Australia has been captivated by the gas industry for decades. Tim Winton calls time on them.
From the beach at night, at Ningaloo, you can see the pluming flares offshore. That’s the rigs. It’s been like that for a few years now. On the horizon, getting closer, more visible over time, like the very danger they signify. Ningaloo Reef is physically and politically encircled by oil and gas. The fossil fuel industry hasn’t simply occupied vast tracts of our seaway; it’s effectively colonised every level of our society. And with the climate emergency upon us, it’s not winding back – it’s doubling down. And that, my friends, is the smouldering dumpster fire of business as usual in this country. If we genuinely care about preserving the conditions of life on this planet, we have to put it out and we must do it now. That means we’ll all have to hold a hose, mate. We can’t keep averting our gaze and pretending this isn’t happening. And our leaders can’t keep appeasing the empire that’s still trying to tell us there’s nothing to worry about – that it’s the solution, not the problem.
There is no greater threat to life on this planet than global heating. And what’s driving this lethal process? Overwhelmingly, it’s fossil fuels – the consequences of digging them up and selling them and burning them. Every schoolkid knows this. Our elected representatives know it, from the regional shire to the Prime Minister’s department. This is not news. We face an emergency without precedent. We have a few short years left in which to avert horrors. And yet our leaders seem paralysed.
And that’s no accident. Such is the cultural success of fossil capital.
Now, I know we can’t undo the past. And nobody can expect the industry to shut down overnight. But big oil and gas interests aren’t planning to shut down at all. They’re pushing hard to kick on. To exploit more reserves, drill more seabed, frack more country, and unleash billions more tonnes of the CO2 and methane that are already cooking our planet. Woodside’s new Scarborough venture alone will release more than a billion tonnes of pollution into the air we breathe.
The big fossils want to kick on while they still can, while the trade is still legal. They’ve known about the dangers for decades. They’ve spent fortunes to obscure the data and confuse the public with the kind of spin and misinformation that’d make an autocrat blush. Some of them have more resources and more power than nation states. Steve Coll, Rachel Maddow and the Union of Concerned Scientists have documented their long, sleazy war on climate science and public accountability. And their propaganda blitz continues unabated. It’s straight out of the Big Tobacco playbook. And it’s been enormously successful. Marian Wilkinson and Rebecca Huntley have written very well about how the big fossils have secured such an extraordinary, disproportionate and enduring influence over every aspect of our culture and polity.
Our democracy has been so bewitched, and so thoroughly gaslit, that the nation is now terrified at the prospect of leaving what’s clearly a toxic relationship.
WA is especially captivated. Let’s leave aside coal here, because its obsolescence is confirmed, and its power is collapsing quickly. But somehow, despite what we all know, in this land of free wind and sunshine, even as cheap, safe, clean, renewable, storable and dispatchable forms of energy have become available – with much more in the wings – Big Daddy Gas, in particular, has continued to make himself seem indispensable to civilisation. Apparently, gas is a vital part of the transition – as long as that transition lasts another 50, 80, 100 years. Which is not so much from the tobacco playbook as from the fevered brow of Saint Augustine: “Lord, make me pure and chaste – but not just yet.” The gas industry has its fingerprints all over Australia’s languid stroll-out toward a low-carbon future. Its chieftains don’t just suffer from “cognitive distortion”; they traffic in it.
Apologies to Tennessee Williams here, for borrowing Big Daddy for a spell. But remember, in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the bloated old tycoon is all-powerful. Everybody owes him. But he’s dying. Everyone knows it, but nobody can quite bring themselves to acknowledge it. Ringing any bells here?
In 2020 the federal government opened up the coast off the World Heritage-listed Ningaloo Reef to the gas industry for exploration. The collective outrage of The Australian public saw the tenement scrapped. Photo Chris Gurney
Our democracy has been so bewitched, and so thoroughly gaslit, that the nation is now terrified at the prospect of leaving what’s clearly a toxic relationship. We know it’s bad for us and for the kids. But we’ve become so worn down and disoriented, so lied to and loomed over that we’re scared to get out. And those to whom we look, for guidance and support, the folks who should be finding us a pathway out of this mess? They’re more rattled than us. Because they know Big Daddy. What he’s capable of. They insist he’s a top bloke – mostly. Just gets a little carried away, sometimes, that’s all. When we cry out to be rescued, they’re keen to remind us about how generous Big Daddy’s been. He’s been so nice to us, hasn’t he? He loves us. In his way. And as to their having a quiet word with him, well you know, it’s kind of awkward right? So generous.
So, this is where we find ourselves. Twenty-two years into the new century. With maybe 10 years to pull up from a death spiral. The very wrongness of our captivity is so internalised it feels normal. Half the time we’re so punch-drunk it feels right. Was the world of Tennessee Williams ever this gothic or grotesque?
They’ve spent long and big on influence – to put lead in our boots and nonsense in our heads – and it’s leached right through our culture.
Still, not everyone’s terrified. And not everybody’s paralysed. Just last year, over 30,000 citizens stopped the oil and gas giants from getting huge new tenements off Shark Bay, the Abrolhos Islands and Ningaloo. That’s a signal of popular resistance. A bit of spine. And there’s more where that came from. The big fossils are increasingly on the nose; their social licence has been tanking for years, and they can feel it; they’ll have minions measuring it. But the thing is, they’ve been banking on this sea change taking a while to gather force. They need to slow it down long enough to grab what they can on the way out. And they’re confident they’ve bought themselves enough time. And you can see why. They’ve spent long and big on influence – to put lead in our boots and nonsense in our heads – and it’s leached right through our culture.
As evidence, and with a heavy heart, let me refer you to something painfully close to home. Especially for those of us in the arts community. You see, despite everything we know, it’s still possible in Perth, without batting an eye, to present a significant musical event, inspired by the tragic fate of our oceans in the age of global heating, and have it proudly funded, in part, by Woodside.
Now this is not a sledge at the Perth Festival. Or WASO. Or WAYO. And it’s certainly not a call to boycott the show and punish musos – especially during the pandemic. It’s just an acknowledgement of how things still work here. I suspect that to some of the folks involved in decisions around that production, the dissonance was inaudible. Shows you how normal it is, how safe the fossil giants still feel. For, who else in the corporate world, sailing so close to reputational oblivion, could feel that safe and so confident? You reckon a brewery would put itself forward for a show about foetal alcohol syndrome? How about tobacco sponsoring ventilators for lung patients?
Again, I’m not interested in denouncing or shaming anyone in our beleaguered arts community. Funding’s a nightmare. And I know how from personal experience how hard it is to raise cash for good work. I’m fully sympathetic. But I think this matter needs to be addressed. It’s way past time. Especially in this town. I recently discovered that the Perth Festival still takes money from Chevron. And to say I’m disappointed about that would be to undersell the intensity of my dismay. Oceans theme or not. Chevron? Really? With a record like theirs? Thailand, Nigeria, Cambodia, the Amazon? Does Ecuador not ring a bell?
I guess it shows you how insular and incurious we can be. And how hard it is to extricate ourselves. In WA, it starts with our kids on beach. To become lifesavers, they need to be “Woodside Nippers” first. And for the rest of their lives, wherever they go, whatever they watch or study, they’ll be marinating in Chevron and Shell and Santos.
It goes almost unremarked. But what I take most personally, and find most disheartening, is the knowledge that my own industry, the arts caper, should be so thoroughly co-opted. Artists and the companies that support them are supposed to be the guardians and champions of the imagination. So, let me ask, in a spirit of collegial reflection rather than condemnation: once we’ve reached the point, knowing what we know, where we fail to register the folly in accepting the patronage of massive carbon polluters, the companies seeking to extend their damaging activities and influence, do you think it’s possible our curiosity and imagination might have forsaken us? Or is it worse than that – have we forsaken them?
Now, falling for this old soft-power ploy doesn’t make us bad people. But it does make us chumps. All around us, financial institutions, superfunds, shareholder groups and banks are withdrawing their patronage of the fossil fuel industry. Because it’s seen as an increasingly bad bet, and in their view, it no longer passes the ethics test. So how is it that the arts community, should show less creativity and moral imagination than bankers? When there are other sources of philanthropy available – and there are – why we still dancing with the corporations doing the most to hold us back from dealing with the climate emergency?
In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, young Maggie says this:
“When something is festering on your memory or in your imagination, laws of silence don't work, it's just like shutting a door and locking it on a house on fire in hope of forgetting that the house is burning. But not facing a fire doesn't put it out. Silence about a thing just magnifies it. It grows and festers in silence, becomes malignant...”
Our home is already burning. And contributing to the pretence that it isn’t – by our own complicit silence – that’s not something to be proud of.
Current global warming projections are on track for 1.5 degrees... and rising. "Even 2 degrees will mean your grandchildren’s kids will probably never swim on a coral reef," offers Tim Winton. "Ningaloo will be cactus. And the Great Barrier Reef will just be a memory." Photo Zoe Strapp
Current policy settings, which still qualify as pretty close to business as usual, have us reaching a 3 degree rise in global temperature by 2100. That may not deliver David Wallace-Wells’ “uninhabitable earth”, but it’s still a hideous prospect. Even 2 degrees will mean your grandchildren’s kids will probably never swim on a coral reef. Ningaloo will be cactus. And the Great Barrier Reef will just be a memory. Perth will be unrecognisable.
Our best hope is to keep heating to 1.5 degrees. And our chances of achieving that are still alive, but they’re slipping by quickly. We need an emergency response. We don’t have time to stand by politely as Big Dad scrapes his last profits out of our oceans, our lands – at our expense. We simply don’t have that luxury.
I know that at closing time, no matter how long he’s been propped at the bar, every big fella reckons he deserves one last round. Hell, he’s put the time in, right? He’s always keen to tell you that; he’s invested, for God’s sake. But, truly, Big Dad, it’s closing time. The moment for more drinks is behind you. You’ve been propped up here forever, and all that time the tab you’ve been running up has been written in our grandkids’ names. All these years, playing the big man, and you’ve been paying the debt forward? Truly. It’s time, gentlemen. Please.
Gaslit is an edited excerpt from Tim Winton’s closing address at the Perth Writers Festival, February 2022.
For more on the offshore gas issue around Australia visit Patagonia's Big Gas Don't Surf page.