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Accidental Activists

Meagan Holbeck

28 Dec 2022

What makes a person fight for a cause? Meet a surfer, a miner and a farmer who’ve all gone rogue – with reason.

This is a story of three Aussie environmental activists and their pathways into caring. It’s about where they started and how they’ve grown, the work they’ve done and the changes they’ve made to their patch of the world. It’s about environment and community – helping to protect one and build the other. And, most of all, it’s about connection and action, about how caring for the world and people transforms helplessness into power and builds skills, purpose and community. 

The diversity of activism covers everything from direct-action blockades to High Court challenges and grass-roots education. But although the backgrounds and skillsets of those involved vary, their passion doesn’t. 

Sally Hunter, a farmer from Narrabri in New South Wales, established Geni.Energy, a community-energy company, after approval was given for a coal-seam gas field in the Pilliga Forest near where she lives. As with many others, the path into activism began with a deep connection to the natural world. 

At first the connection was specific, centred on one area of interest, but it grew into a broader stewardship. As knowledge and connection grew, so too did her understanding of the threat, until there was no option but to act.

Sally Hunter is a second-generation cattle farmer, living with husband Geoff and their two youngest boys on their property near Narrabri, in north-western NSW. It’s lush and green, with a “food forest” of asparagus, citrus, berries and stone fruit. There are three dogs and 16 horses; 60 cattle graze across the road. It’s changed a lot since the 2019 drought when the family had to sell their herd – there were daily dust storms and they didn’t have enough water to wash their clothes. Their place is bordered by the Namoi River and Maules Creek and surrounded by coalmines – five within a 30km radius – with approval given for 850 coal-seam gas wells in the nearby Pilliga Forest.

Sally’s connection to the land grew as she did, beginning on an organic cattle farm near Roma, Queensland. Her family was part of a band, the church and the community and was always on the land, only going into town once a fortnight. Gas field development began ramping up in the area about 20 years ago. Her parents spent years resisting the industry, worried about its impact on their property and business. “In the end, it all went to shit,” Sally says. “Eight years ago, Mum had a mental breakdown, my parents got divorced and they sold the farm, all within a couple of months. My mum still holds the gas industry partly responsible in ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’ kind of vibe.” 

There have been multiple catalysts for these activists, until action wasn’t so much a choice but an acknowledgement that something had to be done. Then one thing led to another, over and over again. In the process, they developed the knowledge, skills, networks and ability to be effective and make change. They found their people – others who cared, who brought complementary skills and visions. And this ripple spread, as times changed, as people learnt, as hearts and minds opened. 

Where Sally lives is prime agricultural land. Conflict between farmers and the fossil-fuel industry stretches back more than a decade, involving impacts on water, community, the environment and cultural heritage. Added to the stresses of farming – drought, floods, the insecurity of income – farmers’ lack of power over what happens on their land is enough to tip people over the edge, and Sally has seen the results: suicide, mental health issues, families destroyed. She’s been involved in numerous campaigns and talks of roadblocks and riot police, of community division and the slow leaching away of people and valued things – forests, nature and the sense of local control. 

Sally has been involved in opposing several huge projects during the past three years: the Narrabri Underground Stage 3 Extension, the new Vickery coalmine, and the Narrabri Gas Project. She helped people bare their souls to prepare statements describing the projects’ impacts on their lives – on water, climate, land, family and community. She describes it as brutal, especially when all three projects were approved. Desperate for something positive, she started Geni.Energy

In 2020 this community energy business opened an office decorated with solar panels and batteries a few doors away from gas company Santos in Narrabri. Says Sally, “All we want is to see more renewables in the northwest. That’s it. We just want to reduce emissions, and we want to help people, and we’d like to be part of the inevitable transition.”

Geni’s work mixes advocacy, education and engagement, emphasising the practical. It analyses power bills to help households save money, suggests, installs and refines solar solutions and also runs education days on everything from EVs to batteries. It’s about education, connection and keeping benefits local, from opportunities and investments to jobs. Sally walks the walk. Her weatherboard house has solar panels, a battery, and an EV in the driveway. (Her electricity bill is tiny, and her fuel bill has dropped from $250 to $35 a week.)

In its first two years, Geni.Energy has had a big impact, installing 406kW of solar and 144kWh of batteries across the region, saving more than 550 tonnes of carbon emissions annually. It’s won an EV-charging station for Narrabri, and the federal government has committed funds for a community battery. But as well as concrete success, Geni is also facilitating underlying change, spreading knowledge and openness, and bridging divides. I met EV-driving coalmine managers and heard about community organisations whose budgets were saved by their solar panels. 

Despite being this year’s runner-up for best new business in the Narrabri Business Awards, it’s not all been sunshine. There’s been plenty of scepticism and hard yakka. Sally describes starting from nothing, without any money or knowledge of the sector and just working it out – the directors, partners, research projects, income streams, community, legals, financing, funding and more. “The only way you can survive this stuff is being supported by other people…the people that are willing to make an effort in your community are those who are passionate about these things, and they’re willing to put themselves out there,” Sally says. “They’re the best of the best people around, really super and smart.”

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