A growing number of older protesters are standing up and fighting for the environment
By Ben Smee
When Audrey Cooke first spoke to her family about her retirement plans, they had one condition: “Don’t get arrested.”
The 72-year-old retired Melbourne schoolteacher’s husband died of pancreatic cancer nine years ago. She has two young grandchildren. And she is now a full-time climate activist.
“I’ll do it until I drop,” she says. “I’m in a hurry. We are facing an existential threat and this is more important than anything for me.”
Cooke is one of a growing number of older protesters using their retirement to help the climate movement. Her tiny 1.5 metre (4ft 11in) frame has become familiar at protest marches and demonstrations. In 2017 she did get arrested after spending seven hours locked to a fence at the Adani Carmichael mine site.
“You can call me an accidental activist. I’m very new to it,” she says.
“I have always been an environmentalist. The environment is paramount to me but in my younger days I was busy with my family and my career.
“I came here [from Singapore] as a student to study accounting. I met a classmate and we fell in love and got married and the rest in history. Before we decided to start a family … I took up teaching so I could spend time with my family. I have a son and a daughter and I have two very young grandsons. And it is for them, every time I join an action.”
Inspired by the students who took part in last year’s school climate strike, a new group is attempting to recruit their grandparents.
The dream of their generation – history’s most prosperous – is to quit working and see the world. But for some the notion of being a grey nomad doesn’t sit comfortably when there remains a question about what sort of world they’ll leave behind.
“There’s no point going on a holiday,” Cooke says. “I know that if we don’t do something then we won’t have a sustainable planet.”
Unprecedented amounts of time, money and motivation
Miriam Robinson, 58, is the spokeswoman for the Grey Power Climate Protectors. She says one of the group’s first aims is to encourage grandparents to attend the next school strike on 15 March.
“Many kids couldn’t attend [last time] because their parents work,” Robinson says. “Grandparents bringing their grandkids to the … strike will be a powerful moral statement that all ages are concerned about the effects of climate change.
“Heatwaves can be deadly for the elderly and infants. Older people will change their vote for their own sake but also their kids and grandkids.”
A former Greens leader, Bob Brown, says older Australians look at the world “with mixed feelings of amazed horror”.
“They come equipped with unprecedented amounts of time, money and motivation. This is a cauldron of untapped civil action from vote-changing to direct protest, and climate change is the major target.
“The money-driven absurdity of Adani is on a collision course with thousands of environment-alarmed older Australians who are prepared to give up time, money and comfort to help save the planet.”
Brown plans to lead a convoy of vehicles – appealing to grey nomads – from Tasmania to Bowen in Queensland later this year.
‘I can’t leave it to others’
James Williams, 55, isn’t comfortable at the notion he’s “older”.
“I’m probably not that old yet,” he laughs. “I do actually find myself when I’m out protesting that a lot of the people around me are so much younger than me.”
Williams is a Wakka Wakka man, whose traditional country runs from
southeast Queensland to a few hundred kilometres from the Adani mine
site, and a working computer engineer. About 15 years ago he started
devoting time to Indigenous causes and climate activism.
“I started realising that I can’t leave it to [others], that I need to get involved,” he says.
“When I was younger I was really focused on my career. I was a watchmaker, then an actor. I really had to work hard at that. Advertisement
“I think some older people, as they get older and have kids and grandkids, they realise they’ve sat back their whole lives and haven’t done very much.”
Walking away from a career
“Some of my former colleagues are profoundly shocked,” says Mary Heath, who at 53 took a redundancy from her job as a law professor at an Adelaide university to campaign.
“There are a lot of other people who probably do think that it’s a hobby. I tell people that I’m not retired, I’m just not getting paid. But I’ve been very struck by … the number of people who say I’m so glad you’re doing it. I’ve had people bursting into tears and say they’ve been lying awake at night thinking about climate change.”
Heath helps to run Extinction Rebellion, a climate protest group, in Adelaide. She hopes to help recruit more retirees and older Australians.
“I’ve been very committed to [my] career,” she says. “This was not a forward plan, but this is an emergency facing the whole globe. There’s a level of urgency I did not predict when I was a young woman.”
“I’ve never participated in a social movement where there are so many older people involved already,” she says. “As we’ve got more and more older people in the population … some of us are financially able. We’re well enough, we’ve got more time to devote. Advertisement
“We had a planning meeting this morning, and it occurs to me that a lot of people who aren’t activists don’t realise that activism can be exciting and fun. Participating with people who share your values and your passion – that is pretty awesome and a source of great friendships and mutual support.
“It’s fun to get out there and do something, rather than lying awake at night worrying about these sorts of things.”
First published at the Guardian Australia. Saturday 26 January 2019.