Experimental Publics: Activist Culture and Political Intelligibility of Climate Change Action in the Hunter Valley, Southeast Australia



The ethnographic study of Western environmental activism opens up the prospect of studying subjectivities formed in opposition to dominant Western ideas and values, and yet encapsulated within Western societies and democratic polities. One of the directions in which it points the anthropologist, which is pursued in this article, is towards the study of the political lifeworlds of activists, their self-identity as citizens and their embeddedness in the wider society. Environmental politics can be an emergent activity in citizens' lives, as expressed in John Dewey's concept of ‘the public’ as citizens who organise themselves to address the adverse consequences of situations that they experience in common (Dewey 1991[1927]). This paper focuses on a middle ground of social action between habitual daily practice, and the domain of institutional politics: groups of people in small voluntary organisations in the heavily coal-mined Hunter Valley, Southeast Australia, who are moved to collective action to address the threatening aspects of anthropogenic climate change. Action group members variously articulate their reflexive understandings of the structural contradictions of environmentalism in corporate capitalist societies where values of consumerism and processes of individualization corrode collective concerns of citizenship-based politics. These understandings inform activists' personal motivations, values and ideals for a ‘climate movement’, diverse modes of political action and striving for wider political intelligibility.