There’s a thing politicians say when they want to avoid giving you a straight answer: they say ‘I reject the premise of your question.’
Now I have never used this language in real life, but asked to come up with something meaningful to say about hope, I was momentarily at a loss. It wasn’t even phrased as a question, but I felt like rejecting the premise anyway. So my original presentation on this theme was going to be about thirty seconds long, and it went like this.
Hope is bullshit.
Hope is the blackout curtain we draw across the broken windows so we don’t have to think too much about what’s coming. It’s useless against a Russian tank battalion or an Israeli disinformation campaign. It’s unreliable protection against respiratory viruses, drunk drivers, cruise missiles and 2 degrees of global warming and so, in the immortal words of George Carlin, fuck hope.
I even thought about discussing the theme with our gracious hosts; wondering if I could persuade them to choose something a bit more active like anger or defiance or seize the means of production.
Hope is such a soft and insubstantial thing, slipping in and out of your peripheral vision; I think it’s fair to ask; what is hope even for?
The shallowest, least interesting answer is that we hold onto it because nihilism is just so boring. We know hope is mostly cheerful fabrication but letting go of it is unbearable, so we keep it hanging around like last year’s Christmas decorations.
But there has to be more to it than that. Something in the way we’re built seems to mean that we can no more live without hope than we can live without food or water or dogs.
To get the measure of this soft and insubstantial thing, I want to spend the rest of our time together in a place where hope glides out of our peripheral vision and takes up a fortified position right in the middle of the road.
They are making the most beautiful food in a raggedy little camp kitchen under battered tarpaulins. Coffee on a gas burner if you would like some, toast on a grill over a little crackly fire. There are forestry maps on the table and pots hanging on wire hooks and the whole place is rigged like a ship against the wild weather that’s coming.
This is a rainforest memory of Gondwanaland that’s been adrift for 60 million years. The giants are a mix of rainforest species, myrtles and eucalypts, straight up like buttressed columns in the world’s oldest cathedral. Down here there are tree ferns and a tangled riot of vines and understorey trees but because so little light is filtering through this layered canopy, we can see quite a long way across the forest floor. Picking our way carefully along the paths the wombats have made, we realise that every conceivable surface is alive with moss. A fractal mosaic; forests inside forests curled within worlds beyond the microscopic.
It’s the softest place I’ve ever been. Even the sounds down here are hushed in the immensity. So perhaps we can pause here a moment and breathe in this good air.
I know we’re sitting in a room full of electronic equipment hundreds of kilometres from the place I’m describing, and yet a trace of the oxygen in every breath we draw was placed there by this damp, jewel-dripping moss forest. That’s not a metaphor – we’re literally breathing in this forest, and all the forests, and the ocean, right now.
So there’s a reason we’re here in this ancient quiet place. There’s no easy way to say this, so I’ll just get to it.
A mining company is moving to dump 25 million cubic metres of mine tailings right here, smothering this landscape metres over our heads. This is the waste that’s left behind after rock from deep underground has been milled down into a fine powder so the tin and copper and tungsten and whatever can be chemically leached out. Tailings have to go somewhere and rather than putting it all back down the hole, the company has sought approval from the government to shit this waste all over the landscape.
The Government immediately said yes. Nobody asked their opinion, but I saw the Opposition bobbing up and down behind them saying yes too.
The camp with the good coffee and the toast and the crackly fire is now the only reason the moss forest still exists. Sit with that for a moment. The day I arrive there are five other people here, dug in across the only road in and out of the mining lease. Five. A van painted bright red and white like a ladybird is parked across the road. When the police arrive the only person in there will lock her arm into a steel pipe encased in a bed of buried concrete beneath the van. This fortification is cabled to a perilous looking bipod structure with a hammock slung underneath it, cabled in turn to a tree platform sixty metres up in the air. A delicate web of steel cables and concrete dependencies sketched in the sky above the clearing, blockade grammar with one simple message: you can’t have this forest.
They haven’t asked permission to be here, they’ve just got on with it. Nobody knows if it will be enough. But we can hold hope.
I presume you’ve heard that old expression, ‘hope is not a plan’? The day the police arrive, with the earthmoving equipment behind them, the plan is to hold this ground as though all our lives depend on it. The plan is to file legal injunctions. The plan is to sell baked goods to pay for the concrete, to hit up rich friends to pay for the lawyers, to run ads, to run candidates, to run shareholder campaigns, and most of all to run the clock.
When you’re standing at the point of balance between the life and death of the place that gave you the air you breathe, disruption and delay is your friend, and every extra hour is a gift.
Look around the campfire to realise that this is not some elite cohort of professional protesters – they’re just regular people. A student, a retiree, an artist, a writer, a teacher. Along with the others who will arrive when push comes to shove, they are holding hope that what they can bring to bear will be enough. A delicate web of relationships and institutional dependencies; campaign grammar with one simple message: you can’t have this forest.
It costs people, this work. The physical costs, and financial costs and the psychic costs of knowing, as they bundle you into a van, that this forest only stands for as long as you can hold the line.
A week after I was there, the police hit the camp, made three arrests and cut the ladybird van out of the concrete. The cable structures and the tree platforms remain in place; other lines of defence are forming up as the camp crew pulls in reinforcements, shifts configuration and digs in for the confrontations to come.
Breathe this good air. It’s holding, for now, the steel cables and the plan and the hope.
In my mind’s eye, the cables anchor the Tarkine blockade camp not just to defensive structures and hardpoints in these immense trees, but to all the camps that have come and gone before. Twenty-three decades of First Nations rebellion around campfires like this. Tethered to sites of resistance from Jabiluka to Jharkhand, Standing Rock to Greenham Common. Bolted to the buried concrete emplacements made by the Unions, the Internationals, the Movement of the Squares, the Occupiers. Arms linked with newer expressions of cross-border discontent; millions of striking students and extinction rebels raising new banners over old barricades.
The wild weather we were warned about is here. So what are we to make of this soft and insubstantial thing that laces all this work together in our peripheral vision; forming up something that looks – out the corner of your eye – like a people’s movement for climate justice on a planetary scale.
We’re all of us standing out here at the point of balance between the life and death of the place that gives us the air we breathe. Disruption and delay are our friends, and every extra hour is a gift, but what matters most right now is what we will create that’s truly new in the precious hours the woman in the ladybird van has bought us. Don’t ask for permission. Just get on with it.
There is absolutely no way of knowing if we can pull this off in time. Perhaps the police will come tomorrow in much greater numbers. Perhaps these dead-eyed functionaries really will smother us all under ten metres of finely powdered mill tailings. Is there any point in even bothering, when this is the kind of institutional power we’re up against?
Well. I reject the premise of that question. They only win when we give up hope, and we can no more live without hope than we can live without food or water or dogs.
‘Hope and Steel Cables’ was part of Provocations #4: ‘“Hope” is the thing with feathers’, a symposium presented by the J.M. Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice at the University of Adelaide on 28 April 2022.