The 2005 Juanita Nielsen memorial lecture was given by Jo Vallentine.
Jo Vallentine was the first Green in the Australian Senate. She was first elected as a WA Senator in 1984 on an anti-nuclear platform. Since leaving parliament in 1992, Jo has continued to work in community groups on justice, disarmament and environmental issues. Jo is a Quaker, committed to non-violence and passionate about her involvement in social change movements.
Lesa de Leau spoke about the life and times of Juanita Nielsen. Lesa is a Greens Councillor on Rockdale Council and the convenor of the Greens NSW.
Kelly Marks chaired the 2005 lecture. Kelly was a Greens candidate.
2005 Juanita Nielsen Memorial Lecture
Rise of a second superpower
by Jo Vallentine
I show my respect for Indigenous People of this land – “always was, always will be, Aboriginal land.”
Lucretia Mott, the nineteenth-century American Quaker Abolitionist, said: “Any great change must expect opposition because it shakes the very foundation of privilege.”
Juanita Nielson disappeared thirty years ago, after facing great opposition because she shook things up! She challenged the privileged of her day, and paid dearly for doing so. Many things have changed in that thirty year period. The pace of our lives has speeded up. Technology can deliver immediate contact with people and places around the planet. Juanita worked without the convenience of computerised mailing lists, or the immediacy of emails, or the safety net of mobile phones.
Consider Juanita’s campaigns in juxtaposition with the campaigns of Lucretia Mott and her ilk – taking generations to get rid of slavery (well, to make it illegal and frowned upon at least – unfortunately, we know it still exists today, in many forms) – consider the patience and resilience to carry on the work, which was at first ridiculed, and which involved so much suffering, for slaves and their supporters. But eventually, the abolition of slavery became mainstream thinking – an ongoing testimony to deep commitment. Intensity of activism was common to both of these courageous women, for whom I have great respect.
Juanita tirelessly advocated for issues of great significance not only to her, or to this city, but to our collective future, although she might not have seen it that way. In challenging the “development” mentality of the time, Juanita was considering the quality of lives lived before hers, with a strong eye on the future. It is my hope that we can all make that deep connection – we are all products of our past, linked to a future. What we do with our precious moments now, is of great importance, especially if we take the 400-year view – 200 years on either side of our current situation. Of course, indigenous peoples have maintained that kind of wisdom, which some of us twenty-first-century beings, living frenetically, seek to reclaim.
What impact will our present policies and actions have on seven generations hence? That is still a relatively short view of time, if we consider how life has evolved on the planet, putting the rapid changes of the industrial growth society into sharp focus against all the time that went before it. It is only in the last four hundred years of the human story that we have changed from an agrarian culture to the rapid-fire – unfortunately literally, rapid fire – of a technologically driven society with all its foibles. What on earth will future generations think of the twentieth-century experiments of the nuclear age, as they wrestle with the legacy of radioactive leftovers contaminating the planet for hundreds of thousands of years? What will they think of the altered gene pool resulting from genetic engineering of organisms, suddenly being switched across species for current convenience? What will they think of the generations who wittingly or unwittingly polluted the earth’s atmosphere, its soils, its waters with poisons which sickened people, plants and animals in great numbers?
That list of depressing questions could go on … but I want to halt it right there so that we don’t all get too depressed and think of ourselves as mindless morons. Far from it. We care. We’re struggling to DO SOMETHING about the many issues confronting our planet at this moment. Or we wouldn’t be here tonight, right? We wouldn’t be among the people who are angling for change to the consumption-oriented society in which we find ourselves enmeshed if we didn’t care deeply about both past and future. If we didn’t have a relationship with time beyond the short-term thinking of major political parties or companies serving their shareholders in the bid for greater profit, for whom a thirty-year plan seems like very long-term thinking. We wouldn’t be here tonight if we didn’t care about the injustices which produce some of the consumer goods which we are strongly encouraged to buy at every turn. I suspect that everyone here tonight is aware that the exploitative model of behaviour, which is plainly not sustainable, needs to give way to a more co-operative model in order to ensure our very survival, maybe.
Turning now to the theme for this evening’s talk, the rise of a second superpower, I ask you to remember February 2003, just before the invasion of Iraq. The fifteenth of February weekend saw some thirty million of the world’s citizens out there on the streets of their cities, saying no to war. Unfortunately, we didn’t stop the invasion – but some seeds were sewn that weekend, which I believe, will germinate and grow into healthy seedlings, and ultimately, I hope into a whacking great and healthy forest of trees, spreading their branches to give shade, to cleanse the air and the provide much life-giving fruit!
One Craig Barnes, playwright and international lawyer, got a standing ovation when he said this to a New Mexico meeting of Veterans for Peace:
“We came close, for the first time, to a Global Uprising. People were out there because of what they know, because in our lifetime, the war propaganda is wearing very thin. In the great tide of the information age, in the rising waves of democracy that have swept the planet in the last 200 years, those powers which seek to rule us and to make us into minions and draftees and blind subjects of corporate advertising have made a fatal error. Those media moguls and oil empires and weapons manufacturers who thing they are dealing with cannon fodder who fed the trenches of Galipolli, or marched with Napoleon to their deaths in Russia ….. did not imagine that thirty million people would understand, and understanding, say NO.”
I’m not sure that I agree with him about the rising waves of democracy, but you get the very dramatic picture, of all those humans out there, saying no. It’s the largest outpouring of the world’s people in the human story, never before have so many people spoken collectively about anything. After the September 11th tragedy, the earlier glimmers of uprising had largely been quelled – remember the Battle for Seattle in November 1999, when 60,000 people took to the streets, mostly nonviolently, and managed to shut down the World Trade Organisation’s meeting? It was as Starhawk says in “Webs of Power” (2002) a “once-in-a-lifetime, world-changing event.”
She was there training people in nonviolence and participating in the events there, and in follow-on protests in Prague, Brazil, Quebec, Genoa, Washington. Then we had Melbourne, with the Australian brand of heavy-handed tactics ordered by the Bracks Government to ensure that the planned meeting proceeded with minimal interruption. However, the twin towers episode, followed very rapidly by war against Afghanistan, the establishment of the Homeland Security Department and the Patriot Act in the United States showed the fear propaganda machine taking effect.
So it has been more dangerous since that attack on U.S. soil, to participate in any activities which might be labelled unpatriotic, and sadly, Australia has slavishly followed suit. Our re-vamped ASIO Act is modelled on the U.S. Patriot Act. The possibility exists for activists, working to social change to be tarred with the same convenient broad brush strokes applied to terrorists, whatever the definition of terrorist is. Activists are often brave, quite prepared to take consequences for their actions, to commit civil disobedience (or holy obedience to a higher law than that of the state, as some would describe it), and plenty have gone to gaol for their beliefs, some for very long periods of time. The examples of the Ploughshares Group is inspiring as activists dismantle some of the tools of war to prevent bloodshed, often being prepared to shed their own in the process.
But it’s a different thing altogether if there are no guarantees about rules of law applying to deal with transgressors – people being locked up and the keys thrown away, for example at Guantanamo Bay, or shamefully, Australia’s detention centres. So, while the World Trade Organisation, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund – all very powerful, unelected and unaccountable bodies – were in activists’ collective sight as targets for public demonstrations, with the aim of encouraging monumental change in the decade before 2001, things have quietened considerably since then.
It’s not that people are less concerned about the issues of inequality, injustice, or environmental degradation – more so if anything. But they are more reluctant to put themselves on the front line, especially when the powerful, like governments doing the bidding their bosses, the powerful international companies or unelected bodies, order the police to show no mercy, no restraint to demonstrators. Added to that is the mainstream media’s reporting which often seems very biased – they’re looking for the action of course, the pockets of violence to make good copy, and sometimes that is deliberately orchestrated by police or provocateurs in the crowd.
Perhaps people have realised that to demonstrate against the WTO, which controls so much of the lives of people everywhere, is much more dangerous than demonstrating against their own government’s policies – for example, the intention to wage war. War is starkly obvious, immediate and its possible pitfalls more obvious, like the body bags being returned to country of origin. And it is more directly obvious that it’s taxpayers’ money funding a war. Whatever the thinking of war vis-à-vis the destructive policies of the WTO, it was a huge mostly peaceful uprising against the imminent invasion of Iraq. The numbers were huge, and it was widespread. People didn’t have to travel long distances to be there – on the streets of the city nearest to home is where it took place.
Soon after that February weekend, Robert Muller, a former Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations, identified this as emergence as the second superpower – that is, the people on the streets. He said it was clear that the governments, the militaries, the arms manufacturers, the huge corporations and the international institutions serving them like WTO, World Bank and IMF, constituted the first superpower. But here were the people in their millions countering that block, showing up strongly as a force to be reckoned with – a powerful force for sanity. I added the word movement to his phrase, because it suggests that this mass of people is actively heading somewhere, and because people like the notion of belong, especially to a body that is heading in a direction of their choice.
So, there are millions of us. Now, where have we heard that phrase before? Yes, it was an election campaign slogan for the Nuclear Disarmament Party in 1984. True then, true now. There ARE millions of us, globally, who aren’t satisfied with very rapidly dwindling democracies, with the widening gaps between rich and poor, with the continued degradation of soil, air and water quality, with the loss of biodiversity ….another long list cut short. But now we can use technology to our advantage to disseminate information which mainstream, monopolised media won’t put out – which is one reason why I’m cautious about demonising the term ‘globalisation’ – there’s a risk of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
It seemed almost serendipitous that the huge rallies happed that February weekend. Sure, the invasion was imminent, but it didn’t take much more than that knowledge for people coco-operate in getting on to their streets, to make their voices heard. Think how many times we have argued and planned for months to get a rally happening, with much less spectacular results. So, it seems that once people really know what’s happening, and it’s a big no-no, they are prepared to be there, to be counted. It didn’t seem to matter on this occasion who the organisers were, what the programme was, or whether it was a march through the streets, or a single venue rally – they were there. And it was very exciting to feel linked to so many others all round the world who felt the same way. Solidarity was in the air!
However, this kind of outpouring is not going to happen often …. It’s just not sustainable. It costs people something in time, in putting aside regular commitments, so we can’t expect to see that happening either frequently, or so effectively. But the fact that it happened at all gives me hope. It shows that millions of people are prepared to co-operate in defiance of governments.
War, of course, is a big issue. It galvanises people. Other issues won’t have the same impact. Not yet.
But consider the cocktail of deadlies we area currently concocting: water shortages on a big scale, the end of availability of easy-to-access petroleum, global warming, genetic engineering, radioactive contamination, over-population, and a very flaky financial system. Which will implode first? Or will it be a combination of two or three factors simultaneously? Something has got to give. We are simply not living within the planet’s means.
Many people are predicting collapse, which might happen in various ways. Johan Galtung says that of the fourteen indicators for collapse of empire, any empire, fourteen are currently occurring in the United States. The time frame is debatable, but the history of the world shows that empires come and go. Other futurists, like David Burmann (“The Decline of the American Empire”) are suggesting something similar.
Richard Heinberg in “The Party’s Over” (2003) makes a compelling case that we are approaching an end to the age of oil. He also emphasises our dependence on oil-based commodities, some 500,000 of them! His second book on the subject “Power Down (2004) examines possible responses to oil peaking, then declining. He offers a possible future definition for the phrase power-down in two parts:
- the energy famine that engulfed industrial nations in the early 21st century;
- the deliberate process of co-operation, contraction and conversion that enabled humanity to survive.
Heinberg contends that the way of competition for the remaining easy-t-access oil could lead to more wars. He calls that the Last Man Standing syndrome, and we’re already seeing that occur as giant oil companies compete with each other for only supremacy, but survival.
A second response is that people are waiting for the magic fix, hoping that technology will solve the problem as they engage in either wishful thinking, or denial, or both.
Another response is to reduce dependence on oil, by limiting consumption, and by sharing alternative new/old technologies. Why is it still so difficult getting government support for renewable energies?
Then there are the groups “building lifeboats” for the future, engaging in community building, physically and metaphorically, and honing skills which will be required when collapse occurs – like seed savers (the example of the gene bankers of Leningrad under siege and the inspired leadership of Vaviolov); learning to make buildings without using power tools – there’s a Primitive Technologies Movement in the U.S., a window to the past, reclaiming old skills; and producing books which are acid free, make to last.
Heinberg issues a warning to people in progressive movements who will no doubt continue to protest, but who might miss the main point of daring to challenge the population aspect of the current dilemma. He, and many others, contend that earth is already way beyond its carrying capacity, but there is a reluctance to enter into that arena because of human rights implications. In his view, environmentalists also soft-pedal on consumption issues – he challenges us to be bolder on both fronts, both with our own consumption and with the rampant consumerism of our culture.
Much of what Heinberg claims has been said before, and much of it as far back as the Club of Rome offering is 1972 when Donella Meadows and others published “Limits to Growth”. What was said then was if the world population stabilized at 3.6 billion,
“it might be possible to establish a state of global equilibrium in which society would be sustainable without sudden and uncontrollable collapse, and capable of satisfying the basic material needs of all people.”
There are now over six billion of us, so not surprisingly the thirty-year update of that work states that “overshoot can no longer be avoided through wise policy – it is already a reality.” So that’s where we are, in overshoot mode, heading for collapse. I remember David Suzuki saying in 1990 that we had just this decade to turn the tide, to alter our behaviours enough to make the big changes necessary for a soft landing.
But the opportunity has been squandered. Australia won’t even sign up to the Kyoto protocols, seen by those serious about the impact of global warming as totally inadequate – the old ‘too little, too late’ scenario. It’s been a busy time for the head burial services in both political and business circles.
Some of you may remember one of Ben Elton’s early books, called “Stark” and written in Fremantle as the wealthy gathered there to contest the America’s Cup yacht races in 1987. In the novel, many moguls of the capitalist empire had temporarily located to Western Australia as a launch-pad as they sought new colonial territory, off-shore, so to speak. The Earth (our home!) was stuffed. They knew it. And they knew they’d been responsible for lots of the problems. They persisted with their notion of moving elsewhere because everything here was already ruined – Ben Elton managed to make that scenario very funny. But as usual, his satire had an undeniable ring of truth to it. (short reading?)
E.F. Schumacher’s seminal work “Small is Beautiful” (1973), subtitled A study of economics as if people mattered, is most instructive in helping us understand some basic problems which have influenced collective thinking to our collective detriment. He quotes the well-respected economist, Lord Keynes, who wrote during the 1930’s depression that the day would come when everyone would be rich, when we shall “once more value ends above means and prefer the good to the useful.
But beware – the time for all this is not yet. For at least another hundred years we must pretend to ourselves and to everyone that fair is foul, and foul is fair, for foul is useful and fair is not. Avarice and usury must be our gods for a little longer still. For only they can lead us out of the tunnel of economic necessity into daylight.”
As Shumacher concluded, Keynsian doctrine, upon which our economic system has been based since that time, found ethical considerations to be not merely irrelevant, but hindrances. He goes on to ask “What is enough? Who can tell us? Certainly not the economist who pursues ‘economic growth’ as the highest of all values, and therefore has no concept of ‘enough’. There are poor societies which have too little, But where is the rich society that says: ‘Halt! We have enough’? There is none.”
That’s all a bit depressing – we seem to be stuck with the sins of commission or omission of previous generations, and of our own. What do we do? Stephanie Mills, a current environmental writer, puts it like this in “Epicurean Simplicity “ (2002): “perhaps our mission now is like that of the Native Americans at the height of the genocide in the nineteenth century. At that point there was no question of winning the battle. What remained to be done was to keep hold of what it means to be human.”
The work of Joanna Macy, systems theorist and activist, points in that direction, helping us to understand and experience what it means to be fully human in this extraordinary time of big change. She calls it “The Great Turning” – a paradigm shift in human behaviour, unfolding with us as key players (“Coming Back to Life”, 1998). She stresses the importance of learning about our ecological selves – i.e. putting ourselves in a circle of life, with all other beings, rather than humans being at the apex of a pyramid. She takes students through a cycle of firstly, gratitude – what it is we love about our lives, this world; then despair – what it is we’re most concerned about, not denying the gravity of the situation; then on to a shift in consciousness, looking at examples and possibilities of a dynamic transformation currently occurring; and finally, a going forth into positive action for the healing of ourselves and our world. Joanna’s teachings about systems theory – the self organising nature of open systems and the emerging properties which can be forthcoming, is highly relevant to our present plight, and at the same time, highly encouraging.
Humans, with the capacity to self-reflect, are capable of producing significant break-through behaviours with individual input contributing to the holistic pattern. Joanna writes: “It would begin, almost imperceptibly, with a sense of common fate, and a shared intention to meet it together. It would start to emerge in unexpected behaviours, as individuals in countless settings meet to speak and reflect on what is happening to their lives, their world. It would manifest in an unpredictable array of spontaneous actions, as people step out from their private comforts, giving time and taking risks on behalf of Earth and their brother-sister beings. It would include all the hopes and changes that give reality to each dimension of the Great Turning. And given the dynamics of self-organising systems, it is likely that as we reflect and act together, we will soon find ourselves responding to the present crisis with far greater confidence and precision than we imagined possible.”
I take heart from the fact, that in the face of all the bad news, and there’s plenty of that, which we should not deny, there are also seeds of hope. As far back as when the Club of Rome was issuing its timely, but unheeded warnings, there were also ideas which made a big impression on me at the time, like Marilyn Ferguson’s work “The Aquarian Conspiracy” (1973). Her research showed that communities of people around the world were simultaneously, but quite independently of each other, reaching similar conclusions. This was occurring about many topics, like health, education, and food production. Different groups of people were looking for alternatives to the already obviously runaway economic growth model with its disastrous boom/bust cycles. I found it encouraging to learn about these communities experimenting with more inclusive models of organising human behaviour, and wondered about critical mass being reached. Well, I’m still waiting for that, but I believe it’s not only possible, or likely, but imperative, and we can help make it happen!
You’re probably all familiar with the “Hundredth Monkey” syndrome when a behaviour, seemingly new (in the case of the monkeys, washing their sweet potatoes) is suddenly practiced widely? There are many theories about critical mass, but a few examples of things changing quite suddenly, suffice to demonstrate that big changes can occur, as if out of the blue. Of course, they don’t – such changes have usually been worked towards over many years – but the dramatic switch to reality is still often surprising – like the readiness for the Berlin Wall to fall in 1989, or the ANC to actually overthrow the apartheid regime in South Africa in 1994? There are plenty of examples to give us hope that a consciousness shift in human behaviour is possible – it’s certainly necessary.
So I long for the day when humans might act more like a flight of geese, flying together with purpose, encouraging the leader with supportive honking, changing leadership often so that fresh energy is available. Or like the penguins, rotating for the survival of the pack as they deal with frigid conditions. Or like a school of fishing swimming together, quickly changing direction as necessary to avoid predators. Perhaps humans used to have such capacities. It’s something we’ve lost, it’s a skill worth cultivating again.
So, current lifestyles not being sustainable will be enough to encourage concerted action probably only when we reach crisis point. A tipping point, some call it. That’s probably not far off. One of the factors which I see as contributing to the emergence of critical mass is that people don’t like being lied to. No one likes that, whether it’s personal or political. But the lying, entrenched, systematic, endemic lying is way out of control. It’s almost expected now, of public figures, whether in government or private sectors. How long will the people, that’s us, put up with it?
Often the lies are masked long enough for the deception based deeds to occur – like the invasion of Iraq. Even after the truth was out, and thousands upon thousands of innocent people killed, and the landscape destroyed by the use of depleted uranium, spewing its radioactivity forth, the people responsible for the lies actually got re-elected. Tony Blair is probably still to follow George & John back into office. What’s going on? It seems almost unbelievable, as though we’re in a really bad dream, where bad behaviour is warmly rewarded.
It’s quite puzzling as to how such things can happen in democracies.. But remember I used the phrase “dwindling democracy” earlier? We must guard what remains with great care. If you haven’t already done so, please read Margot Kingston’s book “Not Happy John!”, which should have relegated Howard to the opposition benches. Not so. This book is a disturbing reality check, which should have us all on our feet, in the street proclaiming that we will not be lied to anymore!
I also long for the day when people will say together to governments and unelected corporations, the to the military “We won’t take it anymore!” Over and out to you lot! When we resist, with our bodies, nonviolently choosing not to comply with business as usual. For the sake of the future, for our own integrity, we can’t continue to blindly carry on being submissive passengers. The Emperors have no clothes, and the sooner that masses of people realise that, and have the courage to act on that, the better.
Just imagine a day of international noncompliance, if the millions who marched against war, found their feet again, and with all their families and friends, refused to do the usual daily grind. Just for a day – no trading on the stock exchange, no use of computers, no watching of television, no buying of anything, no going anywhere, except perhaps to the local park on foot or by bicycle, to meet and be peaceful with neighbours. Just for a day. It would stop the commercial world in its tracks. It would cause governments to reconsider whether they were actually serving the people they’re meant to represent, or not!
What would it take for such a manifestation of the second superpower? Back to the cocktail of deadlies! Will we wait for a breakdown in one or more of those essential areas before we take that concerted community action to demonstrate that we are serious in our desire for far-reaching changes to the way thing are? I suspect so, but critical mass is an unwieldy, unpredictable force. Perhaps it will snap into being at some unexpected moment, once momentum gathers.
However it happens, it will take courage, on the part of the many. We need to be prepared. We need to be practicing the art of real community, with the establishment of genuine participatory democracy, underpinned by nonviolence. By the way, there is a National Nonviolence Gathering occurring in Queensland, organised by Quakers and the P’chang communities, from April 30th to May 2nd. Please see me afterward for information about that.
Nonviolence is not an easy road, nor one where outcomes can be guaranteed. Sometimes we are called to do what is right, not what might bring short-term success. There will be sacrifices. Wherever nonviolence has worked to bring about social change, it has involved lots of hard work, purposeful planning, often a long time, and some suffering – but probably not as much death and mayhem as violent struggle produces. War is never an answer – it sews the seeds of future discontent, largely because it impacts on the innocent. Even though violence might be seductive and satisfying the short term, it results in a spiral of more violence. We need to be the peace we want to encourage in our communities. That’s got to be based on respect for all living things, especially including those we might consider our enemies. It’s possible to turn enemies into allies by being respectful, by recognising the inter-connectedness of all beings.
Arundhati Roy has this to say about about war and peace (“The Power of Nonviolence” 2001): “There is no easy way out of the spiralling morass of terror and brutality that confronts the world today. It is time now for the human race to hold still, to delve into its wells of collective wisdom, both ancient and modern.”
The terror and brutality of which she writes is all around us. We’re living through George Orwell’s 1984 scenario of three states engaged in perpetual warfare: first it’s A & B versus C, then B & C versus A, then A & C versus B – and constant warfare is one of Galtung’s fourteen criteria for a decaying empire. It’s not likely to change anytime soon. In the face of all that, “Holding still” is an invitation to reflective preparation for future challenges. I find it essential to spend quiet time, delving into the wells of collective wisdom, ancient and modern as Arundhati Roy suggests. There are plenty of inspiring poets and activists around today, and the past is rich in examples of courage and integrity.
People seeking to find different ways of being in the world, need to be as well trained as the military and various “law enforcement” agencies. If we’re willing to break the law, by invoking ethical and spiritual values which transcend government legal entities, we need to well versed not only in our rights (which may be trampled upon) but also in our obligations as planetary citizens. This includes taking responsibility for our actions, being prepared to suffer, even to die for our cause, but of course, not to kill for it. This may mean time in gaol, which is never comfortable. I’ve been involved in arrestable actions where there were so many people committing trespass that the gaols weren’t big enough to hold us all, so thousands of people were processed, and released. There is great advantage in masses if people act together, as Gandhi and Martin Luther King demonstrated. Such situations have the potential to get totally chaotic, especially when provocateurs are added to the mix. Some chaos, of course, is a positive element in the chemistry of change. It’s important to have a plan, and just as important to be prepared to deviate from it. Working within affinity groups is a good idea to build confidence and solidarity. Protestors need to be well trained, deeply committed and downright determined.
If we deliberately withdraw our co-operation from the state apparatus in large numbers, it cannot continue to function. Governments rely on the consent of the governed. I think we abdicate this power far too readily, unthinkingly. We are all individually powerful beings. How much more so, if we act together for the greater good of all beings, and for the planet itself. This requires big-picture thinking, long time thinking, a great deal of preparation, vision and hard work. But I believe that we’re approaching a time in the human story when something really big is brewing. It’s a worrying, but very exciting time to be alive!
Perhaps Juanita Nielson and her mates were ahead of their time, valuing beauty, fresh air, old houses, friendly communities, and green, open spaces for the nurturing of the human spirit. They were certainly at the forefront of the environmental movement in this country. Perhaps they were the forerunners of the Second Superpower Movement, and I’m extremely grateful for their example. Especially in large cities, people ought to have the right to enjoy the big picture of the daily sky shows – even with all our fancy technology, I don’t think humans can create anything more spectacular than the daily dawn and sunset shows, different every day, and truly amazing. There is so much to treasure in our beautiful, but fragile world. And it’s there for our edification if only we take the time to enjoy it.
How many people here have slept under the stars in the last year? At least one night, gazing at the dazzling sky? I like to lie there, and think of my own tininess in the whole scheme of things, and yet my significance too, as I live out my mere blip in time because I know that every single thing I do, matters. Everything counts because everything is connected to everything else. Whatever we do has an impact on our world. So, I urge you to sleep out, beyond the walls and roofs of your houses, to look at the stars for a long time before you drift off to sleep. If you remember nothing else about this evening, take this invitation to re-connect with the natural world, to appreciate it giving us sustenance to continue the work in which we’re engaged, that is, if we’ve already made a commitment to doing whatever we can to gently help turn the tide towards more inclusive, sustaining, just and peaceful way of being in the world.
Wendell Berry, American poet, puts it better than I can:
“When despair for the world grows in me,
and I wake in the night at the least sound
In fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water,
and the great heron feeds.
I come to the peace of wild things,
who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.
I come to the presence of still water, and I feel above me the day-blind stars,
waiting with their light.
For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”
Reflection on the life and times of Juanita Nielsen
by Lesa de Leau
Tuesday 22 March 2005
Thank you to Lee Rhiannon for continuing to host the Juanita Nielsen memorial lecture, which honours the courage and determination of Juanita along with the courage and determination of activists everywhere. Juanita Nielsen disappeared thirty years ago. She lost her life defending the homes of low income, powerless residents of Victoria Street, Kings Cross, against the greedy, powerful developers and their decision-maker mates.
The plan was to demolish the Victorian-style terraces on the wide, tree-lined street and replace them with three 48-storey apartment blocks. Juanita rallied local residents and led a resistance that saved a unique precinct. But the price was too high.
Juanita came from privilege and could have easily enjoyed a comfortable life. But she chose to stand with a group of residents who were at the margins of Sydney society. She worked with them to stop the march of developer greed consuming their community.
Juanita’s campaign set a standard for protecting communities from rapacious developers that stands today. We wish she was here today to tell us about it.
Only five weeks ago, another gutsy activist speaking out against big landowners, was murdered in the remote Brazilian jungle region of Para. Dorothy Stang was 74, a Catholic nun who had helped peasant farmers to organise against powerful local interests. This is a vicious battle – the stakes are high: 1380 rural workers have been killed in land conflicts in Brazil since the mid-1980s.
Like Juanita Neilson, Dorothy’s sacrifice was not in vain. There is some optimism that international attention around her death has provoked the Brazilian government to act by protecting new reserves of Amazon rainforest. Although again, the price was too high.
The Washington Post explains that Stang was “accustomed to death threats, and she had drawn scorn from many in industry and government”.
These two brave women stand in a beacon category along with people like
- Chilean President Salvadore Allende who was murdered in a brutal CIA backed coup in 1973,
- Salvadorean Bishop, Oscar Romero who fell to the death squads, and
- Nigerian human rights activist Ken Saro-Wiwa who was executed by the Nigerian government in 1995 at the behest of the Shell oil company because he helped organise the Ogoni people to protect their lands and their health.
There are thousands of individuals whose names we do not know but who have stood up for their communities and have paid the ultimate price for their beliefs and their willingness to put their safety on the line. Every week, teachers in rural Columbia face execution from CIA-backed death squads because their commitment to improving the lives of the impoverished peasants is seen as revolutionary.
Although in Australian death threats are rare – notwithstanding the tragic example of Juanita’s murder – there are many of us that live with the “scorn” of the big end of town and their mates in Canberra and here in Macquarie St.
Bob Brown is one of the Gunns 20 being sued by the Tasmanian woodchip corporation because they dared to speak the truth about the ruination of the nation’s natural heritage.
The activist community in Australia and around the world is nourished by the example set by these great people.
Throughout NSW, there are 58 Greens councillors speaking out against overdevelopment and injustice. We are inspired by the selfless courage of Juanita Nielsen; and by the tenacious spirit of Greens parliamentarians in this place, in Canberra, Western Australia, ACT and Tasmania.
We are also inspired by the audacity of activists prepared to take a big risk for a big cause.
In March 2003, Will Saunders and Dave Burgess wanted to shout the message that war is an obscenity like no other. By painting “No War” on the Opera House, they certainly got the message out there, as well as being thrown into jail and landed with a huge fine. But sadly, the bombs still fell on Baghdad and thousands of people have died.
There is comfort to be drawn from the willingness of some people to put themselves in harms way to make a stand on principle. It means that the campaign for a more just and sustainable planet will keep going as long as there are people prepared to translate their outrage to action.
Someone else both inspirational and accustomed to the scorn of others is Jo Vallentine. Jo has had a life of action. She entered the federal senate 21 years ago and was often the lone voice on peace, disarmament and sustainability. Jo will offer us a vision of social change, an antidote to the somber memory of Juanita’s murder.