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We promise this won't (really) hurt.

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Sean Doherty On Environmental Activism And Standing Up To "Multinational Kooks"

If you reside in Australia and 2020 hasn’t made you appreciate what an incredible island we inhabit, then you’re either agoraphobic or live in Melbourne.

The amount of natural beauty in New South Wales alone is staggering, but when you add in the reefs, mangroves, oceans, islands, deserts, mountain ranges and thousands of kilometres of stunning coastline from the other five states, it’s clear that as a whole, this island is the most diverse natural wonder in the world. Remarkably, such a place is currently governed by people who not only don’t value our adopted home’s habitat, but are actively trying to destroy it. It’s infuriating, insulting to even a base level intelligence, and if you let it, it can be all-consuming.

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Anyone of sound mind who's stood here and watched the Southern Ocean batter the cliffs could tell you the Bight's not a good spot for an oil rig. (Photo by Max Zappas)

For writer, editor, author, and now activist Sean Doherty, the events of the last few years have been un-ignorable. He’s carried the banner for surfing and non-surfing communities alike, and spearheaded a nationwide movement of coastal advocacy, the modus operandi being cutting through the political spin and laying out exactly what’s going on, then mobilising to prevent the downright crazy. And it turns out it works.

“We’re in the land of milk and honey here if you’re a surfer,” Sean says. “Fucken hell. It doesn’t get much better. But we’ve just had it too good for too long. All this fossil fuel and coastal development happens by stealth. That’s the nature of it. It’s not designed for the public to understand what’s going on.”

Writer, editor, author, and now activist, Sean Doherty

The line in the sand for Sean was the bid to drill for oil in the Great Australian Bight. And it was kick-started by a general feeling, like it was for many of us, that it just didn’t seem like a good idea. Rather than keeping a blind faith that elected officials know what they’re doing and have the best interests of the country they serve at heart (something we as a whole around the globe have done for far too long), Sean started digging.

“The more I looked into it the more crooked and shonky it appeared,” Sean explains. “And the more dangerous for the environment it looked. From that point I got swept up in it. I got so angry with the way that things were being run and how unfair it was, not only on the natural world, but on Australians. It’s fucken really unfair. All that stuff belongs to us, you know, and we should be getting a way better deal, not these multinational kooks that’ve got the ear of government and get a free ride. I think that once lot of people saw how the thing actually ran they felt compelled to do something about it.”

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The remnants of the south coast summer bush fires, our most recent, most potent reminder that it's getting hotter, dryer, and the clock is ticking. (Photo by Max Zappas)

We’ve been so indoctrinated by political language that it’s refreshing to listen to someone talk passionately, informedly, and with the occasional f-bomb. We’re Australian after all, and that’s how we talk. Sean’s Instagram has become a valuable resource for laymen (and women) who care about the environment, but don’t have the means to trawl through policy and niché (see: legitimate) journalism, and his tone online is similar to how he talks on the phone. I ask him whether it’s a deliberate departure from a more polished, academic way of communicating, and he tells me that it’s more a straight-up venting portal for him. The difference between Sean and the 5G mob, obviously, being that his rants are rooted in facts.

"I try and keep a bit of journalistic integrity and make sure what I put down is factual, but beyond that it’s like therapy for me,” Sean laughs. “If all this stuff is happening and you don’t have some emotional reaction, then there’s something wrong. I try and balance the two sides when I put this stuff out, but I care fucken deeply about it, and I think a lot of people do. Not getting that across would be doing myself a disservice.”

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The inhabitants of Manyana on the NSW South Coast stand up to needless development. (Photo by Max Zappas)

It’s easy to reel off specifics as to what’s really going wrong, but when prompted to put his finger on a blanket reason for the Australian Government’s recent (and not so recent) short comings, Sean sums it up quite simply. And unsurprisingly, uses our country’s original custodians as a blueprint.  

“I read a quote recently that deemed short-term thinking and short term decisions as an ‘immoral’ way to run society,” he tells me. “That’s why the link to Indigenous Australia is really strong with our movement. They had 60,000 years and kept it perfect, and within four generations we’ve fucked it. Looking after country is just what Indigenous Australians do. The current system is next year’s share dividend, next year’s election, and nothing beyond that; who gives a fuck? But people are realising that you can only do that for so long before it starts to come and bite you, and I reckon that’s where we’re at.”

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Bondi beach, one of the many coastal communities around the country that united to stand up to big oil in the Bight. (Photo by Tim Swallow)

Whilst it can be therapeutic to spend hours at the pub whinging about the government, stewing’s an unproductive state, and no one knows this better than Sean. On a national level Sean’s quick to point out that the voting booth is the only real way to wield influence, saying that, “You get one chance to stop these guys every three years, so you’ve got to work back from that point and create some kind of momentum that will at least keep then honest when that election point comes around.” And his approach to local environmental issues is again a simple one. A mixture of pressuring the right people and boots on the ground. The oldest, and still most effective, brand of activism. 

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Scenes like this over summer were hard for even the most blinkered of climate change deniers to ignore. (Photo by Max Zappas)

“Already in the last couple of weeks there’s been 10,000 letters go out to MPs in electorates between Sydney and Newcastle about this Pep11 thing,” Sean says of the latest bright idea: allowing exploratory gas drilling in a channel running from Newcastle to Sydney. “10,000 letters without a big campaign is pretty hard to ignore if you’re an MP and you want to get elected. You inevitably start to thinking, ‘Fuck, am I going to get re-elected?’ But you’ve got to have a balance between staying socially active and just turning up to shit.” 

Talking of “turning up for shit”, the outpour around the country, and indeed the world, in support of the Fight for the Bight Campaign was nothing short of remarkable. If it wasn’t for the awareness spread, and subsequently the almighty stink kicked up, by Sean and all the others involved, drilling the Bight would’ve gone ahead. Without a doubt. Buoyed post victory, Sean was keen to keep the momentum going, and has subsequently been appointed Director of the Australian faction of the Surfrider foundation. Sean’s a man of many jobs, but says that adding another to his CV was a means for giving the activist arm of what he does a framework to hang off; a banner under which all the communities fighting battles around the country can unite. And considering that the Australian Government’s post-COVID economic recovery plan seems to be solely rooted in the archaic fossil fuel industry, there’s going to be no shortage of biffs.

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The Bight locals making their feeling clear. (Photo by SA Rips)

“The big fight is with the fossil fuel industry and offshore gas, with a broader climate action platform,” Sean says of his Surfrider agenda. “In terms of people who live on the coast, if you’re concerned about climate change and you want some kind of meaningful climate action, stopping a gas rig’s not a bad start.”

Picking fights with Oil and Gas inevitably surfaces the tired rhetoric of, “Do you drive a car? How many planes did you catch last year?” and so on, but the frustrating thing for those of us who give a damn (which seeing as we surf is all of us) is that alternatives to fossil fuels, and our current economic recovery plan, could be one and the same.

“It’s the infuriating aspect of the whole fucking thing, the solutions are right there!” Sean says. “You have to build future-proof industries. We’ve got more land, more wind, more everything than anywhere else. Coming out of this thing you’re going to have to build stuff, you’re going to have to make stuff for people to do. Why not build something that's got a 50 year lifespan instead of mucking around with coal and gas? That’s last century. The maddening part is watching the government not only not facilitate it, but actually get in the way of innovation and progress. We’re going to get left behind, that’s the problem. So let’s see what we can do about it in the interim.”

For a beautiful, cinematic offering of Sean's work, we highly recommend watching Never Town below; come for the message, stay for Rasta's timeless swoops. 

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