Why Activism Sucks, But We Do It Anyway
I feel betrayed and tired. I want to storm government offices and scream in their faces. I want to punch certain politicians in the face. I want to crawl into a hole and wake up when we’ve fixed the world.
But I can’t.
Along with thousands of others, I’m already struggling to my feet, dusting myself off and steadying for the fight to come. Months, maybe years more, of meetings, actions, channelling the purest form of anger and frustration. But we’ll do it. There is no other option. We’ll be exhausted and frustrated and wrecked at the end, but the alternative is worse. Much, much worse.
“So what do you guys do?” the first year asked meekly, turning a pamphlet in her hand. I locked in the fake smile and churned out the lines I’d repeated so often.
“We’re Australia’s largest youth organisation, and we’re building a generation-wide movement to solve the climate crisis.” The girl’s eyes lit up and her signature joined the growing list on my clipboard.
I believed in what I was saying. I’ve been an activist since the primary school tree-planting days. But on that day, I felt like absolute shit. I’d been campaigning for Australian banks to rule out funding a giant coal mine proposed for southern Queensland for almost a year and I was exhausted. I was weighed down by activist burnout, like almost everyone else on the campaign.
If you’re not familiar with it, activist burnout is basically when your belief that you can make a difference is crushed by failure. It makes your efforts seem futile, causing you to fade or drop out of activism. It’s a terrible feeling. You care, you want to help, but the thought of continuing to fight a losing battle is too much to bear. It can take months, sometimes years to recover from.
For me, the despair came from the knowledge that the people in power just didn’t seem to give a fuck about the future of the world. The banks didn’t want to talk, politicians smiled uncomfortably as we pleaded to have our voices heard and our opposition – the fossil fuel industry – labelled us ridiculous, childish and ignorant. But somehow, regardless of the challenges, we’d kept planning, rallying and recruiting.
At the end of another day gathering signatures, as I half-heartedly threw bundles of banners, stickers and t-shirts into my bag, I glanced at my phone.
“OMG EVA did you see it?”
“Best day ever – I can’t believe it!”
“Ahhhh what are you doing tonight? We need a celebration!”
The shock was so much that I had to turn off my phone and sleep for a day. After 12 months of constant campaigning against them, Commonwealth Bank had finally ruled out giving any funding the huge Queensland coal mine, proposed by Indian Mining Company Adani. Finally we could take a breather. We’d gotten through to the head honchos at Commonwealth by visiting every one of their branches, surveying their staff, covering every major city in posters and even crashing their AGM. We relished in our success well into the New Year, ready to take on anything the fossil fuel industry hurled at us. We won and Adani had no chance.
Now, 18 months later, I’ve been slammed back down to Earth. Our big win has been thrown in our faces because the Federal government has promised $1 billion dollars to the mining project, pending Adani gets the rest of the money elsewhere. In fact, our Prime Minister just finished a tour of India, where he rubbed shoulders with Adani’s principal, Gautam Adani, to discuss the mine’s progress.
This is fucked up.
If the Adani mine goes ahead, it will be the biggest in the southern hemisphere and have a yearly output of coal, which if burned, will pump approximately 79 million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. That’s the equivalent of the yearly emissions of Malaysia, Austria and New York City.
The effect this will have on the climate is terrifying. Predictions for the future if we continue at our current rate of warming, are already between 2 (with good climate policies) and almost 5 degrees (if we do nothing) by the year 2100. We’re at the point now where no matter what we do, the future is likely to include massive losses of food and water sources, extinction of species and more extreme weather patterns, and all of this will disproportionally affect the people who have done the least to contribute to this problem. And the Adani coal mine is only going to make it worse.
It’s not only the long-term impacts that will be disastrous. The mine would seriously threaten the 69 000 jobs that rely on the Great Barrier Reef. With plans for 40,000 ships a year to visit the port and dump dredged materials just outside the world heritage site, it will put an already stressed reef under more unnecessary pressure from potential oil spills, ship groundings, and warming ocean temperatures. The state and federal government have tried to justify their support of the mine by endlessly bleating, “Jobs and growth!” but the mine itself may only end up providing around 2500 – 3000 jobs, which is peanuts compared to the number of people Queensland tourism supports.
The most heartbreaking battle of all is the fight of the Wangan and Jagalingou people, who are the Traditional Owners of the land where the mine is proposed. Their website states, “If the Carmichael mine were to proceed, it would tear the heart out of the land. It would literally leave a huge black hole, monumental in proportions, where there were once our homelands. These effects are irreversible. Our land will be ‘disappeared’.”
The Wangan and Jagalingou people have brought multiple court cases against Adani, rejected a Land Use Agreement with them and even travelled internationally to meet with banks in an attempt to stop them investing in the project. But the mine now holds a “critical infrastructure” status, which means the government can extinguish all land and native title rights of Traditional Owners for 99 years and claim the land as crown land. No you didn’t just wake up in 1778: this is still 2017 and racist bullshit like that is still happening.
Like I said, activism is tough, especially people who are literally fighting for their livelihoods. But for them, and for me, lying down and accepting our fate is just not an option because there is too much at stake.
Sometimes I think ignorance would be bliss. I could go on living a normal life without the constant lurking fear that my future is bleak. But being an activist isn’t easy it’s necessary. We have to keep fighting in any way we can no matter how exhausting it is.
Imagine if the activists of history gave in to their hopelessness. Imagine if Martin Luther King had thought, Fuck it – I don’t wanna march; I’m staying home today because my words will never make a difference. I reckon our world would be a far shittier place.
Nobody becomes an activist because it’s a fun time. We do it is because once you see what’s wrong in the world, there is no other option than to fight back. Even if you take time out, the guilt of inaction always wins out and you have no choice but to get back out there. Even when you’re worn out and burned out there’s always more to be done and never enough people to do it.
When the news of the government’s $1bn funding came through, my email gradually filled with condolences and messages of support intermingled with action plans and emergency meetings. Reluctant, determined, I pulled out my diary, read through each upcoming event, and clicked ‘attending’ to every single one. I have no doubt that we will win because when it comes to the crunch, they are fighting for money and we are fighting for our lives.
Cover via CECHR