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The Coal Truth by David Ritter
UWA Publishing, 2018.
ISBN 9781742589824
Mick Pope reviews

The Coal Truth

by David Ritter

If you care at all about Australian flora and fauna, justice for Aboriginal peoples, and a future for the generations to come, Adani will be a word that invokes many emotions, none of them positive. Personally, the name Adani makes me bl**dy angry, and it should you as well. Not simply because their proposed mega-mine will help doom future generations to a catastrophically warmed planet, not just because it is another example of carbon colonialism, but that it also shows how wedded politics is to neo-liberalism and extractivism in this country. Democracy is buggered. Or as David Ritter expresses it, the whole thing is a ‘piss take.’

The Coal Truth is an excellent book, in its depth and breadth. It begins with a prologue by Adrian Burragubba, Wangan and Jagalingou elder, artist, and 2017 Bob Brown environmentalist of the year. He has been at the centre of a long standing legal case against Adani on behalf of his people (at the time of writing, Adani’s lawyers may face misconduct charges). The battle has not simply been against a mining giant, but against the Queensland Government. Native Title can be extinguished when it suits the government - a simple extension of colonialism in the name of carbon emissions and profits for the rich. Burragubba reminds us of Aboriginal connection to land, and how the proposed mine continues over two centuries of colonialism, violence, and dispossession.

The main section of the book is in two parts. The first part is quasi-autobiographical, as David RItter describes his settling in Sydney, and part of his career with Greenpeace that intersects with big coal in Australia. Ritter describes the tension of life in the middle class; how do you have casual conversations about the end of the world with your friends? The first part of the book also charts the history of resistance against Adani and big coal in general, as well as its political support – nay the lackey-like nature of Australian politicians to some rich, and somewhat corrupt, Indian coal magnate. Such resistance begins with the defence of Bimblebox Nature Reserve from Waratah Coal by Paola Cassoni. From Paola we learn about the value of place. Simply trashing one site (Bimblebox) with a coal mine but agreeing to protect another ‘similar area’  is not an equivalence; not environmentally, ethically, or psychologically.

Chapter 3 skewers any idea that coal mining is good for people and the economy, cataloguing the impacts of fly-in fly-out (FIFO) workers on local economies and the lives of miners themselves, the scourge of black lung disease, and tax avoidance by mining companies. Chapters 4 and 5 examine conservative politics, beginning with the backward steps of John Howard. However, Labor doesn’t get off either, with Ritter highlighting royalty holidays and water rights promised by the QLD government. And of course both sides form a revolving door with the mining industry. The chapter on the Great Barrier Reef is sobering. I’m sure many of us have GBR visit stories. Mine at age seven helped launch my career in science, albeit not as a marine biologist as I initially dreamt.

Part 2 is shorter, but opens up the story to different voices. Many of you will be familiar with Lesley Hughes, Will Steffen, and David Alexander from various Climate Councils (need I remind you crowdfunded after being defunded by the LNP). Their short, sharp summary of the science reminds us that Adani would produce 1.3 times our annual carbon emissions. Hilary Bambrick points out that there is no mention of coal in our National Clean Air Agreement, while coal pollution kills Australians now. The low quality coal from the Galilee Basin will also kill Indians when Adani burns it in their power stations. John Quiggin shows that the whole development is really economically unviable. Glencorp’s recent announcement of a cap on coal demonstrates that coal is becoming a stranded asset.

Of most interest to me was Ruchira Talukdar’s takedown of any suggestion our coal exports to India are humanitarian in nature. To be sure, there is an urgent need for more Indians to be connected to electricity. However, coal-driven development has been uneven, and electricity connection follows the money, such that those who live in coal rich areas are the ones who remain unconnected from the grid! Neoliberalism has resulted in the privatisation of electricity production, resulting in privileges for companies like Adani, and ecological degradation and social disruption for everyone else. Anti-coal movements have achieved the end of coal mining in some communities. Talukdar sees strong parallels between the struggles for land against mining by indigenous communities in both countries.

The Coal Truth tells the whole truth about the piss take that is coal politics in this country. Any environmentalist, activist, poet, philosopher, or theologian who has an interest in the end of coal in this country should read this book. It is a sober, concerning, thought provoking, anger invoking, inspiring account of the situation we now face, and the glimmer of hope we have.

David Ritter, The Coal Truth: The fight to stop Adani, defeat the big polluters and reclaim our democracy. Crawley, WA: UWA Publishing, 2018. ISBN:9781742589824

Published: November 2023
Mick Pope

has a PhD in meteorology from Monash University and is completing a M Phil in Theology on the Anthropocene and Genesis 1–11 at University of Divinity. He is professor of environmental mission at Missional University and a member of  the University of Divinity’s Centre for Research in Religion and Social Policy.

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