There’s a longstanding critique of the environmental movement which argues that somewhere along the road between the fight against the Franklin Dam and the fight for a carbon price everything changed. Environment campaigners cleaned up. Suited up. Lost their soul.
Protesters at yesterday’s anti-wind turbine rally in Canberra appeared to have followed a similar path. I went along to the Stop These Things anti-wind turbine rally (Stop These Things is an excellent, excellent name by the way) as someone interested in both the role of science in the anti-wind turbine movement, and as someone interested in the dynamics of protest politics more generally. But these academic motivations mask the fact that I also like to quietly troll my political opponents, and this looked like an occasion for a little mischievous fun.
I’ll admit it: I am in favour of wind turbines - subject to appropriate planning and environmental control - and I hoped that those against them would unveil a litany of strange opinions and bizarre connections.
What struck me was a rally that was, in essence, a disciplined repetition of modern greens politics.
Where I and the assembled media looked for signs screaming “Ditch the Witch”, “Green Genocide” and “9/11 was an Inside Job”, every sign and t-shirt I saw was remarkable in its discipline, remarkably politically correct. Not one sign attacked Julia Gillard. Not one talked of grand conspiracies. Not one denied the scientific consensus on climate change.
Instead I saw “Wind turbines forced us to leave our homes” and “Yes solar … No wind farms”, and community based arguments such as “Collector says no to wind farms”. There were some antagonistic examples (“Stop the spin” and “sWINDle”) but even these were relatively innocuous. Certainly, the protestors pointed to a constellation of problems - health effects, impacts on birds, lack of reference to native title, high supposed costs and low supposed power generation - but none strayed from a tightly permitted pattern.
Among the speakers, a similar pattern was repeated. None - even the arch climate change fool Alan Jones - brought up or denied the science on climate change.
There were some slips and odd moments - Alan Jones trotted out a neat little parable about how the Soviets used to send the people to the gulags, but now we send the gulags to the people; the Citizens’ Electoral Council sought, once again, to convince me that the Pentaverate were using wind turbines to depopulate rural Australia. But in the main, people were - to use the modern marketers’ term so clearly in evidence in the planning - remarkably on message.
Much of the reporting of the rally has talked of it as a failure. The Herald Sun reported that “Alan Jones has lost a battle of the ‘wind wars’… failing to draw large crowds”, The Weekly Times Now called it a “flop”. The Age leapt on Alan Jones’ acceptance that “There aren’t a lot of people here”. Photos have gone around comparing the rally with a pro renewables rally held at roughly the same time, showing a 10:1 difference in attendance.
I’m not so sanguine.
We can assess these duelling rallies by attendance, by media coverage, by the passion of the attendees. Such measures are vaguely useful, but they miss out on what has happened here.
This rally showed skilled political organisation, connected directly with key on-the-ground communities. You could describe Stop These Things as an astroturf organisation guided by skilled political operators in the Institute for Public Affairs, in turn connected with a wider array of anti-environmental industries. Many others have done so, and I don’t particularly care to add to that discussion here. (Indeed, critiques like this are often used in precisely the wrong way: to damn the group in their potential supporters’ eyes, rather than change our own behaviour. The potential supporters of Stop These Things couldn’t care less about the IPA.)
What I do want to say is that those in favour of renewables should recognise groups like Stop These Things for the skilled - and dangerous - political operators they are.
In essence, the anti-wind turbine movement already has the near ineluctable force of nimbyism on its side: I don’t want them near me because they make me sick/ruin my sleep/kill birds I like/ruin my view/trample the lands of my ancestors/make me pee funny/make my neighbour rich. (Scientific friends, please note that I am making no argument about the veracity of these claims, except to say that those who believe such things certainly do believe such things). Stop These Things is now adding a layer of networking, guidance, strategic support and, potentially, funding.
You could call this nimbyism 2.0 … Or you could just call this just another strand of modern environmental political activism.
Here’s the thing: unless those in favour of wind turbines recognise and deal with this threat, networks like Stop These Things will add significantly - and perhaps ruinously - to the risk profile of every potential wind farm development. This is, quite interestingly, exactly the strategy of diametrically opposed groups like 350.org, who have sought to undermine the fossil fuel industries by casting them as a risky long term investment. City people rallying in favour of wind power simply isn’t going to affect that calculation at all.
While the Stop These Things rally networked slowly under the shadow of Parliament House, the rival pro-renewables rally ran with the Twitter hashtag #actonfacts. I’m with them in spirit, but this is a deeply flawed approach. Why?
Here’s a fact: we don’t act on facts. None of us do. Not Richard Dawkins, not Christopher Hitchens, not me, not you, not Meryl Dorey and not the activists in Stop These Things.
If we want to support the uptake of renewable energy, then we’re going to have to do a hell of a lot better than simply demanding that people do what the scientists tell them.