The unusual suspects of the protest movement
As the 30,000-strong crowd at the Melbourne chapter of the global People’s Climate March gradually spilled into Treasury Gardens last weekend, a small group of vegan activists attempted to blockade the queue to a Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream stall with a life-sized cow on wheels, brandishing brochures and shouting slogans as to why dairy products were one of the most significant contributors to the climate crisis.
It was an early fault line in the new landscape of climate campaigning, and evidence that when corporates are invited along for the ride, some activists will inevitably baulk at their presence.
But the corporate presence at the rally didn’t end there.
All around Treasury Gardens protest site spruikers were out pushing a new superannuation fund called Future Super, headed by former head of GetUp! and Greens candidate Simon Sheikh. They proclaimed it to be Australia’s first 100 per cent fossil-fuel free super fund, as people signed up at the company’s tent.
Meanwhile on the stage, Ben Burge, CEO of the renewable power company Powershop, was doing his best to inspire the crowd to “take tangible action now” by signing up to switch their power supplier to Powershop, which Greenpeace recently dubbed the greenest power company in Australia.
Far from the traditional picket lines of political demonstrations in the past, this felt like the opening salvo in a new model of merging political protest with “ethical” corporate enterprise in Australia. From a bird’s-eye perspective, among the sea of colourful placards demanding action there were many placards promoting corporations. Future Super had even gone to the trouble of sponsoring slogan sheets for demonstrators to chant from.
“The companies who were there are part of the climate change solution, companies who all have a critical role to play in helping Australians take action on climate change,” says Sheikh.
“The only way to ensure Australia takes action on climate change is to work around our existing power structures. Rallies that simply try to persuade Tony Abbott to change his mind are unlikely to succeed. That’s why it is great to see organisers embrace opportunities to help their members and supporters take action that will actually reduce Australia’s investment in fossil fuels.”
It’s hard to doubt the sincerity of Sheikh’s mission. He has created a super fund that not only guarantees it won’t invest in companies that make money from fossil fuels, but that it also screens potential investments to ensure they are not supporting negative and harmful activities including gambling, live animal exports, or procuring armaments including nuclear weapons.
Similarly, Powershop’s Ben Burge sees his company as part of the best available solution to tackling the Australian government’s regressive climate policies head-on. His company has taken a strong public stand against the weakening of the renewable energy target, and offers consumers cost-competitive avenues to source up to 100 per cent renewable energy in their homes.
“We weren’t there by accident,” he says. “We got involved in this particular rally because we saw a perfect alignment of values between what we’re trying to do as an organisation and the core values of the rally.
“The advantage from a cause point of view is that for activism to be most effective you’ve got to back it up with options for practical action. Our presence at the rally, above all else, was to give people an awareness of the issue and highlight that there are real choices available to support the environment. Of course you need full disclosure that it is a power company and not a charity that we run,” he says.
Ben & Jerry’s, who were giving away free ice-cream at the protest, have been so vocal in their opposition to the dumping of dredged material near the Great Barrier Reef that the Queensland environment minister Andrew Powell called for Australians to boycott them.
“The weekend’s demonstrations employed the tagline ‘To change everything, we need everyone’,” says Kalli Swaik, Ben & Jerry’s “Brand Champion Down Udder”. “Given that Ben & Jerry’s has always been active and vocal across issues important to us, it seemed only right that we be there to lend our collective voice to the cause here and around the world.”
According to Sam Mclean, head of protest organiser GetUp!, the corporate presence greatly enhanced the message of the rally by giving people the opportunity to take direct action to reduce carbon pollution on the spot.
“It is a new model for campaigning,” Mclean says. “It’s really about providing another channel for people to make a difference. We are looking at the biggest change to our planet we’ve ever seen. We need to shift and create new business models that heal rather than damage our climate.
“This is not corporate sponsorship – it’s more than that. Hundreds of people at the rallies changed their power supply, hundreds changed their superannuation plan. It’s a form of tangible direct action they are taking. It’s a tactic that we’ve never used until the last year or so – and it’s working.”
However, according to Dr Genevieve LeBaron, co-author of the book Protest Inc., which investigates the growing links between big corporations and non-government organisations around the world, the arrival of corporates in the protest movement is part of a worrying global trend. She writes about companies such as Coca-Cola and Unilever (the Anglo-Dutch conglomerate behind Ben & Jerry’s), once traditional adversaries of the activist movement, now suddenly working with them to develop “green” products and enhance “community engagement”.
“These corporations are trying to position themselves as part of the struggle for a better world,” she tells me. “But very often, the agendas for change amount to little more than tinkering at the edges of the current, highly unsustainable systems of production and consumption.
“While such efforts can yield small benefits within the confines of the prevailing economic system, the danger is that the root causes of the world’s social and environmental problems – including corporate growth and power – are increasingly being taken off the table for change.”
Similarly, Naomi Klein, in her new book This Changes Everything, argues that consumer programs proposed or marketed by green groups were “borderline frivolous” and can trivialise the issue. “Regular, non-celebrity people were called upon to exercise their consumer power – not by shopping less but by discovering new and exciting ways to consume more,” she writes.
Veteran activist Cam Walker, of Friends of the Earth, says he takes a more pragmatic position. “On a day-to-day basis, I can say that I am now working more with business than I ever have before in my 20 years here. The presence of companies at the People’s March events is consistent with the movement’s need to mobilise more voices given the backwards position of the federal Coalition and its allies.
“I continue to hold a critique of the role of corporations, and that is that I don’t think growth-based systems can deliver justice or sustainability. I don’t believe it for one minute,” Walker says. “However, in light of the limited options that are in front of us right now, we have to get the maximum number of forces out on the field if we want to create meaningful action on climate change, and that includes non-traditional allies such as businesses.”
Sheikh agrees that “our obsession with growth is incongruent with a safe climate future”, arguing that: “Ultimately we won’t solve the climate crisis until we change the very fundamentals of our economic system. We need to be constantly vigilant against companies trying to ‘green’ themselves simply for marketing purposes.”
“But at the same time,” he adds, “we should embrace those whose very existence will challenge the status quo.”
At a time when the Abbott government is winding back the modest steps Australia has taken to reduce emissions and dismantling measures supporting clean energy developments, climate campaign organisers are seizing on the notion that the most effective action open to them is to persuade their constituents to vote with their wallets. It is a strategic shift that may increasingly see activists rubbing shoulders with some unlikely corporate fellow protesters.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 27, 2014 as "The unusual suspects". Subscribe here.