How to be an effective environmental activist in the 21st century

By Angela Heathcote | June 12, 2018

Outdoor gear company Patagonia has partnered with the Bob Brown Foundation to launch a film to save Tasmania’s Tarkine forest. At a screening last month they talked about what the long battle for this pristine north-western corner of Tassie has taught them about the changing face of environmental activism over the decades.

BOB BROWN HAS been fighting to save the Tarkine, located in north-western Tasmania, from logging for over four decades. The largest region of unprotected temperate rainforest in Australia, it has since captured the attention of environmentally conscious outdoor gear company Patagonia and its Vice President of Environmental Affairs Rick Ridgeway, who have now partnered with the Bob Brown Foundation to create the film takayna, to promote the Tarkine (also known by its indigenous name, takayna) for World Heritage Area status.  

Unlike most people, Bob – who was awarded Australian Geographic’s Lifetime of Conservation Award in 2012 – is hopeful for the future, not just of the Tarkine, but all the other environmental issues facing Australia today. “There’s a mistake in thinking that things are now worse than what they were back then. I think we’re more enabled, I think we’re better informed and closer to being a global community. We have real cause for optimism,” he tells Australian Geographic.

Australia has a long and storied history of environmental activism. From the fight to save the Franklin River in Tasmania over 30 years ago, to the battle for the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland happening today, passionate Australians have stood up for our unique natural landscape against the odds. But approaches have changed along the way. As Bob noted in his reflections on the Franklin River Blockade, a pivotal moment in the campaign was the protesters ability to print coloured images of the Franklin’s Thunderush rapids, revealing it’s true beauty. And now, we’re drawing on the power of film.

Bob, Rick and indigenous ranger Rocky Sainty were in Sydney earlier this week for a Q and A panel after a screening of takayna. The film follows the travels of trail runner Nicole Anderson, who has formed a close connection to the Tarkine through her routine jogs deep within the wilderness. This intersection between sport and environmental activism is the ethos for Patagonia and embodies the kind of optimism promoted by the Bob Brown Foundation.

“Our mission statement is a progression of a focus on outdoor sports to conservation that I have shared with some of my climbing partners through my life. As climbers we gradually became aware of the degradation of the places that we loved from our focus on sports,” Rick says. “In the case of the Tarkine, we started to understand the uniqueness of the region, how ecologically sensitive it is and how much it does for Tasmanians. We were shocked by the audacity to cut these trees that are so ancient.”

Conservation of the vast Tarkine wilderness has been the subject of much controversy throughout Tasmania’s history. According to the Bob Brown Foundation, in 2014 the Tasmanian Government introduced legislation that weakened the status of regional reserves and conservation areas, allowing for the continued logging of the area’s tall eucalyptus trees. This recent campaign is the latest attempt after a series of defeats. So what’s different this time? And does the 21st century call for a different approach to environmental activism?

Nicole Anderson

Nicole Anderson surveying the Tarkine. (Image Credit: Patagonia)

Getting smarter

According to Bob, one of the major changes since the Franklin River Blockade that started in the late 1970s was that big business has realised that they can’t win the argument, so they’ve focussed more of their attention on taking down the activists.  

“[Former Tasmanian] Premier Robin Gray changed hundreds of years of common law that allowed you to trespass. You could always go onto public land and walk around, you couldn’t catch trout or snare a hare, but you could wander wherever you like. Trespass was legal. He changed that and said you can’t trespass on public land or you’ll get arrested or fined.

“The courts found the laws faulty. However, the corporate sector saw that peaceful protest was a real problem for them and targeting the activists may just be the answer.”

To this day, Bob says there are still attempts at weakening a citizen’s ability to protest. Just last year, Bob won a High Court case against the Tasmanian Government’s anti-protest laws. “When the public are in favour of protecting the environment the next best thing for them is taking out the environmentalists who seek to shine a light on the issues and that works because people have families, jobs, studies and other preoccupations that can’t be put at risk,” he says.

Bob sees this as the most dangerous development in recent times, suggesting it’s a symptom of the hold lobbying groups have on Australian democracy and their ability to achieve their outcomes like the now-defeated anti-protest laws introduced in 2014. But he’s also confident that the public, at the worst of times, can’t just be subdued.

“The inevitable moment comes when the public just won’t put up with it and that’s when you get a breakdown, like we saw with Vietnam and like what we’ll hopefully see with Adani…. You can repress public ardour but you can’t stop it because it just pressure cooks.”

Where do you start?

Throughout the Q and A, Rick, Rocky and Bob admitted that environmental activism can be overwhelming, both emotionally and physically.

Rocky, a traditional custodian of the Tarkine, recalled seeing people with quad bikes and off-road vehicles driving along the coastal fringe of the area where his ancestors remains are buried. Yet, despite these recollections, he’s adamant that a deeper connection to land, similar to that held by the Indigenous people of the area, is a start.

Rocky likens his connection to the Tarkine to someone’s connection to a particular family home or holiday house that you visit regularly, that you continue to visit once a love one has passed away to honour and remember them, but mostly to feel closer to them.

Rick, whose conservation efforts stemmed from his love for the outdoors, agrees with Rocky that it begins with a connection to the outdoors in some way. He says that simply taking people to walk through the Tarkine would achieve more than anything, hence why Patagonia is using its new film to promote the area, but, on a much grander scale, why the company links outdoor sport and conservation.

For people who already have an appreciation for the environment, who are worried about its future, Bob says he becomes more optimistic when he thinks of the world as a global community in which everyone plays a part, starting with their local area.

“You need to look at the world and understand that everyone is looking at the world and feeling the same way. We have to rely on the fact that as we do what little we can in our local area millions of others are doing the same thing. I think if somebody thinks I want to make this world better tomorrow, you’re putting too much on yourself,” he says.

Tarkine wilderness

Traditional custodians of the Tarkine Buck Brown and Sharnie Read. (Image Credit: Patagonia)

Dealing with burnout

Bob Brown spoke candidly about the moments when he almost gave up.

“For 10 years before the Franklin I was so depressed about how hard everything was. But that attitude just wasn’t working for me,” he said.

“Depression is a reasonable reaction to how the world is, and the thing is intelligent people get depressed because they look at what’s going on. The Donald Trumps of the world don’t have that extra dimension of perception, they’re simplistic. And if we’re going to leave the stage to them, things are going to go badly and I don’t believe in leaving the stage to them.”

What drew Bob out of his funk was refocusing on a new project, the Franklin River Blockade, and re-strategising. “It showed that a community can organise against all the odds and environmental battles aren’t just to be lost, they can be won as well.”

Maintaining optimism against all odds was a potent topic at the screening Q and A. Rick spoke a lot about the mentality at Patagonia and a culture of activism. “The people at Patagonia are optimistic, they’re doers. They won’t give up because they’ve been set back. They’ll figure out new strategies. We’re charged up and that’s the culture we have.”

Tarkine

Logging in the Tarkine. (Image Credit: Patagonia)

Activism is multi-dimensional

This most recent campaign to save the Tarkine is, according to Bob, the most thorough, which he says is because environmental activism has to be multi-dimensional to win.“You’ve got people out in the Tarkine right now trying to physically stop the area from being logged. That’s necessary, but it won’t save the Tarkine in and of itself. It’s an important part of a suite of necessary actions. Showing this film here in Sydney and around the world is also necessary, but again it can’t stand alone. The campaign to save the Tarkine at the moment is multifaceted,” he explains.

“I’ve noticed a lot of people saying ‘unless you do this you’re not a real environmentalist.’ I just think, leave the individuals alone. If a person isn’t keen on camping out in the wet in the Tarkine that’s fine, if they’ve got studies that’s fine. The anxiety that gets put onto young people, that it’s all urgent and if some way or another you’re not going hard, you can’t call yourself an activist, I think that’s wrong.”

One dimension Bob says is currently missing from this multifaceted approach, not just for the Tarkine, but other environmental issues as well, is the role of a full-time lobbyist in Canberra. According to Bob, back in the 1980s there were two full-time environmental lobbyists, now there are none.

“Being in parliament is enormously important and matching those big industrial houses of lobbyists from forestry and mining is crucial. We need someone telling politicians that voters care about these issues. I know this better than anyone. That’s the aspect missing from environmental activism in Australia at the moment. Lobbying is a special skill, you have to be confident, courteous, well-informed and quick.”

Screening times of the film can be found here.

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