What Does Direct Action on Climate Change Really Look Like?

In the wake of the Coalition’s harsh budget, SEI’s Christopher Wright considers what direct action really looks like in response to the climate crisis

'March in May Protests' - Jerry Dohnal, Sourced: Flickr CC

The handing down of the Coalition’s 2014 budget is a blow for the environment. Notably, the Australian Renewable Energy Agency has been slashed and the Carbon Capture and Storage Flagship Programme has taken a $459 million cut. The government has committed $2.55 billion to its direct action policy (spread out over 10 years instead of the original 4), and will use $525 million to fund its ‘Green Army’, an initiative that controversially pays participants less than the minimum wage and is coupled with a $438 million cut to Landcare, an organisation that was already carrying out the environmental responsibilities that the Green Army has now been tasked with.

Is that what ‘direct action’ on climate change really looks like? As a Professor in the University of Sydney’s Business School and the leader of SEI’s Balanced Enterprise Research Network (BERN) I’ve been struck by very different forms of direct action that individuals and groups are taking in response to the worsening climate crisis.

The Job Switch

One theme that has emerged in my research is how people are beginning to reconsider their jobs and careers based upon a personal realisation of the urgency of the climate crisis. For instance, last year I received an email from a scientist in a US environmental agency, who related the increasingly tough choices she was having to make in her job. She was involved in overseeing fossil fuel developments in coal and gas, something she found increasingly problematic. After much thought she decided to no longer work for organisations facilitating the extraction and use of fossil fuels. As she explained:

…many have pointed out that my position allowed me to protect the environment. But that never sat well with me, especially as it relates to fossil fuels with their broad and wide externalities. After much introspection, and a couple of tears, I realized that an opinion like that is a flat view and it ignores the fact I have enabled interests that are contrary to human existence. It’s the enabling that drives us nuts. To this end, I now flatly refuse any work that deals with fossil fuels interests. It makes life much simpler for me and I suspect it will for others.

I’ve noted elsewhere that sustainability managers and consultants often battle with the conflict between their jobs and personal environmental concerns. One example was a senior manager in a global resource company who had undergone a personal epiphany about climate change. His concerns about the urgency of climate change led him to resign from his job and pursue an alternative path of climate activism and personal sustainability.


Making such choices is tough, particularly given the endemic nature of fossil fuels in our economy and society, however it also reflects a changing social mood. As climate science has revealed the fundamental threat fossil fuels pose to our environment and future, so social attitudes are beginning to change. Oil, coal and gas will inevitably become the next ‘sin industries’ with potentially huge implications. This change in social attitudes is evident in the growing public campaign of groups like 350.org who spoke recently at a BERN event advocating for major institutions to divest from fossil fuel companies, and in examples like former coal executive Ian Dunlop campaigning for a seat on the board of BHP Billiton on the issue of climate change as an urgent business risk.

Of course this movement is being fought tooth and nail by the fossil fuel industry, politicians and the media. To imagine an alternative to our current fossil fuel addiction is heresy. However, as Paul Gilding has argued this changing realisation will inevitably occur as our environmental situation worsens. Will we shift in time? I have my doubts, however the resulting social conflicts will be profound.

Indeed, Crikey columnist Bernard Keane provided an insightful reflection on this coming shift in public attitudes. Entitled ‘Climate policy: when adults squib it, youth should take direct action’, Keane pointed out that the current political debate around climate change in Australia (as elsewhere) is a mirage. The fundamental reductions in greenhouse gas emissions required involve much more drastic changes than 5 per cent cuts and ‘market mechanisms’. Indeed, as Bill McKibben points out we need to leave the vast bulk of remaining fossil fuels in the ground.

While our new conservative Federal Government likes to talk about ‘direct action’, as the climate crisis worsens and its impacts become more evident, so we should expect far more dramatic forms of social reactions and protest. As one recent March in May Protest placard read: ‘there is no Planet B’.

Christopher Wright is Professor of Organisational Studies at the University of Sydney Business School where he teaches and researches organisational change, management innovation, sustainability and critical understandings of capitalism and political economy. He has published extensively on the history of management, management consultancy, the labour process and the changing nature of human resource management.