Burning more coal, knowing what we know, is a deliberate act of arson. We must urgently come to grips with this fact and reconnect with nature and our communities
September 17, 2017 —Coal kills people. This isn’t even slightly scientifically controversial. From the mines to the trains to the climate disruption; from black lung to asthma, heat stress to hunger, fires to floods: coal is killing people in Australia and around the world right now.
Yet we are once again having what passes for political debate about extending the life of coal-fired power stations and, extraordinarily, building new ones. The conversation is completely disconnected from the fact that two thirds of Bangladesh was reported to be under water, record-breaking hurricanes were battering the US, and wildfires were roaring in both the northern and southern hemispheres at the same time.
Even the Greens only talk coyly about the impact of climate change on our “way of life”. It’s time we put it clearly: if Malcolm Turnbull, Barnaby Joyce and their colleagues succeed in extending the life of the Liddell power station, let alone building new coal, they will kill people. Burning more coal, knowing what we know, is a deliberate act of arson, lighting a match in dry bushland, with homes just around the bend and a hot wind blowing in their direction.
It’s hard to say that. It’s hard to read it. But we must come to grips with this connection urgently.
And it is connection – and disconnection – which is at the heart of the problem, and which points the way to the only hope for a solution.
How is it that our politicians can be so drastically disconnected from the consequences of their actions? How can citizens not be out on the streets? How can corporate executives be continuing business as usual (a business as usual that is moving away from coal but still nowhere near fast enough to avoid catastrophic climate disruption)? How can journalists and editors report on the politics of coal on one page and bushfires around Sydney in September on another without making the connection?
The answer, I would suggest, is because connection is fundamentally at odds with how we have trained ourselves to see the world. Our economic, social and political system is based around disconnection. And our most vital and urgent task is to find ways to get over that, to draw each other and our ideas together, to see the world as the glorious interconnected ecosystem it is.
We are, today, at the end point of a millennia-long process of disconnection. Since we first built cities and started leaving the land we have been disconnecting from nature; losing sight of it, quite literally; losing our vocabulary of it, to the extent that blackberry is no longer a fruit to be plucked and eaten but a device to tie us to our desks when we’re on the toilet.
Nature was just the beginning. While this slow severing has been going on for thousands of years, the last few centuries – the reformation, the enlightenment, the industrial revolution, and capitalism – performed the amputation.
In capitalism, we have created the first social organising principle based on selfishness, the first system to make greed, competition, non-cooperation its credo. In Thatcherism, we have the declaration that there is no such thing as society. In neoliberalism, we have a system which alienates us from each other, from our labour, from democracy; a system which declares we have great choice while turning everything into a supermarket aisle full of different but identical toothpastes; a system which insists we have great freedoms while systematically removing more and more of our capacity to have any real control or influence over, or stake in anything real in our lives.
That’s why we can have politicians actively discussing doing something which not only makes no economic sense but will actually kill people, while most of the population turns away to binge-watch the next series on Netflix.
There is only one way through this – we have to reconnect. And it’s already happening. Around Australia and the world, people are seeking out reconnection in all sorts of ways. We are starting community groups, getting involved in community gardens and food co-ops, starting childcare and health co-ops, joining sharing groups instead of buying more stuff. Instead of always doing things on our own, as disconnected individuals, we are looking for innovative ways to work together, to eat together, to live together. And, excitingly, we’re banding together to create social and political forces to be reckoned with.
Bringing it right back to coal, tens of thousands of people are bypassing the politicians and corporations altogether, frustrated by their inability to think beyond coal, and setting up renewable energy cooperatives. From Canberra to Copenhagen, people are pooling their resources to jointly set up solar farms or windfarms, sharing the benefits not only among themselves but with all of us.
If all this seems terribly small, remember – going from 280 to 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere is already causing havoc. With a few more parts per million, we could reach tipping points in the climate beyond which unimaginable disaster looms.
But there are tipping points in society, too. And, if we work together to rebuild connection, we can reach that tipping point first. We can turn this around, and maybe not only survive, but thrive.