The counterculture that arose during the 1960s and 1970s left lasting social and political reverberations in developed nations. This was a time of increasing affluence and liberalisation which opened up remarkable political opportunities for social change. Within this context, an array of new social movements were a vital ingredient of the ferment that saw existing norms challenged and the establishment of new rights for many oppressed groups. An expanding arena of concerns included the environmental damage caused by 200 years of industrial capitalism.
This article examines one aspect of a current environment movement in Australia, the anti-Coal Seam Gas (CSG) movement, and the part played by participants. In particular, the focus is upon one action that emerged during the recent Bentley Blockade, which was a regional mobilisation against proposed unconventional gas mining (UGM) near Lismore, NSW. Over the course of the blockade, the conventional ritual of waving at passers-by was transformed into a mechanism for garnering broad community support. Arguably, this was a crucial factor in the eventual outcome. In this case, we contend that the wave, rather than a countercultural artefact being appropriated by the mainstream, represents an everyday behaviour that builds social solidarity, which is subverted to become an effective part of the repertoire of the movement. At a more general level, this article examines how counterculture and mainstream interact via the subversion of “ordinary” citizens and the role of certain cultural understandings for that purpose.
We will begin by examining the nature of the counterculture and its relationship to social movements before discussing the character of the anti-CSG movement in general and the Bentley Blockade in particular, using the personal experience of one of the writers. We will then be able to explore our thesis in detail and make some concluding remarks.
The Counterculture and Social Movements
In this article, we follow Cox’s understanding of the counterculture as a kind of meta-movement within which specific social movements are situated. For Cox (105), the counterculture that flourished during the 1960s and 1970s was an overarching movement in which existing social relations—in particular the family—were rejected by a younger generation, who succeeded in effectively fusing previously separate political and cultural spheres of dissent into one. Cox (103-04) points out that the precondition for such a phenomenon is “free space”—conditions under which counter-hegemonic activity can occur—for example, being liberated from the constraints of working to subsist, something which the unprecedented prosperity of the post WWII years allowed.
Hence, in the 1960s and 1970s, as the counterculture emerged, a wave of activism arose in the western world which later came to be referred to as new social movements. These included the civil rights movement, women’s liberation, pacifism and the anti-nuclear and environment movements. The new movements rejected established power and organisational structures and tended, some scholars argued, to cross class lines, basing their claims on non-material issues. Della Porta and Diani claim this wave of movements is characterised by:
a critical ideology in relation to modernism and progress; decentralized and participatory organizational structures; defense of interpersonal solidarity against the great bureaucracies; and the reclamation of autonomous spaces, rather than material advantages. (9)
This depiction clearly announces the countercultural nature of the new social movements. As Carter (91) avers, these movements attempted to bypass the state and instead mobilise civil society, employing a range of innovative tactics and strategies—the repertoire of action—which may involve breaking laws. It should be noted that over time, some of these movements did shift towards accommodation of existing power structures and became more reformist in nature, to the point of forming political parties in the case of the Greens. However, inasmuch as the counterculture represented a merging of distinctively non-mainstream ways of life with the practice of actively challenging social arrangements at a political level (Cox 18–19; Grossberg 15–18;), the tactic of mobilising civil society to join social movements demonstrates in fact a reverse direction: large numbers of people are transfigured in radical ways by their involvement in social movements.
One important principle underlying much of the repertoire of action of these new movements was non-violence. Again, this signals countercultural norms of the period. As Sharp (583–86) wrote at the time, non-violence is crucial in that it denies the aggressor their rationale for violent repression. This principle is founded on the liberal notion, whose legacy goes back to Locke, that the legitimacy of the government rests upon the consent of the governed—that is, the people can withdraw their consent (Locke in Ball & Dagger 92). Ghandi also relied upon this idea when formulating his non-violent approach to conflict, satyagraha (Sharp 83–84). Thus an idea that upholds the modern state is adopted by the counterculture in order to undermine it (the state), again demonstrating an instance of counterflow from the mainstream.
Non-violence does not mean non-resistance. In fact, it usually involves non-compliance with a government or other authority and when practised in large numbers, can be very effective, as Ghandi and those in the civil rights movement showed. The result will be either that the government enters into negotiation with the protestors, or they can engage in violence to suppress them, which generally alienates the wider population, leading to a loss of support (Finley & Soifer 104–105). Tarrow (88) makes the important point that the less threatening an action, the harder it is to repress. As a result, democratic states have generally modified their response towards the “strategic weapon of nonviolent protest and even moved towards accommodation and recognition of this tactic as legitimate” (Tarrow 172). Nevertheless, the potential for state violence remains, and the freedom to protest is proscribed by various laws.
One of the key figures to emerge from the new social movements that formed an integral part of the counterculture was Bill Moyer, who, in conjunction with colleagues produced a seminal text for theorising and organising social movements (Moyer et al.). Many contemporary social movements have been significantly influenced by Moyer’s Movement Action Plan (MAP), which describes not only key theoretical concepts but is also a practical guide to movement building and achieving aims. Moyer’s model was utilised in training the Northern Rivers community in the anti-CSG movement in conjunction with the non-violent direct action (NVDA) model developed by the North-East Forest Alliance (NEFA) that resisted logging in the forests of north-eastern NSW during the late 1980s and 1990s (Ricketts 138–40).
Indeed, the Northern Rivers region of NSW—dubbed the Rainbow Region—is celebrated, as a “‘meeting place’ of countercultures and for the articulation of social and environmental ideals that challenge mainstream practice” (Ward and van Vuuren 63). As Bible (6–7) outlines, the Northern Rivers’ place in countercultural history is cemented by the holding of the Aquarius Festival in Nimbin in 1973 and the consequent decision of many attendees to stay on and settle in the region. They formed new kinds of communities based on an alternative ethics that eschewed a consumerist, individualist agenda in favour of modes of existence that emphasised living in harmony with the environment. The Terania Creek campaign of the late 1970s made the region famous for its environmental activism, when the new settlers resisted the logging of Nightcap National Park using nonviolent methods (Bible 5). It was also instrumental in developing an array of ingenious actions that were used in subsequent campaigns such as the Franklin Dam blockade in Tasmania in the early 1980s (Kelly 116). Indeed, many of these earlier activists were key figures in the anti-CSG movement that has developed in the Rainbow Region over the last few years.
The Anti-CSG Movement
Despite opposition to other forms of UGM, such as tight sands and shale oil extraction techniques, the term anti-CSG is used here, as it still seems to attract wide recognition. Unconventional gas extraction usually involves a process called fracking, which is the injection at high pressure of water, sand and a number of highly toxic chemicals underground to release the gas that is trapped in rock formations. Among the risks attributed to fracking are contamination of aquifers, air pollution from fugitive emissions and exposure to radioactive particles with resultant threats to human and animal health, as well as an increased risk of earthquakes (Ellsworth; Hand 13; Sovacool 254–260). Additionally, the vast amount of water that is extracted in the fracking process is saline and may contain residues of the fracking chemicals, heavy metals and radioactive matter. This produced water must either be stored or treated (Howarth 273–73; Sovacool 255). Further, there is potential for accidents and incidents and there are many reports—particularly in the United States where the practice is well established—of adverse events such as compressors exploding, leaks and spills, and water from taps catching fire (Sovacool 255–257).
Despite an abundance of anecdotal evidence, until recently authorities and academics believed there was not enough “rigorous evidence” to make a definitive judgment of harm to animal and human health as a result of fracking (Mitka 2135). For example, in Australia, the Queensland Government was unable to find a clear link between fracking and health complaints in the Tara gasfield (Thompson 56), even though it is known that there are fugitive emissions from these gasfields (Tait et al. 3099-103).
It is within this context that grassroots opposition to UGM began in Australia. The largest and most sustained challenge has come from the Northern Rivers of New South Wales, where a company called Metgasco has been attempting to engage in UGM for a number of years. Stiff community opposition has developed over this time, with activists training, co-ordinating and organising using the principles of Moyer’s MAP and NEFA’s NVDA. Numerous community and affinity groups opposing UGM sprang up including the Lock the Gate Alliance (LTG), a grassroots organisation opposing coal and gas mining, which formed in 2010 (Lock the Gate Alliance online).
The movement put up sustained resistance to Metgasco’s attempts to establish wells at Glenugie, near Grafton and Doubtful Creek, near Kyogle in 2012 and 2013, despite the use of a substantial police presence at both locations. In the event, neither site was used for production despite exploratory wells being sunk (ABC News; Dobney). Metgasco announced it would be withdrawing its operations following new Federal and State government regulations at the time of the Doubtful Creek blockade. However it returned to the fray with a formal announcement in February 2014 (Metgasco), that it would drill at Bentley, 12 kilometres west of Lismore. It was widely believed this would occur with a view to production on an industrial scale should initial exploration prove fruitful.
The Bentley Blockade
It was known well before the formal announcement that Metgasco planned to drill at Bentley and community actions such as flash mobs, media releases and planning meetings were part of the build-up to direct action at the site. One of the authors of this article was actively involved in the movement and participated in a variety of these actions. By the end of January 2014 it was decided to hold an ongoing vigil at the site, which was still entirely undeveloped. Participants, including one author, volunteered for four-hour shifts which began at 5 a.m. each day and before long, were lasting into the night. The purpose of a vigil is to bear witness, maintain a presence and express a point of view. It thus accords well with the principle of non-violence. Eventually the site mushroomed into a tent village with three gates being blockaded. The main gate, Gate A, sprouted a variety of poles, tripods and other installations together with colourful tents and shelters, peopled by protesters on a 24-hour basis. The vigils persisted on all three gates for the duration of the blockade.
As the number of blockaders swelled, popular support grew, lending weight to the notion that countercultural ideas and practices were spreading throughout the community. In response, Metgasco called on the State Government to provide police to coincide with the arrival of equipment. It was rumoured that 200 police would be drafted to defend the site in late April. When alerts were sent out to the community warning of imminent police action, an estimated crowd of 2000 people attended in the early hours of the morning and the police called off their operation (Feliu).
As the weeks wore on, training was stepped up, attendees were educated in non-violent resistance and protestors willing to act as police liaison persons were placed on a rotating roster. In May, the State Government was preparing to send up to 800 police and the Riot Squad to break the blockade (NSW Hansard in Buckingham). Local farmers (now a part of the movement) and activist leaders had gone to Sydney in an effort to find a political solution in order to avoid what threatened to be a clash that would involve police violence.
A confluence of events, such as: the sudden resignation of the Premier; revelations via the Independent Commission against Corruption about nefarious dealings and undue influence of the coal industry upon the government; a radio interview with locals by a popular broadcaster in Sydney; and the reputed hesitation of the police themselves in engaging with a group of possibly 7,000 to 10,000 protestors, resulted in the Office for Coal Seam Gas suspending Metgasco’s drilling licence on 15 May (NSW Department of Resources & Energy). The grounds were that the company had not adequately fulfilled its obligations to consult with the community. At the date of writing, the suspension still holds.
The repertoire of contention at the Bentley Blockade was expansive, comprising most of the standard actions and strategies developed in earlier environmental struggles. These included direct blocking tactics in addition to the use of more carnivalesque actions like music and theatre, as well as the use of various media to reach a broader public. Non-violence was at the core of all actions, but we would tentatively suggest that Bentley may have provided a novel addition to the repertoire, stemming originally from the vigil, which brought the first protestors to the site.
At the beginning of the vigil, which was initially held near the entrance to the proposed drilling site atop a cutting, occupants of passing vehicles below would demonstrate their support by sounding their horns and/or waving to the vigil-keepers, who at first were few in number. There was a precedent for this behaviour in the campaign leading up to the blockade. Activist groups such as the Knitting Nannas against Gas had encouraged vehicles to show support by sounding their horns. So when the motorists tooted spontaneously at Bentley, we waved back. Occupants of other vehicles would show disapproval by means of rude gestures and/or yelling and we would wave to them as well. After some weeks, as a presence began to be established at the site, it became routine for vigil keepers to smile and wave at all passing vehicles. This often elicited a positive response.
After the first mass call-out discussed above, a number of us migrated to another gate, where numbers were much sparser and there was a perceived need for a greater presence. At this point, the participating writer had begun to act as a police liaison person, but the practice of waving routinely was continued. Those protecting this gate usually included protestors ready to block access, the police liaison person, a legal observer, vigil-keepers and a passing parade of visitors. Because this location was directly on the road, it was possible to see the drivers of vehicles and make eye contact more easily. Certain vehicles became familiar, passing at regular times, on the way to work or school, for example. As time passed, most of those protecting the gate also joined the waving ritual to the point where it became like a game to try to prise a signal of acknowledgement from the passing motorists, or even to win over a disapprover. Police vehicles, some of which passed at set intervals, were included in this game. Mostly they waved cheerfully.
There were some we never managed to win over, but waving and making direct eye contact with regular motorists over time created a sense of community and an acknowledgement of the work we were doing, as they increasingly responded in kind. Motorists could hardly feel threatened when they encountered smiling, waving protestors. By including the disapprovers, we acted inclusively and our determined good humour seemed to de-escalate demonstrated hostility. Locals who did not want drilling to go ahead but who were nevertheless unwilling to join a direct action were thus able to participate in the resistance in a way that may have felt safe for them. Some of them even stopped and visited the site, voicing their support.
Standing on the side of the road and waving to passers-by may seem peripheral to the “real” action, even trivial. But we would argue it is a valuable adjunct to a blockade (which is situated near a road) when one of the strategies of the overall campaign is to win popular backing. Hence waving, whilst not a completely new part of the repertoire, constitutes what Tilly (41–45) would call innovation at the margins, something he asserts is necessary to maintain the effectiveness and vitality of contentious action. In this case, it is arguable that the sheer size of community support probably helped to concentrate the minds of the state government politicians in Sydney, particularly as they contemplated initiating a massive, taxpayer-funded police action against the people for the benefit of a commercial operation.
Waving is a symbolic gesture indicating acknowledgement and goodwill. It fits well within a repertoire based on the principle of non-violence. Moreover, it is a conventional social norm and everyday behaviour that is so innocuous that it is difficult to see how it could be suppressed by police or other authorities. Therein lies its subversiveness. For in communicating our common humanity in a spirit of friendliness, we drew attention to the fact that we were without rancour and tacitly invited others to join us and to explore our concerns. In this way, the counterculture drew upon a mainstream custom to develop and extend upon a new form of dissent. This constitutes a reversal of the more usual phenomenon of countercultural artefacts—such as “hippie clothing”—being appropriated or co-opted by the prevailing culture (see Reading). But it also fits with the more general phenomenon that we have argued was occurring; that of enticing ordinary residents into joining together in countercultural activity, via the pathway of a social movement.
The anti-CSG movement in the Northern Rivers was developed and organised by countercultural participants of previous contentious challenges. It was highly effective in building popular support whilst at the same time forging a loose coalition of various activist groups. We have surveyed one practice—the wave—that evolved out of mainstream culture over the course of the Bentley Blockade and suggested it may come to be seen as part of the repertoire of actions that can be beneficially employed under suitable conditions. Waving to passers-by invites them to become part of the movement in a non-threatening and inclusive way. It thus envelops supporters and non-supporters alike, and its very innocuousness makes it difficult to suppress.
We have argued that this instance can be referenced to a similar reverse movement at a broader level—that of co-opting liberal notions and involving the general populace in new practices and activities that undermine the status quo. The ability of the counterculture in general and environment movements in particular to innovate in the quest to challenge and change what it perceives as damaging or unethical practices demonstrates its ingenuity and spirit. This movement is testament to its dynamic nature.
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