Feature

Eco-activists

Green Lifestyle magazine

Being an environmental activist can be a hard road to follow, especially when the financial interests of big business and the threat of arrest stand in your way. We spoke to five campaigners about what motivates them to take a stand.

Miranda Gibson

Miranda Gibson

Bradley Smith

Bradley Smith

Sara Keltie

Sara Keltie

Merryn Redenbach

Merryn Redenbach

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Miranda Gibson

Anti-logging campaigner
Miranda Gibson lived in a tree in a Tasmanian forest in protest against destructive logging practices.

What motivates someone to climb 60 m up a 400-year-old eucalypt tree in the Tasmanian wilderness and not come down for over a year? For 31-year-old forest campaigner Miranda Gibson it was the devastating effects of logging.

“The first time I saw a Tasmanian forest, I was completely blown away. It’s so humbling to stand under these giant trees,” says Miranda, speaking from her lofty platform in the state’s southern forests. “Sadly I have seen so much of these forests destroyed from industrial scale logging. That is what has driven me to dedicate my life so wholeheartedly to this issue.”

Miranda took her climbing ropes to the tree on 14 December 2011, two days after contract logging companies moved in to the Tyenna Valley area, which is managed by state government-owned Forestry Tasmania. Within a week, the loggers packed up and left the area around Miranda’s tree. So far, there’s been no attempt to remove her but logging goes on elsewhere.

“If I‘d come down, then probably the next day they would have come back and starting logging again,” Miranda says. “It’s not a win until there’s a guarantee it’s not going to be logged. This area is still on the logging schedule.”

As well as some Tasmanian Devils that have wandered past, Miranda’s visitors have included an array of bugs, local birdlife and the occasional politician – former Greens leader Bob Brown and current leader Christine Milne have both been hauled up to the canopy. Miranda’s mum also spent four nights up there. “It was great to have her come up. She’s never really been camping and certainly hasn’t been to the top of a tree,” says Miranda. Her dad and sister also paid visits.

Miranda uses her website www.observertree.org to document her experiences up the tree with blogs, films and pictures. Her one-year anniversary was met with over 300 photographs of support from people across the world. For about five years she has been heavily involved with the campaign group. Still Wild Still Threatened (www.stillwildstillthreatened.org), which is fighting to protect Tasmania’s southern forests. “It has led me to spend a lot of time in forests and monitoring wildlife and forest surveys and looking at endangered species in this area.”

Miranda is a qualified teacher and hopes to secure a teaching job once there’s a guarantee the area is safe from logging. And that guarantee could be in sight. In June, the World Heritage Committee will consider a federal government recommendation to extend the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, which would safeguard Miranda’s tree and 170,000 more hectares of forest. “Part of what I’ve achieved hopefully is to inspire people to know that one person can make a difference,” Miranda says.

After Green Lifestyle interviewed Miranda, she ended her 449-day tree-top protest after a bushfire threatened her safety.

Bradley Smith

Coal and climate change campaigner
A rational assessment of climate change evidence meant Bradley Smith couldn’t ignore the need for direct action.

Bradley Smith has locked himself onto conveyor belts, climbed on top of trains, rowed in front of a ship and been wrestled on television by Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s minders – all in the name of blocking coal.

The 29-year-old engineering tutor and lecturer at the University of Queensland says his risk-taking comes from a rational assessment of the scale of the climate change problem and the role coal plays in it. After reading scientific journals and reports on climate change while at university, he was perturbed by what he says is a “really worrying future”.

“Suddenly this simple concept of leaving the world in a better way than I’d found it became conflicted with living a ‘normal’ life in this society. It makes it hard to go on living the myth that we can carry on and only care about our own lives and ignore the massive impact our society is having.”

In 2008, Bradley helped form a coal and climate change protest group called Six Degrees (www.sixdegrees.org.au),part of Friends of the Earth in Brisbane. “This huge expansion of the coal industry was on the cards then – and still is – and so we decided to provide a voice and get active,” says Bradley. During his first foray into activism, in a protest with about 60 others, he was arrested for climbing on top of a coal train.

Later in 2008, Bradley and a fellow activist used thumbcuffs to lock themselves to a conveyor belt delivering coal to a Queensland power station. He has also been arrested for hanging a banner from the roof of Queensland’s Parliament House, which read “Don’t Undermine Our Farms”.

During the 2010 federal election, Bradley featured in the media after gatecrashing Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s climate policy launch with shouts of “fossil fuels have to go”. His latest ‘direct action’ saw him climb with another activist up a stockpile of coal near a mine at Jondaryan in Queensland, where residents have complained about coal dust.

“People want to make a profit from digging up coal but they don’t want to know about the problems they’re causing. There’s a real responsibility problem there. I’m constantly asking myself what should I do – what has to be done. Direct action is a really important part of what needs to be done.

“So often we’re disempowered by large corporations and by our supposed representatives in parliament who are more concerned about royalties from coal or political donations than they are about doing what’s best for Australia and what’s best for the future of the planet.

“In the past whenever great social change has happened it has come from people who were willing to break the law. We have to take those lessons from history.”

Sara Keltie

Anti-whaling activist
The courage of her convictions about the need to stop whaling drives Sara Keltie
to seek a purposeful life.

The thought of sitting back and watching others fill their lives with adventure and purpose while doing nothing is too hard for Sara Keltie to imagine. When that purpose is saving whales and the adventure is in the wilderness of the Antarctic Ocean, there’s nothing that can stop the 27-year-old from devoting her own life to the cause.

“I don’t see the point in sitting on your butt and watching adventures unfold on TV when every day you’ve an opportunity to get out there,” says Sara, who is originally from Melbourne but now studying a Master of Antarctic Science degree course at the University of Tasmania.

Her first involvement with the ocean-bound activist group Sea Shepherd (www.seashepherd.org.au) was as an on-shore volunteer helping at community events. In 2010, she climbed aboard the Sea Shepherd anti-whaling ship, SSS Bob Barker, as a volunteer deckhand for the Antarctic whale defense campaign ‘Operation No Compromise’.

“Sea Shepherd is the only organisation that was there at that point in time. I wanted to be there when it all came down to the wire,” Sara states. “It was the first year we were able to successfully usher the Japanese whaling fleet out of the whale sanctuary. I never, ever felt that it was a risk. Our captains and our crew are some of the most incredibly passionate, determined, intelligent and skilled people on the planet.

“I’m a scientist and so I see the importance of the science and diplomacy. But at the end of the day, none of that matters if there’s still a moment when a harpoon ship is bearing down on an innocent whale and preparing to pull the trigger.”

During the campaign the crew feared they might not find the Japanese fleet. “Finally we saw a bit of dead whale in the ocean,” Sara recalls. “It was incredibly heartbreaking... but it was the first time we knew we were on their tail. She didn’t die in vain because she led us to the factory ship."

Sara attributes her passion for her cause to an aunt who raised her after she lost her mother to cancer at the age of 11. “She enthused me with a belief that we all have a social responsibility and that we’re a citizen of the planet,” she says.

Sara took a year off after graduating from university and was heading for Europe. But after meeting Sea Shepherd founder Captain Paul Watson at a whale movie premiere in New York, she cancelled her flight and returned to Australia.

“I don’t really see the point in living a life where you won’t take risks for other beings. I’m fortunate because I live in a society where I’m safe and I’m clothed. What’s a couple of months out of your life if it means you can save a life?”

Drew Hutton

Australian Greens co-founder
Sometimes civil disobedience is the only way to convey an environmental message contends Drew Hutton.

“I don’t believe in direct action and civil disobedience for the sake of it,” says 66-year-old Drew Hutton, one of Australia’s most influential figures in environmental politics. “You only do it if there’s a really strong point that you have to make and you are up against governments and forces that are just simply impervious to rational argument.”

Drew says he has experienced this imperviousness in the face of the ongoing boom in coal seam gas drilling and coal mining in Australia. In March 2011, he was charged with obstruction after refusing to leave an area gas company workers were trying to access. His conviction was quashed on appeal. Just two days after this interview, Drew was arrested again at an anti-coal seam gas rally near Kyogle in northern New South Wales.

Drew was born in Chinchilla, 300 km west of Brisbane, in an area he now describes as “the capital of gas land”. After leaving Brisbane Grammar School, where he was school captain, he became a high school teacher and later an academic. But he has always campaigned for social justice, peace and environmental protection. He founded the Queensland Greens political party in 1991 and co-founded the Australian Greens with Bob Brown the following year. He is now the president of the Lock the Gate Alliance (www.lockthegate.org.au) which campaigns against the expansion of coal seam gas industry.

His first arrest came in 1983 after he chained himself to a tree in Brisbane’s Queen Street Mall to call for free speech. Under then Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen, political street marches were effectively banned.

“If you wanted to do any overt political action you were doing civil disobedience because it was all illegal. I would have been arrested more than 20 times during that period,” Drew remembers, adding that he and his wife Libby were careful to avoid being in custody at the same time to avoid childcare issues with their two young children.

“To be a campaigner you have to be prepared to use the full array of strategies and know when to go to the community and when to connect to political power. The ultimate point is to get implemented what you want and in order to do that you need political support.”

He says the multi-billion dollar boom in the coal seam gas industry will “industrialise” the Australian landscape, and resembles an “uncontrolled experiment” on the environment.

“Coal seam gas outraged my view that you don’t allow huge projects with potentially enormous environmental and social impacts loose on the Australian countryside without knowing what the impacts are likely to be. They still don’t know.”

Merryn Redenbach

Climate change campaigner
Coal and climate change are among the biggest threats to child health says paediatric doctor Merryn Redenbach.

“Climate change is going to have an enormous impact on public health not just here but all around the world,” says Merryn, a member of the Melbourne-based campaign group Quit Coal (www.quitcoal.org.au) and a committee member of Doctors for the Environment Australia (www.dea.org.au).

The 36-year-old’s first foray into frontline environmental campaigning was as a medical officer on a Sea Shepherd ship that was challenging seal hunters in Canada. The ship was boarded and seized by Canadian authorities.

In 2007, she saw former US Vice President Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth. After learning more about global warming, she was shocked at what the future may hold.“I became more concerned about the impact it was going to have on children, on health and more broadly all life on the planet really,” Merryn says. “I decided this was a critical time in history and we had a small window of time to act.”

In 2009, she helped organise a rally at the Hazelwood coal-fired power station in Victoria. After addressing the 500-strong crowd with her concerns about coal, climate and children’s health, she marched. “People had an opportunity to cross onto the Hazelwood Power Station site as an act of civil disobedience to indicate their level of concern about climate change and coal-fired power. I made the decision to join that group – and to be arrested,” she says.

That is how she came to be part of Quit Coal, a community collective that plans and executes campaigns to alert the public about the dangers of coal and climate change. Members have abseiled off Parliament House in Melbourne with a banner bearing a quote from NASA climate scientist James Hansen, which said: “Coal is the single greatest threat to civilisation and all life on our planet”.

In December, two Quit Coal members were charged with various offences after climbing and occupying a cooling tower at the Yallourn coal-fired power station. Members of the group also made headlines after interrupting press conferences by Liberal party leader Tony Abbott and Resources and Energy Minister Martin Ferguson.

“Actual confrontation in a direct action is pretty rare,” Merryn notes. “We are peaceful and are not harming anyone. What’s confrontational is making a decision that puts you on the other side of the law. We are symbolically challenging those laws to show that the public good is not being served.

“Fossil fuel interests can afford to just pay for advertising to get their messages out. People who are concerned about climate change can’t afford to do that, but what we can do is to be inventive and courageous.”