If environmentalism is the new pagan religion then protests are its ritualistic ceremonies. This was the theory I was hoping to prove when I attended a congregation of catastrophists at Bondi Beach one recent Saturday morning.
The protest was one of 57 being held at Australian beaches that day, all part of the Fight for the Bight campaign to persuade Norwegian mining company Equinor not to explore for oil 375 kilometres off the South Australian coast.
Whether the protesters’ fears are merely delusional or completely batshit crazy I’ll discuss later, but right now let’s focus on the paganism.
Unlike organised religions, which seek to impose social constraints and inspire people to live more conscionably, pagans worship aspects of the local environment and hope to appease them with songs, dances and sacrifices — often of virgins.
Bondi is not exactly famous for its abundance of chastity, so I wasn’t surprised when I didn’t see a sacrificial pyre amid the crowd of several hundred gathered on the grass embankment overlooking the beach.
But nevertheless, a sacrifice was still being made. The congregants were almost all clad in wetsuits and carrying surfboards, both of which are made from the very product against which they were protesting.
So amid the happy vibe, family groups and indigenously painted faces was a metaphoric pyre upon which they all threw their common sense, self-respect and sense of irony. It felt strange being the only one in the crowd who could see this.
There were speeches, of course, from local activists and, as the headline act, South Australian Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young. The speeches reeled off a predictable list of green grievances: coal, the Morrison government, climate change, corporations and the need to stand up against the pollution-industrial complex. The country of Norway was also added to the list because Equinor is two-thirds owned by the Norwegian people. One of them, who looked like a miserable backpacker who should have been on the trip of his lifetime, got up to speak and regaled us with how “heavy” it was to be connected to such a despised company. He implored us Aussies to remind every Norwegian we met that Equinor is not welcome Down Under until the message got back to Oslo.
The key pagan moment came when a local Indigenous woman, having welcomed us to our own country, asked the men to stand up. About half did. She then started clapping two sticks together, in time with which the men were told to stomp the ground. This would summon energy from the earth that would vibrate through the congregation, invigorating them for the protest ahead. The blokes who naively complied with her request to stand looked a little embarrassed, but in this crowd it would have been even more embarrassing to sit back down, so they halfheartedly went along with the little dance.
It was difficult not to laugh at the irony of this. These people were summoning imaginary energy from the earth in an attempt to prevent other people extracting actual energy from beneath the ocean thousands of kilometres away.
The speeches over, it was time for one of the organisers to lead us in rehearsing the magical chant: “Fight! For! The Bight! Fight! For! The Bight!” I was impressed at how quickly the crowd picked it up, despite me constantly getting “fight” and “bight” mixed up. Perhaps I wasn’t chanting loud enough to be heard.
The congregants were then told how to participate in the main part of the ceremony: the paddle out through knee-high waves to about 100 metres offshore, where a Jetski and a rubber duckie surf boat would marshall them into a large circle, images of which would then flood the coal-powered evening news and social media.
Experienced surfers were told to keep an eye out for less capable protesters and help them if they got in trouble. But they needn’t have worried. Whatever minuscule risks existed were more than covered by the buoyant surfboards and motorised craft — all enabled by the oil industry — at hand.
Once they formed their circle, the congregants splashed the water for a while before paddling back to shore. After that, some of them marched up and down the beach screeching the prescribed chant a couple of times before everyone finally went home and waited for the evening news to see if they got a cameo.
At no stage was anybody told to stop buying surfboards or flying overseas for holidays. Rather, they dispersed back to their usual routines with only one difference: the sanctimonious certainty that if the planet dies it will be despite the best efforts of people like them who occasionally attended ceremonies like this.
But, as we “sceptics” know, the planet is not about to die. And Equinor does not need to assuage these pagans’ fears. It only needs to meet the technical and financial requirements to minimise the risk of a hypothetical spill in order to be granted a licence. These requirements were increased after the Deepwater Horizon accident in 2010, in which 780,000 cubic metres of oil leaked into the Gulf of Mexico over 86 days, affecting 1800,000 square kilometres of ocean. It remains the biggest accidental spill in history.
Equinor made the mistake of sharing its environmental plan with community groups before submitting its application for a licence in February. In it was a map of all the areas potentially affected by 100 different worst-case spill scenarios, which stretched from Albany to Port Macquarie. Each of these scenarios was so unlikely to be almost impossible. What is undeniably impossible, though, is that they would all happen at once. For that, you’d need to drill 50 wells and experience dozens of different weather patterns simultaneously.
Yet this entire protest is based on a map circulated by surf websites, surf companies and even surf journalists depicting just that — a blob of brown water ten times the size of the Deepwater Horizon spill clinging to our lower coasts like a massive apocalyptic parasite.
No wonder these pagans need to attend these ceremonies. Obviously only a combination of divine and natural forces could stop something so huge, so toxic, so impossible.
So are they merely deluded or batshit crazy? I’ll let you answer that.
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