Building Utopia on the Climate Frontlines
22.08.22It was often thoughts of dystopia that led thousands to travel from across Australia to central Queensland and the small block of land that came to be known as Camp Binbee. For nearly five years, Frontline Action on Coal was based there, running a campaign of direct action blockades against Adani’s Carmichael coal mine. And it was powered partly by the fear of catastrophic climate change and what it would do to our ecosystems if we didn’t stop extracting and burning fossil fuels. I remember a grey-haired middle class woman saying to me “I’m so glad to be somewhere where people actually talk as if climate change is real”. It was that kind of sentiment that brought people of different ages, localities, backgrounds and beliefs together on a nondescript patch of bush and weeds to work together for climate action.
Sometimes the situation at Binbee too could perhaps be described as dystopic. That’s maybe too harsh an adjective for those meetings that dragged on with everybody having just one more thing to say, but those who lived through it will not quickly forget the time it rained for two weeks straight – flooding everyone in and cultivating mold on every available surface. Or in that terrible summer of 2019 when we watched bushfires rage across the country and made our own evacuation plans, breathing air thick with smoke. And of course the living conditions of the camp—waking in sweltering tents, huddling together in scarce shade, very basic amenities, deadly snake sightings, being regularly surveilled by police and occasionally threatened with violence—are probably not all that far from some people’s visions of dystopia.
But for those of us there, the feeling was distinctly utopian. It was an open and inclusive community that welcomed strangers and encouraged newcomers to take part. Tasks were shared amongst the group and done willingly with no paid staff. There was a decentralised organising structure with no formal positions and a consensus-based decision making process. There were attempts to revegetate the degraded farmland with native species, and to grow food sustainably using permaculture principles. A holistic idea of change meant that alongside the climate activism were focuses on mental health, conflict resolution, consent, community care and Indigenous solidarity.
The direct action method of political engagement is pretty utopian in itself—committed to non-violence and based on the idea that you can counter the power imbalances of our political system by each individual person using their physical body to stand for their beliefs.
Some would say Camp Binbee was a bit utopian in the other way the word is generally used, meaning delusional or naive. The thought that we could blow-in to central Queensland coal country and get any traction with the locals, or that the mainstream environment organisations would happily support lawbreaking ferals in the bush. The hope that our society might be convinced to put the health of the planet ahead of corporate profits. Or ultimately, as it turned out, our belief that even a vast movement of climate-concerned citizens would be able to stop Adani’s Carmichael mine from being built.
Now as we pack up Camp Binbee and move on to other things, haunted by the sound of trainloads of Adani coal rolling by, it’s worth asking the question of whether the utopianism was worthwhile, or whether we should have taken a more pragmatic approach from the start. If we can’t stop one climate-wrecking mine, what use is our utopia?
Certainly our opponents weren’t burdened by any idealistic hangups. The justification for coal mining, be it from CEO’s or truck drivers, generally came down to the simple logic of wanting more money in their pockets. Adani were happy to brazenly lie about the virtues of their mine and the evils perpetrated by us; their lawyers promising an “attack dog” strategy to target individuals opposed to the mine. Politicians publicly joked about violence against greenies or made up slanderous lies to pass laws aimed specifically at protesters. The National Party quite effectively wedged Aboriginal support for the campaign with an (almost certainly disingenuous) offer of an Indigenous run coal fired power station in the area. These tactics certainly seem to be effective—some would say the environment movement needs to take a few notes if we want to actually reach our objectives.
It’s also possible to get so pragmatic that you drift away from the ideals that got you there. There’s little room for utopianism when you’re a Labor member trying to balance environmental policies against the threat of votes lost in mining electorates, or in the boardroom of an NGO too afraid of losing tax deductible status to ever stray out of line. These are the political realists who sympathise but look down on us idealists, working for climate action without aiming for a radical transformation of society.
On the other hand, some would say we at Binbee weren’t utopian enough. A group of talented and driven young radicals who had been involved with FLAC early on left to pursue other tactics of change, saying we needed a revolution for climate action and nothing else will suffice.
There aren’t necessarily right or wrong answers to these kind of questions; if anyone had simple solutions to how to change the world and stop climate change we would have done it already. Utopias of any kind are worth approaching with caution— one person’s utopia can easily be another’s dystopia, and horrendous things have been done in the name of ideal societies.
Having said that, I think all political action needs an element of utopianism. After all, what use are our dreams of a better future society if we never put them to the test in trying to bring them about? Maybe aiming only for realistic changes is seriously undercutting what’s actually possible. Keeping one eye on the ends we want to achieve hopefully stops our means from veering too far away from them or getting co-opted into a cause we never signed up for. Plus, those tantalising visions of better possibilities can keep us going when other inspiration is lacking.
When it comes to the climate specifically, ultimately the change we require is not a few tweaks here and there. To avoid climate catastrophe we need genuine transformation—of our energy system, our democracy, our lifestyles. To settle for anything less seems already like an admission of defeat.
To achieve radical change requires offering convincing visions of an alternative future that people can get behind. A bit of utopianism in other words. This means presenting alternative low-carbon futures that are better than our current fossil fueled world, and of depicting the benefits of a world where everyday people use the best techniques we have to intervene in the entrenched power structures of society—to convince people that life is better standing up for our beliefs than it is accepting the world as a passive spectator.
Whether our little communal bush camp on the Bogie River managed to do that is another question – it’s fair to say it wasn’t everybody’s idea of utopia. But in not just meeting together but attempting to live out the future we believe in, and in not just presenting facts but trying to communicate in a creative storytelling way, we made a real attempt.
And for a small group of people, for a short amount of time, we got to enjoy living in that alternative universe of simple and communal life lived close to nature, working together with friends and strangers for the things we believe in. Binbee was a joyful and inspiring place, one that reassured us we can transform our own lives into something more like the world we dream of. It was our escape from the crushing realism of everyday life in 21st century capitalism.
Utopias of all kinds are reminders that the brick-and-mortar world we live in is not all that exists. Visions of the future that inspire us to act are just as real as the “real world”. The community at Binbee planted a seed in its many participants that will perhaps grow into their own inspiring visions of change. Camp Binbee was our brief utopia in the midst of climate breakdown dystopia. As we close the gate on it for the final time, hopefully the ideals that grew on this property will live on far beyond its physical boundaries.
Andy Paine is an activist, broadcaster and writer who has been involved in protest movements for over a decade. For most of the last three years has been living in central Queensland as part of the organisation Frontline Action on Coal, who have been using direct action to try to stop Adani’s Carmichael coal mine.