Sunday, 1 July 2012

RICH LAND, WASTE LAND: How Coal is Killing Australia by SHARYN MUNRO

RICH LAND, WASTE LAND: How Coal is Killing Australia
Macmillan, 2012, 453 pages, $29.99 (pb)

Review by Phil Shannon

Sharyn Munro, “a grandma with a social conscience”, was “not a political person” and had “never done anything like this before” – confronting powerful coal mining corporations with creative protest, civil disobedience and mine blockade.  Travelling throughout Australia to the sites of devastation of people’s lives and land, Munro has recorded the plight of the mining company victims in Rich Land, Waste Land.

She documents how coal mining in Australia is “an industry on steroids” – day and night of loud machinery, trucks, freight trains, blasting, floodlit nights, dust, orange clouds of nitrous oxides, toxic heavy metals polluting air, water and food, infrasound/low frequency noise vibrating brain and heart, metres-deep ground subsidence, water depletion and contamination, and hydraulic ‘fracking’ disasters from coal’s ugly sibling, coal seam gas.

Eyeing off the “legal and lucrative” pickings from rural and regional Australia, coal company agents  sweet talk, lie, bully and make deceptive promises of compensation and make-good reparations to pressure land holders to sell as they mine up to the fence, or ‘longwall’ mine under the property and house, and send the farmer/vintner/retiree broke as property values collapse.

Federal and state governments ride shotgun for “corporate coal”.  Their reassurances about ‘strict environmental guidelines’ and ‘stringent conditions’ accompanying exploration and mine operation lease approvals are reeled off with bureaucratic rote, designed to disarm, not protect.  Understaffed government inspection agencies, miniscule fines for breaches, and industry self-reporting ensures virtual carte-blanche for the corporate pillagers.

The government-company tango moves to a financial beat of state government royalties, corporate political donations and future company directorships for National Party politicians.  Tax concessions provide cheap or free power and water whilst the 38 cents per litre federal diesel fuel rebate spirals to millions of dollars per mine per year courtesy of monster trucks guzzling 2,500 litres of diesel a day.  In return, an average coal company corporate tax paid of just 13.9% (in 2008-09) occasions no outrage from the revenue collector.

Once exported, the coal comes back to damage some more through the floods and droughts of global warming.  Coal exports from Queensland alone will produce 100 tonnes of CO2 every seven seconds, and, with wells already in the tens of thousands, coal seam gas, despite its “moral sales pitch” as greener than coal, is just as big a climate change threat.

Despite its extensive cast of people done over, with monotonous similarity, by coal companies, Munro’s book avoids the potential pitfall of numbing repetitiveness thanks to the bright spots of hundreds of campaigning groups resisting the coal invasion, and the springtime of broad alliances with hitherto unlikely groups (greens, climate change activists, etc.).  Rural Australia’s traditional conservatism, which crops up in the book with some cockies’ antipathy to environmentalism (wind turbines, geothermal energy, irrigation restrictions for water-intensive crops) may founder on the back of a united challenge to a common foe (coal).

Munro, like one of the farmers now “sounding like a socialist revolutionary”, makes an ardent case for “organised people’s defiance of bad legislation, and civil disobedience to protect what our governments won’t” in “our so-called democracy”.  Her newly discovered theme of the need to take on the “profit imperative” in defence of “social or environmental needs” makes her book more than useful.

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