Posted by: JohnnyRook | July 9, 2008

It’s getting personal in Australia: thoughts on activism

Apparently, some people in Australia don’t agree with this recent post by Daily Kos front pager, Georgia10.

From Climate Ark:

Environmentalists plan to block one of two rail lines into the world’s biggest coal export port in Australia at the weekend, amid wrangling by rich nations over efforts to combat climate change, they said on Tuesday.

Any disruption to coal shipments from the Newcastle port could give another boost to benchmark coal prices that are already near record highs at nearly US$195 a tonne, having more than trebled in a year

In a curiously, contradictory bit of reasoning a couple of days ago, Georgia10 defended Millennials (sic) (By the way, isn’t having a new label for young people every decade just another tactic to divide us?) against suggestions that they need to get up from behind their keyboards and take their activism out onto the streets by arguing that young people DO indeed engage in offline activism BUT don’t really need to because this is the digital age and such tactics are out of date.

Gee, maybe if Martin Luther King and his allies had had the Internet they could have just written essays and signed petitions instead of getting their heads broken open in Selma. Perhaps they could have just voted Civil Rights into being. (Interestingly enough, about a decade ago during the boom people told each other stuff like that: “Hey, this is a new economy. Forget how they used to analyze companies, all those outdated concerns about whether they made a profit or not… The old rules just don’t apply now.”–funny how that all worked out.)

About the only thing that I agree with in Georgia10’s post is that it’s unfair to single out young people in this regard. I don’t know which is worse, never having taken to the streets to protest or patting yourself on the back while sitting on your fat ass in your air-conditioned office because once, a long time ago, you did. But one generation’s hypocrisy is not an excuse for another generation to fail to meet its challenges. The simple fact is that all of us who care, young, old and in-between need to be protesting in the streets.

What I find most egregious in her post are these two paragraphs.

Yes, it is certainly true, our generation has generally avoided protests and sit-ins, the twin hallmarks of traditional activism. But it must also be recognized that unlike activists in the past, we do not have the draft nipping at our heels, a factor that unquestionably led so many in the 1960s to leap into action. In other words, politics decades ago were intensely personal – from civil rights struggles to being drafted – and there is no greater incentive for action than policies which have a direct and palpable effect on the individual. In this sense, although Kohn claims it is our “hyperindividualism” that shackles us, it is the closer connection between politics and the individual in the decades past that prompted youth to take action.

More critically, however, it is a fallacy to urge us to use tools from the 1960s activist toolbox in this digital age.

So, politics today aren’t so “personal”. “Personal”, here, obviously means to affect me personally. According to Georgia10, in the 60’s people took to the streets to oppose the Vietnam War because they had been pushed into activism out of fear of being drafted. That was indeed a factor but was it the principal factor? What about all the women protesters who weren’t in danger of being drafted? What about Civil Rights? What incentive did white people have to take to the streets in support of African-Americans, other than a burning sense of revulsion at the injustice of the system? Was that personal? Well, yes, it was, but it was a sense of personal that saw one’s person as ineluctably connected to others, so connected that sometimes one felt obliged to risk ones health or freedom in order to do what was right.

Most fallacious in all of this though is the idea that today’s threats are not personal, that the dangers are not “nipping at our heals.”

Take, for example, the following from Dr. James Hansen, perhaps the world’s leading climate scientist.

The consequences of continued increase of greenhouse gases extend far beyond extermination of species and future sea level rise.

Arid subtropical climate zones are expanding poleward. Already an average expansion of about 250 miles has occurred, affecting the southern United States, the Mediterranean region, Australia and southern Africa. Forest fires and drying-up of lakes will increase further unless carbon dioxide growth is halted and reversed.

Mountain glaciers are the source of fresh water for hundreds of millions of people. These glaciers are receding world-wide, in the Himalayas, Andes and Rocky Mountains. They will disappear, leaving their rivers as trickles in late summer and fall, unless the growth of carbon dioxide is reversed.

Coral reefs, the rainforest of the ocean, are home for one-third of the species in the sea. Coral reefs are under stress for several reasons, including warming of the ocean, but especially because of ocean acidification, a direct effect of added carbon dioxide. Ocean life dependent on carbonate shells and skeletons is threatened by dissolution as the ocean becomes more acid.

Such phenomena, including the instability of Arctic sea ice and the great ice sheets at today’s carbon dioxide amount, show that we have already gone too far.

Climaticide, you see, isn’t nipping at our heals. No, Climaticide already has its teeth sunk deep into our ankles and is getting ready to bite off our legs while we continue to act as if its just barking at us from the front porch. If you don’t see that, you simply not paying attention.

If we don’t take immediate action we run the imminent risk of pushing climate change beyond tipping points, which will lead to the deaths of millions of people and untold misery for tens of millions of others. Some of those people are us (rather personal don’t you think), some live in far-away countries, many are generations yet unborn.

To save them and ourselves will require “real-world” action beyond blogging and making You Tube videos, as useful as those tools are. It will take action that is not nearly so much fun.

Georgia10 says that our political leaders no longer care what we want so:

What the people do in the voting booth is the only thing that matters anymore.

It is simply false that politicians in the past cared more about what the people wanted than they do now. If it were not there wouldn’t have been all those protests and sit-ins. People voted in the 60’s, but the people they elected ignored them, which is why those with a conscience took to the streets and campuses of the country to make it impossible for the powerful to ignore them. The failure to keep that kind of pressure on is one of the reasons that we have the miserable government that we have today.

In Australia, which is beginning to burn up, where wheat crops wilt and die in the fields, where it now rains 50% less than it did in the 1950’s, people are starting to see Climaticide as personal politics. That’s why they’re starting to block trains and ports, not just carry signs.

Up to 1,000 protesters are planning on Sunday to block the Carrington rail line into Newcastle port, north of Sydney. The port plans to ship 95 million tonnes of coal over the next year.

“You could say it’s drastic action but it’s simply because these are drastic times. We need to actually start taking serious action,” Friends of the Earth spokesman Cam Walker said.

I don’t know if Cam Walker is a “Millennial” or a “Baby Boomer”, but he obviously walks his talk. That’s enough to earn my respect.



  1. Creating a label for the latest batch of twenty-somethings is also marketing protocol. Advertisers tell them, “you’re unique, no generation has had needs or interests like yours ever before in history.” Replacing culture with marketing tends to democratize, but the downside is — it also tends to discourage critical thinking.

    Those protesters blocking the coal shipments might have done better to spend that time and effort installing solar panels, building windmills, etc. Stop protesting Big Oil, Big Coal, etc, and start bypassing the bastards.

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