Failure by governments to read public opinion is legendary, and time and again we observe government inaction leading to public reaction. Whether it be to occupy Wall Street; the 'Arab Spring', or the Australian Lock the Gate movement against coal seam gas mining, people increasingly see a need to take matters into their own hands.
When it comes to environmental protection, governments invariably abrogate their responsibilities in favour of the perception of a need for growth. With development and mining lobbies able to spend billions on advertising campaigns, the opposing environment movement, made up predominantly of cash-strapped volunteer groups, finds it almost impossible to be heard.
With no bottomless pit of money to call upon, environmentalists have had to become more inventive, and are now focusing on the 'green' image of peripheral companies. For example, timber giant Gunns' failure, thus far, to fulfill its ambitious pulp mill plan for Tasmania's Tamar Valley is, in no small part, the result of a successful campaign aimed at large financial institutions. The threat to tarnish their environmental image is a powerful tool.
Similarly, Greenpeace has identified the ANZ Bank as the biggest financier of Australia's coal industry, arguably one of the world's largest contributors to climate change. Under pressure, the ANZ has recently rewritten its energy financing policy. However, Greenpeace believes the latest document is deliberately detail-free to allow business as usual, and has vowed to maintain the pressure.
Recent campaigns aimed at Australia's largest furniture retailer, Harvey Norman, over its use of Australian native timber, has successfully focused consumer attention on the environmental costs of native forest logging, This campaign is likely to be extended to other industry players, particularly in relation to the destruction of core koala habitat to feed the voracious needs of the wood-chip industry.
However, despite the old protest song saying, “Times they are changing”, the more things change, the more they seem to stay the same, and 40 years on the struggle to save our iconic natural areas continues.
- John Edwards