Legacy conservation groups are abandoning radical protests, collaborating with business groups and government for a seat at the table. By Ben Abbatangelo.

Conservation groups are abandoning direct action

Protestors sit on the road as police officers speak with them.
Police speak to protesters outside VicForests in Melbourne last year.
Credit: AAP Image / Diego Fidele

In a bygone era, the battlelines were clear. Conservation groups committed to protecting the planet maintained an arm’s length from the governments and industries devoted to destroying it. Their campaign strategies and evidence-based policy demands were clear.

They weren’t afraid to pick fights and they frequently fought the powers that be on their own terms – often swarming the streets to cultivate the necessary political pressure to provoke change.

Today’s story is different and those once-distinct battlelines are blurred. In some instances, they have completely dissolved. Mainstream conservation groups and the proliferation of recently established green-fronting organisations have instead opted to be cosy and collaborative.

Insiders say that too many within the movement are opting for proximity at the expense of the planet.

Environmentalists now need to contend with anti-democratic laws designed to thwart public protest and direct action.

Former Greens leader and outspoken environmental activist Christine Milne tells The Saturday Paper those within the movement have nullified themselves by taking up the fight on battlefields that are controlled by the culprits.

“The old environment groups have completely taken the bait. They have assumed that the best way to bring about change is by ingratiating themselves with the political parties and companies responsible for the vandalism,” she says.

“Now, that doesn’t stand up as a theory of change because you might make all of the best arguments in the world, but at the end of the day these governments are wholly owned subsidiaries of fossil fuel companies and it’s their donations and interests that matter most.

“And because these groups have abandoned the power of the streets, they no longer have anything equivalent to the power of a donation. It’s an absolutely failed strategy. And if it has been such a successful strategy, where are the results? Which projects have we seen stopped as a result of that strategy?”

Milne says the environmental movement has succumbed to neoliberal ideology and market-based paradigms. She says this has shifted the movement’s position from preventing destruction to managing it and has removed the guardrails of direct government intervention to instead facilitate market-managed responses.

“In the ’70s, it was very clear that we lived on a finite planet and that you cannot have infinite economic growth based on extracting resources. We knew that there were limits to extraction, consumption and dumping of waste. We knew our biodiversity and ecosystems mattered,” she says. “As neoliberalism took hold, though, it moved from a mentality of preventing the damage to one of committing the damage, managing it in a ‘sustainable’ way and then dreaming up market-based solutions to ‘repair’ it.”

Whether it was the fight to prevent the uranium mine at Jabiluka or gas extraction at James Price Point, the environmental movement was once against mining in sensitive habitats, land-clearing and deforestation, but in the switch to electrification and 100 per cent renewable energy, the new position of mainstream environmental organisations is to say, “you can’t oppose dig, dig, dig” and “clear, clear, clear” if it’s for renewables.

In partnership with the Business Council of Australia, the Australian Conservation Foundation and WWF are co-authoring reports and urging the government to supercharge Australia’s renewable export industry. The alliance is both unlikely and paradoxical. Together, their solution to counteract climate change and aggressive ecological collapse is to increase the very extractivism that has caused it.

“At present Australia’s exports are fuelling the climate crisis, but we can retain our mantle as a reliable exporter with a new focus on critical minerals, renewable energy and green steel, hydrogen and aluminium,” said Kelly O’Shanassy, chief executive of the Australian Conservation Foundation in a joint press release with the Business Council of Australia and WWF.

According to the International Energy Agency, solar photovoltaic plants, wind farms and electric vehicles generally require more minerals to build than their fossil-fuel based counterparts – a typical electric car requires six times the mineral inputs of a conventional car and an onshore plant needs nine times more mineral resources than a gas-fired plant.

“When I see ACF and WWF advocating for the renewable superpower model, I just shake my head. It’s terra nullius all over again. They assume that there is no limit to ‘growth’, no ecological limit to extractivism, and that these regions are just empty of biodiversity,” Milne says.

“And of course, many of these corporations that have no commitment to addressing global warming or protecting the environment are popping champagne corks because it just plays directly into their agenda.

“That’s why they continue to reinforce that renewable energy means climate action. Because of that, they can have new and expanded mines and developments anywhere, anytime and anyhow. And the environmental movement embraces this instead of pushing back, pointing out that whilst we need to transition to 100 per cent renewables, climate and biodiversity are two sides of the same coin. You can’t destroy one in the name of the other.”

Milne’s frustration is shared by other environmentalists in northern Australia, who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity.

“I’m fuming at the way the mainstream environmental movement is facilitating this,” one said.

“Twenty years ago, mining was the mainstay of what environmentalists opposed. Now you have mainstream groups like the Australian Conservation Foundation and WWF partnering with the Business Council of Australia to write reports saying Australia should become an export superpower – holding up maps of northern Australia with all these dot points to highlight where all the critical minerals are.

“They’re selling out Aboriginal communities because these minerals are found underneath their feet. It’s their Country and their communities that make up these so-called ‘sacrifice zones’.”

Throughout conversations for this piece, it was clear many within the movement knew the current approach to 100 per cent renewable energy was reproducing the harm they were seeking to eliminate, but there was an unwillingness to say anything too critical out of fear of being branded a climate denier or a handbrake to planet-saving progress.

Eighteen months on from what was dubbed the climate election, Anthony Albanese and Tanya Plibersek have pursued their predecessors’ policies and maintained the commitment to growth at all costs.

Labor continues to approve and finance gas expansion and astronomical levels of pollution – with 116 coal and gas mines slated for development and billions of dollars in subsidies still being directed to ecological collapse. They also continue to pursue mystical pro-market and anti-science “management” and “repair” schemes.

Together, the safeguard mechanism scheme, biodiversity credits, biodiversity offsets, accounting for nature and the recently parked “Green Wall Street” are an attempt to commodify nature into products that can be bought and sold.

Although these policies are being positioned as an attempt at what Professor Anne Poelina calls “restoring the forever economies”, their design is to keep the economy growing forever.

Insiders are aghast that this growing apparatus of “planet-destroying policies” has been widely endorsed by climate and nature fronting organisations.

“The beauty about climate change policy is that it’s actually easier, for example, than debating the politics of what makes a fair tax system, because the science tells us what will deliver a safe climate and what won’t,” says Richard Denniss, executive director of The Australia Institute. “We published a lot of research showing how the safeguard mechanism wouldn’t do anything to stop the expansion of fossil fuel production. But there were all these green groups saying we have to get the safeguard mechanism through and that we can improve the framework later.”

As anticipated, the safeguard mechanism scheme has since been used to support gas expansion across the Northern Territory – including fracking the Beetaloo Basin.

“I mean, these people clearly hadn’t read the legislation. The mechanism was already in place. It was literally legislated by the Coalition all the way back in 2016. All Labor was doing was tweaking the language,” Denniss says.

“And it just kind of beggared belief that all of these different climate people and groups would blatantly ignore the science.”

Insiders say mainstream environmental non-government organisations are increasingly enmeshing themselves with big carbon traders and there is a revolving door between industry, government and environmental charities.

Despite what’s at stake, they say too many are flocking to the environmental sector out of opportunity rather than necessity. Some tell me there’s a “whole lot of capitalism being rebranded as green”, so the environmental movement and broader sustainability sector, which was once filled with purpose-driven campaigners, is now “bloated with a bunch of big companies and egotistic billionaires that don’t actually give a fuck about anything other than their profits”.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports are clear. We are on the brink of catastrophic ecological collapse and mass migration due to global warming. The bare minimum of good is no longer feasible. If balance is to be restored, then the environmental movement needs to redraw the battlelines and take up the fight on familiar territory.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 22, 2023 as "Doth protest too little".

For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.

All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.

There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

Use your Google account to create your subscription