Why I supported the Newcastle Harbour blockade

December 15, 2020
Getting ready to blockade the Newcastle Harbour. Photo: Kathy Fairfax

Every day we do some mundane and seemingly constant thing for the last time: like changing our child’s nappy, sneaking a cigarette or sending a fax.

We don’t necessarily notice at the time and sometime we might wonder when we last did one of those things.

One day, in the not-too-distant future, we may also reminisce what it was like when our regional economy was not based on offshore wind turbines and when our solar and wind generated energy was not so affordable.

By that time we may well have even forgotten the school students, many of whom were out supporting the weekend’s Newcastle Harbour blockade protests, that shook us out of our complacency around global warming.

In this future, it might be hard to remember that the Hunter Jobs Alliance’s vision of bridging the gap between environmentalists and unionists was once perceived as bold, rather than a common sense way to a sustainable future.

Is such a vision of the near future utopian?

The brilliance of the Hunter Jobs Alliance is that it identifies real jobs: it proposes a situation where thousands of tradespeople, their labourers and apprentices are retrofitting the region’s schools and 250,000 houses with solar energy and batteries.

This achievable scenario would create good, unionised, local jobs and also make our schools and houses more comfortable and cheaper to run.

The alliance’s second achievable proposal is to decarbonise the Tomago aluminium smelter and help guarantee the future of what remains of the region’s heavy industry.

The third proposal, to use the coal ash accumulated around coal-fired power stations as a building material is beautiful logic.

Maybe the Myuna Bay Recreation Park, closed because of risks posed by the coal ash dam, could even be reopened.

Retrofitting, greening Tomago, and turning waste into resource are all win-wins for jobs, the environment and the community.

These proposals represent an open, sustainable future-focused mindset which is refreshing compared to the short sightedness of much of our political leadership.

With a few individual exceptions, the Liberal and Labor parties remain committed to coal and to short-sighted and fanciful schemes to extract gas and potentially cause irrevocable damage to regions which already contribute economically, such as prime agricultural land in the Narrabri basin.

According to the Grattan Institute, the federal government’s push for a gas recovery won’t create long-lasting jobs.

Every day, we read reports of the decline of coal due to market pressures and failed diplomacy.

There are plenty of real, well-costed and evidence-based alternatives.

Beyond Zero Emissions, for example, has researched and developed a plan for a million local jobs, based on renewable technologies and energy.

One of the key lessons of COVID-19 has been that we must take note of science when planning public health strategies.

We need to take the same approach to environmental issues and heed scientific warnings about coal and gas dependence, such as in the CSIRO’s state of the climate reports.

To build a post-coal future, it will be necessary to heed science, win support for realistic alternatives and exert public pressure, including protests, on politicians beholden to the fossil-fuel lobby.

We can and must shape our own future.

With persistence and patience we train our toddlers to become independent, and many of us who were afflicted with the nicotine habit eventually learned to kick it.

In the same way, once taken-for-granted technologies such as the coal fired steam engines which generate most of our electricity, can eventually disappear.

Carbon-based companies are fighting hard, however, to delay the diversification of our economy and the creation of a future which will allow young people to stay in the Hunter.

Because of this, and with total respect for coal miners and the families and communities who depend on them, many of us, young and old, were on kayaks off Newcastle Harbour’s Horseshoe Beach on December 13 to support Extinction Rebellion’s symbolic blockade of the world’s biggest coal exporter.

Such protests are still necessary, or else the future that is fast approaching may turn into the recurring nightmare which we experienced last summer, rather than one where jobs and the environment are in synergy.

[Dr Steve O’Brien is a health sociologist and activist. This article first appeared in the December 15 Newcastle Herald.]

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