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.

http://www.disruptlandforces.org

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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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My top 10 songs of 2021

It’s a decade now since I started posting this list on my blog each January. It’s a nice way to reflect on the music I have been listening to, and at one point this year I had fun looking back through the old lists. One thing that has changed in that time is how I listen to new music. In 2011 I wrote how for the first time ever I had started streaming online! While once I often heard new music often through live gigs; growing older, extended stints living in the bush and covid restrictions have severely limited that – reflected in the lack of local artists in this list. To make up for it, I wrote more than 20 reviews of new albums again in 2021 – including most of the bands included here. Sometimes the sheer quantity of music being released is a bit overwhelming, but I’m glad to say that this year it took a bit of work to narrow the list of songs I loved down to ten.

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High Contrast – Time is Hardcore

High Contrast’s Notes From The Underground was an album I absolutely loved – mixing Dostoevsky references with big poppy hooks and euphoric breakbeats. But on another level again was this collaboration with poet Kae Tempest.

Kae has appeared in this list before, but I reckon this might be my favourite of their lyrics – exploring the tension between past and present in our psyches. It came at a time when covid lockdowns were seeing many of us caught in nostalgia. But it also speaks to the ageing ravers in High Contrast’s audience who are leaving behind the carefree days and nocturnal adventures of youth; and to the transgender folks like Kae who face complicated questions about the person they were in the past and who they want to be in the future. Plus the rest of us stuck in this world where time keeps marching on and we are forced to find some way of dealing with it. My favourite song of the year.

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Liz Stringer – First Time Really Feeling

2021 was the year I finally started listening regularly to Double J. It’s nothing to be ashamed of – I grew up with JJJ, but haven’t listened to it in years and now when I do I just feel like it was better in the old days. In the promotions department at the Double J offices there’s a picture of people like me labelled “target audience”.

It was there that I first heard this beautiful song by Liz Stringer. From its gentle intro to lovely melody and epic conclusion, it is a fantastic song about facing up to the full spectrum of emotions after quitting drinking.

Liz Stringer is only a few years older than me – she was raised on intelligent guitar music that used the elements of classic rock without falling into cliché. It’s certainly not a style still in vogue like it once was, but I’m grateful that she and Double J keep the fire burning for those of us who still crave it.

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Andy Golledge – Ghost of Love

Over a decade ago I watched my friend support Andy Golledge in a Sydney pub. In 2022, he will finally release his debut album. I don’t remember much of that show way back then, but over the last couple of years I have come to really appreciate his sweetly melodic country rock.

The Ghost Of Love is a catchy tune with great playing and strikingly honest lyrics about struggling with depression and addiction. These things are good but common enough. What I really like about this song is the way the last chorus shifts just a couple of words to offer a genuine path to transformation and healing. Andy’s focus on his own struggles is broken when he broadens his perspective to consider others: “You’re not the only one who’s breaking down… the ghost of love it haunts us all”.

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The Rebel Riot – The night will not be silenced

In February, Myanmar’s fledgling democracy was overthrown in a military coup. The people of Myanmar didn’t take it quietly mind you – part of the civilian resistance was nightly protests where the city was filled with the sound of clanging pots and pans. The perfect protest format for Myanmar’s most famous punk band The Rebel Riot – who, as well as being well experienced at making a racket, come regularly out in the street with cooking implements as part of the Yangon chapter of Food Not Bombs.

The Rebel Riot wrote this tribute to the protests: “there is blood on your hands / can you hear the pots and pans?” At the end of the song they segue into “Kabar Makyay Bu”, a classic Myanmar protest song from the 1980’s improbably sung to the tune of Kansas’ ultra-cheesy 70’s ballad Dust In The Wind.

Later in the year The Rebel Riot released a new album, despite not being able to find a pressing plant in their home country willing to manufacture a record with anti-military lyrics. More than anyone else, The Rebel Riot kept the spirit of punk alive and kicking in 2021.

ps. There is a fantastic video for this song that I can’t show here because youtube has age restricted it due to graphic images of military violence. Watch it here.

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Sam Fender – Seventeen Going Under

I listen to a lot of new music, and in the course of my lifetime have listened to even more. One of the unfortunate side effects of this is that it becomes more and more rare to get really excited and listen to an album obsessively.

But it can still happen, with Sam Fender’s Seventeen Going Under an example from 2021. Fender is a Bruce Springsteen fanatic from the post-industrial wastelands of northern England. His songs, reminiscent of Springsteen at his best, are anthemic classic rock with saxophone solos that explore in remarkable detail the experience of being a 21st century working class male. Broken homes, mental health, shame, anger and violence, fraught paternal relationships and political disillusionment are all covered across the album; and in fact all this and more in the album’s extraordinary opening title track. Like The Boss too, Fender is able to infuse his tales of working class battlers with some catchy hooks, fist in the air whoa-oh moments, and an inextinguishable hope.

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Ani DiFranco – Crocus

For someone who grew up with 90’s alternative music, I was a surprisingly late convert to Ani DiFranco. But over the last few years I have spent a lot of time exploring her extensive discography, and I was very curious to hear Revolutionary Love – the album she released at the start of 2021.

Ani has never stayed static through the last three decades and 23 albums, so we should expect to be surprised. The latest record from this one-time feminist firebrand came out at a remarkably charged moment in her nation’s history; but rather than fuel for the fire it was a call to empathy, reflection and moderation: “And I know you got to fight your adrenaline just to be a gentleman / And I know I got to fight my amygdala just to keep hearing ya”.

The album concluded with this ode to companionship and hope, of purple flowers peeping through the snow after “the longest coldest winter”. It could be about Trump, Covid, bitter culture wars, a world grappling with the disastrous effects of climate change, or something more personal – the message of hope is eternal, and this is a beautiful and timeless song.

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Good Morning – Country

Hipster indie is probably my least favourite genre these days. No offence to Melbourne band Good Morning, but most of their output does not really appeal to me. But then there’s this song, with its unfolding layers of jangly guitars and its diary confessional lyrics.

Why is it that Country latched on to me from the first time I heard it and stuck with me through the year? Is it that that the relatable yet revealing lyrics cut through the glossy affectation that is so common in indie music? Or is it that the song offered a positive vision of changing oneself rather than just wallowing in emotion? Whatever it was, not even my aversion to hipster culture could let me shake this song from my mind.

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Nectax – Beyond Stateless

Is there a drum’n’bass revival underway? So asked highbrow English newspaper The Guardian in mid 2021. I think the answer is no. There are no real revivals of anything these days, just the entire history of pop culture being repeatedly and concurrently cycled through to satisfy the appetite of the ever-expanding universe of online content.

Still, drum’n’bass did have its breakthrough moments in 2021 – most notably the success of the made-for-tiktok, one-minute-long, sad-girl-sings-over-breakbeats hits of PinkPantheress. It got plenty of rotation in my own personal listening time too, as I continue to make up for years of ignoring electronic music. While dance music these days seems to get constantly louder, busier and more obvious, I appreciated the light and minimal nature of this shimmering track from Nectax.

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Darren Hanlon – Lapsed Catholic

The whimsical puns and poppy melodies of Darren Hanlon were a frequent companion to my youth, though I must admit it had been a few years since I had even listened to one of his songs. Still, the prospect of playing on the same bill as Darren at this year’s Hobofopo festival in Tasmania was exciting, and his funny and warm-hearted set turned out to be my favourite live music moment of the year (out of a sadly small field). But the other thing I loved was the weekly shows he put together in November as Double J’s artist in residence. It was a joy hearing Darren’s eclectic song selections and droll introductions, and I very much enjoyed the ritual of tuning in for a couple of hours each week. By the end of that month I felt like I had spent more time with him than most of my friends!

This isn’t Darren’s best song (though I have always enjoyed hearing artists sing about spirituality and religion), but it was the only one he released in 2021. And for reminding me of the possibilities of folk music, live gigs and radio listening; I had to include Darren Hanlon in this list.

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Tony Allen – Cosmosis

In mid 2020, with the news filled with death counts of faceless thousands of people, we lost Tony Allen. Half a century ago in Nigeria, Tony was the founding drummer of Fela Kuti’s Africa 70, the band who mixed African highlife music with American funk and political protest to thrilling effect. His extraordinary rubber-limbed drumming was a key part of the sound, and I could not name a drummer whose playing I loved more.

Tony played music with plenty of others over the years, and in fact had one last album in him even a year after his death at 79 years old. Ever the experimenter; on There Is No End he applied his incredible polyrhythmic drumming to making hip hop beats, and invited a number of MCs from around the world to collaborate with him. Highlight of the album and fitting musical elegy is Cosmosis – mixing Tony’s drums with the playful hippie vibes of Skepta and the portentous rhymes of Ben Okri: “Oh, the music of the bones, music of sage and white stones… Oh the spirits dancing in the slipstream, power and fire in a drum dream”. RIP Tony, the world is a less funky place without you.

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Who does the dishes after the revolution?

Let’s start this story at a punk rock show in an anarchist bookstore. Black-clad people with unusual haircuts crammed in between volumes of Kropotkin and Chomsky; submitting themselves to an aural assault of pummelling jackhammer rhythms, ear-piercing distorted guitar and unintelligible screams. Between bands, someone announces there is a vegan curry and rice, available by donation.

I had caught the train in from the suburbs, and was new to this scene. I didn’t know anybody there. So after the bands finished, I asked the person who had made the announcement if they needed a hand cleaning up – an offer that is rarely refused. So I got to work scrubbing the plates and pots, and we got chatting. It turned out we both wrote acoustic songs. “You should come play here” they said, “there are acoustic nights once a month.”

That’s the kind of gig I like – no audition or artist bio required! So I turned up, borrowed a guitar with a broken string, and played to a very interactive and appreciative audience. Afterwards, a guy said to me “I’m organising a show in Newcastle in a few weeks – want to play?”

It was my entry to the wonderful world of DIY punk. I caught the train up to Newcastle, where after the show, we sat round a fire passing around an acoustic guitar. Someone played a song I had never heard before, though it got a rousing singalong. “So you’re asking me who does the dishes after the revolution? I do my own dishes now, I’ll do my own dishes then!

I could go on and on with this story. There were more gigs, and plenty more washing up. Through that same group of friends I discovered People’s Kitchen – a weekly communal free meal that opened my eyes up to new ways of thinking about food and the utensils we use to eat it. I had been feeling trapped and in need of a new start. The music of Pat the Bunny, who wrote those lyrics we had sung along to around the fire, was one of the things that inspired me to get rid of most of my stuff and hit the road. That was the start of too many adventures to count – and plenty of new dish sinks too.

I have scrubbed a lot of crockery in my life, and I have to admit it’s rare that any have had quite the same impact as that night I scraped off the vegan curry residue. But I don’t think of it as a random aberration. To me, that’s what washing the dishes is meant to be like.

As I travelled around the country, I made a point of staying to the end at events I attended, and helping to clean up. It’s where you meet the best people – those who make things happen, those who are there to contribute not just to consume. It’s where you can bypass differences to find commonality in a shared task. I started seeking out big communal cookups – serving food on the streets with Food Not Bombs, protest camp kitchens, Melbourne’s sadly missed free Credo Cafe. And I washed dishes at all of them. Making friends and sharing interesting conversation over scourers and tea towels has been such a common occurrence in my life that recalling specific instances is very difficult.

I remember reading about legendary punk band Fugazi. They toured America and the world for years, existing outside of the corporate music industry by organising everything themselves. They slept on people’s floors as they toured, and had a rule that they washed the dishes at every house – people will always welcome back someone who washes up. It’s scrubbing pots that keeps the world of DIY punk alive!

I share Fugazi’s philosophy in many ways, and as I have travelled I have always found my way to the sink. When I first arrived in Brisbane, one sharehouse welcomed me in, and even after I had moved on I would often come back there and hang out. One of the residents said to me years later that her main memory of me was walking into the kitchen to find me scrubbing their abundant dirty dishes. In Perth, old friends welcomed me in and said I could stay in their shed as long as I liked. They were busy with jobs and a young child – I told them to never wash another bowl or cup as long as I stayed there.

Because I’ve lived in many communal situations, I’ve also been around lots of disputes about dishes. I can understand them, but I hate these arguments. We’ve got a whole world to change and people want to expend their time and energy fighting over the washing up? My solution has always been that rather than getting upset, we can consciously transform the way we think about the task. Hopefully, mind you, that transformation is something that happens equally to all members of the house rather than just one who then cleans up after everyone else.

While I certainly do endorse the practice of cleaning up after yourself, I think washing up for one is a sad loss compared to what the task can be – symbolised by the popularity of those scourers where you pour detergent straight into the handle, designed to clean a couple of plates under a running tap. No, give me a full sink of suds, with water so hot you need rubber gloves, and a room of people filled with good food, good vibes and communal exchange.

Sure, I’ve lived in sharehouses where piles of plates grow like highrises in gentrifying neighbourhoods. I’ve been annoyed by housemates who make a mess and never wash up – who hasn’t? Many people never even get as far as the housemate I heard of once who stacked the crockery in the shower hoping it would get passively cleaned there. In the grottiest squat I ever stayed in, I ventured to clean the kitchen, partly because I was worried the bacteria growing there was going to overthrow human civilisation. The other residents sat around watching me, saying “don’t bother – the place is going to be knocked down.”

But mostly I have been able to enjoy the task. It is an act of love and service to others, a time for reflection, a way to warm your hands on a cold night, a good chance to do something mindless while you listen to music or podcasts or talk on the phone. I lived for years next to a park and busy bike path, and often enjoyed the view or called out to friends from the sink as they rode past.

One of the best stories about washing up I have ever heard was told to me (naturally) while at the Food Not Bombs sink. A woman told me that when she was a kid, her family would all sing together as they did the dishes. One night they had a babysitter and when her brother played up, he was told he would have to wash up alone while the others could go play. When the other kids sat around sadly watching the one scrubbing the plates, the babysitter realised the shortcomings of her method of punishment.

I love that story because it highlights how subjective our ideas are of what’s a chore and what’s fun. Once I offered to wash dishes at an event. Someone tried to stop me because I had already done enough work. “I don’t believe in a distinction between work and leisure” I said. If something is meaningful, why wouldn’t we enjoy doing it? The fact that we don’t says a lot about our capitalist indoctrination – that work is an unpleasant thing to be avoided or only done if it can make money; that certain jobs come with more social status regardless of whether they are actually more useful; that “leisure” is something sold to us by the purveyors of all kinds of consumer goods, gadgets, culture and luxury. Or that “labour saving” devices like dishwashers are a miracle that rescues us from the drudgery of housework – rather than just more clutter using up space and resources and accruing debt, just to achieve something we could already do perfectly well without it.

Everyone wants a revolution but no one wants to do the dishes”. So goes the saying that is referred to in that Pat The Bunny song. It’s said in reference to radical political groups and is often justified; where social norms of status, gender and human laziness still apply. But a real revolution doesn’t just shift the jobs around. It changes the way we think about societal roles, about work, about ourselves, others and the everyday objects that surround us. It allows us to see the real worth in all these things; not just that conferred by a worldview that values accumulating wealth, power and status above anything else. And because the battleground for that revolution is mostly in our heads, it can start right now – without having to leave the kitchen. Who does the dishes after the revolution? We do our own dishes now, we’ll do our own dishes then.

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Resisting climate destruction and despair

After two weeks of world leaders gathering in Glasgow to negotiate a new global climate agreement, COP26 President Alok Sharma stood up to announce the final agreement. Fighting back tears, he said “May I just say to all delegates I apologise for the way this process has unfolded and I am deeply sorry. I understand the deep disappointment but I think as you have noted, it’s also vital that we protect this package.”

Well Alok, welcome aboard. The bus you’re on has reached that unpleasant location all activists come to sooner or later – the point where your ideals meet your limitations.

Everyone trying to create social change gets there eventually. Some never make it past – they shrink back from the struggle, muttering about pointlessness and burnout. Sometimes it’s particularly cruel – you think you’ve achieved something, and then watch it come undone. You lock yourself to a coal train, bringing the whole apparatus to a halt for half a day, then the cops cut you off and from the back of the wagon you hear the thing rumble back to life. Or you take a mining approval to court, spend months filling out endless paperwork, win the case; then read in the news when the government reapproves it with the most minor changes.

Or after years of lobbying and activism, you see the private market turn away from fossil fuels towards renewable energy. Then a party that claims it is all about “small government” offers the industry hundreds of millions in subsidies for a “gas-fired recovery”. Or that same party, after destroying two separate hard-fought pieces of climate legislation, make a pamphlet they claim is a plan to a net-zero carbon economy and smugly take credit for everyone else’s work they spent years trying to destroy.

This is the history of climate activism in this country – vast amounts of effort go into taking small steps forward, then like a footprint in a sand dune it slides backwards before your eyes.

Last week, a train loaded with coal rolled out of Adani’s Carmichael mine. It was only a test run, but the real thing is not far off. Astonishing amounts of time and effort have gone into the campaign against that mine, work that has delayed and downsized the mine and forever impacted the ability of the fossil fuel industry to get finance and contracts for new projects. And yet there it was – little black lumps of Galilee Basin coal heading towards the port. 62 year mother and retiree Megan Byrnes locked herself to the train – disrupting Adani’s test run for a few hours, but more importantly signalling to everyone that the climate movement is not giving up.

A couple of hundred kilometres south-west of where Megan stopped that train, Wangan and Jagalingou Cultural Custodians are still camped out across the road from Adani’s pit at their Waddananggu ceremonial grounds. It’s been 91 days now in blazing sun and occasional torrential downpours, but even that is just the latest step in a decade long struggle against the mine. Day after day they stay there, watched around the clock by Adani’s security while the company’s trucks go up and down excavating away their land. It’s a long game they are playing there – trying to keep their traditional culture alive as an act of resistance to the industry that sees country as nothing more than an obstacle to getting at the riches beneath.

Meanwhile, thousands of kilometres south in Newcastle, activists from Blockade Australia for two weeks disrupted activities at the world’s biggest coal port. It was an incredible effort of repeated, creative blockade actions – an amazing display of ingenuity, courage and dedication. Just the kind of skills we need to tackle the climate crisis. They likely weren’t expecting thanks from the powers that be in our society, and they didn’t get it. They were lambasted by media and politicians, had police commissioner Mick Fuller make a mockery of his own laws by charging them vexatiously with “intent to kill or injure person on railway”, and in the end had one of their participants Sergeio Herbert thrown in prison for a year (he has since been granted bail to appeal the sentence). Blockade Australia have vowed they will be back next year with more of the same.

Sergeio himself has surely been testing even his deep reserves of enthusiasm. The 22 year old has been arrested over twenty times in climate protests over the last few years – his determination admirable and his actions symbolic of the many young people who want real action on climate change but see few avenues for it through the political system. Getting arrested isn’t very fun, and going to prison doesn’t do anyone much good. The consistent personal attacks he has endured from the right wing media would be too much for most people too. But Sergeio is inspired by the history and theory of civil disobedience and committed to keeping climate change in public discourse any way he can.

Then there’s environmentalists in Western Australia, who fought so hard to get an end to native forest logging in the state this year, who nearly a decade ago stopped a gas hub near Broome, and now have another fight on their hands. Petroleum giants BHP and Woodside have confirmed they are pushing ahead with their Scarborough offshore gas project. It is proposed to emit 1.6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide – three times Australia’s annual output. The companies, naturally, are claiming it’s good for the climate.

I could go on forever, but suffice to say that Alok Sharma is not alone in feeling disappointed and sorry that all his hard work has not been enough. We imagine conversations with future generations where we say the same. We weigh up whether to engage with facebook trolls who sit around doing nothing but go on our pages to tell us that our efforts make no difference. We dialogue with our own minds and bodies, exhausted from the endless banging of heads against the wall, that we did our best and shouldn’t feel guilty for what we couldn’t achieve.

And then we get up and go again. Because it’s the right thing to do. Because to sit back and watch it all unfold is too depressing a thought to indulge. Because we are inspired by our friends and comrades around the world. Because you can’t just hand victory to those smug jerks who make their money from destroying our planet then claim they are doing everyone a favour. Because every bit of coal or gas kept in the ground make climate change a little less disastrous. Every tiny reduction in fossil fuels or land clearing or political hot air could be the difference that stops our climate from hitting a carbon tipping point and spinning out of control. Because we’ve fought this hard for this long, and it wasn’t for nothing.

That’s why the resistance to Adani’s mine won’t stop when they do start shipping coal out. That’s why the threat of prison sentences won’t stop people from taking direct action against environmental destruction. That’s why the resistance has to continue against the next mine, the next gas hub, the next greenwashing corporation and the next climate denying politician.

There’s nothing wrong with letting out a few tears sometimes, like Alok Sharma reading out the COP agreement. Nothing you can do about a bit of vitriol or ridicule from the haters. Sometimes we feel frustrated, angry, hopeless, overwhelmed. But then we muster together our willpower, encourage our friends, and get back to work. We organise, blockade, write, talk, build for climate action. Because our planet, and those who live on it, depend on the often hard, thankless and dispiriting work of those trying to protect it.

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Climate Change Conference of the People – a photo essay

This week, politicians from around the world will gather in Glasgow for Climate Change Conference of Parties. Our own Scott Morrison will be there, showing off his brand new “Australian Way” plan for pretending to do something about climate change. But across Australia over the last few weeks has been a different kind of gathering for climate action. In all the cities and towns of this continent, people have been out on the streets or on the climate frontlines – disrupting destructive work, raising awareness, reminding us all that we can have more of a role in the climate action discussion than just swearing at the news. It has been extraordinary in scale and diversity. These are just some examples of what’s been happening.

Let’s start on October 11th (first day out of lockdown in NSW!), when Illawarra residents blocked vehicles headed to the Russell Vale coal mine, opposing its proposed expansion. There are significant concerns about what the expansion will do to Sydney’s water catchment, as well as the fact that IPCC climate scientists are adamant that all existing coal reserves must stay in the ground.

Two days later, Rene Wooller scaled the roof above the entrance to Brisbane’s parliament house. He wanted to bring attention back to a situation the government seems desperate to keep out of sight – the fact that natural wonder and major tourist attraction the Great Barrier Reef is under serious threat from our inaction on climate change. Just in case politicians missed the banners, Rene hung pungent fish carcasses around the entrance and scattered around pages from the “Guide To Fishes” book.

Brisbane’s was not the only government building targeted. Extinction Rebellion in Canberra have been doing a remarkably sustained set of actions outside federal parliament, and probably would have done more if not for a lengthy covid lockdown in the middle of it. On October 18th, activists dressed as burning koalas, Scott Morrison, and environment Minister Sussan Ley (who is in court appealing the ruling that she has a “duty of care” to young Australians when considering new coal mine applications) all superglued themselves to the road. It wasn’t the last disruption XR Canberra would cause either.

That same day, young Newcastle woman Mia Bloom stopped a coal train en route to the world’s biggest coal port. Like those in the Illawarra, people in the Hunter Valley are labelled as residents of a “mining town” by the industry that benefits from excavating their surroundings. Young people like Mia are fighting for a local identity based on something other than destroying the planet.

The next day, Extinction Rebellion in Brisbane were back at it – conducting a funeral march through the city carrying “corpses” that represent the lives that will be lost due to climate change. Health institutions like The Lancet and the Australian Medical Association have repeatedly described climate change as a health emergency, and retired doctor Lee Coaldrake was one of four people arrested for gluing their hands to the mall.

Striking visual images have always been a specialty of Extinction Rebellion groups, and the pram has become a recurring visual motif for the group ever since one was symbolically set alight in front of parliament on the morning the most recent IPCC climate science report was published. In the last couple of weeks prams have been used repeatedly across the country – often painted a ghostly white, or even hung off a bridge with flares while people blocked the road above.

Despite the horrific damage caused by bushfires two years ago and despite the fact that forests are our only carbon sequestration method that actually works, Australia’s native forests are still being cut down. Not satisfied with destroying irreplaceable biodiversity for the sake of exporting woodchips, it is incredibly still being proposed that these forests be burned to generate electricity – a process that is described as “renewable energy”. Here are a couple of blockades in parts of Australia with long historical track records of protecting forests – Bega locals blocking log trucks from getting to the local woodchip mill, and Port Macquarie locals stopping access to the Pentarch sawmill.

The tripod is an icon of Australian environmental protest – pioneered on the south coast of NSW not far from that Bega truck blockade, and used to protect forests and shut down roads all over the continent in the decades since. This one is blocking the main street of Adelaide, yet another Extinction Rebellion traffic disruption.


The COVID pandemic certainly slowed some of the momentum the climate movement had built up, but it hasn’t stopped people from taking action for our planet. The folks who had been organising the blockade of the IMARC mining industry conference in Melbourne have been stuck in lockdown for much of the last 18 months, but they are not letting the mining industry hold their zoom meetings in peace. Last week the aptly named “Mines and Money” conference was held online – so folks at home organised a “spam blockade” of it, taking over the hashtag and producing all kinds of quality online content for conference attendees to enjoy.

Also busy creating humourous images was comedian Dan Ilic. Ilic started a crowdfunder for some billboard images in Glasgow during the COP summit, trying to embarrass Australia’s leaders into climate action. When the public donations far exceeded his expectations, he decided to also rent the world’s biggest billboard in New York’s Times Square.

Scott Morrison famously said kids should be in school and not doing activism. Thankfully, the schoolkids of Australia have learned the basic arithmetic the PM hasn’t: too much carbon + selfish inaction = climate disaster. So often shut out of the debate about their future, those kids are still getting out there having their say with the kind of youthful enthusiasm we all need sometimes. School strikes were held all across the country on October 15th. I’ve included a photo here from Perth, because we haven’t had any pictures from out west yet but climate action is everywhere!

Many have noted that the government’s recent net zero plan included no mention of slowing down Australia’s vast fossil fuel export industry. This fits with Australian government policy of pocketing the cash from these exports while pretending not to have any responsibility for the consequences. It also fits with the tradition of having the mining indurty write our climate policy. The Australian public aren’t buying it though, and for many years the campaign against Australian coal exports has focussed on the proposed Adani mine and the Galilee Basin of buried coal. Sadly, Adani’s mine is edging closer to being built despite the determined campaign against it. But those opposing it haven’t given up yet – still targeting investment companies like HSBC who have money in the Adani group and have the power to make the mine a lot more difficult to operate. The Wangan and Jagalingou Traditional Custodians of where the mine is haven’t given up their resistance to Adani either – their cultural camp Waddananggu on the mine lease is still going strong after two months camped out in harsh conditions.

With Australia lagging behind most other developed countries in climate action and with a government so unwilling to do anything about it, it may be that COP 26 is a place where other governments can influence Australia to do the right thing. Last week Kyle Magee and Juliet Lamont from Frontline Action on Coal shut down the massive Hay Point coal terminal in Mackay by locking themselves to the conveyor belt. They called for international governments to introduce carbon tariffs and trade sanctions on Australia if the government fails to take action on climate.

The COP summit is off to a rocky start already – yesterday the world’s biggest 20 economies (responsible for 80% of the world’s emissions) met together ahead of the UN meeting, and failed to come to any resolution – not even the basic goal of net zero emissions by 2050. Scott Morrison, naturally, used his speech to argue against taking any real life climate action, instead promising future technology would magically fix it.

This morning, Australians who are more grounded in reality did what we will need to do to solve the climate crisis – disrupt the status quo. There were Extinction Rebellion actions in all capital cities, the photo above from Brisbane where the William Jolly Bridge was shut down by four people clocked to a kayak.

When Scott Morrison turns up in Glasgow, he will claim that his government has made a plan for net zero by 2050. Leaving aside the deficiencies of this “plan”, it is just not true. For years he and his party have done everything they possibly could to resist taking climate action. While scientists, engineers, activists and community organisers were out there taking steps to fix this mess; Morrison was smugly waving around a lump of coal in parliament, or voting to dismantle every piece of climate legislation ever written in that building.

They certainly weren’t given any credit at Morrison’s “Australian Way” press conference last week, but it is the climate activists of Australia who forced that document into existence. For decades now we have diligently and imaginatively tried to educate and inspire the population; taking on a powerful fossil fuel industry that has managed to overthrow multiple Prime Ministers. We have been disheartened by the slow progress, abused in the streets, demonised in the media, criminalised by new laws brought in specifically to stop environmental protest. But the movement has never given up, and never stopped trying new tactics. If we are to have any chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change, it won’t be due to world leaders gathering to emit more hot air at COP 26. It will be people like those in these photos – ordinary folks, creatively and courageously fighting together for the future of this planet.

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Traces of utopia

It was with a slight sense of irony that I read Griffith Review’s recent collection of essays, fiction and poetry on the theme of “utopia” while camped out in the dust and brutal sun of central Queensland.

A group of us huddled under tarpaulins for shade and used water stingily, given it was being driven in from hundreds of kilometres away. Showers and clean clothes were just memories, and checking for tick bites was a daily activity. Across the road from us, trucks belonging to international megacorporation Adani rumbled through the day and night excavating the Carmichael coal mine. Up and down they would carry their loads of dirt, oblivious to continuous warnings from scientists that all coal reserves must stay in the ground if we are to have any chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change.

Ok, maybe that description makes it sound worse than it was. I was there supporting Wangan and Jagalingou people, who are conducting an ongoing cultural ceremony called Waddananggu – the latest step in their long resistance to Adani. It has been a powerful political action and a healthy community, and there are plenty of good things about being there. But still, from external appearances at least, the setting was closer to commonly imagined dystopias than utopias. Fortunately we were far enough from Hollywood that no one confused it for a post-apocalytpic film set, because it did bear a passing resemblance to a scene from Mad Max.

And yet, I’ve said often over the years that all political action should have at least a little utopianism embedded in it. And what’s more, I think utopias are just delusions if they’re not based in what you are already doing. So at times between reading others musing on utopia, I got thinking: what traces of utopia (an imagined ideal society) were present in our camp?

The first element I saw was individuals working together for the good of the whole. At its most basic level, this is evident in the fact that we were all there in the first place. Wangan and Jagalingou activists had initiated the ceremony because their culture and custodianship of the land are threatened by Adani. They enjoy a healthy support for this, but for most other people who were there, our opposition to the mine is primarily due to our concerns about climate change.

But beyond that, there was a wide range of people who came through that space even in a short time – there were young and old, anarchists and members of political parties, feral blockaders and middle class greenies, new age hippies seeking spiritual revelations and experienced campaigners talking strategy and designing spreadsheets.

Now not everyone was in perfect agreement or even harmony all the time. And overall I would say this group, diverse as it was, represented a pretty small segment of society as a whole. But everyone could find enough shared interest to work together towards a goal – that of maintaining the physical camp and resisting Adani. If I could name one characteristic of my utopia, it would be that people accept differences as inevitable and instead focus on commonalities – and through that can work towards what’s in the best interests of all, rather than what’s good for one at the expense of others.

The second utopian element I sensed there was that all of us were working for free. This might seem like a strange goal, when so much political activism over the last couple of centuries has been workers organising for better pay. But hear me out.

Over the road from us were workers being very well remunerated for their labour – which went towards destroying our planet’s climate and the culture of Indigenous people. And at least the coal they dig out is useful for something. Think of all the advertising executives, telemarketers and mid-level management paper shufflers whose jobs take up their lives yet whose production is of very dubious worth. In contrast to this, I have thought in the past that my vision of utopia might be a world where everyone has access to basic resources, but nobody is allowed to pay someone else to work for them. Then we’d see what tasks are actually in our best interests and what you can only convince someone to do with the promise of riches or the threat of starvation.

On a more realistic level, I believe in maximising unpaid work because the jobs people do out of passion, care and responsibility are more likely to have a positive impact on the world than the things we do because it makes a profit for some company. For this reason I firmly believe in reducing the length of the working week, and steps like a Universal Basic Income or another project that takes the coercion out of work.

Working for free has the potential to transform our idea of work and even our ideas of ourselves. So much of our working life is spent begging to be employed, then begrudgingly doing tasks we don’t want to, for people whose authority we are forced to accept, for an end we may not believe in and don’t share in. And then our spare time is spent recovering from this or complaining about it to our friends.

Work can be a lot more than that. To use the small example of our bush camp, work there was empowering. Rather than being told what to do by a boss, people could volunteer for jobs they were interested in or even suggest tasks they thought were beneficial. We could learn skills we didn’t already have – like natural building, or cooking in bulk, or or group facilitation – rather than being assigned tasks based on pre-existing skills or arbitrary characteristics.

And work could be fun. Jobs were a way of getting to know different people, or of utilising our creativity in difficult circumstances. One night, our camp was assaulted by a fierce storm. We had to physically hold our kitchen together to stop it being destroyed, and in the process we all got thoroughly drenched. But pulling together with others, to protect our own space, it was fun! The next day, the post-storm recovery in the heat oozed positive energy, knowing that our care for the camp and our dedication to staying there whatever the conditions was an expression of love.

My utopian vision is not one where there is no work. Work has many virtues as a sense of purpose, an expression of creativity, a bonding activity. But also, any future society is likely to involve hard work – for our own needs, and to fix the environmental and social damage we are currently doing. Much of the luxury we can enjoy now in fact only comes from our unsustainable exploitation of our planet and some of its inhabitants.

Which brings me to another utopian element of life out there. We worked with what we had. It was a rugged environment, and we had limited shelter and water. But we made do, pretty comfortably and cheerily for the most part. Everyone got fed and sheltered, and doing so made good use of people’s skills and ingenuity. A small herb garden was started by one passionate gardener, in spite of the cynicism from many of us that anything could survive in the conditions. And yet, utilising the used dishwasher, those greens could thrive. Nothing was very easy, and yet a functioning community and political campaign have survived.

Shelters were built using just natural resources from the immediate area. People coming through town on their way out brought needed supplies. Responsibilities are shared, and participants generally don’t complain if the creature comforts are somewhat lacking. Now admittedly, most people are there short term and probably wouldn’t want to live like that for any length of time. But the camp has now been going for almost two months.

It may seem strange to think of this as utopian, a term that for many would imply comfort and abundance. But I’m into grounding my utopias in physical realities. And our present physical reality is that we are using far more resources than our planet can sustain – and few voices are saying we should slow down. The politicians and corporate media talk of “economic growth”, the constant psychological assault of advertising tells us of all the new stuff we need. The constant drive for more and newer things keeps up clearing land, digging up minerals, pumping out pollutants. And it is very rare to hear anyone, even in our comfortable first world, say they are happy with what they have and don’t want more money or possessions.

To adapt to a post-climate change future, I think this will need to change. Not just because our constant drive for growth is one of the forces driving ecological crisis. But also, while we will no doubt continue to have an abundance of all the things we don’t need, it is quite possible that we will have less of all the things we really do need – food crops, clean water, clean air. Any reckoning with the future, whether utopian or not, has to take into account the fact that our physical circumstances may be very difficult, as of course they already are for so many people around the world.

Over the last few years, natural disasters have wrecked havoc all across the world. It would be extremely foolish to think each of these are just random occurrences and not our introduction to our high carbon future. So the question will be: how are we to live in that reality? Will it be to to look after ourselves at the expense of others? Or to curse the things we don’t have that we once did? Or will we try to find ways to be fulfilled, grateful and generous? Will we make sure the burden of disaster and the necessities of life are equally shared?

Utopias of course are theoretical – the term, invented by Thomas More, literally means “no place”. The fact of living in the complications of community mean that we should be wary of any one person’s vision of an ideal society. But they can serve as a useful device for our imaginations – helping us to picture a world different to the one we live in currently, and to work towards better possibilities. And it is those transformations that I am interested in – how our lives, our relationships with others, our society, our ecosystems can be changed to something that can build us all up.

So there’s a few features of my own utopia. Finding commonalities not differences, working for passion not wealth, and making do with what we have. Some might say it’s a pretty humble utopian vision, but years of political activism have taught me to restrain my expectations. But the best thing about these visions is that they don’t require waiting for an actual “utopia”. They are things we can start doing right now from wherever we are – even in the hot and noisy dustbowl of Adani’s climate-destroying dystopia.

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