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A Quest for Love, and Emissions Reduction, in the Australian Outback

From 2017 to 2019, southeastern Australia was ravaged by drought. New South Wales, the country’s most populous state, where much of its livestock is farmed, suffered the worst—the highest temperatures, the longest stretches without rain. The drought was the worst in living memory, and created the conditions for the catastrophic bushfires of 2019 and 2020. Many atmospheric scientists attribute its intensity to climate change. But among farmers that stance can be controversial.

Jon Wright, the subject of Luke Cornish’s documentary “Alone Out Here,” has spent the past two decades on his family’s farm, Coota Park, refining a cattle breed that releases lower levels of methane than average cows. (Like many other kinds of livestock, cows produce methane, a carbon compound that is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, during digestion.) In the past few years, Wright has regularly spoken publicly about how his industry has contributed to Australia’s carbon-emissions output, which, when put in per-capita terms, is among the world’s highest. Wright told me that, when he began speaking in industry settings—at bull sales and conferences—about the environmental impacts of livestock farming, people “genuinely despised” not just him but anyone who brought it up. “They thought you were a bit of a loony.”

Cornish’s film, which was funded through a government arts grant earmarked for works about queer people living in rural places, teases out a connection between Wright’s sexuality and his willingness to challenge this silence. Wright came out as gay when he was twenty-eight. Despite the relative isolation of his life in the country, and the difficulty of finding a partner while living there, he chose to stay on the farm, taking over the business in 2010. (Wright has two siblings, who both now live in cities.) In the film, Wright speculates that his outspokenness might be motivated by the same aversion to lying that helped him to come out. Cornish, too, told me that he thought Wright’s long-held sense of himself as an “outlier” meant that he was better equipped to embrace unsettling truths.

Cornish and his producing partner, Philip Busfield, found Wright on Grindr, and asked whether he’d be willing to answer a few basic questions. Wright responded with striking candor. It was a relief, Cornish told me, to meet someone open about the challenges of trying to accept—at least for the time being—solitude; someone who was “willing to say something about themselves which we’ve all felt, and we’re all a little afraid of.” In “Alone Out Here,” Cornish shows Wright reflecting on his most recent long relationship, which ended several years ago; there are also allusions to the period in his life when he would drive to Sydney—a four-hour trip each way—for dates. Wright went to Oxford Street, a thoroughfare that has been the center of the city’s gay night-life scene since the late seventies. Cornish told me that, over the course of filming, he got the sense that many of Wright’s experiences there had been disappointing in a way that most people would find familiar, but which, for Wright, seemed uniquely difficult because of his physical distance from a gay community. Over the course of Cornish’s research, he heard similar accounts from other gay Australians living in the countryside: “It was always this consistent story, of the stakes being incredibly high, because if you have a date with somebody, it has to go well.” A queer person in the city has “the opportunity to see three other people in the same weekend. But, for you, you’re going back to a space where that’s it.”

“Alone Out Here” is careful not to make too tidy an equivalence between Wright’s gayness and his climate consciousness. But both qualities evince his willingness to bear the consequences of his convictions—perhaps shaped by what Cornish called Wright’s “farmer stoicism.” Wright told me that, within the past year or so, after seasons of drought, then fire, then flood, he thought he’d seen the cattle industry’s tolerance for discussions about its responsibility for its carbon output begin to change. But he wouldn’t mind it if he still had to go to a few more places where his pitch was unwelcome. “I’m prepared to take the arrow in the back, for the passions that I have and the future that we seek,” he told me. “You just sort of pull ’em out, chuck ’em aside, and move on.”

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