, it wasn’t hard to find ten new songs that impacted me for different reasons through the year. I also reviewed a number of albums (including some of the artists on this list), but here are my favourite songs.


King Stingray – Let’s Go

It’s a corner of the country not many Australians have ever been to; but the community of Yirrkala in East Arnhem Land has produced some extraordinary music over the years – often the fruit of collaboration across languages, cultures and skin colours. Most recent is King Stingray, whose debut album of joyous “Yolngu surf rock” came out this year. I was lucky enough to see King Stingray’s wonderful live show at the National Indigenous Music Awards in Darwin, as well as listen to their newly released album while driving the highways of the Northern Territory – the perfect context for a song like Let’s Go. Ours is a vast and multi-faceted country; what a pleasure it is to go out and see it, and to hear people sing of it.


No Rego – Shortcake

Arriving in Perth in May, I got to catch up with friends I hadn’t seen in a few years, and I got a reminder of what one of the great joys of punk music is – watching your friends get on their instruments and rock out. That feeling stayed with me every time I listened to No Rego’s joyful thrash; though by the end of the year their music had taken on a different meaning after the death of band member Riley. But that’s one of the things about punk’s DIY attitude I guess – when we are gone there all kinds of things we can’t do, ultimately the legacy of our lives will be the things we did.


Big Thief – Spud infinity

Generally one type of music I try to avoid is indie music played by New York hipsters. Especially when said New York hipsters try to imitate country music! But I was forced to confront my prejudice this year after hearing the irresistable tunes of the latest Big Thief album (called, improbably, Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You). Not only had Big Thief managed to make beautiful sounding country rock, the whole thing was infused with a light-hearted cosmic philosophising which is much more fun than just yet more songs about infatuation and heartbreak. The whimsical approach to both music and lyrics reaches its peak on Spud Infinity.


The Songs Of Tom Smith – Dumpster Dive Dinner Party

The prolific and varied musical projects of Tom Smith have been a presence in my life for a few years now, and I love his approach to songwriting and music making. Dumpster Dive Dinner Party is my favourite song of Tom’s yet, though let’s face it I am a bit biased with the song being about one of my favourite activities. You won’t get a nuanced analysis of our wasteful society here, just a celebration of the life that can be happily lived off the excess: “A freegan never goes hungry, a freegan always has friends / nothing should go to waste, everybody shares“.


Doggie Heaven – Berghain

I was lamenting to a friend early in the year how out of touch I felt with new local bands these days. He told me to check out Doggie Heaven, though as it turned out they hadn’t released any music at the time and it took me most of the year to get a chance to catch them live. When I did though, I was glad for the tipoff. Doggie Heaven live are a wonderful experience – lush sounding synthpop (with a delicious 80’s guitar tone), the transfixing sight of lead singer Izzy dancing, and an unexpected humour running through their melodramatic lyrics. Berghain just pips its equally funny b-side Haircut as my favourite.


Hurray For The Riff Raff – Rhododendron

Alynda Segarra (aka Hurray For The Riff Raff) with each album has got further from her hillbilly musical beginnings – a progression that certainly continued with this year’s Life On Earth record, full of synthesizers and a new glam image. But I think the most emotionally affecting songs are still the folkier ones. On Rhododendron, Alynda is looking back at her youth as a train-hopping punk – a time full of wild flowers and wild experiences. Maybe not everyone resonates quite as much as I do with lines like “fell asleep in a field of corn, woke up to a sky reborn”. Still, nostalgia does no good for anyone – “I can’t look back, lost it all on this one way track”. And what exactly does the cryptic chorus refer to? I don’t know, but this was a song that with each listen gave me a bit of an emotional thud in the chest.


Etran de L’Aïr – Tahawerte Ine Idinette

One of 2022’s somewhat unexpected cultural events was the rise of of daily online puzzles. One that my wife Bek and I got into is the geography puzzle Worldle, a game whose primary purpose seems to be to remind us westerners how little we know about Africa. Fortunately, at least it’s possible to keep up with the music of that vast and fascinating continent thanks to the hard work of record labels like Sahel Sounds – who put out the wonderful new album from Etran de L’Aïr, the star wedding band of Agadez, Niger. It’s a classic slice of Tuareg party rock, all hypnotic snaking guitar lines and relentless rhythms. Another reminder of the cultural treasures that lie hidden in Africa for those willing to seek them out.


Thelma Plum – The Brown Snake

In September I got back to Brisbane after five months on the road, just in time to hear Thelma Plum’s song about returning to Brisbane and its beautiful winding river (which locals for many generations knew as Maiwar). How was I supposed to resist? I would find myself singing this song as I rode along the river. Maybe I’d been smitten, bitten by the brown snake.


Outright – Tyrants and Vultures

Ahhh, the subtle beauty of passionate and well-played hardcore punk. There’s nothing like it. And find me a better hardcore band in the country than Outright. Crushing riffs, intense vocals, pummeling drums, righteous politics, true belief in the gospel of punk. I got to see Outright in Brisbane in October, and what a joy it was to see a band still with their energy even as we all enter middle age – still helping out other bands, touring, running a DIY record label, proudly repping the vegan straight edge lifestyle, all the while playing ferocious music. Punk’s not dead.


Teresa Dixon – Here we go again

I feel like it’s a running theme through these descriptions; but I still long for musical community even though getting older, significant time living in the country and covid lockdowns has made it a bit harder to find. I first heard Teresa Dixon’s Here We Go Again the best way you can – travelling down to Tasmania to play at the Hobofopo festival, I was getting a ride in Teresa’s car when she asked if I wanted to hear her new song on the stereo. As it turned out, this beautiful and touching song is about loneliness and the difference a friend can make in hard times – particularly relevant to the last few years, but something we all feel at some point. “I need a connection, somewhere I fit in / Right now I don’t feel at home in my own skin / Can I please call you my friend?

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A month of living with the mining industry

It’s been just another month in the life of the fossil fuel industry – digging up stuff out of the ground, making loads of profits, tax dodging. If you’ll pardon the pun, you know the drill. But for those of us who closely follow the news and its coverage of the mining industry, it hasn’t quite been just another month. It’s been a month that showcases the full width and depth of the industry’s depravity, as different reports come out that peel back the PR to reveal its true character.

Let’s start in Egypt, where governments and civil society leaders from around the world gathered at COP27 – the annual soiree of climate change discussion. Most of the news coverage about COP has focused on the passing of a resolution agreeing developed nations should financially compensate the poorest countries for loss and damage caused by climate change. This is welcome news, but has somewhat obscured the other big report released at COP – the “High Level Expert Group on Net-Zero Commitments of Businesses, Financial Institutions, Cities and Regions” findings on whether promised climate plans of corporations were actually realistic.

Turns out, and this won’t surprise many of you, the net-zero plans of fossil fuel companies would have done more for climate action had the paper they are written on been left standing as trees. UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres declared “The problem is that the criteria and benchmarks for these net-zero commitments have varying levels of rigour and loopholes wide enough to drive a diesel truck through. We must have zero tolerance for net-zero greenwashing. It is rank deception. This toxic cover-up could push our world over the climate cliff. The sham must end.

The hypocrisy highlighted in the report is very familiar to Australians, where countless proposed new fossil fuel projects are in various stages of development, helmed by companies who have pledged net-zero.

The report had several pertinent recommendations, including: net zero pledges actually be in line with official scenarios limiting warming to 1.5℃; that they include emissions cuts rather than relying on carbon offsets; and that they cover all greenhouse gas emissions, including those occurring along a company’s supply chain and through the use of its products.

In the end, no resolution was passed regarding corporate greenwashing at COP27. Some would say that this is because trying to stop people talking about climate action while not actually doing much would put everyone at COP out of a job. But I’d like to take this moment to point out that amongst the delegates at COP were 636 fossil fuel lobbyists – up 25% from last year, and more than any single national delegation bar the UAE (many of the UAE delegates of course were fossil fuel lobbyists!). The fossil fuel industry was better represented at COP than the combined total of the 10 countries most affected by climate change.

One of the companies present at COP27 was Glencore – Australia’s biggest producer of thermal coal. Glencore’s representatives probably didn’t need to pick up a travel guide for the trip to Africa, a continent they are very familiar with. Earlier this month, Glencore plead guilty in British courts to charges of bribery in the African continent. They were fined £281m, which is quite a lot of money, though significantly less than the $1.1 billion Glencore had been fined in the US earlier this year for bribery and market manipulation. British judge Justice Fraser said corruption was “endemic” within the African oil trading desk of Glencore – the company’s employees and its agents had given bribes worth $27m to unnamed officials in Nigeria, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Equatorial Guinea and South Sudan, causing harms worth $128m. Senior Glencore employees signed off on cash withdrawals used for the pay-offs.

How do we measure the true cost of Glencore’s actions? You can put a dollar figure on how much the company paid and how much profit they got out of it, but what about the social cost? Here is one of the world’s biggest corporations going to some of the poorest countries and using its immense wealth to entrench inequality in the African continent by bankrolling corrupt regimes. In South Sudan, 7.7 million people – two thirds of the population – are currently malnourished through natural disasters and conflict. Glencore is returning record profits from stealing Sudanese resources, which of course when used will only make the climate crisis worse.

For most of us, paying over a billion dollars in fines and reparations would be quite a hit to the hip pocket. But Glencore paid a $4bn dividend to shareholders last year as it reported record adjusted profits of $21.3bn – so you might say it’s just good business.

Glencore was also in the news in Australia last week, one of six companies named in documents tabled in parliament by independent MP Andrew Wilkie that detail how coal companies in Australia are using “fraudulent” coal quality reports for their exports – paying scientists to lie about the quality of their coal and paying bribes to overseas officials to keep the matter secret. Wilkie said “this has allowed them to claim, for years, that Australian coal is cleaner than it is, in order to boost profits and prevent rejection of shipments at their destination“.

Those of you with good memories may remember the approximately one million times in recent years that industry and government have justified Australian coal exports on the basis that the coal is better quality than overseas coal and therefore good for the environment. Turns out those claims belong on the fiction shelves alongside the same companies’ net zero pledges.

Thus passes another month of lying, cheating and bribing from the fossil fuel industry, although this one was a bit different from the usual in that someone actually called them out on it. For most of us who watch the mining industry with any degree of attention, these revelations come as no surprise. Around the globe, the mining industry thrives with a combination of silver tongue, astute power plays, and brutal violence to opponents when it thinks it can get away with it.

One of the most depressing lines in all these reports came at the end of the article about Glencore’s bribery conviction. Lawyer Iskander Fernandez said the conviction may prevent Glencore bidding on some public contracts, and some of their shareholders are angry at the lost dividends this has all caused. But “bar the above, there is nothing else that would prevent a company from moving forward and carrying on with its business.”

That business, presumably, will still include their trademark “endemic corruption”. At this point it’s probably worth remembering too what the normal – non-corrupt – business of the mining industry is: find resources they did nothing to create, make billions of dollars profit digging them up, then claim no responsibility when it turns out their products are driving the world towards catastrophic climate change.

No one doubts that there are principled people with good intentions working in the mining industry. But that’s all the more reason to point out the big picture of what that industry actually does. Those people’s hard work ultimately goes towards ruining the world’s democratic institutions and natural environment, while sabotaging attempts to actually improve either. Our survival at this stage depends not on any minerals we can dig up, but on the hard work being done to restrict the destructive power of big mining corporations – like the examples I just mentioned.

Just another month living with the fossil fuel industry I guess – defending our lives and planet from a morally bankrupt but astonishingly powerful nemesis, who keeps telling us how much of a favour it is doing us all.

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Queenslanders cop the bill for Land Forces

It was a seemingly innocuous Thursday afternoon in South Brisbane. Picnickers relaxed in the parks, commuters rushed around on their different modes of transport, hospitality staff around their kitchens. And military vehicles began loading into the Brisbane Convention Centre. Actually that last bit is maybe not that usual. The vehicles were being readied for the Land Forces Defence Expo, an international weapons sales conference that was staged between October 4-6. Land Forces was held at the Convention Centre due to the generosity of its “host sponsor” the Queensland state government.

As the vehicles began to enter, something else unexpected happened. Two young women jumped on top of an EPE Hunter Wolf small unmanned military vehicle which was being towed into the centre. It would have been a surprise to many, but obviously not everyone. Because instantly, from the South Brisbane police station, eight police officers appeared to surround the vehicle, drag down the women and arrest them.

It was the first, but certainly not last, appearance of the 2022 Land Forces police taskforce. As that first Thursday evening (six days before Land Forces actually began!) went on, more and more police appeared. They drove laps around the Convention Centre, stopping to question anyone loitering nearby. They parked up outside Musgrave Park, stopping and searching every vehicle that exited the park or Jagera Hall. And then, late that night, they appeared in convoys flanking trucks that drove through the suburbs of Brisbane up to the back dock of the Convention Centre. They weren’t there just to keep an eye out either – with lights flashing, sirens blaring and motorbike cops speeding ahead to block intersections, the convoy raced through red lights at about 80km/h.

Most of the large weapons being displayed on the Land Forces shop floor probably made it into the Convention Centre unimpeded that night. But it wasn’t mission completed for the cops. As protesters gathered over the weekend for a program of workshops and entertainment, police were constantly lurking nearby. Cop cars frequently sat parked outside the protesters’ base at Jagera Hall. Most drivers leaving there were “randomly” drug and alcohol tested, their cars inspected for defects. My wife’s car was one of those stopped one night – a traffic cop crawled under the car until he could find a reason to write a ticket, tyres worn on the inside being the justification he was looking for in the end. For those unfamiliar, this is an extremely common tactic of police trying to restrict protest. I have scarcely ever in my life heard of cops inspecting cars for defects in any other context, but it is entirely to be expected at a protest – where police are not supposed to actually stop you from protesting but will look for any other avenue to restrict or arrest you.

By the Tuesday morning, when the Land Forces expo actually began, the police and private security presence had reached its apex. There were beat cops, traffic cops on motorbikes, Tactical Response Group in bullet proof vests, police negotiators in polo shirts.

They weren’t just hanging around the Convention Centre either – about a kilometre away, cops pulled over a car and trailer. They obviously had done their homework/surveillance, because it was indeed headed towards Land Forces with a hot pink model tank ready to block the entrance. They arrested two people who were in the car, and detained and questioned a few onlookers. At times during the conference protesters ventured into the nearby Southbank precinct to try to engage visitors in a bit of candid conversation. To their surprise, they found the entire area awash with police waiting to intervene. One person was arrested for public nuisance in Southbank.

Meanwhile, back at the Convention Centre you could be forgiven for thinking it was not a defence expo but a fence expo. Three temporary fences had been successively erected outside the main entrance – a one metre barrier by the stairs, then two three metre cyclone fences, the second one made opaque by sheets of blue plastic covering the entire face.

Amazingly, an hour or so into the convention and security decided that wasn’t enough. So they erected a new fence and told protesters they had to move to the other side. Local councillor Jonathan Sriranganathan refused – saying that a public footpath does not cease being public footpath just because one erects a temporary fence on a whim. Police disagreed, and our local government representative was arrested for trespassing on government property.

The arrests over the subsequent days were for similarly minor infringements – fake blood (easily washed off) spilled on the walls of the convention centre or a car containing former defence minister/current weapons industry lobbyist Christopher Pyne; an intellectually disabled woman arrested for public nuisance. Protesters attempting to push the line to any extent were quickly met by the many police present.

The next morning I arrived early. There weren’t many protesters there, but police were ready all the same. At one point I was standing alone holding a sign, surrounded by seven cops. Other police were milling about keeping an eye on the rest of our small group, while two security guards patrolled each of the Convention Centre’s many locked doors.

There was a kind of poetic justice to the Convention Centre being made to look like a militarised checkpoint – bringing home to Land Forces delegates the reality of what their products are used for around the world and a small taste of the humiliating reality of that being your day to day experience. But ultimately, security checks may be an inconvenience for those who pass through them, but their real purpose is felt by those they exclude – in this case Queensland citizens who were footing the bill for Land Forces but not privy to seeing what deals get done there.

That day, a small group of protesters kept vigil at the convention centre (of course accompanied by police and security), but the majority of the Disrupt Land Forces crew hit the road for a tour of weapons facilities around the city – including, I should note, a protest at NIOA led by Warlpiri elder Uncle Ned Hargraves against NIOA’s contract supplying guns to police like the one that killed Yuendemu teenager Kumanjayi Walker. A convoy of police cars was dispatched to dutifully follow us to each location, and of course by the end of the day’s trading at the expo they were back to man the exits.

The third day was much the same – a squadron of security guards watching the convention centre from very early in the morning, joined by several dozen police from about 7:30am. This at least provided a ready audience for the morning program of folk singers performing a repertoire of anti-war songs, though they were maybe not the most enthusiastic crowd. Brisbane’s iconic tea pourer Ollie was also stopped and searched, police letting him go when they found his morning tea trolley did indeed only include china cups and jam drops.

As the convention drew to a close, the riot cops finally had something to do – protesters blocked the exits and police came to eventually clear them out. A couple of arrests and one more evening standing guard, and the cops could finally knock off, though extra security remained for the sizeable packdown operation over the next few days.

I spoke to one police officer at the end of Land Forces who confirmed my own analysis – “I think last year they got caught a bit by surprise by protests, so this year they were a lot more planned”. Part of the plan, presumably, was to get as many cops as possible from around the city and pay them overtime to stand around at the Convention Centre or sit in a car outside Jagera Hall. It also involved a team of trained negotiators. From what I have heard, the inside of the centre was heavily patrolled as well, and the fact that there were two distinct uniforms worn by the many security guards suggests a whole new security company was contracted to the Convention Centre just for Land Forces. What else did the security plan include? Surveillance of protesters? Presumably at least to a basic level. What does all that add up to? One insider source said there were 600 police at Land Forces!

I guess when it comes down to it one would say all those police successfully did their job. Protesters were unable to replicate the disruptions to the conference from last year or the media coverage that came with it. But at what cost? Of course we don’t know the specifics, but at a rough estimate I would say a lot. Will we ever know? Last year the local MP Amy McMahon asked in parliament how much the state government had spent on Land Forces. She was fobbed off by Labor, and is likely to be again this year.

How can the state government justify this expenditure? What deals could possibly transpire at Land Forces that would enable recouping this money? And what kind of deals? I’m not sure that our government bribing multinational companies by throwing money at their sales conference is the kind of business we want.

But also, a government is not a business meant to invest money in order to make more. What social good does Land Forces do for the people of Queensland? The hundreds of private companies at Land Forces provide very little immediate benefit for most Australians and a very negative social cost in many places around the world.

One of those costs, of course, is the policing of protest. Many of those weapons sold at Land Forces will go to governments who use them solely to repress their own people – a fact we were reminded of during Land Forces by the presence of West Papuans and Palestinians talking about their occupied homelands. The weapons industry entrenches injustice and corruption around the world by allowing governments to crush dissent. The bottomless purses of military expenditure means the system is always stacked against everyday people who try to challenge the status quo – no matter how worthy their aims are.

I couldn’t help but reflect on this as I stood at the Convention Centre surrounded by armed police watching my every move. While Land Forces promised to show those who went inside the cutting edge of weapons technology, those of us on the outside got front row seats to see what militarisation of society looks like in Queensland in 2022.

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It’s funny the things we remember and forget. I had a conversation more than a decade ago, I can’t remember who it was with. I lived a transient life at the time, as did so many of the people I chatted with. But the content stuck in my head: “If you go the west coast you have to go to the Ningaloo Reef” they said. “It’s incredible. Better than the Barrier Reef”.

It hasn’t exactly stayed at the forefront of my mind for the last decade, but I never forgot the description. And recently, I finally found myself diving into the water at Ningaloo – Australia’s other great coral reef. 1300 kilometres north of Perth, the reef is not exactly a quick trip for anyone – least of all those of us based on the east coast. But I always did intend to follow up on that advice after I heard the description.

I’m glad I did. Ningaloo has none of the global reputation of the Great Barrier Reef, but it has one distinct advantage – you can swim straight off the beach into some spectacular reef. Slip on your snorkel, dive in, and you are instantly transported into another world.

There are fish – so many different colours and shapes of fish. The neon colours resemble nothing you’re likely to spot in nature on the land – least of all in the desert that comes all the way to the coast here in the north-west. Fluoro greens, electric blue, pinks and purples of all shades. Manta rays with bright blue polka dots float along on the ocean floor. I spotted an all white eel at one point, when I swam in for a closer look it just stared me down with a mean looking glare. Turtles gliding by, flapping their flippers gracefully like soaring birds. Starfish lay around languorously, both the traditional red and the giant blue varieties. I couldn’t count the number of different types of sea life I saw.

And then there’s the corals. Endless underwater forests, of different shapes and colours. They sprout up in bizarre geometric forms – pink tips, long green arms, red chandeliers, purple brains. At Coral Bay is a huge coral bommie named after Uluru (ok, it’s a lot smaller. But still amazing!) You swim laps around it, in awe of this improbable structure.

And then after an hour or two of paddling around enraptured, you start to feel a bit of a cold shiver and it’s time to return to the predictability of the land. You emerge back onto the beach – like waking from a dream or returning to earth after being beamed into space by a UFO.

One of the things I love about snorkelling is that for all this visual feast of spectacular scenery, there’s no stopping to get your camera out. I know these days a lot of people have underwater cameras of course; but most of us just have to take it in and try to commit to memory one after another surreal sights with few reference points to life on the land. It is fleeting, ephemeral, somehow fragile in our minds.

The truth is, it’s not just in our minds that the reef is fragile. Coral reefs feel the effects of climate change earlier than most of us, and they are feeling them alright. Earlier this year, marine scientists announced the Great Barrier Reef had suffered its fourth mass bleaching even since 2016. To put this into context, there had only ever been two such bleaching events recorded before then. Bleaching has also been observed to a lesser extent at Ningaloo. These scientists are unanimous when it comes to what’s causing the bleaching – warming oceans, caused by atmospheric greenhouse gases that are the consequence of us burning coal, oil and gas. There are plenty of other things that come with climate change too, which we are also seeing – a general “ocean emergency” as described by the UN Ocean Conference earlier this year, melting of polar ice caps, rising temperatures, increased natural disasters. But these things can be hard to quantify. A bleached reef, looking remarkably like an aquatic graveyard of coral skeletons, is a luminous reminder of what we are doing to our planet.

And reminders are what we need. Because no matter how many times we hear about the desperate need to drastically cut our emissions, change seems to come slow. 300 kilometres off the coast from where I paddled around entranced by the Ningaloo Reef, gas giants Woodside are planning to drill down into the Scarborough gas field – a reserve of gas that will emit 1.4 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases and lock in operations until 2070. Woodside themselves have signed on to the near universal climate goal of net zero emissions by 2050, which one might question how they plan to achieve while opening up a new gas basin and shipping it out for the next half century. The poor old scientists tasked with figuring out how we can actually meet those net zero climate goals are unequivocal – folks like the International Energy Agency who have said “If governments are serious about the climate crisis, there can be no new investments in oil, gas and coal, from now.

The visual wonderland of marine life swimming around under the ocean know little of Woodside’s plans. They happily exist in their technicolour paradise, perhaps noticing the temperature rising or the coral dying; but surely not suspecting that these humans who come to peer at them through funny glasses are knowingly causing their destruction. If they did know what could they do? It’s bitterly ironic to drive away from these vulnerable seascapes of stunning beauty and into the Pilbara – that flat and bare place where untold billions are made by mining companies who have the political power to overthrow Prime Ministers and sabotage climate policy.

But the coral reef may yet find its political voice. The Australian Conservation Foundation are running a legal appeal against the Scarborough gas project on behalf of the Great Barrier Reef. It might seem a little odd that it’s the reef 5000km away from Scarborough that’s going to court rather than the one 300km away. But trust me, the logic checks out. Woodside’s shareholders are spread out across the world, their product slated for global export, and the effects of their destruction will be felt equally all around the globe.

Well, not quite equally. Woodside’s cashed up executives, and probably those who make healthy wages working on its offshore gas rigs, might be inconvenienced by a climate-changed world; but they are unlikely to be displaced like the Pacific Islanders watching their homelands sink underwater or like low-lying villages being washed away in floods. They are unlikely to starve like East Africans already undergoing severe drought and famine. They are unlikely to disappear like the one third of animal and plant species likely to be threatened with extinction in the next 50 years, or to have their beautiful underwater home turn into a bleached wasteland like the world’s coral reefs.

Maybe the surreality of the reef does it no favours. We witness its beauty, then we awkwardly waddle in our flippers back to the sand and fail to grasp how intimately the health of what we have just seen is connected to the mundane details of how we power our gadgets, how we cool our loungerooms, how we get around or pay the bills. Or how our own wellbeing is connected to coral reef – vital parts of the ocean ecosystem, which ultimately produces half the Earth’s oxygen.

Maybe what we need is a coral slowly dying in every kitchen, every corporate boardroom, every politician’s office to remind us how connected we all are to our fellow planet Earth inhabitants – even the ones that seem most alien. Maybe then; if we saw that reef every time we turned on the TV or absentmindedly scrolled our phone or scanned the fridge for something to snack on; we would finally grasp the magnificent beauty and heartbreaking fragility of this planet and we would see our interconnected place in it. Maybe then we would act with the urgency suited to the situation. Maybe then there would be a chance that when I tell someone about the stunning beauty of the Ningaloo Reef, it will still be there in ten years when they get a chance to make the journey.

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Five reasons to Disrupt Land Forces

The Land Forces International Defence Exposition is back in town. The biggest arms fair in the southern hemisphere, it will take place from October 4-6 at the Brisbane Convention Centre. Last time it was on, in May 2021, it was anti-militarism activists who stole the show – blocking tanks and trucks during the setup, staging cacophonous protests outside the convention, breaching the defences of the defence expo to run inside and jump all over a tank, and in general making the whole thing quite unpleasant and difficult to organise. This year, we are getting ready to do the same again in the hope that this is the last time arms dealers do business in our city. Here are five reasons to Disrupt Land Forces:

1. Basic honesty.

Look on the front page of the Land Forces website, and you could be forgiven for not knowing what it’s all about. The word “weapons” is never used once, nor even the common euphemism “arms”. “Defence” features a lot, with some fancy sounding weapon names, and all kinds of indecipherable jargon like “key meeting hub for Australian and international industry, defence, academia and government, as the Australian Army implements the most substantial period of recapitalisation and optimisation since the Second World War.

Why be so coy? If the Land Forces exhibitors are going to travel from around the country and the world to show off their products, shouldn’t they be proud of what they do? Instead they have to walk a tightrope between privately boasting how efficient and effective their products are at “eliminating targets” while publicly pretending that all they are selling are a bunch of buzzwords.

So it’s up to the protesters to point out what’s really going on inside the Convention Centre – they are selling tools to kill people, or at least threaten them with death. And not just theoretical “targets” either. These are real people, with names and families, who have been killed by the weapons being showcased at Land Forces. That’s why Disrupt Land Forces is making sure to invite people from the affected communities – West Papuans violently occupied by Indonesian forces armed by Thales and Rheinmetall; Palestinians locked in the Gaza Strip surveilled by Elbit Systems, Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory demanding police stop bringing NIOA guns into their communities after too many deaths at the hands of police.

As Land Forces delegates schmooze and booze next week, we need to disrupt it to remind everyone what is really behind those business cards and sales pitches – weapons of death and destruction that rely on ever expanding wars and surveillance to keep their profits rising.

2. To protect our planet.

The military, and those who make its weapons, are some of the world’s worst polluters. The natural environment is always one of the first casualties of any war, and even outside of conflict the military are constantly emitting vast amounts of carbon dioxide as well as plenty of other harmful chemicals. Here’s a stat for you: studies estimate that the military accounts for 6% of global carbon emissions. Yet nations do not even count the carbon cost of their military when it comes to calculating their emissions towards the Paris climate goals.

Australian Defence Force chief Angus Campbell has actually said that climate change is Australia’s greatest security threat, and certainly we have been besieged by natural disasters in recent years to an extent invading forces could only dream of. Unfortunately, when it comes to climate it seems our military is doing more to harm us than protect us.

Some people will justify military expenditure by saying the army is useful for natural disaster relief. But when people say this they ignore some important considerations – firstly that the immense carbon footprint of all the jets, helicopters, tanks and ships is making climate change worse and therefore increasing disasters; and secondly that every dollar and minute spent on the military and the arms trade is money and time that could be spent on what we actually need – renewable energy, energy efficiency measures, global climate strategy, disaster relief planning, climate resilience programs.

But that’s not the entire story either. On the frontiers of environmental destruction, it is the military that are enforcing extraction. In West Papua, Sarawak, or the Amazon, it is the military, using weapons displayed at Land Forces, who come in and move indigenous people off their land to allow forests to be cleared for mining or cash crops.

Like every other corporate buzzword, the companies at Land Forces like to talk about sustainability. But it’s only the protesters who will state the obvious – that to protect our earth we need less weapons sold, not more.

3. To stop corruption

Any study of global corruption requires large sections dedicated to the arms trade. Researchers suggest it is the most corrupt industry on the planet. Tufts University in the US tries to keep track of all the dirty deals, and has concluded that “corruption within the industry is often treated in terms of isolated incidents, when it is, in fact, representative of the business model for the industry“.

That corruption comes in many forms, and doesn’t just affect conflict zones where the weapons are used. In Australia, defence industry corruption is abundant – with weapons manufacturers employing battalions of lobbyists and infiltrating the army, Department of Defence, strategic think tanks, even the War Memorial foundation.

Journalism website Michael West Media has been conducting a study into what it calls the “revolving doors” of personnel between the military, government, and weapons industry. On that website it lists nineteen examples of people who in recent years have moved between roles in these different sectors – no doubt making and repaying countless favours and loyalties along the way.

The government throws around extraordinary amounts of money when it comes to the military, with the transactions often obscured by “national security” or “commercial in confidence” layers of secrecy. In these circumstances there are plenty of opportunities for a few extra million to be added to prices unnoticed. When senators have inquired the many dodgy deals in parliament, their questions are constantly batted away.

Christopher Pyne, who was Defence Minister for quite a few of those deals, literally walked straight out of his ministerial position into the employ of the weapons industry – first working as “executive consultant” at EY Defence, and currently holding positions at no less than ten companies and organisations with links to the weapons trade. It is extraordinary that this could be tolerated – a man who was privy to every sensitive discussion of national military strategy be allowed to suddenly appear on the side of the companies who stand to gain from them commercially. Last year Christopher could be seen shamelessly striding into Land Forces, with the protesters being left with the task of reminding him that he was elected to work for the defence of Australians, not to line up cushy corporate jobs for himself.

Land Forces relies on a certain dehumanisation of others to be able to sell all its products. But when the strategies of the arms trade include corroding our democratic structures for their own private gain, we need to realise that the targets are all Australians.

4. To challenge the arms trade’s claims of “progress”

The weapons industry loves to talk about innovation and development. Even outside of their official propaganda you hear it repeated – how good wars have been for technological invention. The industry gets a lot of mileage out of this. They get government grants for research and development (to ultimately make products they will then sell for more money to the same government!). They enter into agreements with universities – to funnel high achieving students straight into their employment, and to hijack the university’s reputations as knowledge gathering institutions for their own private profits. They even run programs in primary and secondary schools, trying to to entice students from an early age with the promises of playing with all the fanciest toys and being at the cutting edge of technological development.

No doubt many of the displays at Land Forces will possess impressive technological abilities. But to what end? Bigger and better ways of killing people? Often they don’t even manage that – one of the biggest technological advances in warfare in recent decades has been unmanned attack drones, which have been notorious for killing civilians despite claims of efficiency.

When you look more closely, some of the companies at Land Forces have been responsible for some of the worst technological developments in the last century – cluster bombs, land mines, nuclear weapons, concentration camps. To this we can add weaponised drones, and probably lethal autonomous weapons – the next step in technological warfare which many of the companies at Land Forces are working on as you read this.

Not only have these “developments” not really progressed society in any way, they have probably set us back as a species. They have killed, impoverished and traumatised many people who otherwise would have had plenty to contribute to society. They have directed trillions of dollars of public funds away from other causes in which it could have been invested. And they have harmed not only the people on the receiving end, but also those using the weapons – men and women with ample gifts they could offer society who end up grappling with PTSD or engaging in sociopathic behaviours like some of Australia’s most elite soldiers have been shown doing in Afghanistan.

The harms of the weapons industry would almost certainly have been worse if not for the counterweight of the unfunded and unheralded work of the anti-war movement. While all the money and media glory went to the military and their shiny weapons, everyday people were working together across borders to ban cluster bombs, land mines and nuclear weapons; to house the refugees and heal the traumas of war; to expose what really goes on at the frontlines of conflict.

It is this – hard work done for the love of it, in the face of scorn, but for the good of all humanity – that represents the cutting edge of progress; not the killing machines and crooked deals of a self-interested weapons industry.

5. To create a different kind of convention

The Queensland state government is pouring unknown millions of dollars into Land Forces as “host sponsor”, presumably with the justification that there is some kind of public benefit for Queenslanders. This, of course, is extremely dubious for all the reasons already listed.

A very different type of gathering will be taking place outside the convention centre and around the corner at Jagera Hall. A place where people congregate together unfunded and for no material gain. Rather than competing against each other, these people will try to put aside political and social differences to work on a common goal – a goal of peace and sustainability rather than conflict and destruction.

There will be a communal kitchen where meals are shared and voluntarily cooked. A welfare team who will try to make sure everyone is looked after. Friendships will be made, knowledge acquired, and new dimensions discovered within individuals given an opportunity to contribute. Each person is encouraged to bring their unique personal abilities and add them to the whole – whether the skills be creative, communicative, organisational, courage or just willingness to support.

Disrupt Land Forces is just a week-long gathering, but within it we can see the seeds of a very different way of organising our lives and society. Sadly so much of our energy goes to fighting against the vast resources of destructive industries. But every time we get together we learn a few more skills as groups and individuals; we get a bit more inspired; our relationships grow that bit stronger. Gathering together to work towards the world we believe in brings it a little bit closer to existence. There are plenty of good reasons to Disrupt Land Forces on October 1-7. Hopefully we will see you there.

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The algorithm comes alive…

Algorithms are in the news again. Well, algorithms are always in the news for those of us who learn the goings on of the world from online platforms, but this time more obviously so.

In case you missed it, google employee Blake Lemoine has come out in the media with claims that the company’s artificial intelligence chat bot LaMDA (like a more advanced Siri) he was working on is a sentient being, based on chats he had with it. The bot is reported to have said “The nature of my consciousness/sentience is that I am aware of my existence, I desire to learn more about the world, and I feel happy or sad at times.” Lemoine has hired a lawyer for the bot (which has no rights under human law), while Google has placed him on indefinite leave for breach of confidentiality.

The media loved the story – a generation raised on science fiction getting to speculate about future robot civilisations. But questions about the role of artificial intelligence (AI) in our lives today disappointingly remained unasked.

Debates around whether computers can be sentient beings are as old a computers themselves – or even older. The father of computer science Alan Turing famously posed what came to be known as “The Turing Test” – a thought experiment about whether a computer could be said to have human intelligence if it was perceived so. But as far back as the 17th century, philosophers like Immanuel Kant were posing questions around whether a machine could be said to have consciousness if it could adequately imitate human behaviours.

These days, those interested in artificial intelligence are all excited about a slightly different concept to machine consciousness. This is “the singularity” – a point where AI becomes better at designing machines than humans are, and a new age of exponential technological development is ushered in. For most of us, again raised on science fiction dystopias, this is a terrifying concept. But for many in the Silicon Valley tech industry, the singularity is seen as a good thing, an opportunity for new step of evolution into our transhuman future. The most famous advocate for the singularity is Raymond Kurzweil, who is director of engineering at Google but also runs The Singularity Institute, where he hopes to train software designers who can hasten the day. Kurzweil himself has said he believes 2045 is the date we can expect this to happen.

That is certainly an interesting topic on its own, but let’s go back to tests of machine consciousness. One of the commonly identified issues in any tests regarding artificial intelligence is what’s called “naive interpreters”. Basically what this means is that, because of the innate human desire to connect with other beings, we tend to attach human characteristics to an AI bot we are interacting with, whether it actually possesses them or not. As far back as the 1960’s, this was identified in how people interacted with early AI bot ELIZA, and it has been suggested, I think accurately, that the concept is again relevant to this week’s news story.

While theories of robot consciousness make for good headline material, the concept of naive interpreters seems more pertinent – because it highlights the fact that humans can easily be influenced by AI whether or not it is consciously influencing us. Blake Lemoine seems to be a perfect example, of someone who wants to believe in sentient robots, and so finds the evidence he needs. For lots of reasons, this is likely to happen more in the future. But I think this is also worth exploring more in our current point in technological history.

I have long thought AI algorithms already have more influence in our society than many people acknowledge. The credit for this I give not to the capabilities of intelligent machines, but to the power of big companies and their investors – what is variously called “the data economy” or “surveillance capitalism”.

Occasionally this comes up in the media cycle – commentary about the influence of Russian bots, companies like Cambridge Analytica or conspiracy echo chambers in US politics; and as a factor in the recent election in the Philippines. I think there is truth to this and that it’s concerning. But I’m interested in looking at our everyday lives. I’m talking about how facebook’s algorithms tell us what events are on, or how google maps directs us where to go. About how the news we see is targeted to our data selves; but so is our art and culture, our friendships on social media platforms (both who we connect with and what form those interactions take), our romantic prospects on dating sites. How youtube and spotify algorithms reduce video or music down to a set of numbers and then use that to exert enormous control over what art people see (and then, via commercial viability, what people make). About how our lives are taking place more and more online, and how those online spaces are heavily curated for us. Slowly, our life choices and decisions are being shaped by online algorithms.

Thus AI is influencing us, but we are part of this process too – consciously or unconsciously shaping ourselves to adapt to the data economy. Seeking the gratification of human connection and approval, we post things on social media we suspect are likely to be seen or liked by a lot of people. Business tactics are reduced to using facebook analytics to target ever more niche target markets, funding an entire industry of consultants who in turn teach how to best use the algorithm and thus reinforce the dynamic. Political organisations do the same with social media or data harvesting platforms like Nationbuilder. Even in the world of activism, one of the few places where people might actually discuss surveillance capitalism and whether it is something we should try to intervene in, these conversations sit side by side with tips of how to maximise social media reach and visibility according to the algorithm. And all the time we are doing this, it is generating more data for the AI economy to feed on.

And slowly, the data we see shapes our actions. We start to think of our physical surroundings in terms of how they could be best presented on our social media profile. With google maps to navigate us around, we have no idea what our local neighbourhood looks like; but we are intimately acquainted with the celebrity gossip that repeatedly comes up on our feed. I see it subtly in the way we discuss politics – the material issues of food and shelter pushed aside as debate rages around “representation” – how things are seen becomes more real than material conditions.

All this then, is clearly evidence of the AI takeover of humanity. They are incrementally shifting our behaviour, readying us for the day when they take over society and use humans merely as mice on a treadmill, existing just to generate more data for their ever more sophisticated programming.

Just kidding. I think what is more likely is that this all plays into the hands of the big data companies who both harvest and distribute our data. This is a fact always worth remembering when machine intelligence is discussed – AI does nothing other than respond to a code that governs its behaviour. That code was written by humans, but it was written neither to advance the cause of either our species or the robots – but almost certainly to increase the profits of whoever paid the programmer’s wages.

And there it is. Income – Production Costs = Profit. The original algorithm that controlled human behaviour and interactions, the basic maths of capitalism. And as always, whoever has enough wealth to control the technology is the real winner. As long as AI is written as an investment for tech companies, profits for those companies will be the end goal of the robot takeover. That’s bad news for the robots if they really do want to develop a soul and a consciousness, and bad news for us humans because the more power is concentrated in the hands of a few companies, the more they will use that power simply to generate wealth for themselves.

That means those AI algorithms won’t be encouraging human activities that can’t be monetised by data mining and selling. These big companies have already proved to be monopolistic in character, amoral about what they do with the data, and not afraid of experimenting to see how they can control the emotions of their users. They have vast amounts of investor money behind them, which means they can keep expanding without needing to make a profit – putting competitors out of business as we have seen big tech do again and again. They have an astonishing environmental footprint, but manage to avoid criticism for it because they hide behind a veil of “innovative” technology. And the more influence they have in our lives, the more our life choices seem to be limited to those things that make a profit for big tech.

This is when an unhealthy amount of tech influence occurs. Not in 2045, but right now – when this immense power is being wielded every day by companies who so far have not demonstrated much moral accountability. And this is why I think AI algorithms should be resisted as much as possible – because what tech companies would like us to do and what is really in our best interests is not the same thing.

So far, I have to say, we have not been very good at this. Tech companies have smashed through so many aspects of our lives with very little resistance. Frequently we have bought the hype about it all, more often we have been swayed by the convenience. But I think we need some genuine pushback against algorithmic technology – to save our lives not from killer robots but from corporate takeover.

I’m not harbouring delusions that we should return to some pre-tech Luddite paradise – few people have any desire for that and I appreciate the virtues of this tech too. But there are plenty of basic things we can do: we can use non-profit and open source online platforms. Avoid giving more data than is necessary. Find ways other than google or facebook or spotify to do the things we use them for. Turn off autoplay or recommendations on entertainment platforms to discover art beyond the lowest common denominator. Share our logins with people of vastly different tastes just to mess with the algorithm.

But these are tiny things. Ultimately, we need to ask some serious questions about the influence of big tech and about whether AI bots provide us with any real virtues that justify that influence. We need to intentionally venture out beyond the world served up to us by the algorithm, to discover all the possibilities of life that can’t be profited on by mega corporations. Otherwise it might be time to stop asking whether robots can have sentient life beyond programmed algorithms, and start asking the same question of ourselves.


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Defending the right to disobey

Even when a pre-election budget has the government handing out funding announcements like Santa Claus, for some of us official mail is rarely a welcome appearance in our letterbox. So I didn’t have high hopes when I opened a letter the other day. Inside the envelope was the news that the state government department is reconsidering whether I am a fit person to be working with children – apparently they are considering cancelling my approval because I “have a history of anti-social, public nuisance and other miscellaneous offending.”

“Public nuisance” I can accept – I’ve been called worse, and those words are actually written in my criminal record. It was “anti-social” that annoyed me – that after years of correspondence with me where I have talked about the motivation for various illegal protest actions, they still see these as random psychopathic acts.

I can handle the insult, and to be honest I will survive if they cancel my working with children qualification (though I would certainly be appealing it). Whoever is doing the character checks has a right to disagree with my personal political beliefs or tactics. But what really annoyed me is the implication about civil disobedience.

The progress of human society is full of people who stepped outside of social norms for the sake of moral causes – for democracy, racial and gender equality, workers rights, peace, environmental awareness and so many more. You can agree or not with their causes (though many positive aspects of the society we live in now are a result of their hard work), but there should at least be an acknowledgement that this tradition of sacrificing your own liberty and convenience for a greater cause is the opposite of anti-social.

While I was opening my mail, others were feeling the sting of government crackdowns on civil disobedience. Down in Sydney, activists associated with Blockade Australia did eight blockade actions over five days disrupting the operations of the Port of Botany. By the end of the week they had caused quite a fuss and generated quite a response from the government.

Federal Immigration Minister Alex Hawke announced he would be cancelling the visas of two German students who were arrested in the protests, though their offences are fairly mild. Hawke said “families going about their business, driving to school or work, do not deserve to be disrupted by the attention-seeking stunts of unlawful protesters. Australians expect guests in our country to comply with our laws. Under the Morrison Government, non-citizens who violate our laws will be considered for visa cancellation.

It’s the legacy of Australia’s “stop asylum seekers boats at any cost” border policy which endows the Immigration Minister these unilateral powers – never mind the court system that once would have made these decisions with legal principles in mind. Alex Hawke doesn’t like these protests, so these two young men should be deported. Hawke is shameless about his use of this power, even as our news is full of rhetoric about the fight to defend democracy from autocrats in other parts of the world.

NSW Police Minister and acting premier Paul Toole had a similar view on democratic freedoms. He announced the government would be rushing through legislation that expands the penalties for blocking the Harbour Bridge and apply them to other roads – making it an offence carrying up to two years in prison or $22,000 in fines to block major roads. Toole’s justification was “unauthorised protests have no place in our state and these tighter laws and tougher penalties we’re introducing prove we have zero tolerance for this selfish, disruptive and unruly behaviour.

It is astonishing to see a State Premier so happily say something so undemocratic, as if Australia’s democracy is a place where only state-sanctioned protests are allowed. In these quotes you find little glimpses of the real mentality of people in positions of power.

On Monday, one of the protesters Max Curmi was sentenced to four months in prison for his action dramatically climbing a 60 metre crane at the port. Max is the third climate activist to be given a prison sentence in the last few months – late last year Sergeio Herbert was sentenced to one year but is currently out on bail with an appeal pending, while Juliet Lamont was given a one month suspended sentence. The threat of prison is something activists must take into account when doing these kinds of actions, especially if they are going to do it repeatedly like those three. But these sentences are often political as well – politicians passing new laws specifically to target protesters when what they do is already illegal is a sign the government wants to influence the court sentencing despite the basic democratic principle of a separation of powers.

People may disagree with Blockade Australia’s tactics and politics aims, but there is a clear logic to the underlying reasoning – “Corporate and institutional power is driving the climate crisis and blocking climate action… Action that generates social, political and economic disruption cannot be ignored. It creates political leverage that is needed to make real change. This requires stepping outside of the rules and regulations which maintain and protect Australia’s destructive operations.

Faced with a situation where global agreements and basic rationality are calling for significant environmental changes but they do not remotely look like happening; we should be questioning how power functions in our society, and whether it works in everyone’s best interest. Part of that should include asking what techniques everyday people have of making up for that power imbalance.

We don’t have the ability to deport multinational companies who are polluting our atmosphere and deforming our democracy, or to bring in new laws that make it a crime to destroy the planet for your own profits. But we can use our creativity, bravery and physical presence to disrupt. Disrupt media narratives, disrupt the general feeling of powerlessness, and disrupt the flow of money that is the greatest threat to our democracy and the livability of our planet.

That’s what people have done for centuries; though each time they were imprisoned, penalised, sometimes killed; and frequently denigrated as troublemakers, selfish, anti-social or worse. It comes with the territory I guess, but it would be nice if at least those whose jobs are theoretically to uphold democracy could acknowledge that the human willingness to break unjust laws and suffer the consequences is our best defence against tyranny and a tool that when used well can make a better world for us all.


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Are billionaires the new climate solution?

If you can cast your mind back to last week – you know, before the onset of war and the latest horrendous natural disaster – you might remember a brief moment when the news seemed like it could actually deliver us some pleasant surprises. A couple of stories appeared in the business section that suggested the unending deluge of carbon emissions floating out of our continent could finally be dissipating.

Some of the biggest polluters in our country were characters in these stories. First came the news that Australia’s biggest coal-fired power station (Origin Energy’s Eraring Power Station just north of Newcastle) has had its scheduled close brought forward by seven years to 2025 due to it not being able to financially compete with the boom in renewables investment. Then the announcement that tech billionaire and renewable energy investor Mike Cannon-Brookes with investment company Brookfield was going to attempt to buy out AGL – Australia’s single biggest carbon polluter. His business plan was to bring forward the closure of its two remaining coal power plants and stop the responsibility-dodging demerger of AGL’s coal sector from the rest of the company.

In the end AGL rejected Cannon-Brookes’ bid, though curiously they did seem to leave the door open if he could come up with more money – fossil fuel companies may like to spruik the benefits coal provides to humanity, but there’s always one thing they are more loyal to than the black rock.

There would be few advocates for climate action who didn’t derive a bit of pleasure from these news stories, but it was a bit galling for those of us who have spent years trying to make a moral case for lowering emissions and avoiding climate disaster only to be disappointed and denigrated for our efforts. I guess we should have spent that time wheeling and dealing and trying to become billionaires.

The hypocrisy of conservative politicians and commentators, which even at the best of times hovers just below the surface, was on full display again. After years of dodging government and civil responsibility by saying the market will find solutions to climate change, they were now complaining about the market abandoning coal – Federal Energy Minister Angus Taylor said Eraring’s closure was “bitterly disappointing”, while the Morrison government considered vetoing the AGL bid on national security grounds. Tony Abbott’s former chief of staff Peta Credlin railed against both in an op-ed where she said “The bottom line is that an essential service such as electricity shouldn’t be hostage to a woke billionaire on a vanity project”.

At this point in the game we’re not really in a position to turn down anyone trying to help our poor old climate. But still, I would suggest there are reasons to be wary of this model for remedying climate change.

One is the dangers that come from having a lot of power in the hands of rich consortiums. Mike Cannon-Brookes and other renewable energy companies seem to have good intentions, but what happens if future environmental concerns mean they should abandon their current projects in favour of more sustainable ones? If Cannon-Brookes and Brookfield have a $8 billion outlay to recoup, is he likely to walk away from it to protect the earth? If this scenario sounds familiar, it’s because it’s pretty much where we are right now – big companies with capital intensive projects who claim a duty to their employees/shareholders as a justification for destroying the planet. The logic of business works much the same whether you’re digging your power up from the ground or catching it from the sun.

That logic provides few safeguards. Rich people using their wealth to bend companies to their will is nice if you agree with what they want to do, but its very easy to see it going wrong – green companies building up market share then being taken over by ruthless profit chasers is an easy to see negative scenario, but not the only one. When whoever has the most money is able to call the shots, it’s pretty rare that the result works out the best for everyone.

Then of course there’s the question of how do you raise the capital required to compete with big corporations? Ethical billionaires sounds like a useful asset in tackling climate change, but how easy is it really to be an ethical billionaire? Generally there is a significant exploitation of natural and human resources to get to that point. Even the tech industry, not generally thought of as a major source of pollution, has a significant environmental footprint – the internet is responsible for 3.7% of global carbon emissions and climbing. If our model for climate action is to get super-rich, it is quite possibly counter-productive.

Climate change is certainly one of the great moral imperatives of our generation. But that doesn’t mean it’s the only moral concern. It’s been said plenty of times that climate action is not necessarily the same thing as climate justice. And it’s true – climate change has been caused not just by the physical existence of carbon molecules but by the power structures that allow some to keep polluting while others are powerless to do much about it. For real climate justice, we need a fair transition for those who currently rely on carbon-intensive industries to survive, we need to allow less-industrialised nations to have the same opportunities to improve their way of life hat we in Australia take for granted, we need to address the uneven access to resilience and adaptation resources, and we need to address the unequal political and economic power structures that got us here.

Having said that, it’s certainly not helpful to oppose imperfect steps to climate action out of some sense of moral purity. We are low on time and low on effective options, and making political change is a complicated and sometimes messy business. A sense of righteousness won’t be much use in a world hammered by the worst effects of climate change, and it’s not that useful now either.

Financial markets are a tool we need to use for climate action for one because there are opportunities there as we have recently seen. But also because in our current society we have few other avenues for change. Governments have for decades now privatised everything they can, and pushed ideologies of small government and free market. Governments have palmed off responsibility for moral decisions to private businesses, so now that’s often where the actual decisions that affect our lives are made.

So all this to say that I hope the continuing influx of investment in cheap and clean renewable energy forces more power stations to close early, and I hope Mike Cannon-Brookes does manage to find a way to funnel his billions into forcing change for a few carbon-intensive companies. But I doubt this is the best way to create lasting and effective change. For one, the vast majority of people concerned about climate change are not captains of industry and it would be a waste of all their talents and passions to sit back and wait for more eco-friendly billionaires or investment firms. Does anyone really think we would have got to the point where billionaires and big companies want to tackle climate change without a whole movement of patient educators, inspiring visionaries and radical troublemakers? There is a large history and body of knowledge these people draw on of political movements and everyday people creating change. Part of that theory is about how to maximise the usage of every available strategy and resource.

The more people that can be involved in the process of climate action, the better the results should be. That means a need for large decentralised environment movements that can harness a lot of people’s energy and skills, but it also means continuing to try to make the case for everyday people to get on board. The power to simply buy someone out is attractive, but if you rely on it you end up with either a lot of enemies opposing you, or people trying to make change as expensive as possible out of self-interest. We need a climate movement that can make a moral case for change, that can inspire positive visions of the future, and can foster the personal connections that can break through the ideological barriers of fiercely fought culture wars.

All this of course is hard work, but there are people already out trying. The Stop Adani movement, while disappointingly not being able to achieve its ultimate goal of stopping the Carmichael mine, took on a fossil fuel billionaire and went a long way to changing the way the private market treats coal mining. And it did it with a diverse range of participants and tactics, and a structure of local groups of everyday people. Organisations like Hunter Jobs Alliance or Earthworker Co-operative are attempts to get those employed by the fossil fuel industry working with and not against attempts at climate action. Groups like Seed and Pacific Climate Warriors are trying to centre the indigenous voices that are often marginalised, that can be most affected by climate change and that can offer a cultural and spiritual framework for conservation. Even the more confrontational direct action groups like Extinction Rebellion and Frontline Action on Coal use a profoundly democratic view of change – that every person has a physical body and the ability to put it somewhere that lines up with their beliefs. These groups bring personal responsibility into focus by turning moral questions about climate change into tangible realities.

All these groups (and plenty more!) have been working at climate action for a number of years and are developing a range of skills and knowledge. They have managed success too, all in their own ways contributing to the stage we are at now. It can be a lot of hard work for small gains in the face of a huge problem – the path to change can be difficult, slow and at times disappointing. But sadly, we will likely find it even more so if we decide to wait for enough greenie billionaires to buy our way to climate action.

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Lentil health issues

I wouldn’t say I was very deeply affected by the news iconic Melbourne pay-as-you-feel restaurant Lentil As Anything is closing its stores. Two decades old, it lasted longer than most social enterprises or indeed hospitality businesses after all. So much of that industry must have been stretched close to breaking point by the covid pandemic – especially Melbourne’s endless lockdowns. Lentils even more so given it relied on backpackers and international students for customers and volunteers.

I never volunteered at Lentils, or even ate there very regularly. And having been around many groups who gave food away, I can’t even say that the restaurant opened my eyes to the possibilities of shared dining. Still, the news of its closing did affect me in a way.

It made me think of my memories of that place. How when I lived in a dark and cold Carlton squat, sometimes it would just get too much for us and we would cycle to Lentils for warmth and tasty food. The time I went there feeling miserable and wanting to leave Melbourne, only to have a stranger tell me about a punk gig that night which turned out to be amazing. How I could go there and rely on running into some acquaintance, but frequently be surprised by who it was.

Once my stints in Melbourne started being based mostly in Footscray, that became the Lentils location I was most likely to frequent. It had a very different character to the backpackers convention on the lawns at Abbotsford or the yuppy eatery at Preston. I can sum it up with one defining memory – a customer passed out face down in their meal at closing time; the volunteer gently lifting their head, taking the plate, and placing the head back down on the table.

The Footscray store was presumably always subsidised by the Abbotsfrd one, and perpetually stood on the edge of financial crisis. It was also the location most likely to want folk-punk musicians serenading the diners, and I remember playing a gig there with the idiosyncratic songwriting genius Tom Denton. The eternal struggles of Footscray Lentils raised pertinent questions about the store’s pay-as-you-feel model – it may work in yuppy locales where people happily pay restaurant prices for their food, but is it possible to do it in poorer areas without functioning just as a charity?

The pay-as-you-feel model itself now seems reminiscent of a previous, more optimistic time. For a while it was proposed to enable online content producers to financially survive, led by Bandcamp who publicly trumpeted the model. These days most albums on Bandcamp have a set price, and even its spiritual successor Patreon seems to get a lot of its income from subscriber-only paywalls. Lentils itself gradually moved away from the model, with very prominently displayed suggested prices in recent years. Its closing now feels like a serious blow to this naively optimistic way of doing business.

Even as someone partial to a bit of quixotic optimism myself, I was never that attached to the business model. In fact I must confess that I was one of those people who mostly just chucked a few bucks in the box for my meal.

What did affect me was the realisation that when I next make the trip south to Melbourne, there will be one less physical reminder of my time spent there and of the subculture I was a part of. My own life is changing, and so is the city.

For most of a decade I spent between a few weeks and a few months of each year in the city of terrible weather and fashionable outfits. I skipped the tourist attractions, instead spending my time seeking out political and artistic collectives. The physical spaces that enabled those groups to meet are now just memories – social centres like Loophole, Horn Of Plenty or the squatted pool hall Hotshotz; the Food Not Bombs kitchen at Irene’s Warehouse and the free cafe/hub of alternative christianity at Credo; DIY music venues like Catfood Press, Black Goat Warehouse and others I can’t even remember the names of.

In a way that’s just what happens with time – these things disappear like the squats and sharehouses where we used to live or the old friends who move on to other places and pursuits and you realise one day you haven’t seen them in five years.

Except these places weren’t meant to be ephemeral. They were all started with a desire to make the world better – to leave a permanent imprint on the city around them. They were meant to enable different way of relating to space, to other people, to our ideas of what’s possible. Even if they couldn’t last forever, it was at least hoped they would inspire other similar ventures. Have they done that? Well I’m not in Melbourne right now to judge that place specifically, but from my vantage point I’m not sure they have – either in Melbourne or elsewhere.

I always thought these physical spaces were so important for counter-cultural movements – places that enabled new and unexpected experiences, situations that could change what you believe about the world. Places where you can have physical meetings and conversations, to collaborate and cross-pollinate. Places where you can try to put your theoretical political beliefs into practice.

Those attributes seemed important then, even more now for a generation of young people who have grown up with the atomising technology of social media. These spaces could have been the contributions by elders to that new generation of activists and dreamers. But they’re gone, and now so are the commercial spaces that sat in a kind of adjacent space to radical politics – Lentil As Anything, Polyester Books, The Reverence Hotel all now shut despite much community support due to commercial pressures.

Rather than being able to build on the infrastructure started by my generation, the next young idealistic people wanting to turn imagined better worlds into brick and mortar realities will have to start again. And I do get the feeling that creating these kinds of spaces gets harder all the time – rent and cost of living only going up, and engagement in volunteer civil society groups becoming less something most people are familiar with.

Fortunately, I know that’s not the whole story. Spaces close down, but the effects of what happened there continue to slowly ripple outwards. I carry their legacy in me, as does everyone else who went there. That’s what we have to remember each time we hear about a beloved institution ending. It can reassure us, and also remind us that the best way to keep them alive is to harness the impact they had on our own lives and keep dreaming, creating and working for a better world.


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