“To protect the planet, coal must stop”

This is a speech given by someone who went on the Just Transition Tour to the Walk Against Warming rally in Newcastle, December 2009.

I was asked to speak here today as I recently had the good fortune to tour a number of coal towns across New South Wales. The tour was ostensibly focused on the idea of a just transition away from coal mining, and towards renewable energy and sustainable economies. We learnt about that transition – its realities, difficulties, and potential, and others better placed than myself are speaking about that necessary change today.

What we also learnt, however, is that the dusty, heavy metal laden, socially impoverished and environmentally debauched first link in the coal chain is complex and confronting, and that communities like Camberwell and Gloucester are being strangled with that chain.

I’m not an expert on coal or these communities, but I know an abused landscape when I see one, and I can hear the strain in someone’s voice when they’re telling you that their community is being wrenched in half by the co-ordinated efforts of a coal company. These stories need communicating, and these communities desperately want to be heard.

I grew up in the Hunter coalfields and moved away a decade ago.On visits to Newcastle I’ve seen the lengthening line of the resource theft regatta out there, and I’ve heard about the new coal loaders and the coal export boom, and I suppose I realised that that coal was coming from somewhere, from land that someone used to use for something else.

It wasn’t until I stood overlooking the ten thousand hectare footprint of Mt Arthur mine, however, and talked to people in Stroud, Singelton, Jerry’s Plains, Muswellbrook, Caroona, Mudgee, and other communities, that the bleeding obvious became clear – this coal comes from places that people live on and care for and build their communities on.

What was equally obvious, also, is that people in all these places, and many more, are not taking these impositions on their lives lying down, and that their struggles and hopes are crucially important to any attempt to stop the damage we are doing to our planet. Some people in these communities are motivated by climate change, and some arn’t. A few don’t even believe in it. But without slowing or stopping the expansion of mines, and equally, without showing that this can make our communities richer, in the true sense of the word, we will struggle to fix the planet.

The resilience and complexity of coal communities, and the emotional distress caused by mining, is probably best illustrated by the story of someone we met in Jerry’s Plains, west of Singelton. Paul was a stock auctioneer by trade, and his family has lived and run cattle in Jerry’s for a couple of generations. As mines have swallowed grazing land, so coal has crushed agriculture. The dwindling of the cattle industry has been assisted by situations such as transnational mining companies inheriting cattle companies on land they acquire, and running it as a sideline, a plaything to squeeze a few more dollars from.

Paul is an articulate spokesperon for his community. He’s a very reasonable person – all he and his community are asking for is a little distance between their town and  a planned mine. A few metres to keep the dust out of their kids lungs at the primary school, and with luck the chance to keep a few healthy cows unaffected by the same dust. And he works constantly in any way he can come up with to keep the mine out.

He still does auctions once a month, but in order to keep his family fed, he’s turned to the only alternative available to him. For the last 18 months he’s been driving a truck at a coal mine just down the road – a mine that portends the fate of Jerry’s Plains, having destroyed a community in the process of its development.

It’s a crime that people are forced into these situations. I can’t imagine what its like staring at thousands of tonnes of crushed rock everyday and wondering whether your town and land and life will end up as little pieces of rock just the same.

The kind off sacrifices that we must  make invidually in towns and cities to wean us of coal seem trifling in comparison to living with that. One common refrain we heard was “Tell the people in the city that it’s them that’s doing this to us” And thats true. Our lifestyles are moving people from their homes and damaging their lives irretrievably.

But that’s only 20% of the story. The other 80% is the coal that goes out that port there and across the world. And thats a function of the lifethreatening addiction to coal that our state government has, and of the rapacious greed of coal companies.

Its true that coal creates jobs. But the streets of Muswellbrook and Singelton should be paved with gold, and they most certainly arn’t. Childhood diseases and social disfunction are a poor prize for back breaking labour and the loss of the bucolic lifestyle that a local pensioner described to me as life in Singelton before mining.

To protect the planet, coal must stop. The coal companies can see the writing on the wall, and the rapidly expanding landscape destruction in the Hunter is testament to their desire to wring every last drop from coal.. But it  won’t last forever. Coal  communities will require post-mining solutions in 10, 20,30 years. This beggars the question, why not now?

There is a sorely needed place for large scale solutions to replace the employment generated by coal mining. We met an extraordinary group of people in the Mudgee region, some of whom have been campaigning on climate change since I was in kindergarten. They are trying to stop expansion of the Ulan mine, a behemoth with threatens unique riverine landscapes and entire communities. And they’ve come up with a workable solution for local employment and a supportive and experienced international company who are backing them to build a solar thermal plant. All the company needs is government assistance to get started on the project.

Replacing coal mining jobs in the Hunter, and elsewhere, is not a simple task. Far from it. But it is a necessary one. The clash between the desperate calls of 88 nations this week to restrict global temperature rises to 1 5 degrees and the imperatives of providing a functioning local economy are real.

But this is the situation where real leadership is required. It is pure delusion to continue the expansion of coal. I’m 28 years old. A future where we continue our coal expansion is inconcievable to me. But what is conceviable , and achievable, is a future where coal is replacced by the existing viable, real alernatives. We all know this is possible. It’s a matter of political recognition that this is possible, and pressure to make it happen.

We are still a long way off. We shouldn’t be too disheartened by the expected failure at copenhagen. Or the new premier we have. The more our leaders fail us the harder we have to work. And the more communities like Jerrys Plains, and Gloucester, and Caroona struggle to look after their communities, and the harder they fight to maintain those communities, the more inspiration we have that we are all links in a chain that can halt this coal fired devastation.

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