IT IS FRIDAY morning in a moderately busy, inner-suburban Melbourne supermarket and I am standing a little awkwardly in the cosmetics aisle, completing a television news interview about something that is happening in the store. It is a fine day outside, mid-twenties, but you wouldn’t know it from inside the big box. Arctic conditions abide in the frozen goods section, while the breads and cereals stay dry on shelves as parched as a summer prairie. A wet tropical mist is raining down on some of the fruit and veggies, and a carefully selected palette of lighting is deployed across the huge shop with subtle precision, to draw the eye and guide the passage of the prospective buyer. There are one or two customers who are rubber-necking at the goings on, but mainly the shoppers just get on with filling their baskets and trolleys. When the questions are done and the mic cables are getting wrapped, the reporter remarks that our conversation felt oddly out of place. She’s right, I think, but here we are. Shelves of neatly stacked tubes, sprays and roll-on chemicals are an incongruous backdrop to signal the onset of the uprising. But it turns out that this particular revolutionary moment will be televised – as a pre-record from Coles in Moonee Ponds – and broadcast on the nightly news.
What we are witnessing is part of a transformative phase in the history of Australian capitalism that is of vast consequence. Just a short time earlier, atop a low podium, Coles CEO Steven Cain announced the dawn of the new. Cain is silver-haired and wearing glasses, coming across as studious in demeanour. He’s dressed in a candy-apple-red polo shirt, set off against black pants and shoes. The accompanying phalanx of visiting management and regular staff are all similarly attired and the visual effect of the massed uniforms is striking. The back of every shirt bears a bespoke ‘O’-shaped logo designed by Bundjalung-Biripi artist Nikita Ridgeway, underwritten by the slogan ‘together to zero’. The content of Cain’s speech could scarcely be more significant in the context of the global climate emergency and the urgent need for Australia to reach net-zero emissions by 2035 to do our bit towards achieving agreed international objectives. Coles will source 100 per cent of its electricity from renewable sources within four years,[i] a speed consistent with the Paris climate goal to limit temperature increase to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. All of that ambient luminescence and calibrated temperature variation takes a lot of juice, so the scale of the Coles commitment is monumental: around 1 per cent of Australia’s National Electricity Market – the equivalent of every home in Tasmania – will move from being powered by dirty coal-burning power stations to renewable energy in a single stroke.
Greenpeace’s fierce independence – we never accept corporate or government funding – gives us the ability to campaign without fear or favour. Activists have draped banners off skyscrapers and shopfronts the world over, and our investigations and campaigns have been driving systemic change across the globe for years, unafraid to call out billion-dollar industries for their trashing of the planet. But the principled corollary is that you give credit where credit is due, which is why I am part of the proceedings at Coles in Moonee Ponds. Saying ‘thank you’ to the management and staff of a major corporation may seem incongruous, but it is a principled and tactical decision to fairly acknowledge when legitimate and systemically important breakthroughs occur. Crucially too, the Coles commitment is actually the final instalment in a trifecta of announcements from Australia’s leading supermarket chains: Woolworths and Aldi have already made their own undertakings on the same or faster timelines, each with their own added significance.[ii] Woollies is an even larger energy user than Coles, while Aldi had pledged to hit the 100 per cent target before the end of 2021 which, in the event, they beat by six months, already achieving the outcome in June of this year.[iii] With news of this kind, you cannot help but feel the gathering momentum. The red-shirts are in the aisles. The clean-energy revolution is here, now to be found in the business-procurement strategies of some of the country’s best-known businesses, but also scattered far and wide, germinating throughout the Australian community.
TWENTY-FOUR HOURS earlier and 700 kilometres away, I’d been enjoying a quiet cuppa with some new friends at what we’d been reliably informed is the best bakery in town. No television cameras this time, just an informal chat among half-a-dozen of us, sitting at a long rectangular table. This is the last stop in a road trip of fire-impacted communities in the Sydney hinterland. It is more than a year since the last of the great 2019–20 east coast blazes went out, in the end extinguished by mid-summer rains. In some places, this short journey is an opportunity to thank again some people with whom Greenpeace collaborated during the fires. The purpose is both relational and political. We worked with a range of survivors in the immediate aftermath of the disaster – folks who generously trusted us with their stories – and these things are never transactional. So twelve months later, I’m here to express our ongoing gratitude for the trust, and just to check in. Other survivors, though, I am meeting for the first time, to listen to them with open curiosity. How are people going? How is life? But there is a campaign-driven edge to the conversations as well. I am interested in the defining qualities of the aftermath. Has the blinding, deafening passage of the fires left any legacy of resolve or restlessness about the direction of our country?
Present company – Clare, Ange, Sue and Nick – are not people with whom we’ve worked before, but they are willing to discuss what happened when the flames came over the rise, the legacy of the disaster and prospects for the future. It is Clare, probably the youngest of the four, who has brought the group together. In due course, Clare makes sure I’ve got a loaf of bread to take home – ‘you can’t leave the best bakery in town with nothing,’ she says. Each of the four takes their turn to talk about their experiences over the past year. The town we are in did not burn, but neighbouring settlements did, or came close, and all were threatened, enveloped in months of smoke, their inhabitants collectively engaged in the business of living through the aberrant violence of that spring and summer of fire. Each has their respective stories and roles amid the fabric of the neighbourhood citizenry. Clare is a comparative newcomer, with a background in the visual arts, while Sue’s been here all her life. Ange and Nick are somewhere in between. I reckon Nick’s mid-forties from the laugh lines that curve away from his eyes. He evokes the coming of the fires in a memorable narrative steeped in self-deprecatory flourish. ‘I was standing there, on the side of the hill, in nothing but my underpants, calling on the phone for help.’ Later, when the fire came over the same ridge, with unimaginable noise, speed and force, Nick was one of the volunteers who met the flames head on. ‘It was like war. It felt like war.’
All four tell the same shared story, of the visceral nature of things, of a town united, a community responding to the exigency of the moment, of bonds forged in heat between ‘old country people’ and newer arrivals from the city. Ange is the only one of the four who lost her own house, burnt out completely. She smiles with grace and gratitude as she tells me that ‘the whole town carried us’. ‘I still get hugs in the street,’ she says. The stories of mutual support are the common point of return as the conversation progresses. Sue, the matriarch of the crew, composed and organised, is dressed the most formally. She’s also carrying a dun notebook and pen as if ready to keep minutes and actions arising, as I guess she has, probably hundreds of times, over the years at innumerable meetings of different stripes and purposes. It is Sue who leads in the listing of the contributions: the sandwiches made by many hands, the collective care for the local kids, those who took their turns in keeping the communal toilets clean. These are the mundane recollections of good people practising the ethic of chipping in. Years of what is often no doubt invisible labour in nurturing the community are brought to the surface in this hymn to agape, made so preciously real through ordinary acts of shared obligation.
Listening carefully and taking notes, I am conscious that these testimonies could be all too easily sentimentalised. We Australians have an idea of ourselves that disaster always brings out the best in us. I believe that to be true myself. Even as the fires consumed so much of the continent, the stories emerged of solidarity, neighbourliness and humble altruism. These were, as Stephanie Convery described it in The Guardian in January 2020, the ‘beautiful gestures: the good news stories coming out of Australia’s bushfires’, and they quickly acquired their own virality.[iv] The volunteer firefighters who left a note saying ‘It was our pleasure to save your house... p.s. – we owe you some milk’.[v] The woman who rescued a koala, hurrying through the burning landscape in her underwear so that she could hold the wounded creature protectively in her own shirt.[vi]
There’s no doubt that our collective compassion and community spirit were enlivened by the suffering of the cataclysm, but this remembrance can go a number of ways. The spirit of the fires can be rhapsodised into becoming an instrument of complacency, a reassuring cultural artefact of jingoistic banality harnessed to a regressive political program – that nothing needs to change because the innate goodness of everyday Australians under pressure will see us through whatever. Alternatively, the moment of mutual purpose in the face of the fire and smoke can be given full and true democratic expression. It was indeed a moment of national crisis, with the regions burning and the cities dark with smoke, when the Australian people responded with collective kindness and determination in unity of action. Might it be the case that the dormant potential for some broader transformation was unbound by the inferno? During a rare pause in my conversation with Clare, Ange, Sue and Nick, the latter reflects on the extent to which he was buoyed by the community’s response. ‘I feel that whatever comes over that hill, we are ready. That it is going to be our community that responds. That’s resilience.’
‘The flipside of disaster,’ Clare says with resolve as we reach the end of our time together, ‘is the uprising of humanity.’ The others nod or smile in agreement and the hairs rise as one on the back of my neck. There is something here: the geist der feuer. It is potency, or a kind of shared intensity of fortitude: the energy of the Australian people together at our best, unleashed, rejuvenated both despite and because of the burning. It is the potential that every community possesses for magnificent collective decency, providing a vivid example against the backdrop of the pyre that there is virtually nothing that humans cannot accomplish when working together. A town saved; a country to remake; a planet to nourish.
THE FIRES SOMEHOW still feel recent, but also long ago, a far memory from the other side of the pandemic interregnum and the most recent seaboard summer of 2020–21, made (for the most part) wetter and cooler by the hand of La Niña. Yet back on that receding shore, at the height of our national immolation, it felt as if the irresponsibility and bankruptcy of Canberra’s inaction on reducing carbon emissions might finally have found a sudden reckoning. With the dregs of my tea now cold, one of my last questions to the group in the best bakery in town is about Canberra. Nick is blunt, and his assessment is met with no dissension from the others: ‘The federal politicians? Absolutely bugger all. Zero. No help whatsoever.’
Climate change was the root cause of the heat and drought behind the catastrophic fire conditions in 2019–20. My own team at Greenpeace noted at least eighteen separate warnings by experts of the connection between rising emissions and the unprecedented fire prospects since the Coalition was elected in 2013, all of which had in effect been ignored. Then, as millions of hectares burned, it was revealed that Prime Minister Scott Morrison had scarpered off with his family to Hawaii. Once exposed, Morrison then hastily returned, only to be treated with abject contempt by the survivors to whom he attempted to offer on-camera comfort. Morrison is in truth a picayune leader, and it was as if the bigness of the moment exposed the smallness of the man.
Apparently becoming conscious of the obvious collapse in his public standing, Morrison chose an interview with journalist David Speers on the ABC’s Insiders program in January 2020 to very deliberately try to reset perceptions about him and to outline a framework for future action.[vii] In the course of the interview, the Prime Minister said: ‘I think we have got to prepare for a new normal.’
Specifically, Morrison was referring to what he believes to be the need for expanding the circumstances in which Commonwealth personnel, particularly the Australian Defence Force, are able to be domestically deployed within Australia. However, the Prime Minister also saw other changes that would be part of ‘the new normal’. Acknowledging that in ‘the next ten years, and beyond we are going to be living in a very different climate’, Morrison was dismissive of the need for greater ambition on reducing emissions, instead preferring to focus on certain forms of adaptive response, including ‘building dams’, ‘native vegetation management’ and ‘land clearing’. Morrison, in other words, wished to harness the power of the fires not to exhort rapid action on any great nation-building project to transform our energy system and to nurture and protect our people and environment, but to forward an agenda of soldiers on the streets and an increase in pre-emptive destruction of nature.
It is possible to envision other features of the new normal – Morrison’s vision for Australian society in the future – by going outside that one particular interview to consider other precedents and trends. For example, based on years of inaction and often dishonest obfuscation, it seems not unreasonable to assume that, in NewNormalTopia, there will still be no effective national action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while the subsidising, extraction and burning of coal, oil and gas will continue apace.
In February 2021 the Climate and Health Alliance issued a report entitled Australia in 2030 that outlined narrative scenarios for five possible alternative futures,[viii] the first of which is essentially the trajectory of what we are seeing: ‘Locked into positions of denial and obfuscation, our political leaders steadfastly refused to lift their gaze and develop a strategic long-term approach or even pretend to plan for any policy scenarios beyond their political terms.’
In the context of climate change in particular, the Prime Minister is best understood as both an agent and a symptom of broader systems of power. I have written elsewhere of what might be termed ‘the Fossil Fuel Order’, an influential array of power that functions to malform Australian politics, economics, law and society to enable the ongoing exploitation of coal, oil and gas despite the appalling consequences.[ix] The Fossil Fuel Order consists of a core of fossil fuel vested corporations, surrounded by layers of other actors, including friendly politicians, lobbyists, professional services, community sponsorships and others bound through economic and cultural relationships, as well as a complex of institutional arrangements. The Fossil Fuel Order is a way of understanding the extent and flexibility of the power of coal, oil and gas corporations; the feckless, reckless conduct of their parliamentary spruikers; the cooked rules that allow the sector to continue to operate with impunity; and the invasive pervasiveness of residual social acceptance. This represents our national future if the Fossil Fuel Order continues to prevail under current political conditions: it is the default for where our beautiful country is headed. Such is the ghoulish gaslight of our present path. But it does not have to be like that. There are other lights we might follow through the dark.
A CORPORATION IS a figment of the legal imagination that is no more capable of feeling conscience than an inanimate object can fall in love. So, what explains the great turn of Woolworths, Aldi, Coles and other major Australian businesses to adopt binding near-term commitments to purchase 100 per cent of their electricity from renewable energy sources? This band of businesses – other notable participants at the time of writing include Bunnings,[x] Coca-Cola Amatil,[xi] Telstra[xii] and TPG Telecom[xiii] – have not entirely divorced from the Fossil Fuel Order, not least because as a hegemonic system of power it is virtually impossible to altogether escape until it has been fully swept away. However, all of these businesses are among the top 150 corporate energy users in Australia and all have decided they want to make the historic transition away from fossil fuels to renewables for all of their electricity needs by 2025 or sooner.[xiv] These purchasing decisions will make a significant collective difference to the physical composition of the atmosphere, abating more than six million tonnes of carbon per year when the changes have been implemented. They are also driving new jobs and investment in renewables through power purchasing agreements under which the energy user buys electricity directly from the solar or wind farm. Telstra, for example, has signed PPAs with Murra Warra Wind Farm near Horsham, Emerald Solar Park in the Central Highlands of Queensland and the Crookwell 3 Wind Farm in Goulburn in order to help deliver on its corporate renewable energy commitment.[xv]
The pronouncements from corporate headquarters are also changing how we think and speak about the transformation that is necessary to avoid the worst of climate change. Multiple technical studies have now shown that all of Australia’s electricity needs can be met with renewable energy within a decade – but the big brands can move sentiment in our society like elemental spirits in the collective imagination of late capitalism in a way far beyond any expert feasibility assessment. In that sense, they constitute a direct challenge to the Fossil Fuel Order. By one study, Coles, Woolworths, Aldi and Bunnings are currently the four most trusted brands in the country.[xvi] Virtually every Australian has been on the journey up and down the aisles of these contemporary bazaars, probably numerous times. When Woolworths decided to switch entirely to renewables for all of its future electricity needs, polling found that 58 per cent of the Australian population was aware of the businesses’ decision. The Woolworths marketing team had effectively reached the conscious mind of the majority of Australians. Steven Cain told me that on average his business, Coles, reaches every household in the country once per fortnight. Between them, Coles, Woolworths, Aldi and Bunnings directly employ around 400,000 people. And the story? Australia’s most trusted brands choose renewable energy. Wind and solar are so popular, clean, safe, limitless and reliable that our most trusted companies will bet their businesses on it.
I’ve been closely watching the decision-making of these businesses because Greenpeace has been running a campaign to persuade the companies in question to do as they have now done. Additional businesses are now under our focus. However, acknowledging the pressure of the Greenpeace campaign is not in any way to diminish the decision-making or the technical work of the businesses in question. Capitalism will always respond to a variety of push and pull factors. I’ve now had numerous interactions with the CEOs and their teams, affording an opportunity to observe a range of styles of business culture, corporate leadership and decision-making. Without betraying any confidences from private conversations and communications, I’ve noticed a common progression in how these men and women have accounted for their decision-making. First, they’ve run the numbers, and from a strictly financial perspective they know they can make the shift. Second, they have been emboldened to make the transition by the expectations of their employees, commercial stakeholders and the wider community, with the Greenpeace campaign acting as a catalyst. ‘Our greater staff group is very enthusiastic,’ one high-up told me after his big brand had committed. ‘The consistent feedback is that it is the best company news anyone has heard all year.’ Concomitantly, there’s also real awareness of significant reputational risk if the business remains mired in buying electricity generated from polluting coal-burning power stations.
Third and last, a more personal rationale often follows. ‘I’ve got children too,’ says one CEO. ‘I have to sleep at night,’ says another. After the Coles launch, one of the managers takes the time to write to me privately, confiding that: ‘I have some days where I question working in the corporate world, however more and more I realise that this also gives me a chance to help make change on a much larger scale due to our size and social responsibilities.’
These statements are of course not without some ambiguity. The role of management, particularly in a publicly traded company, contains an inherently performative element. Profitability hinges on a good story as much as the figures, so it is necessary for business to be narrated as well as managed. And private enterprise never ceases to be private enterprise, even in moments of executive vulnerability. Each of these companies also has more work to do, too: cutting their emissions from sources other than electricity use to get to net-zero, and elsewhere on other foundational ecological issues, such as sustainable sourcing and eliminating single-use plastics. Nonetheless, outside of cool reason, there can be something uncanny about these fleeting instants: an almost trans-substantive moment when the hoardings of corporate station give way. Maybe the positive business case for renewables creates space, permitting other expressions of the soul to emerge as, for once, hope and business strategy rhyme. Faces change. Eyes move about. And in these conversations and others that I have witnessed, the transformative impact of the fires are very often mentioned. ‘And of course, the fires were a big thing,’ says one executive; ‘a lot of people were activated by the fires,’ another says; ‘after the fires, I just can’t sell chocolates anymore,’ a third business contact tells me in conversation. Groups such as Professionals Advocating for Climate Action, set up by business couple Stephen Moir and Carolyn Loton in Sydney, are springing up and attracting swathes of members. At Greenpeace we have experienced an increasing number of senior business people volunteering their particular superpowers to assist on campaigns. Fire and love. It is as if the memory of the giant blazes are a scorched shadow on the mind, the fragrance of toxic smoke lingering as a phantosmia of the conscience.
BANKSIAS ONLY GERMINATE after fire, the heat acting to release the seeds from the grip of the tight, woody follicles embedded in the cone. Equally, the energy and pressure of natural disasters can impact on societies to unleash the new. Like many others, I thought for a time that the great immolation of 2019–20 was the moment when Canberra’s climate intransigence would finally come undone, brought apart by the spectacular down payment of the wages of inaction – a ‘Chernobyl moment’ after which the system as it stood would become untenable.[xvii] During the hot days, particularly of December 2019 and January 2020, with every charred jarring hour seemingly bringing new details of the scale of the disaster, with marchers in the streets and the national government holding only the slenderest of parliamentary majorities, hints of many things felt possible. Infamously, though, the regime struck back, openly insinuating a range of falsities about the causes of the fires; and then the rains came, and so did Covid, and the moment had passed. The fire protests and climate demonstrations vanished, giving way to the pandemic, and the Prime Minister’s stocks, for a time, went up. The streets emptied, the millions stayed at home and the masks went on in the interests of our human health. We stayed behind private walls to protect one another. And yet across the country, there was life in the seedlings.
The geist der feuer has proven incapable of containment by the apparatus of the status quo. If we nourish the seedlings, NewNormalTopia shall not come to pass. The firestorm unleashed something in the Australian national psyche: a banksia politics that has germinated in families, communities, businesses and institutions across the continent; a primeval energy of determination to fight, and dedication to care, born in our moment of great national catastrophe. Like the banksia itself, there is great variation in the size, form and colour of this clean-energy revolution taking root in the boardrooms, schoolyards and town halls of the nation. The citadel was not stormed and no barricades were thrown up across the roads. That is not the way we Australians seem to do things. But there can be no doubt that the change is upon us, manifested in a historic tactical alliance of responsive capital and outraged community. It is a movement that is politically understated in its form, from the bakeries of the country towns to the bright aisles of the supermarkets and hardware stores, but exceptional and magnificent in timeliness and ambition. It is the force that is our last best chance for Australia to do our bit to achieve the Paris climate goals and to secure our own passage through the challenging years ahead. It is a covenant born of the climate emergency with the capacity to rapidly overthrow the Fossil Fuel Order out of pragmatic business consideration as much as love of people and country. Together to zero; ready for whatever comes over the hill. Nobody left behind.
[i] Readfearn,G. (2021) ‘Coles shuns coal: supermarket giant vows to source all its electricity from renewables by 2025’, The Guardian, 19 March. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2021/mar/19/coles-shuns-coal-supermarket-giant-vows-to-source-all-its-electricity-from-renewables-by-2025
[ii] Perkins, M; Hastie, H. (2020) ‘Green power: Woolies, Fortescue signal renewables shift’, Sydney Morning Herald, 11 November. Available at:
[iii] Vorrath, S. (2021) ‘Aldi claims first place in major retailer race to 100 pct renewables in Australia’, Renew Economy, 16 June. Available at: https://reneweconomy.com.au/aldi-claims-first-place-in-major-retailer-race-to-100-pct-renewables-in-australia/
[iv] Convery, S. (2020) ‘Beautiful gestures: the good news stories coming out of Australia's bushfires’, The Guardian, 4 January. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2020/jan/04/beautiful-gestures-the-good-news-stories-coming-out-of-australias-bushfires
[vi] SBS News. (2019) ‘Woman who saved koala from bushfire with her own shirt hailed as 'hero', 20 November. Available at: https://www.sbs.com.au/news/woman-who-saved-koala-from-bushfire-with-her-own-shirt-hailed-as-hero
[viii] Climate and Health Alliance. (2021) ‘Australia in 2030: Possible Alternative Futures’, February. Available at: https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/caha/pages/1922/attachments/original/1613953971/caha-rewrite-the-future-FA-scenarios-ONLINE.pdf?1613953971
[ix] Ritter, D. (2021) ‘The Empire of the Dead: The Fossil Fuel Order and the Clean Energy Rebellion’, Arena Quarterly 6: Winter. Available at: https://arena.org.au/empire-of-the-dead-the-fossil-fuel-order-and-the-clean-energy-rebellion/
[x] Marsh, S. (2020) ‘ 'Lowest emissions are just the beginning': Bunnings goes 100 per cent renewable by 2025’, 9 News, 29 October. Available at: https://www.9news.com.au/national/bunnings-australia-100-per-cent-renewable-energy-by-2025/38d7aad7-38d4-42c5-b718-6d52bec36409
[xi] Bedo, S. (2021) ‘Coke praised for ‘doing the right thing’ on renewables’, news.com.au, 23 February. Available at: https://www.news.com.au/technology/environment/sustainability/coke-praised-for-doing-the-right-thing-on-renewables/news-story/c49aebd03072e4c6a5c6109480a66444
[xii] Mazengarb, M. (2020). ‘Telstra dials up climate commitments, will go 100 per cent renewable by 2025’, Renew Economy, 4 March. Available at: https://reneweconomy.com.au/telstra-dials-up-climate-commitments-will-go-100-per-cent-renewable-by-2025/
[xiii] TPG Telecom, (2021) ‘TPG Telecom to power operations with 100% renewable electricity’, 31 March. Available at: https://www.tpgtelecom.com.au/sites/default/files/media-release/20210331%20TPG%20Telecom%20media%20release_Sustainability%20Report%202020.pdf
[xiv] National Greenhouse and Energy Reporting, (2021). ‘Corporate emissions and energy data’. Accessed on 21 June 2021. Available at: http://www.cleanenergyregulator.gov.au/NGER/National%20greenhouse%20and%20energy%20reporting%20data/Corporate%20emissions%20and%20energy%20data
[xv] Goulburn Post. (2021) ‘Telstra announces new green power purchase agreement’, 11 June. Available at: https://www.goulburnpost.com.au/story/7293636/telstra-announces-new-green-power-purchase-agreement/
[xvi] Roy Morgan (2021). Risk Report - Covid Issue. Available at: https://store.roymorgan.com/product/Risk-Report---COVID-Issue-13692
[xvii] See Ritter, D. (2019). ‘Australia’s politicians face a crisis of legitimacy as fire and smoke chokes the country’ The Guardian, 13 December. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/dec/13/australias-politicians-face-a-crisis-of-legitimacy-as-fire-and-smoke-chokes-the-country