When one thousand people took action against the coal industry’s role in dangerous climate change, they perhaps inadvertently elucidated an interesting debate about the realms of private and public property. In the ensuing weeks, whilst we were all recovering from ten long days of intense and anxious activism, debates raged online between activists and hecklers about the validity of such a demonstration. When I decided to attend Climate Camp, I had come to the conclusion that in order to solve the climate crisis it would take ordinary people doing extraordinary things to make the politicians do anything. Indeed, if you take a straw poll of many Australians most of them will tell you that politicians are usually reactionary; that is, they respond to crises, disturbances and blips that disrupt their pragmatic politics that allow them to straddle interest groups for decades whilst making little progress on the really difficult questions.
It was such that the Climate Camp project captured my imagination. It was a perfect juxtaposition, a group of committed members of the community potentially breaking the law and putting themselves in the firing line to protect something that is ours: the climate and our environment. In a rational world, police would have been instructed by the state to lock down the railway tracks so that the trains could not deliver another damaging load of coal – how dare they, the coal companies, show such disrespect for our property. Yet it couldn’t have been further from the truth. In reality, police were given the usual large powers that successive anti-riot laws have allowed them to aggregate. However, even to some police the whole exercise seemed irrational. When our affinity group of three students made it onto the tracks, most of the police were clearly frustrated that they were spending their entire Sunday in their huge riot suits as lackeys for corporations who continue to bleed the state of policing and economic resources to defend the indefensible. My arresting officer even admitted to me that he was uncomfortable doing this job. It had smashed the idealism that he had once had about being a police officer and serving the community, when in fact his labour was an accessory to the debasing of community property.
Who made the value judgement that private property eclipses social property? Economics students might argue it is a simple case of market failure, a case of not assigning property ‘rights’ to the air, but my contention is that even after we do this, won’t it be the same companies, the same rent seekers, the same interest groups causing the same political failures that predated this market failure? The only solution to this market failure is to fix the political failure that caused it. People power can beat climate change, but we have to be ready to non-violently break the law if that is what it takes to restore order in the biosphere.