Why coal is not good for humanity


Tony Abbott inspects coal mine

The earth isn’t looking healthy. Most of us care about how we can engage with and keep safe the thing that our lives – and our children’s lives – depend on. It’s no longer an academic question, but one that stares deep into the human condition and how our communities relate to the material, nature and the ecological. 

Recently I’ve spent time in the company of incredible people. I live in Europe, and at various conferences and meetings I've recently found myself surrounded by friends from home. 

They were mainly Aboriginal Australians, and they reminded me of where I come from, and what’s important in life. Some were professors, others were social workers, artists and writers, but what they had in common was an intense engagement with their communities and the wider Australian public discourse: they cared.  

Australia has become one of the test cases for climate change, as seen in scary books like Jared Diamond’s Collapse. The French social scientist Bruno Latour remarked in February this year on the ‘uniquely Australian strategy of voluntary sleepwalking towards catastrophe’.  In the face of the Abbott Government’s ecologically suicidal policies and social science dismantling, Latour said that ‘not thinking of the future, when you’re Australian, [was] the most rational thing to do’. 

We now have our own political paradigm: the uniquely Australian model of wilful ignorance is agnotology, where 'ignorance is not merely the absence of knowledge, but an outcome of cultural and political struggle.' A substantial, if not the major part of this struggle is the wilful ignorance of indigenous jurisprudence and what it entails for the land that all Australians now inhabit, enjoy and profit from. 

I wish he wasn’t, but Latour is right. ‘Business as usual’ pervades the politics and comfort of the country more than ever before. The International Panel on Climate Change warns that profit without limitations cannot continue. This conflicts with the language of our prime minister who said last week that coal is good for humanity. 

But what he forgets is that humanity lives within the earth’s critical zone, a home that’s not looking so good for humanity.  Abbott deliberately forgets the obvious: that humanity is inextricably linked to its environment. He’s saying that it’s okay to extract, own and abuse the land so that white history can continue its progressive, destructive and eventually suicidal path. 

As the book from Bill Gammage, The Biggest Estate on Earth, illustrates, it doesn’t have to be this way. Before invasion, the country thrived under laws and custodianship, which have been under attack since the tall ships landed. Is it too late to turn towards a different mode of living with the land that takes guidance from indigenous law? Where is the threshold of ‘too late’? 

While the Australian state believes it has given human rights and equal citizenship to Aboriginal Australians, its assimilation policies remain intact. Country, the land and its gifts have been assimilated into the jurisdiction of white settler law, which contains the principles of ownership, appropriation and now intense exploitation. Nothing since invasion has altered the hidden backbone of this law. 

Our narratives of what’s important are so cut off from history – from the taking of healthy country away from guardians who lived their respectful and reciprocal law with it – that we are addicted to laws that allow us to commit violence against the very home we profess to love. 

While the world struggles to understand how we arrived in this position of planetary violence against earth, Australia has no excuse not to trace the origins of its relatively recent history of genocide and impending ecocide. If we kill, separate, assimilate and destroy the laws of the country that pre-existed white arrival and replace them with settler law that seeks to merely profit from earth, there has to be a kickback. 

Australia is a fragile ecology, and home to the oldest continuing law in the world. This law older than settlement law and scares white history senseless because the foundations of the Australian state are built upon unsustainable resource exploitation. 

This prior jurisprudence asks us to respect the land, to live lightly with it, to care and be custodians. It asks us to live with country and land as if our lives depended upon and were nurtured by it. Isn’t this exactly the kind of solution that global communities across the globe are trying to reinstate in order to live ethical and sustainable lives? 

Why would such principles of law need to be dismissed, erased and ignored? Can’t they become central to other legal systems and, if not, why not? While recycling, emission limitations, mitigation, adaption, and increased use of renewable energy are all fantastic methods to manage our current dilemma, they seem like desperate attempts to treat the symptoms rather than soberly facing the cause. Australia’s white history is built upon ecological violence: Aboriginal Australia was, and still is, in the way.  

The legal doctrine of terra nullius not only sought to erase the peoples that existed on the land that had been invaded, but also the laws that connected country to those peoples.  Native title has never sought to reverse the deeper aspects of terra nullius: the erasure of indigenous jurisprudence. 

Like western jurisprudence, indigenous jurisprudence is not frozen in traditional time but speaks to the past, present and future through its interpretation of events. Dance, stories and ceremony are forms of legal transmission that continue still. The excuse that written law trumps this is arrogant denial. 

Invasion cut through indigenous jurisprudence as though it didn’t exist or belonged in museums and sepia notebooks of dead anthropologists. Unfortunately this was a fatal mistake that our grandchildren will hold us accountable for if they have to struggle in inhospitable environments that have been betrayed.  

One of the most resistant and violent points of the white nation state of Australia is not only the attempted erasure of indigenous peoples but, equally, their law and land and the recognition that this relationship continues.  

So while there are calls for indigenous people to be included in the Constitution, there should also be calls, given the connection of theses peoples to land and law in equal measure, for indigenous jurisprudence, and not only its criminal code but its deep law of land – to also be recognised. as these people are connected to land and law in equal measure, this calls also for indigenous jurisprudence – and not just its criminal code but its deep law of land – to also be recognised. 

We should not forget that the land Australians live upon was under a prior jurisdiction where care rather than unfettered exploitation was a central guiding principle. A dear friend and law holder from Alice Springs said to me as we were discussing Australia and climate change in a Scottish pub, ‘Well, I’ve been told by my ancestors that white people are just a blip in time.’ 

She smiled wide. But she wasn’t talking about the colour of skin, but about the state of our souls, and how this moment, this seemingly long, violent moment, will eventually pass because it is unsustainable, and not only ecologically. 

Bronwyn Lay is an Australian writer, lawyer and independent researcher currently living in France. She recently completed a PhD at the European Graduate School on the relationship between law, nature, materiality and ecology. 

Topic tags: Bronwyn Lay, Tony Abbott, Bruno Latour, environment, ecology, indigenous Australia, Bill Gammage



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Existing comments

Bronwyn, I feel that I could, perhaps should, agree with your position, but I finished reading your article with a sense of "No thanks". I don't think the answer to our sustainability crisis is pre-settlement Aboriginal culture. How many Aboriginal people today would even want that? We have all the intellectual tools and models we need to construct a better future, and possibly the first thing that has to be done is to convince people that they don't need to fear making changes. To me, your proposal is scary and so falls at the first hurdle.
Russell | 20 October 2014

Hi Russell, I am not suggesting 'returning to pre-settlement' literally, but altering our principles of law in order to recognise the huge wealth knowledges in indigenous jurisprudence that continue today. Maybe I'm not so scared of indigenous law and hope that many conversations across all knowledges will help in opening the conversation on sustainable futures. Cheers
Bronwyn | 20 October 2014

Hi Bronwyn, Can you be more specific about how our law might look were it to be influenced in the way you would like .... you mentioned the criminal code?? How do you suggest people be persuaded to change our laws in the way you suggest?
Russell | 20 October 2014

Would only that those who need to read, understand and assimilate what Bronwyn has to say would. I fear not.
Noel Kapernick | 21 October 2014

Bronwyn, thank you. The Abbott government has a complacent, selfish philosophy like Louis 14th of "après nous, le deluge" . This massive cynical shrug of lack of concern for our children and grandchildren is pretty much mirrored by Lsbor though there is some hope of rationality there still. I put my heart and soul into a little-read book "Crunch Time" seven years ago. In its final chapter it mapped out a rather scary, poor, but just possibly liveable scenario for Australia 50 years from now- much hotter, much drier, and with its major coastal cities made unliveable by a sea level surge of one metre and rising. Seven years later, I see no signs that we are going to avert, delay, or even plan effectively for that probably now inevitable scenario. I agree with you that there is much to be learned from wise aboriginal philosophies of caring for country. We could marry this with the best of modern science if there was the political wisdom to do so. That wisdom does exist in many places across Australia, but the Abbott government are ignorant, greedy, incomprehending bunch who do not understand the machine at whose controls they sit.
Tony Kevin | 21 October 2014

Yes Russell we have "all the intellectual tools and models we need to construct a better future" but they are not being used for that goal. Bronwyn points to the distorted values that are corrupting that goal. Values that are absent in a paliament that is leading us to an ecological armageddon.
Reg Wilding | 21 October 2014

On this day of reflection on the type of Australia we would want, evoked by the death of Gough Whitlam,, your essay is most timely ,Bronwyn.. Tony Kevin's elaboration only Reminds us more of the need for creative , visionary leaders who are capable of ltaking nations ( and religions) along with them to create societies that protect our environment and peoples , care for the disenfranchised ,value the arts , health and education. Your words Bronwyn will give pause for reflection and study.
Celia | 21 October 2014

When Australia's contribution to industrial pollution is so minimal within the world context it would seem to be highly dubious that we can blame our governments of any persuasion for leading us to an "ecological Armageddon". While we do export raw materials to industrialised countries we may indirectly contribute to the emissions of those countries - it is their responsibility to be responsible in minimising pollution. We could of course stop exporting and then the outcry from the resulting loss of the good life with all its personal comforts and government support (through the loss of national income) would drown out the current cacophony, I suspect. Seriously doubt that the Aboriginal management of the country 300 years ago would have a lot to offer the non-Australian world wide industrialised economy.
Name | 21 October 2014

This is a much-needed conversation, As a wadjella (non-Aboriginal person) living in Noongar country, I am repeatedly struck by the wealth of Indigenous knowledge that is not recognised by the various levels of government. It's not about 'pre-settlement Aboriginal culture', it's about answers that are in a living culture that continues to be marginalised and devalued by the mainstream of society. A Noongar Elder put it that (to paraphrase badly) his culture draws its laws (Law & lore) FROM the land, the western way imposes its laws UPON the land. To contemplate bridging that gap in world view is where the future for sustainability is for western thinkers (and non-thinkers!).
Simon | 21 October 2014

I am left dumbfounded at how a 'leader' could possibly ignore the experts and still think it is ok to continue to gouge the earth for a quick dollar! What about the future for all of us!
Marianne Harris | 21 October 2014

I am currently away from Australia. I have commented to several that I find many of Tony Abbott's statements embarassing. 'Coal' is included. The reply is that the Australian people cannot really be surprised. AND THEY ELECTED HIM. Australians in toto have to wear the follies he is enunciating as our national position. They have a point. John Hiller.
John Hiller | 21 October 2014

My suggestion to Bronwyn Lay and the commentators who are critical of PM Tony Abbott, express your views to Patrick Moore-the co-founder of Greenpeace, who later quit in disgust and blew the whistle on the lies and deceit of the radical green movement and to Bob Carter, former professor and head of School of Earth Sciences at James University. They are both in Sydney
Ron Cini | 21 October 2014

Hi Bronwyn and all... I am a aboriginal man ... and the decision s made by the main stream leader ie Abbott ... will and always will be disappointing .... not so to the many who gain from destruction of our planet .... you see the answer to healing our land is to heal oneself ... or heal the land and you will heal oneself good luck .... love and miss you sister
Shaun | 21 October 2014

Bronwyn, stop using a computer. Its very existence is predicated on what you call extracting and abusing the land. Also, think carefully how much extraction and abuse enabled you, an Aussie, to be discussing climate change in a Scottish pub.
HH | 22 October 2014

Yes Bronwyn ,fortunately most of us agree on the Abbott syndrome but my life experiences compel me to suggest you are off with the fairies to think that Aboriginal law & culture holds the cure .They lightly populated the land & were very mobile in their quest for food & fire was simply an aid to major hunting techniques .There was not a written" code of land management ". The resultant mosaic patchwork just happened . Managing cattle in the Great Sandy desert of WA, I always ensured each mustering group had sufficient matches to burn throughout the days muster .I could monitor the progress of the muster by the smoke but more importantly observed that it took about 4 years for grass ( mainly spinifex ) to bulk up sufficiently to "run " a fire .thus you had <80%> of country providing sweet pick & safe harbour for native fauna & livestock & 20% bulked up & susceptible to lightning fires . Diverting to Law ,many people seem to wish to pick the ice cream & lollies from Indig law & leave out the nasties .Would you Bronwyn be happy to have been promised to some elder as his 5th wife & delivered as a young girl to that end .Maybe at ceremony gathering times you would be fortunate enough for some bundu (young man ) to "be lookin at you " maybe even " sneaken up " I am not trying to be crass but simply begging to keep your feet on the ground . Frustrated by word limitations to expand limitlessly .Regards John
Name | 22 October 2014

Thanks for all the thoughtful comments. I find it interesting that indigenous jurisprudence is easily dismissed as frozen in the past and is anti-technological. Many questions arise. The recognition of principles that articulate the interdependence and inextricable links between the social/cultural worlds and the natural are not uniquely indigenous – the western canon contains very similar strains. Here in Europe communities search and locate legal mechanisms within their own histories to limit the violence that is enacted upon the land. There is less fear that they’ll descend into a pre-fall, pre-industrialised lentil existence. I’m not arguing for the full importation of indigenous jurisprudence as the whole law of Australia – what I’m requesting is recognition of its existence and principles, then a careful, judicious sifting through of the ramifications. Other nations currently work through these questions and there’s a lot to learn from places like Bolivia. What I’m suggesting is an inclusion in the Constitution, which could gift Western law with strong guiding principles of interpretation and judgement that enable a taking into account of care of land. I don’t know what this means in terms of policy specifics – but I imagine, like all good law, it’d alter according to the circumstances and facts. In relation to the ecological crisis we need to ask deep questions and face the complicated answers rather than presume ‘business as usual ‘is the only possibility. There are many possibilities – and not a ‘One size fits all’ cure, including indigenous jurisprudence as the answer to all our woes. Cheers.
Bronwyn | 22 October 2014

Also, I'm curious. Does Bruno Latour, the famous French social scientist, support one of the now 50-odd disparate excuses for the 17 year failure of global temperatures to rise on the back of unprecedented injections of human generated greenhouse gases? Or does he have a typically French philosophical rococo (ie unintelligible) explanation of his own?
HH | 22 October 2014

Bronwyn has a point here. We are currently destroying forever the productive capacity of vast areas of highly productive land just for a one-off profit from mining coal. This is extreme stupidity. We should maintain our good land so that it will continue to be productive. This is consistent with the indigenous land management ethic.
brian finlayson | 22 October 2014

I have studied climatology for over 40 years . I can see the writing on the wall if we do not change our ways. Sadly some comments have totally missed Bronwyn's point. She is not asking us to go back to pre-settlement Aboriginal custom/law etc. She is asking us to learn from the respect the First Australians had for this unique land .We MUST tread softly on this fragile landscape if we are to survive, let alone have an acceptable standard of living. To say our contribution to global emissions is insignificant is simply not correct, we are the biggest per capita emitters and our exports contribute hugely to the increases in CO2. I have many contacts overseas and I have visited the UK and Europe and seen the moves to renewable energy there. I am hugely embarrassed when asked about Abbotts's policies .When are we going to wake up and boot these environmental vandals out of Office ?
Gavin O'Brien | 22 October 2014


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