Surfing, the old saw goes, is a selfish way to spend your time. And for more than a decade, Australian Belinda Baggs has lived that tiresome cliché, chasing after good waves and photo shoots and not much else. But when her son, Rayson, was born in 2011, she woke up. “I looked at the state of the planet,” the 38-year-old says, “and what’s being left for the next generation, and it absolutely terrified me.”
Belinda spent the next couple of years as an “armchair” activist—“researching things online, signing every petition, trying to share everything.” It was all she could manage with a baby at home. But in 2017, shortly after the category four Cyclone Debbie caused nearly a billion dollars in damage around Queensland, she joined the Australian Marine Conservation Society on a survey of the Great Barrier Reef. “It looked like an apocalyptic wasteland under water,” she says. “I’ve spent my life on the surface of the ocean and had never thought too much about what was underneath. It made me realize that being an online activist is great if that’s all that you can do, but I had more time than that and felt an urgency to do more.”
So she did, soon moving out from behind her keyboard to join and organize, on the ground, around larger battles: against a proposed coal mine in Queensland; the dangers of seismic testing in the ocean; and the massive threat posed to the Great Australian Bight by Equinor, a Norwegian oil company that wants to drill off the sunburnt country’s southern coast.*
At times, her new life can read like an epilogue to Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang—weighing the cost-benefit analysis of getting tossed in jail in the name of activism (her verdict: “worth it and necessary when strategic”). Playing dead, for example, with other members of Extinction Rebellion in the middle of a small town’s main street to shock politicians into action.
But a lot of the work isn’t that exciting. There are paddleouts and marches and, yeah, still plenty of time behind a keyboard rallying people to sign petitions and show up to protests. Worst of all for Belinda, when you step into the limelight, people expect you to say something. “I have to speak in front of hundreds or thousands of people,” she says. “I get nervous and sweat and shake. But I have to keep reminding myself that I’m doing this for the right reasons. That’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned: Don’t be scared of what people think. If you have the knowledge behind what you’re fighting for and you believe in it, don’t worry about the haters.”
* Equinor, after months of public protest and receiving the green light for oil exploration via the Australian government, decided in February to abandon its plans to drill the Bight.