5. Beyond fear: courage

This blog was written for a seminar series on Fear hosted by the School of Regulation and Governance, Australian National University, Dec 2017.

During the past five years when I worked as Community Engagement Coordinator for Lock The Gate Alliance, I had the honour of working with Australian communities resisting unconventional gasfields and coalmines. Prior to this, while working in Health Promotion, I had explored how complexity and network theory can be used to generate collective responses to problems – learning that proved valuable as we scaled up mass-movement dynamics in the Gasfield Free Northern Rivers campaign.

Lock the Gate Alliance (LTGA) derives power from the collaboration of farmers, environmentalists and First Nations people. It is a national network-of-networks that supports local groups and regional alliances that are self-organised, autonomous, and bear their own names. The observations I share here are not representative of LTGA, but rather my reflections on the sustained outbreaks of collective courage we see in the movement, and their relationship to fear.

By this I don’t just mean dramatic civil resistance that may express itself in blockades, but innumerable, and undramatic acts of gritty persistence across the country. It takes enormous courage for Acland farmers to continue resisting New Hope Coal’s mine, when, having been promised that the expansion would not go ahead, the Campbell Newmann government performed a backflip – after New Hope’s parent company donated $950,000 to the Liberal National Party. These are David v Goliath struggles: small communities against mining giants and their friends in government.

Social movements are an interesting lens through which to explore fear. In social movements, fear is always present, but the experience of fear can be transformed to such a degree that extraordinary acts of courage become possible.

It is appropriate to fear unconventional gasfields. Shale, tight gas and coal seam gasfields are characterised by the invasive spread of wells, compressor stations, pipes and waste dams across landscapes. This spatial intensity amplifies all risks of contamination and methane leakage. Rapidly accumulating research shows risks to air, water, health and climate. Similarly, the destructive impact of coal on water, farms, health and climate are understood and feared.

I co-developed a process of grass-roots democracy whereby communities form survey teams, and visit every house in their district to ask people if they want their road and lands Gasfield Free. These surveys get a massive majority of yes responses. The communities then declare themselves Gasfield Free. From the moment we first did this, the process started replicating in neighbouring districts, liberating tremendous creativity.

Just as this was taking off I went to a meeting that someone had organised in a nearby village. There were two speakers. The first was an environmental scientist who explained the many risks of coal seam gasfields. The second, an environmental lawyer, gave a superb exposition of the legal framework. To the ears of community members, they were hearing ‘how powerless you all are’. To my horror I realised that this was where the meeting would end. I saw that people looked flat and hopeless. Afterwards, it struck me this meeting had outlined only two of the three landscapes relevant to this issue: the environmental and legal landscapes. But there is a third, social landscape – the only landscape in which people have power. Since then we made sure that any meeting, film or event ends with the story of the social movement, the source of our power. We immediately invited people into, and provided pathways to collective action.

LTGA works with self-organised groups and alliances in decentralised networks that liberate collective intelligence and grassroots power. I think this way of organising has implications for the experience of emotion and agency. When people first become aware of the threat they take on concerning information. With this comes stress, bewilderment and anxiety. But I’ve been interested to observe a collateral wellbeing that comes from involvement in face-to-face action groups: a sense of belonging, trust, mutual support and love. It’s my hunch that people whose sole experience of the campaign is Facebook, online petitions and the occasional rally will miss out on these rich experiences made possible in action groups – positive experiences can take us beyond fear, and become the ground of acts of surprising courage.

Social network researchers Christakis & Fowler have shown how feelings and behaviours are transmitted in networks: smoking cessation, binge drinking, depression. In the LTG movement, I’ve observed network cascades of fear, joy, anger, defiance, courage and altruism.

When gas companies say to a landowner “If you don’t sign an access agreement, we’ll take you to the Land Court and you’ll be forced into an agreement” they are inducing a sense of powerlessness. But when people put a Lock The Gate sign on their farm, that’s an individual act of defiance, and a refusal to be limited by fear. Gasfield Free Communities make defiance communal. There are now more than 450 Gasfield Free, or Coal Free communities around Australia. Each has its distinctive character but in all of them, collective action is an antidote for the paralysing effect of fear’s dangerous cousin: powerlessness. 

In November 2014, six farmers from the Pilliga and Coonamble districts walked into the Pilliga forest to lock themselves to a gas drill rig. The culture of Coonamble farmers does not historically involve civil disobedience in forests. These farmers depend on groundwater. They fear the loss of pressure head in their bores. But that is not sufficient to explain their action.

I think it’s important to consider that social movements have all the properties of complex adaptive systems. With multiple interacting agents, they exhibit tipping points, sudden non-linear shifts where the system starts behaving as a new kind of system. As social network analysts have shown, we influence each other’s feelings and attitudes. As this happens we change the social movement system, and the system changes us. These dynamics were at play when the farmers took this gutsy action, and were on full show at the Bentley Blockade in the Northern Rivers of NSW.

The mass outbreak of non-compliance that occurred in 2014 at Bentley exemplified the ‘beyond fear’ phenomena possible in social movements. By the time Metgasco prepared to drill for Tight Gas north of Lismore, there were 126 self-declared Gasfield Free Communities in the region, and a feeling that they would come to each other’s aid. Eighteen action groups collaborated in the regional alliance and the movement had reached mass-movement dynamics. During the preceding two years, courageous communities had elected to adopt peaceful civil resistance at flashpoint at Casino. Glenugie and Doubtful Creek.

When Bentley happened, the movement had been through several tipping points to reach mass-movement dynamics.

The camp at Bentley. Credit David Lowe & Duncan Wilson

A massive camp formed to protect the region with more than 40 self-organised ‘departments’ covering all aspects of community life – including water, sanitation, and even a café with espresso coffee. For five months, citizens held the line, gathering in darkness every morning for a daily ceremony that became known as ‘Greet the Dawn’.  As the crisis intensified, so did unease about what would happen when police came to get the drill rig in. Yet, despite this anxiety, the people of the Northern Rivers kept coming in ever-greater numbers, stepping outside their comfort zone to protect the region. In response to this sustained resistance, the government suspended the drilling licence at Bentley. Then, after suffering a massive loss of support in the 2015 state election, they bought back each of the 14 gas licences that had covered the region.

What conditions give rise to such collective courage?

Firstly, fear is an appropriate response amongst groups fighting gasfields. Fear and anxiety are ever-present, as are stress, overwork and tiredness. In complexity theory, the way a system evolves is sensitive to initial conditions. The initial conditions for the Northern Rivers campaign included that people:

  • Witnessed the threat, together, and acted together in face-to-face groups.
  • Came to understand how social movements work…the all-important ‘third landscape’. Eventually a critical mass of people held this knowledge.
  • Shared a sense of entitlement to live Gasfield Free.

As the movement matured we did a lot of learning together. We acquired new skills, and were invited into new roles. As this was happening, and alongside the stress, anxiety and overwork, we experienced powerful positive feelings such as joy, trust, pride, hope and love. As we experience new feelings, we took new actions. As we took new actions, we experienced new feelings.

The movement, a complex adaptive system, goes through abrupt, non-linear change, and the system develops emergent qualities and becomes a new kind of system. As Aidan Ricketts said one morning at Bentley: “This is now a category 4 social movement”. The Bentley Blockade showed how, in the social movement, we change each other, we change the movement, and the movement changes us. In all of this, fear never left, but was nested inside something much more expansive.

What were the alternatives? What if people felt the fear in isolation, and never knew how social movements can win? What if they’d never organised in face-to-face action groups? The Bentley story is an extreme example of collective courage, but I think it contains insights for the conditions of empowered action: because of fear; in the face of fear; and finally transcending fear.

The daily Greet The Dawn ceremony at Bentley Blockade, Northern Rivers NSW. Credit David Lowe.