Flat White

Fight for the Bight has jumped the shark

21 November 2019

2:44 PM

21 November 2019

2:44 PM

The Great Australian Bight has been the focus for two environmental campaigns this week. Typically for such campaigns, each seems to be less about an environmental outcome than to demonstrate the battiness of the people involved.

The first was Kiss playing to great white sharks off Port Lincoln, South Australia. The “concert” was organised by Airbnb. Only eight tickets were made available and, naturally, all were sold, the proceeds going to the Australian Marine Conservation Society.

The idea was that Kiss would play loudly from the back of a boat and the sharks would be attracted by the noise. They weren’t, but that’s okay because everyone went home feeling good about themselves anyway.

This is part of Airbnb’s “social impact experiences” program, in which it collaborates with not-for-profits to, er, make profits. Whatever money AMCS received as a result of the stunt is dwarfed by the positive vibes Airbnb got via an enormous amount of free publicity.

That the carbon-dioxide footprint of the exercise makes a typical redneck Saturday-night speedway meeting seem like a vegan cyclist convention, by comparison, does not diminish the campaign’s environmental credentials one bit. As with all environmental events, it’s feelings, not facts, that matter.

Which is why Airbnb’s stunt didn’t bother the other Great Australian Bight protest movement.

There was not a peep about Airbnb from the Fight for the Bight campaign, a loose coalition of surfing communities and surfing celebrities from around Australia determined to prevent Norwegian oil company Equinor from searching for oil 400km offshore at the western end of the bight.

You’d think that flying a bunch of musicians from New York to Port Lincoln, then loading their electric instruments onto a diesel-powered boat so they could create noise pollution for the benefit of a multinational accommodation company would infuriate the people to whom the bight is a pristine wilderness.

But it didn’t bother them because the Airbnb stunt was, like them, a consumer, not a producer, of oil products. To the Fight for the Bight crowd, oil consumption and oil production are two entirely separate phenomena. Consumption of oil is an essential part of the pursuit of happiness – surfboards and wetsuits are made from oil byproducts, and the planes on which all hard-core surfers fly to Indonesia and other wave meccas every year are fuelled by the same wonderful, liberating liquid.

But people who search for oil? To quote a famously miserable environmentalist from one of Equinor’s neighbouring nations: “How dare you!”

When they take to the water in organised protest groups at various beaches in a “national day of action” this Saturday, it will be on oil-based surfboards, and not one of them will feel even the slightest confusion or embarrassment about it because one of the first effects of environmental zealotry is the inability to recognise irony, let alone hypocrisy.

The campaign is based on three lies, all of them audacious. The first is that an oil spill would turn the waters from Albany to Port Macquarie brown, encircling Tasmania on the way. It would be 10 times the size of the Deepwater Horizon accident, which is the biggest spill in history.

This is based on a map Equinor voluntarily shared with community groups, which showed all the possible areas affected by 100 different worst-case scenarios. The environmentalists seized on it, coloured it in to make it look like a single spill, and whooshka! A protest movement was born.

The second is that a spill is inevitable and the third is that Equinor will not be able to clean it up when it happens. Neither of these is true. After the Deepwater Horizon spill, developed countries imposed higher safety standards on oil exploration and mining. These extra measures have not yet needed to be deployed, such is the improved safety record of the industry.

And even if they were, part of Equinor’s licence requires it to have enough money to minimise the spill and pay for the cleanup, including compensation for people and businesses affected.

Like surfers paddling out into treacherous conditions, Equinor wants to tow its rig into the deep waters of the bight, confident its decades of experience in the North Sea qualify it for the challenge.

But the protesters don’t see Equinor as fellow adventurers, braving the ocean in pursuit of the raw materials to make surfboards.

And herein lies the reality of the Fight for the Bight crowd. They may profess environmental concerns but their real goal is the moral clarity that comes from vilifying an oil company for committing imaginary sins.

But while their paganist fervour for the environment and ritualistic protests are mildly amusing, the movement is now embracing a new and more sinister strain of resentment.

In a recent video posted to Instagram, Fight for the Bight leader Damien Cole said that Equinor’s project has had “tens of thousands of Australians” protesting against it, “and yet they still stay here in Australia and they want to proceed with this project.” He claims to be speaking on behalf of Australia when he tells a foreign company it should leave.

Also in the video are signs being held by kids saying “Equinor is not welcome” and modifying “Norway” to say “No way”.

Where irrationality thrives, xenophobia is quick to take hold.

The protests this Saturday will be amusing to anybody with a rational understanding of how surfboards are made, and how the modern world works. But if you happen to see one of these protests when you’re out enjoying the beach this weekend, keep an eye out for its ugly underside.

This insidious xenophobia is proof that Fight for the Bight has jumped the shark.

Fred Pawle is director of communications at the Menzies Research Centre.

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