Bottoms up! 'Head in sand salute' is the new climate protest

Townsville makes its climate salute. Photo: Marc Gregory / .
Townsville makes its climate salute. Photo: Marc Gregory / .
A planned 'head in sand' salute had to be abandoned at COP20 in Peru this week, writes Maxine Newlands - called off due to lack of sand on Lima's stony shores. But climate campaigners in Australia and New Zealand made up for it with dozens of their own 'bums up' actions on sandy Antipodean beaches ...
Doing the best we can to support the Heads in the Sand campaign over here at the conference in Lima! Unfortunately, there's no sand onsite.

Images of activists, heads in the sand, bottoms in the air, went viral last month in a 'salute' to governments' policy on climate change and increased industrialisation along the Great Barrier Reef.

North Queensland Conservation Council environmentalists came up with the idea for the Get-Up! Global Day of Climate Action. Townsville organiser and local filmmaker, George Hirst says 'salute' was key to the idea:

"Salute was the word to hang it on, to ironically say quiet a lot, and it's a pretty Aussie thing too. We're not big ones for saluting anyone or anything, so we thought we'd salute the government this way."

Getting the image right took both method and practice, added Hirst. "To make a one off image that really hits quickly and works well, firstly you had to see the shape of the body with the head going into the sand. So we set up a grid pattern to give perspective."

Social media sends image viral

Social media sent the image viral when Australian cartoonist, Andrew Marlton (@firstdogonthemoon) and Founder Bill McKibben (@billmckibben) both retweeted the image.

Hashtag headinthesandsalute received worldwide attention, "the biggest impact was on Buzzfeed, it was the top story on Buzzfeed for well over 24 hours, then Mashable and others", says Hirst.

"Even South African Playboy used the image, as did the British Journal of Medicine for an article on climate change as a significant medical problem."

Hirst and advised campaigners Eden Tehan and Rex Walsh for Sydney's Bondi Beach event ahead of the G20 summit, also New Zealand environmental group, Coal Action Network Aotearoa's nation-wide 'salute' for COP20, Lima, Peru.

Image events as protest

The Bondi Beach images, shot from a drone, had one objective - to elevate the campaign - says renewable energy entrepreneur and organiser Eden Tehan:

"There's something about that image, yes sure it's humorous. I find it powerful to step back and think the guys running the show may actually have their heads stuck in the sand on climate change and it's scary ... and hopefully the visual image will catch on. It's also why we chose to not have signage or banners on the day."

Activists found the action a sobering experience, Tehan adds. "I believe it's an emotional statement, a strong statement, there's nothing more hopeless than the action of doing that ... there was some cheering on the day when everyone did it.

Doing the best we can to support the Heads in the Sand campaign over here at the conference in Lima! Unfortunately, there's no sand onsite.

"When, I and others were there, with our heads in the sand, there was a sombre energy about it, because it's a sad situation."

Activism to artivism: Protest as performance art

Bondi Beach is to date the largest single #headinthesand salute, with just over 400 people taking part; and sees a growth in protest as artivism -art and activism.

#headinthesand salute captures campaigners disillusioned with marches and rallies, unwilling to risk arrest through non-violent direct action, have family or work commitments, yet still want to make a statement.

Going to beach after work, is typical Aussie behaviour, and Tehan and Walsh enticed people with the lure of a free beer from local pub sponsor to make a political statement, as Eden Tehan explains.

"I tried to get away from the protest word. When dealing with the cops we were saying it's an attempt at public art, and I do believe that I think that image, especially the aerial one, it's is art, it is public art with a message."

Bondi organiser Rex Walsh added, "It's a real return to old fashioned form of protest, in a very Australian way, where people can do it, be individual in it, but there's collectivism as well ...

"This is novel, fun, different and not going to alienate people, and that's its strength, it has the ability to polarise itself in a sense, it's not destructive to our way of being, there's something connected."

Artivism played an important role in the New Zealand and Lima protests, with around a thousand people on 12 beaches across New Zealand sending a similar message on oil and coal exports.

Organisers Coal Action Network Aotearoa media spokesperson Tim Jones says artivism offers an "element of street theatre ... to the extent that we are looking for things that will both seize the imagination, and participants and also get media interest so they are visual, and artivism has that."

CANA adapted the idea with heads in a box, at COP20. Activist Cindy Baxter tweeted: "Doing the best we can to support the Heads in the Sand campaign over here at the conference in Lima! Unfortunately, there's no sand onsite."

There are plans for a short documentary to keep the pressure up by inspiring more 'salutes' to government's climate change policy, Hirst added.

"Hopefully the concept will carry on its own meaning on inaction and heads in the sand salute. We aim to encourage people to go to their sand pit in the backyard, or the beach, dig a hole, do it, take a photo, and send it to the Prime Minister."



Dr Maxine Newlands is a Lecturer at the Faculty of Arts, Education & Social Sciences School of Arts & Social Sciences of James Cook University. Her research focuses on environmental politics from emissions trading, carbon tax to environmentalism, activism, protest, social justice, journalistic practices and occasionally sportsmedia. She tweets @Dr_MaxNewlands.

Hashtags: #headinthesand / #headinthesandsalute artivism raises awareness of climate change.

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