A Critique of Pure Consensus
thoughts arising from the Anvil Hill Direct Action Camp
Wybong, Upper Hunter
4-6 October 2006

 

Anvil Hill is a landscape feature in the valley of Wybong Creek, a major tributary of the Hunter River in NSW 20 km west of Muswellbrook. The extensive forested valleys around it are the site of a proposal for a huge open pit coal mine.

This single coal development proposal promises to excavate and export 10.5 million tonnes of coal for the next 15 years and it alone will increase coal exports from Newcastle Harbor, already the biggest coal exporting port in the world, by 40%.

Saving Anvil Hill has become the symbol of resistance to the permanent damage being done by coal mining to Hunter Valley land and waterways. But more, drawing the line at Anvil Hill is also seen as taking responsibility to stop the fueling of global climate change by coal exports and kick starting a clean energy future in NSW.

The Anvil Hill Alliance is a coalition of over 30 environmental groups the driving force of which is the local resident group Anvil Hill Project Watch steered by the amazing Christine Phelps, Greenpeace Australia Pacific as part of their commitment to action on climate chaos in NSW and the Newcastle based anarchist activist group called Rising Tide led by Steve Philips.

In terms of future shaping the Anvil Hill campaign is one to watch and actively support. See the Rising Tide take on the significance of Anvil Hill.

On 4 - 7 October, the Alliance presented an Anvil Hill Action Camp and Peacebus.com participated amongst the other 30-60 people per day. See the program and a blogspot report.

On Friday 6 October, the closing day for objections to the mine proposal, the camp participants went into Muswellbrook and, outside the offices of the developer, Centennial Coal, pledged their intention to resist the development. See the Sydney Indymedia.

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The Action camp took place on the property of Christine Phelps and was organized principally by a young woman I had met in June when she and I joined eco-activists Gordon and Easton at camp in the scrub on the west side of the Anvil Hill valley.

We had come from the World Environment Day protest organized on 6 June by Rising Tide against Newcastle coal exports. For both of us it was our first introduction to Anvil Hill and Easton and Gordon who had been walking the country photographing wildlife and documenting Aboriginal artefacts, were our guides.

The World Environment Day protest organized by Rising Tide on 6 June 2006. Historic day! First time ever coal freighters needed a police escort to leave Newcastle Harbour. Promise of things to come.

Around the camp fire we had talked about how to build the campaign and get activists engaged and how in particular to get activists on the ground, camping together and familiar with the country as we had become in the three days that we were together.

The idea of an activist skillshare camp came up and our camp broke up with a mutual commitment to take the idea further.

For the skillshare, I was advocating something re-Earthing and tribal; in particular something that created sacred ceremony which recognized elders and served as an initiation experience for the young warriors of both genders.

I had experienced in such doing Standing Up Alive mens movement camps in the 90s and knew its power. In particular I saw it as a strategy for directly engaging elders in the campaign. Why should activism be considered the sole provence of the young? There are so many older people with developed skills, resources and time on their hands.

But that concept was as alien to that young woman as she was new to the Australian bush. She ran with her idea of an Action Camp, got backing for it from the Alliance and met all my subsequent attempts at discussion with evasion.

So it was, I confess, that I approached the Action Camp feeling somewhat rebuffed this old and expereinced activist brushed aside. But better an action camp of some kind than none. I attended curious to see what.

It was a very well organized camp and just camping together builds a sense of belonging and association. The company was excellent, activists committed to the defense of Anvil Hill are jewels amongst the dross.

In the critique that follows I am not questioning the integrity or good intentions of the people involved. But I am questioning methods and assumptions for movement building in these times.

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So what was considered more appropriate than experiencing the sacred at Anvil Hill?

It turned out to be a corporate management process called 'strategising', very cerebral, very wordy and involving butchers paper and marking pens.

The Camp was presented as having an open program to which anyone could contribute but in fact 'strategising' was built in and core, pre-arranged and occupying the only tent that was weather and wind proof and taking up most for first two days of the camp.

The strategising process I had met before and had been singularly unimpressed.

On 8 July directly after the Anvil Hill camp and the invitation of Nat Lowrey of Blue Mountains FoE, I had travelled far to attend the campaigns session of the Friends of the Earth National meeting at the Dorroughby Field Centre on the north coast of NSW.

It was my first FoE meetings and I went expecting to get a national overview of FoE activism and learn where the Cyanide Watch campaign might fit.

Instead I walked in on an abstract discussion about strategy and how to evoke it. The process was painful, the process leaders out of their depth and the process receivers patient, puzzled, polite and bored shitless.

I stayed till lunch, talked to no-one about matters that concerned me and left thinking that if that was typical of a FoE meeting it augured ill for FoE as a force for change in these times. I heard later the experience was similar for others and the FoE national conference broke up with its activists feeling flat.

Nat has told me since that FoE, after 30 years of positive change making, is going strong and is still a force for change and that the meeting I attended was an exemption. FoE mid year meetings, she says, are always more tiresome compared to the national meetings at the start of the year when all the campaigns, projects, local groups report and any new groups/campaigns that might want to fall under the FoE umbrella get heard, But from the feedback she had had of that particular mid year meeting it was the flattest in a long time.

Maybe it was the heady and abstract strategising process that made the difference.

John Hepburn, long time FoE actiivist with an interest in nanotechnology and alos Greenpeace campaigner, Anvil Hill Direct Action Camp, 5 October 2006

Now here it was again central to the agenda. 'Strategising" seemed to me to be the latest activist fad.

"Why talk in the abstract about strategy?" I asked the facilitator. "Why can't we talk about the strategy for saving Anvil Hill in the particular? What for example is the Anvil Hill strategy being proposed by Greenpeace?"

If that was open and on the table, I suggested, we could have an engaging and pertinent dialogue and maybe even a debate between advocates of alternatives. That's how humans have done it in the past.

The facilitator defended the process saying he was teaching a useful tool which was generally applicable to all and any campaign for change.

I doubted this and asked if he thought General Douglas MacArthur used such a process to develop his WW2 Pacific Island hopping campaign. John replied that MacArthur had the benefit of army staff college training and an understanding of strategy and strategy making not available to your average greenie activist.

That maybe so but it was not staff college training that gave MacArthur his genius for strategy. And what about Sitting Bull? I suspect that genius for strategising is something that arises from experience and intuition, neither of which can be taught or packaged as a process.

It was a beautiful camp. I sat through most of two days of strategising but I found it difficult and so apparently did others; only a few of the 30 or so participants had the concentration and the endurance.



Views of the Anvil Hill Direct Action Camp with John Murphyand Winiata Puru saluting

The process sought to educe strategy from group mind with questions like the opener: "What is Strategy?" But I have trouble with tentencious questions and reckon it bad faith and manipulative to ask a question of another if one already knows the answer.

The approach suggested to me that the whole process was tentencious or in other words that there was a strategy in mind and the process was aimed at engineering group consensus and ownership of it.

Part of the process involved what was called "power mapping" and this involved identifying stakeholders in the conflict and placing them on a butchers paper Cartesian grid the axes of which were much influence - little influence on the decision to mine and pro mine - anti mine.

This visualisation of the stakeholders created a more engaged discussion but again doubts arose in me: have we identified all the players and all the powers?

I supposed by the way the facilitator kept coming back to it, the process was aimed at identifying NSW Premier Morris Iemma as the key target for the strategy.

But what if his mother or his mistress had more power over him than the Cabinet, the Party or all the pressure groups in NSW? The point is that the rationality of humans and their decision making processes is a thin membrane over eruptive emotions and a dark, mysterious and unmappable unconscious. Strange things happen.

Furthermore where would an inspired mystic like Gandhi fit on that two dimension map of power? In another dimension all together, I suspect.

To this day i know not what strategy is proposed to save Anvil Hill. I do know that I left the camp feeling alienated and confused. There was something unfulfilled in me and I mulled on it for days afterwards.

Nat says it thios way: some people are 'meeting/strategising' people, some people aren't and some are a bit of both. Me I tend to work more intuitively and talky talky strategising irritates me and I yearn to be doing something rather than talking about doing something.

Here is the essence of my critique. We are up against a web of life denying, Earth destroying corporate management culture that is founded on rationality and science and it is this fixation of rational processes that have brought us to our current plight. "Among the illusions which have invested our civilization is an absolute belief that the solutions to our problems must be a more determined application of rationally organized expertise," says John Ralston Saul in Voltaire's Bastards - The Dicraorship of Reason in the West (1992) writes. "The reality is that our problems are largely the product of that application." See review and link to interview.

Strategising is a corporate management tool and if we oppose them with their own weapons we will certainly lose our way (they will always have the resirces to buy better experts) but worse we will become like them.

Learn the lesson of the Lake Cowal gold mine approval. The Total Environment Centre, after lengthy negotiations with the gold mine developer over the mine's expected environmental impacts, did a rational deal and sold out on the integrity of the Lake.

Jeff Angel TEC director put the corporate needs of the TEC and its ongoing viability and influence with the NSW Government ahead of the Lake and the future generations of life it will support and, in exchange for a few minor concessions from the developer, accepted money via the set up of the Lake Cowal Foundation to do ameliorating Landcare works on the east side of the Lake.

Better I say we stay in touch with the Earth and develop the ways and means of moving together that are uncorporate, intuitive, in touch with the web of life and the ancestor beings. Thinking like a Mountain is how John Seed conceived it in his book of that name published in 1988.

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Another question arises: why should campaign strategy making be deemed a domain of consensus decision making? Why is it not be a function of leadership and a quality that decides who is best to lead?

The answer is that at, in this time and season of political activism, consensus decision making seems to be held as the only morally acceptable basis for any decision making.

The proponents argue consensus builds solidarity and strength by listening to all the voices and finding a middle ground that allows even movement.

There is much to be said in favour of this. A skilled consensus facilitator in action is a joy to behold and processes using hand signals to feedback assent and degree of assent are fun to be part of.

Weni the wok washer, also a sublime consensus facilitator

But it is pure ideology (a presumption about how the world ought to work) to assume consensus is the only way to make decisions and appropriate to all decision situations.

In fact it is an assumption about the way the world works that flies in the face of millennia of experience of human group endeavor.

Everywhere one looks, things are getting done by groups operating in some hierarchy of decision making based on experience. One would not attempt to build a house using consensus decision making. Or cross a dangerous ocean in a ship.

Why do political activists think they can achieve anything momentous or hazardous assuming everyone is equal and deserving equal input?

I reckon the obsession is a feel-good fad, more about process than outcome, the domain of talkers rather than doers and a millstone around the neck of effective activism.

If the upside of consensus decision making is creative engagement, egalitarianism, openness and solidarity, its shadow is mediocrity, hidden hierarchy, manipulation and unseen withholding.

In 1990 while in London I met Jerzey Grotowski the founder of the Polish Theatre Laboratory and considered a major reformer of modern theatre, a movement that these days is known as physical theatre. I asked him what he thought about actor companies working collaboratively without a director.

He replied bluntly: "With a director there is a chance of genius. Without a director, mediocrity will prevail."

I reckon Grotowski was spot on. New ideas and genius insights do not arrive with consensus; rather they are tend to arrive at the margins with poor articulation. In a group dominated by the articulate and the search for the middle ground, such insights, if not withheld altogether in the name of harmony and a desire not to extend and complicate the talky business, will be go unheeded.

Consensus decision making favors the articulate but otherwise it levels people. In particular it denies leadership and hierarchy as a natural function in human groups; in the circle ever one is a leader and everyone a follower. This certainly makes leaders who naturally arise accountable but it also diminishes them and discourages them.

Hierarchy is ever present in human affairs, but consensus tends to hide it and so it operates covertly or in shadow and becomes all the more confusing, if not manipulating and inhibiting.

Amongst the gender differences now acknowledged post feminism, is that men are recognized as being less skilled than women at turning feelings into words but men are more adept at turning feelings into actions.

As such consensus decision making favors women and the talky feminine mode of being and it disfavors men and the action masculine mode of being.

Compounding this is an insight from the mens movement, that men are more comfortable operating in environments where the power hierarchy is clearly defined. Think of the example of a building site with apprentices, laborers, tradesmen, foremen, project managers and so on, titles and functions clearly defined; although some women have entered, this is the world of men and how they get things done.

This feminine bias possibly explains why there is such a gender imbalance in present day activism.

The paucity of the masculine is a major cost and limitation. Without the engagement of the creativity and power of the masculine (Camille Paglia be my witness!) greenie activism will achieve very little apart from talk.

But the worst sin of consensus decision making is time wasting through inappropriate application.

At the Anvil Hill Action Camp on the morning of the Muswellbrook action there was such an example. A meeting was called before departure to consider the final draft of the media release for the action.

Finding group consensus on a written text is fraught at the best of times - too many variables and those who write the least seem to be the nittiest of pickers. Leave writing to the writers and near enough is good enough, I say. After all it was only a media release and not something to be caved in stone as a new set of commandments.

But to think it appropriate to have such a meeting before departing for an action when people are feeling naturally nervous of the unknown is plain folly; not something a football coach would do to a team just before it ran out onto the field.

The meeting that was supposed to last 30 minutes went on for 90 minutes so cutting across any doing preparation that might have occurred as fear bellies found expression not so much dealing with their own nerves, but by projecting and talking about how unspecified others ought behave. Groan.

And after all the talking about how the action ought to happen, on the street it happened in its own way as activists did there own thing in response to circumstances unpredictable.

I left the meeting early so that I would have time to get an appropriate a parking spot and rig flags and banners. But the talky talky meant I had to do the job on my ownsome.

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Let me close this discourse by describing another ideologically imposed constraint on green activism which was brought into sharp relief during the Action Camp - the exaltation of the Aboriginal.

The prevailing ideology of green activism is that Earth defending actions ought to include, if not be subsumed by, a commitment to Aboriginal sovereignty.

The logic seems to be that the Earth destruction we experience in Australia today would not have happened if the first people had retained sovereignty of their land and that the way back to the Garden of Eden is to support Aboriginal people in the restoration of their sovereignty.

This was the position that black green activist, Ellie Gilbert, widow of Wiradjuri playwright Kevin Gilbert, put as a member of the Earthlings Black Green Alliance panel at the TINA Festival the weekend before the camp.

Some black green alliances have been successful and others a disaster but the doubts of the activists present at the TINA panel were expressed by the awkward reticence and stumbling dialogue that followed. For truly there was an elephant in the room but for fear of being labeled racist, no one wanted to say how fraught it is to work with Aboriginal groups and their internal squabbles about Native Title.

These problems, as Gaynor MacDonald spells out in an essay on how legal models reconstitute persons and socialities in Dissent #21 Spring 2006, are exacerbated by the adversarial law imposed upon Aboriginal people in regard to Native Title claims.

But the fact of them makes Aboriginal alliances on green issues unstable and unreliable. Yet many green activist embrace the koori cause as if were their own and defer to elderly Aboriginal people as if they were Hindu gurus.

White activists who are often marginal to their own society and they seem to want to find the elders and the spirituality that they have not found in their own culture in Aboriginality. This projects onto elderly Aboriginals, often tired and worn out by lives led amongst endemic alcohol abuse and poverty, something which they are not and something which they cannot provide.

For me I like the welcome to country ritual as a part of acknowledging the role and witness of ancestors in our lives. When Auntie Barbara Foote came to the Action Camp at Anvil Hill on 4 October to welcome us to Wonnarua country, her kindness and deep sadness touched my heart.

In her late sixties, Auntie Barb is overweight and tired, but her eyes had the deep softness of a grandmother. She sat in a chair in the shade of a small tree and the activists gathered around her sitting on the ground respectfully listening to her words. She not only welcomed us to her country, she acknowledged to huge task ahead stopping the coal mine ("Not an easy thing to stop the government," she said in a poignant understatement) and gave us her blessings.

With such an appreciative audience she went on at length, sometimes her words swept away by the wind that had come up. Some were like adoring children sitting at the feet of Santa, others restive to get on with the 'strategising' program.

Come the action in Muswellbrook I rigged the flags and banners across the road from the Centennial Coal office. On that side of Brook street were the offices of ABC Radio Upper Hunter and the Hunter Aboriginal Land Council.


The set up in Brook Street for the pledging of opposition to the Anvil Hill coal development , 6 October 2006

Thinking them the most appropriate, I put out my koori-green flags, tying them to the poles of the parking signs along the street.

Mike Pritchard, the ABC Radio Upper Hunter breakfast program presenter, loved the idea of the news coming to him in such a direct way and, recognizing the significance of the event, immediately got on the phone and arranged a live to air cross for the state wide rural program later in the morning.

The koori green flag outside the Hunter Valley Aboriginal Land Corporation, however, raised ire. It soon became evident that people in that organization did not want to be associated with a protest against the Centennial Coal mine proposal.

The objectors outside the Hunter Valley Aboriginal Corporation , 6 October 2006

The activist arrived and after leafletting pedestrians in the main street took turns to use the Peacebus.com PA to pledge their ongoing opposition to the mine after which they crossed the road to the doors of the Centennial Coal office which were locked during the protest, and stuck their written pledge there upon.




Pledging of opposition to the Anvil Hill coal development , 6 October 2006

Most invoked the Wonnarua traditional elders and assumed that they were acting with their blessing and in their defense. For example Stacey Nelson like many others began by saying: "You do not have a right to decide to mine Wonnarua land ..."

Meanwhile outside the office of the Hunter Valley Aboriginal Land Council about 15 meters away, a knot of people were arguing and shouting. Seems their Board of Directors had signed off and collected big bucks on past coal mines and were expecting to collect on Anvil Hill too.

Their CEO, a young aboriginal man describing himself as one of the post Whitlam generation koori administrators, confronted me saying: "You have no right to protest on this land without our permission". And: "Get a job! Get a haircut!"

He said he was speaking for the majority of recognized Native Titleholders: Auntie Barb being a "tired old lady" and a minority voice.

The CEO of the the Hunter Valley Aboriginal Corporation gets on the mike and has his say too, 6 October 2006

Later after he had cooled down he explained that he personally supported our opposition to the Anvil Hill coal mine but his Board, which was dominated by a single family, a patriarch and four of his cousins each taking home $500 a week for being Board members, did not.

All the contradictions, delusions, and wishful thinking inherent in the black-green alliance, all the unspeakable elephants that were in the room with us during that TINA Earthling session the previous weekend, were on parade in Muswellbrook that day.

One young eco-warrior was so devastated by the koori response he started bringing in the koori-green flags. "Auntie Barb said so," he explained to me. Since when does Auntie Barb determine whether or not i can put up flags in public place? It was only because the flags had power in their symbolism that they evoked such strong hostility.

In spite of my objections, I noticed other activists also bringing in the flags that looked so splendid. What happened to consensus decision making?

I am pleased to say that Steve Philips of Rising Tide was unfazed by the koori fracas. He kept his eye on the ball, stood in front of the Anvil Hill banner rig and spoke forcibily and convincingly to the news cameras.

Stop the Anvil Hill coal mine!

For the Earth!

Graeme Dunstan
Peacebus.com
written 8 October - 14 November 2006

Postscript.

This critique of consensus suggests all activists and organisations are absolute about it and of course they are not.

Nat says FoE for example uses concensus decision making but the process is constantly reviewed to see if it is working. During her time with FoE Melbourne also had other simple processes that allowed quick and on the spot decision making and feed back and quite often this did entail leadership particular from individuals particularly because of their skill.

And of course Greepeace is big and global and necessarily corporate in structure.


A pledge on the glass of Centennial Coal's Muswellbrook office and the security guards disposing of them unread after the departure of activists, 6 October 2006

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