Greet the dawn panoramaIt is hard to imagine modern life without the contribution made by all the brave and altruistic people who at great personal risk have pushed social and legal boundaries to help move society forward. Ghandi, Luther King and the suffragettes spring to mind as activists who have helped secure a fairer, more democratic and more equal society than what came before them.

The recent trial of Jonno Moylan for his email that exposed the complicity of ANZ in funding the Whitehaven mine provided a court room context for erudite legal pronouncements about the constructive role that protest and activism play in a progressive society.  Senior counsel for Mr Moylan adapted the now famous passage of High Court Judge Lionel Murphy from the case of Percy Neal, an indigenous activist who later became the mayor of Yarrabah.

“That Mr. Neal was an “agitator” or stirrer in the magistrate’s view obviously contributed to the severe penalty. If he is an agitator, he is in good company. Many of the great religious and political figures of history have been agitators, and human progress owes much to the efforts of these and the many who are unknown. As Wilde aptly pointed out in The Soul of Man under Socialism, ‘Agitators are a set of interfering, meddling people, who come down to some perfectly contented class of the community and sow the seeds of discontent amongst them. That is the reason why agitators are so absolutely necessary. Without them, in our incomplete state, there would be no advance towards civilisation.’ Mr. Neal is entitled to be an agitator.”(at p317)

We are conditioned to view protesters and activists with suspicion and even disdain.  The historic figures that generate the most enduring gratitude from succeeding generations are not the profit takers, short term pollies, or the rich and famous celebrities  but the activists. I was amazed to discover just the other day that Florence Nightingale was not only a pioneer of nursing but also a visionary early feminist and a proponent of sex industry reform.

It is so easy to enjoy our great wild places, National Parks and the Great Barrier Reef or Antarctica without remembering the hard work of activist that caused those places to be valued and protected and the hard work needed to keep them safe.

How easily we forget the early trade unionists who struggled and in some cases died for workplace reforms, the 40 hour week, worker safety, and annual leave, no it wasn’t the employers or the government who generously conceded these things they came from real struggle.

Democracy itself all over the world is the child of struggle, and it’s a struggle that never ends. Democracy can slip from our grasp quickly without our eternal vigilance; we have only to observe the evidence that keeps emerging from ICAC in NSW of the stranglehold that the mining industry has constructed over politics in Australia to see how fragile a flower real democracy is.

Thankfully the spirit of activism has stirred and across the nation and we see a community led response on a grand scale to the mining and gas invasion, to prevent our country and the places we love ending up like some picked over phosphate atoll.

Our children and grandchildren will have something to thank us for if they still have green mountains and clean water in the future, and activism and protest is essential in that sustainable future.

Activism is not just a temporary response to an unusual problem; it is the necessary and constant face of eternal vigilance that can keep our democracy vibrant and our earth sustainable. We should not expect the need for our efforts to ever end, but instead cultivate a personal and community culture in which citizen empowerment and participation is accepted as a constant. There is no end point to history, we only lose when we give up and when we ‘win’ we merely play on to the next challenge in our collective paths.

Thankfully, a life of service to community and to the planet is a life of great fulfilment, far more fulfilling than the lonely search for gratification in the market place of ‘stuff’. Future generations will be much more impressed by the world we leave them than by how much short term profit grandad or grandma chased and how much stuff they got to consume in a lifetime.

Grandad what did you do when the Arctic was melting?

This article was first published in the Northern Rivers Echo, 24 July, 2014.


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