abstract image of a screaming face

Image: andrew hale (flickr)

Novel alliances in a divided town: Coal seam gas and fear in Narrabri

11th December 2017

This blog was produced as part of our seminar series: Governance and the power of fear, which runs until 5 December 2017.

It seems intuitive to claim that emotions form an important element of political mobilization. It is easy enough to think of examples where fear – along with anger, frustration, anxiety – are seen in collective responses to perceived risks as diverse as vaccination, mad cow’s disease and nuclear power. But to provide a meaningful analysis of what fear and other emotions do in social mobilization, one needs to go beyond saying they are important, to having the conceptual tools to allow us to say what they do and how.

Emotions have generally been under-theorised in the social sciences. This is now changing as researchers who seek overcome the Cartesian separation between reasoning and emotion to explore the historical, discursive, embodied, intimate and yet social dimensions of emotion in social life. Because of their multidimensional nature, emotions are notoriously difficult to grasp and explain. There are ongoing lively debates about the extent to which emotions are preconscious and assembled in particular moments of activity, versus being discursively mediated experiences that involve affective labour and adherence to prevailing emotion rules. One approach which seeks a way through these debates is social psychologist Margaret Wetherell’s affective practices approach. Wetherell argues that emotions are both patterned in social life, yet because of their intimate and embodied nature, do allow slippages and modified performances that create new possibilities of ‘doing’ particular emotions in public.

In Wetherell’s approach, one would ask of social movements, how do people do emotions, how might this change in the process of interactions with others, or events, who gets to feel what and what affective rules enable this.

In Narrabri, north-west NSW, a social movement against a proposed coal seam gas project has been gathering steam since 2009. It has rapidly gained momentum, facilitated by locally created Facebook pages, in the face of perceived government and industry disregard for the potential environmental and social risks posed by the project. The local alliance is diverse, made up of farmers from different socio-economic backgrounds, retirees, town residents, and Indigenous people. Semi-permanent protest camps have also attracted support actions from anti-CSG groups from other parts of New South Wales and beyond. The local anti-CSG movement have participated in this debate via a whole range of means from formal submissions, to petitions to a creative range of protests including physically locking themselves onto machinery and gates.

There are members of the community who support the project, particularly in Narrabri township itself. One supporter has set up a Yes2Gas group, which while not having a formal membership base, hold information stalls and hosts a website to communicate the benefits of the project. This group generally downplays the risks posed by the technology while emphasising the importance of the project to the local economy.

For the anti-CSG movement, patterns of doing emotion in Narrabri such as fear, anger, are distinctive and rooted in place. Bound together by concern over a raft of social and environmental risks associated with coal seam gas, an alliance has formed, which, features both ‘civility’ in movement actions, as well as inclusiveness: images from Facebook pages will show children attending roadside protests; and the presence of musicians and a light-hearted atmosphere at a community protest event. It is clear that people involved are serious and passionate, but daily life is incorporated into doing activism, rather than being relegated to the sidelines. There is enormous affective labour involved in building such solidarities across difference – a distinctive feature of anti-coal seam gas alliances more broadly in Australia. This is truly noteworthy, given fraught histories in regional Australia of land dispossession of different groups (e.g. Indigenous groups), and other changes in land use which have marked some groups as ‘winners’ and others as ‘losers’. Participants in the movement also find themselves doing emotion in a way they never previously would have dreamt of – for instance speaking to the media, or locking on to machinery to disrupt operations. It is through collective actions, and interaction with organisers and anti-CSG movement participants from other places, that new affective avenues are made possible.

The very same feature of doing emotions such as fear and anger – conflict avoidance in interpersonal relationships, while building alliances within the anti-CSG movement, have also stymied dialogue between the pro and the anti-CSG groups with Narrabri. Instead of listening and considering each other’s fears, in the public sphere, fears tend to be downplayed or somehow delegitimised by reference to local discourses. For instance, the pro CSG side point to the fact that the proponent is an Australian company which will be responsive and respectful to local people, whereas the anti-CSG perspective generally sees the proponent as a multinational with no long term stake in the area. Indeed, the fears both side express about the project point to deep existential fears about the future of the Narrabri region.

Many on both sides are passionate about this issue because there is a sense that the future of the region is at stake, but it is the interpretation of CSG’s role which is contested. Anti-CSG community members see the project as threatening groundwater (and therefore the economic viability of farming) and community cohesion, whereas pro-CSG community members see the project as providing critical and much needed jobs to retain and attract young people to the region. People within the Narrabri region must experience and manage these fears in their day to day lives. The very existence of these fears – on both sides of the debate – point to a lack of broader understanding and support for the sorts of futures desired by people living in regional Australia. Of course this is not a straightforward question, given the heterogeneous nature of regional communities and complex histories of land use change. But simplistic representations of the project as boosting the local economy certainly belies the complexity of what is at stake. Whichever side “wins”, there will be long-term effects on the social, relational and affective landscape of the Narrabri region. And this is something you will never see in an environmental impact statement report.

Hedda Ransan-Cooper is a Research Fellow at the ANU College of Engineering and Computer Science. Her interests lie in the intersections between everyday life and global processes of change, including the role of emotions in climate activism. She is the project coordinator for the CONSORT project - an ARENA funded trial of renewable technology on Bruny Island, Tasmania.

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