Image by Ben Thomson
On January 31, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority announced that they’d allow the expanding coal port on Abbot Point to dump dredge spoil within the marine park, and battle lines were drawn. Local tourism operators resolved to fight the decision in court, while vested governmental departments tried to calm the outcry with media releases and articles on the conversation. Then last month, for no clear reason at all, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream jumped into the ring, and everyone forgot about the reef.
All year the World Wildlife Fund has been pushing a reef awareness campaign called Fight for the Reef. Last month Ben & Jerry’s announced they’d be supporting that campaign by driving a van around the county handing out free ice cream. It’s impossible to say how much of this was about marketing and how much was about a genuine concern for the Reef, it could be argued that corporate good deeds of this nature are often mitigated by commercial gains.
While this is an obvious reproach, it’s not what the QLD government chose to get pissed about. Instead the State Environment Minister, Andrew Powell, accused them of not getting their facts straight. “In this case we have seen another company sign up to the campaign of lies and deceit, lies and misinformation that’s been propagated by the WWF,’” Minister Powell said. In the past month, the government released up to 30 seconds videos claiming that claiming that shipping and port building weren’t real problems with its “Reef Facts” campaign.
But according to aquatic animal health researcher and lecturer at Sydney University, Dr. Matt Landos, this video doesn’t quite have its facts straight either. As he explains “The QLD Government ‘Reef Facts’ are presented in a way that presents part of the story, without presenting the whole story, purely because the statistics are based on a study that does not consider the inner reef.” Dr. Landos also explains that the outer reef is affected by climate change, storms and severe weather “and yet we don’t see substantial action from the government in climate change as it continues to expand in projects that are likely to substantially increase the risk of more severe climate change.”
This too, would have been a fairly easy attack for the Ben & Jerry camp to pick apart, but their “Fight for The Reef” social media presence favoured quasi-politicised tweets over actual politics. Tweets like “I think my favourite #benandjerrys flavour is an apologetic politician,” filled their campaign site, alongside little gems like “National eat your bodyweight in Ben & Jerry’s ice cream day. Who’s with me?”
Simultaneously, B&J’s encouraged a wave of selfie activism in which social media users took photos of themselves with products and banners to support the campaign. Accordingly Dr. Landos warns awareness is the first step but not the last. “It certainly it needs to go one step further,” he says. “People actually taking action against the government.”
Amidst all of the fun, UNESCO published a document on April 30, disparaging the state of marine conservation. The report listed coastal development as one of the major factors affecting the reef with “Climate change as the most significant threat.” And yet few mentioned that at the heart of the debate, the development at Abbot Point is about supplying Indian power stations with more coal to burn. And at the heart of that, is another sort of consumerist self-indulgence.
So where does that leave the reef in this point scoring scramble? The government port plans are still underway and Ben & Jerry’s seems to be still selling lots of ice cream. While voters will remain unsure on what’s really wrong with the Great Barrier Reef with all these ‘facts’ campaigns and the idea that eating your bodyweight in ice cream will help to stop global warming. On the bright side, UNESCO will announce by June 25 whether they’re placing the reef on their dreaded “at risk” list. Maybe the least exciting reef interest will also be the most effective.
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