Date posted: 30th August 2010
Almost 10 years ago, at the September 11 2000 protests at the Crown Casino, Nick and Clint were both inspired by a T-shirt that changed the way they thought about their voice in the world. Here are some reflections on the event, the changing world since then and learnings of the past decade.
It is coming up to the 10 year anniversary of “S11” – not the S11 that most of the world knows about (two planes – New York’s twin towers) but the September 11 of the year 2000, 12 months before. It was the meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF), at Melbourne’s crown casino, an event made especially memorable by the 15,000 uninvited guests who, in the spirit of the previous year’s Seattle protests, gathered to blockade, parade and generally voice their concerns outside and around the venue.
I was there and, like many, found myself as much a voyeur as a participant, swept up in the event yet aware that there were many different agendas of those present. Slogans included the defiant “Shut down the WEF”, “End Captialism”, and the slightly more moderate “Global Justice not Corporate Greed”, “People not Profit”. I can understand why the mainstream media described it as “a mass of disconnection“ with voices for revolution, voices for reformation, voices for increased transparency, voices for improved dialogue. However what did unite us was a shared discontent with the present system, a realisation that global capitalism was not a solution for many of the world’s people or the world itself. Most of all, there was a desire to see those who had power take responsibility and enact some kind of change.
My memories of the three days were vivid and for the most part constructive: the Alternative economic forum conference – with both inspiring and grounding debate on the ideal (what world do we want) and the possible (what world can we have); the Jubilee 2000 celebration day – calling for dropping of debt owed by 3rd world countries; a prayer service amidst the cavalry (see photo); Sean, a friend who I met at the event, passionately reciting the ‘Jabbawocky‘ to the line of police (pic). And then there was poor old WA Premier Richard Court, safely trapped inside his car amidst a sea of people.
It was on the third day, during the celebration parade through the city centre, that I glimpsed a scraggy T-shirt with the hand written words scrawled ‘your dollar is you vote, who did you vote for today?‘. A simple slogan that, in a way, gave answer to the question that had been running through my mind – “in amongst these many voices, how is my voice heard in the world?” It was the realisation that each of us endorse various companies, activities and systems that go on behind the scenes with the money that we spend in the everyday.
So began a personal pilgrimage to find out where my money was going, and many years wandering the wilderness of the supermarket aisles reading labels and joining dots in the who ‘owns who’ mission of discovery. It was in 2004 that I met up with Clint who had been inspired by the very same T-shirt and began his own very similar compulsive ‘need to know’ project. (See Clint and Pradeepa with the Big hair pic below). And so came the genesis of what has become the Ethical Consumer Group.
So what has changed in the world in the last 10 years? Is it a better place? How far have we come?Not too far in some ways. Most of the same issues exist today as then, and in fact there is a greater need for change. Our collective human footprint on the planet continues to grow, it’s effects being seen more acutely. Continuing concentration of brand and company ownership means the domination of our food and essentials, which remain in the hands of a relatively small number of large companies. The loss of local businesses and community economies can be seen as the two big supermarkets extend their reach in Australia. (Woolworths is Australia’s largest retailer with almost 3,000 stores, 802 of these are supermarkets). The need for action and tangible alternatives is more than ever present before us.Yet out of this need, many initiatives have arisen responding in ways that we wouldn’t have imagined 10 years ago.
Local community initatives such as Permabltiz, Cultivating Community, Transition Towns, Food Connect have sprung up in response to the need to localise our ‘seemingly’ global world. We’ve seen some big wins in campaigns using consumer power, such Kimberly Clarke’s commitment to no longer use pulp from endangered forests after a 6 year Greenpeace campaign, and Nestle responding to pressure to source more ‘sustainable’ palm oil. Who would have thought that the Melbourne Zoo would be advocating for adequate labelling of palm oil. Their “Don’t Palm us off” campaign, saw 130,000 signatures, and five major food manufacturers making commitments to switch to certified palm oil. And huge steps towards greater corporate transparency such Walmart, the world’s biggest retailer, introducing their ‘Sustainability Index‘ supplier questionnaire to their 100,000+ suppliers.
We’ve also seem other small organisations working tirelessly with minimal funds and resources to raise awareness about issues that effect each of us. Gene Ethics is one that come to mind, raising awareness about the concerns of Genetic Engineering in our food and agriculture. (Over 93% of US soybean and 86% of US corn is now genetically modified).
The reality is that we need to fast track change like never before. The mime artist Benny Zable’s gas mask man’s dire proclamation “work, consume, be silent, die – I rely on your apathy – It’s costing the earth” (see pic), reminds me that our tendency is to not ask difficult questions that may require a personal change in what we do. We all need to be more adequately informed about the wider impacts of our purchases and our connection through what we buy to what goes on in the world (fight the apathy).Yet just ‘more information’ is often not enough. We can find ourselves overwhelmed and paralysed by our feelings of concern in response to the ‘aweful’ facts. It is worth remembering that, as Joanna Macy says, “strong feelings are a compasionate response to the world”. However, they can be ‘motiving’ forces or can alternatively trap us in ‘anger’ or ‘blame’ or simply non-action. It is only when we can articulate our feelings and voice our concerns that we are no longer bound by them. We can only then respond to them in positive action and in a creative and empowering way.In some ways, this is what we did at S11. And what we at the Ethical Consumer Group have tried to provide – a safe place for people to voice their concern, and to respond to the needs of the world. We’re part of a growing movement of everyday people supporting each other in how we together can live out an ‘ethic of care’ and navigate through all the complexities that come with this.
In reality, change is slow. We all walk one step at a time. All change takes time. It’s good to remember however that what we imagine today, may be tangible reality tomorrow if we are committed to it and determined to act where we can. I am reminded of William Wilberforce who worked to see the abolishion of slavery in the British Empire, something that we today take for granted. It took him twenty-six years before success with the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833.
When Billy Bragg stated that “the revolution is just a T-shirt away” we never really took him all that seriously. But as our own story suggests, you never can tell what small yet significant moments may be the catalyst for something bigger.
10 years down the track, it’s good to be on the journey, and good to be on the journey with you.
At the S11 protests 10 years ago, I was full of anger. Anger at the banks and the corporations for exploiting people and planet for profits and power. Anger at the general public for being so ignorant. Anger at myself for doing nothing about it. Over the years that anger has changed into fascination – fascination with why today’s society is the way it is, how did we get here, and where are we going.
The media coverage of S11 was wildly different from my experience. I felt solidarity amongst those 10,000 protestors, a common yearning for a just world, our voices struggling to be heard. We were angry at those men in Crown Casino plotting to tighten their financial stranglehold. The media told of 2,000 violent ill-informed radicals. It was the first time I was at an event which was covered in the mainstream media. I got to see first hand the way the media twists events to push their own agendas. I haven’t watched the news the same way since.
During the protests I saw a woman in a hand-written T-shirt which read, “Your Dollar is Your Vote – who did you vote for today?”. That planted a seed for me. Two years later I began working on “The Guide To Ethical Spending”. Two years after that I met Nick Ray, who was doing pretty much the same thing as me. We combined projects and we’ve been working together ever since.
I took on this project not because I wanted to do it, but because I saw that it needed to be done. Australia needed a guide like this. Today I’m grateful to be in a position where my research is useful to others. I love putting all the pieces together. Who owns what, and what do they do.
I’m just a guy who found his purpose. To the woman wearing that t-shirt, wherever you are, your voice was heard that day. Thank you.