23 minutes. That’s how long it took for Whitehaven Coal to lose $314 million of its value on January 7 this year, when ANZ issued a startling press release saying it had withdrawn a $1.2 billion loan that was to finance the mining company’s Maules Creek coal project. The bank attributed its decision to “volatility in the global coal market, expected cost blowouts and ANZ’s corporate responsibility policy,” citing “unacceptable damage” to the environment. Frantic selling ensued, the share price dropped by 9%, and 23 minutes later trading was frozen.
But the press release wasn’t real – it was a hoax, the handiwork of 24-year-old environmental activist Jonathan Moylan.
Jonathan Moylan lives in a tent in Leard State Forest, in the state’s north. These unconventional lodgings are part of the base camp for Front Line Action on Coal, an activist group opposed to development of coal projects in the Gunnedah region, four hours from Newcastle. He makes a living working online as a translator and teaching French to the children of local farmers.
Moylan speaks calmly for someone facing a possible $750 000 fine and ten years in prison. As a result of the hoax, he’s the subject of an investigation by the Australian Securities and Investment Commission due to a possible breach of the Corporations Act, and Whitehaven is also reportedly considering taking legal action against him. “I don’t know what pleasure they’d get out of it,” he says bluntly. “I live in a tent.”
Moylan is articulate and earnest and, despite his situation, devoid of cynicism. He’s a seasoned activist, having been involved in Newcastle University’s Environmental Collective and later in Rising Tide, a non-violent direct action group opposed to the construction of coal terminals. He’s been arrested ten or fifteen times along the way – “I can’t quite remember,” he says, chuckling. With Front Line, he carries out wildlife surveys, reports on breaches of the law by coal companies, and engages in different kinds of protest, from hanging banners to non-violent direct action.
But the Whitehaven hoax was different. One of the most attention-grabbing instances of activism in recent years, pulled off with just a computer and an Internet connection, it cleverly and devastatingly took advantage of the immediacy of the share market and hit Whitehaven where it hurt – in the hip pocket.
One of the most remarkable things about the hoax was the visceral nature of the criticism thrown at Moylan in its wake. The Australian wrote that he had a “delinquent mind”; Deputy PM-cum-Whitehaven Director Mark Vaile labelled him “un-Australian”; a mere few weeks ago, he was called a “bludger” and a “Nazi” in NSW Parliament.
Moylan seems unperturbed by the name-calling, and attributes it to what he sees as the mining industry’s stranglehold on narratives about Australian prosperity. In his view, the industry claims to underpin Australia’s economy so much that were coal exports not to double, “it would bring about some sort of economic apocalypse”. He’s not buying it. On Moylan’s analysis, mining pushes up the Australian dollar, negatively affecting other key industries, like agriculture, tourism, and manufacturing. Locally, the effects include rising rent prices and increases in labour costs – which particularly burden low-income earners, he claims.
The ensuing PR challenge for activists like Moylan, which leads to the vitriol he’s incurred, is the popular pitting of environment against economy – the idea that you can have one, but you can’t have both. If you fight for the environment, you’re fighting against Australian wealth. He is tired of environmentalists being portrayed as prioritising possums and trees over people, and attributes his passion for the environment to a concern for fellow humans. “Of course you can’t put money on one side and the future of the planet on the other,” he says, frustrated. “Our future wellbeing is totally interlinked with our ecological health and the health of the global climate.”
The hoax was certainly controversial. The most compelling argument put against Moylan is that his actions did not really hurt Whitehaven or ANZ, but instead so-called ‘Mum and Dad’ shareholders. Whitehaven’s share price quickly bounced back – as the Sydney Morning Herald reported in January, in the end the company lost no more than $450 360. But those who sold in the 23 minutes of panic, so the theory goes, would have been institutional investors, like these hypothetical parents’ superannuation funds.
Even if this is true – and it probably isn’t, given that most superannuation funds are low-risk – it raises the question: how responsible are these Mums and Dads for the industries their money ends up supporting?
“I don’t think people should be punished for their investments,” Moylan asserts. “People invest to get a return.” Nevertheless, he is critical of investors’ ignorance of where their money goes, blaming the fluidity of the share market for a disconnect between shareholders and their corporations’ activities. He’s optimistic, though, and he believes that more and more people do want that return – “but not at the cost of the dislocation of a community”. He believes ordinary people are starting to feel empowered, in the sense that they can vote with their feet, and send a message to their banks about how they want their money to be invested.
Although legal concerns mean he is unable to speak directly about the hoax, Moylan appears to maintain a quiet pride in his actions. He recounts times when, blockading a coalmine, he was criticised for costing workers money and told “you really should be targeting the shareholders”. His focus seems far more fixed on his concern for the environment than on the people who lost money as a result of his actions: although he acknowledges that activists “always have to consider the effects of their actions on third parties,” he speaks more sincerely about his desire to create change.
Moylan is critical of the media’s myopia when it comes to the harm caused by environmental damage. Much has been made of the fact that the hoax was spread so quickly by the mainstream media, who instantly reported on the press release without interrogating it. Moylan seems unconcerned with this aspect of the story – and he can’t really be critical, given that this laziness was integral to his action’s success. Instead, he talks energetically about the values the media communicate. Impassioned about the expansion of the coal industry in NSW, he is disappointed that it hasn’t been the subject of serious reporting. “The fact that nobody had ever heard of Leard State Forest before January – I think the media do need to take responsibility for that,” he explains. “That’s their role. To tell the community about issues of great public concern.”
Environment Minister Tony Burke approved the Maules Creek project in February, to Moylan’s disappointment. He’s concerned about the effects of the mine on the surrounding communities: “It’s quite traumatic for people to see something that’s been an integral part of their community for a very long time be mauled and defaced by an open pit coal mine,” he says. He invokes depopulation, a sense of powerlessness, rising costs, and impacts on water and the health of the local community as the human costs of mining and climate change.
For someone who pulled off one of the most memorable environmental protests in recent Australian history, simultaneously revealing serious problems with media reporting and the stability of the sharemarket, Moylan is humble. “I’ve got no great personal ambitions,” Moylan confesses towards the end of our conversation. “My biggest ambition is to look back in fifty or sixty years’ time and say: we still have food security, we still have water security, we still have a safe climate, and we still have viable farming populations and great environmental areas in Australia. We still have biodiversity. Because we all stood up, we took risks, we took action that goes against the interests of the most powerful lobby group in Australia and we created a change.”