A line in the Sand: Susan’s Story

The environmental movement is composed of a vast diversity of individuals. Many have an independent streak, or a commanding knowledge of science, or a driving need to care and protect, or a strong will and focus aimed on solving our environmental problems. How do this sheer complexity of humanity then come together, coalesce around a common goal and work as a team to achieve that goal? How do groups diversify, and find their own spot within the wider ecosystem, while tending to the interests and values of its members? The complexity is like a wave, impossible to direct and yet inherently able to self-organise. What might look smooth on the outside however, is often a fluid mix of ever-changing turbulence and friction in the depths.

We wrestle constantly with questions around what we should do, why we should do, when we should do it, and whether it’s the best thing to do at all. And understandably, strong minded people often have conflicting ideas. It’s sometimes turbulent, and most usually not frictionless. But still, somehow, the movement grows. Not only through all the individuals and groups working to stop the Adani coal mine, but also the many thousands protecting forests, building solar energy plants, fighting toxic waste. Sometimes, when I stop and take a moment to think, it seems astounding that so many people are able to work together to achieve anything at all. And this best encapsulates the narrative of Susan’s story to me – her experiences working and volunteering with groups highlights both what we can collectively achieve, while not glossing over the costs and challenges many of us face while trying to do this.

Sometimes it’s those with the most skill who see that turbulence beneath the surface most clearly. One person will see 30 people sitting in a circle having a meeting. Another will see a shimmering, seething pit of individual needs, egos, doubt, tension, blithe ignorance. Susan, with her doctorate, high level work experience, her ability to cut to the chase, built through the portfolio of achievements she has to her name, has a keen sense of what’s really happening. And for her as a goal orientated person, working in groups in the heady atmosphere of a frontline camp can be difficult to endure. There’s a lot of talking. A lot of back and forth. Many opinions to consider, and expectations to meet. All while construction and planning continues relentlessly. Bridging the gap between the fantasy of just getting out there and doing anything – anything! – to stop this mine, and the reality of long, hard months, years of movement building can result in tense and demoralising meetings. Bridging the gap between the long termers who know more about the local sensitivities and the community hostility, with the demands of ‘action now!’ from newcomers to the camp is a continual process of mediation. Inevitable frustration accrues.

So, up in the north, the goal is clear: we needed to stop this coal mine. But the pathway there is littered with potential landmines, negatively influencing the endless array of difficult decisions about how that goal is best achieved. If there is one person who can see the range of strategies on offer, match up a selection of tactical options and assess which were more feasible and which were more likely to be effective, it would be Susan. But, life in a frontline camp isn’t all about matching feasibility, efficiency and effectiveness. It’s about being part of the group: and it is the group dynamics which ultimately dictate outcomes. What we would like to achieve together isn’t always the best, or brightest, or bravest thing. But at the very least it is always one more step along that pathway. Susan’s story about the bigger picture of being in a group, for better or worst, provides a fascinating insight into just how we try to solve not just our external problems but also the many internal challenges all social and environmental movements face.

When I first moved to Australia, was a pretty long time ago. I was at University and at that time, Australia was extremely gendered, you know. And I remember these friends, these young women at University, who told me that I’d never get married, I’d never make a go of myself if I didn’t learn to conform to the way woman are supposed to behave. And I was thinking ‘what are you talking about’? You know, I was oblivious that I was actually breaking their rules. Maybe it’s because I had a really unusual upbringing… I’ve never met anybody like me! I went to 14 different schools. I lived across four continents. I didn’t need the same sense of belonging, because I’d never had it. That sounds really weird, but as a result I’m probably more independent in the way I went about doing things. I sat back and looked at what was around me, and I worked out how I fit into it. And if I saw any injustice, I worked out what I would do about it.

My Dad used to write letters for Amnesty International, back in the days when they were a really grassroots organisation. My mum was a really good singer and she was one of the lead singers in the choir. They were always giving back, this was the way we were brought up. Doing a lot of community things was just normal. For a time about 25 years ago I used to run a Landcare group when my kids were quite small. But that was, that was in the days when the funding was just starting to disappear. We were trying to keep it going, and we succeed with this for quite a long time. We did some land rehabilitation projects in the community and loads of volunteers turned up for all that stuff, it was great. It was really good. But I suppose, around the same time I started to get more involved in The Greens as a political group.

I had never joined a political party before. I actually filled in an application to join the Labour party at one stage, and I sat on it. And I realised, because I wasn’t really comfortable with everything they were doing. And I went along to, it was some of the project work that I was doing. And I met people from The Greens, and realised that they are actually the same mould as me. I met a few, quite active Greens through the projects and then I joined the Greens party.

It [joining the Greens] gave me an entree into another set of information and literature that I hadn’t seen before. But, because concurrently I’d done an environmental management degree, and I understood environmental law. Because I did environmental law subjects as part of that. When I sat down and read the party literature, about what they were about. What, where their mindset was. It was just, it was like, this was right.

The Greens have a platform of four bases to it, and it covered what I liked. It didn’t mean that I had to expect every other Greens member to have the same issues in their heart that I had. I fit somewhere in between the two extremes of focusing exclusively on environmentalism or social welfare. And the people in the local Greens groups that I was in, fit in different places in between as well. They were really worried about protecting farming land and lifestyle, so they had motivations. You know, that’s what it comes down to. You know, you work on the things that you see as a problem, in the way that you’ve got the skills to work on it, as a problem.

A big issue at the time [early 2000s] was the war going on in Iran, and Iraq – the Iraq war. And we were, I can remember a lot of the work we were doing at the time was organising marches and whatever, to try and stop the war. I don’t think they were really effective in the long run. But we certainly did things like organise telephone banking to politicians, to try, calling them and going in and visiting members of Parliament to try and put agendas on, find out where they sat and went there so we could present ours. I was in the Greens in Maitland, where only about 15 people run the show or ever turned up to anything at all. There’s a lot of members who don’t turn up to anything. However, all the active people were involved in different kinds of projects. Some people were involved in social welfare issues, some were involved with ecological issues.

I started doing more work and writing submissions in particular. No other members did submissions: most of them thought I was nuts. Many of them thought I was wasting my time writing submissions on issues because you can’t change politicians’ minds. However, I felt it was vitally important to actually put submissions in. In particular I wrote a number of different council submissions on development projects, which I thought were horrendous. And I went into council one day, and discovered that they knew my name. They knew who I was. They called the General Manager over to come and talk to me. Apparently I’d saved them a huge amount of money, because they were going to approve developments which were going to get flooded or had clearance issues and they had missed it. And their agents had missed it. And they started asking me to come in as a community representative for various issues but not pay me; instead to sit at the table with the people who were really highly paid! In general they were really pleased that I understood the constraints they were in. These submissions really did make a difference as we actually got a couple of people in the Greens elected as members of the council. From at that point, there was more of an understanding about what it was I’d done.

There was a couple of other people in the Greens who were really, really active. There was synchronisities where if we were, we would bring a project along that we wanted to work on, and we would help someone else work on theirs. It didn’t have to be your project. And it’s interesting that they were nearly all women. They definitely were nearly all women. There was a difference between the approaches that men and women took. The women were a bit more confrontational. In a very polite way. In a polite way, you know, thinking of times when we went to see government ministers, when we had two men and two women going, and then the men would be getting annoyed and irritated, but the women would be going systematically through, in a very polite way but a very challenging way. In the earlier days men often thought they knew right and wrong. The men were more likely to take their bat and ball and go home, when they thought something wasn’t effective enough. They just don’t turn up again. Whereas the women are willing to hear it out, to see what they could do with what they’ve got. You know, somebody comes up with a crazy idea, then there is nothing wrong with working out a context where they could use it. Which keeps them involved.

Now there are a lot of strong women around, and the men are happy with that or they would have gone. As a result, to me the gendered issue has become much less important or obvious, as I’ve got older. And I’d say, past 50 the groups that I’ve worked with are male and female who work together quite happily. And there is none of that rubbish here.

When I worked for government or schools or whatever else, you’re always worried about a little bit, what the backlash is going to be with any career stuff, or you’re applying for jobs or whatever else. There has been times I’ve had itchy feet, thinking I should be going and doing that with people. I should go and join into some things, but I didn’t do it. Probably because I had too much going on, that I couldn’t do that at the time. But now I am free to do direct action at the moment, because I’m independent. I think direct action, as a tactic, is effective. I remember once when I wrote something on Facebook about the direct action tactics we were using this woman came back and said ‘I don’t know why you people are causing all this trouble’, you know. She said she’s worked on all these issues all her life, she’s worked for legalised abortion, and she’s worked for this, and she’s worked for that and the other. Her view was that that’s the way we should be doing it. But my answer was really clear: we still don’t have legalised abortion, we still have all these issues. None of them have actually come to a conclusion. None of them have been resolved positively. So, there is a point where direct action really needs to complement the rest of the work that goes on. 

I find the symbolic actions a bit rally airy fairy. I’m happy if someone else does that but I can’t help them with that. The particularly challenging ones that come to mind for me are the number of people over the last year who have come to our groups and say they’ve written a song. And inside my heart goes….huh. We have enough songs. But on the flip side, when we went down to the Downer EDI, we were looking for 100 shareholders, we ended up with 150. That blew our minds, absolutely. And fronted up down there, and people wanted to go and sing songs. And we had to convince them, that if you are going to sing it’s got to be really simple. Which is what we ended up with, you know. Who knew Downer, you knew. Who knew Downer, you knew. That, you know, that’s how much goes in the media. You do not need, you know.

Oh some of them [were very hard to convince], yeah absolutely. You know, I brought my guitar, I brought my ukelele and I’m…you’ve seen that here haven’t you. But there is nothing wrong with that, there is nothing wrong with that. I am just saying, but as something by itself, it’s not going to change anything. 

You’ve still got to have someone else writing the letters, you may not know who they are, but I am sure they are happening. On most issues, if there is something that’s really got enough people upset, the people use different tactics that they have available to them. I still go and petition pollies, I still go and talk to politicians. But I really do argue that I don’t think direct action by itself works. I really get annoyed when there are activities being organised, where I don’t think the end result is sufficient for the amount of effort that goes into it. 

The Greens are a consensus party. I’ve been in the Greens long enough to know what consensus decision making is and is not. It never works, because the same thing always happen and that’s what we experience around frontline planning: we have a meeting, we decide we’re going out to do an action and then someone comes back and said oh no you can’t do that. This a common occurrence in organisations; everybody says they’ve got consensus decision making. Yet it always hits that same problem, that there are people who have more knowledge than others. Consensus decision making assumes that everybody either has the information required, or that information gets presented as part of the meeting model. But the decisions cannot come from the person who is sitting there, knowing they know the least information. And they know they don’t have all the information yet they are being asked “well, what do you want to do? What do you want to do?” And we are all sitting there thinking, well what did you do last, how did it happen, what was the results, you know, what are the constrictions we’ve got? What are the, and who the hell is paying for the petrol?


But, for me, the Adani project is the line in the sand. And I’ll tell you, over all these years, when I’ve been working on projects where they were financially viable, but they were ecologically disastrous. And you know at the time, that it’s an uphill battle to try and stop that, if there is money to be made. This project fails on every count.


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Susan’s Story

But, for me, the Adani project is the line in the sand. And I'll tell you, over all these years, when I've been working on projects where they were financially viable, but they were ecologically disastrous. And you know at the time, that it's an uphill battle to try and stop that, if there is money to be made. This project fails on every count.


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