Some time ago Knocklofty reviewed The Woman on the Mountain by Sharyn Munro, a book which explained why she retreated from city life in Australia to a remote peak a long way away from the nearest town, there to become a nature writer and found a wildlife refuge.
But for the last three years, she has been often away from her mountain, initially travelling the width and depth of this huge continent by air and road, and lately finding herself still on the road in the glare of television lights and the eyes of crowds who have come to listen to her. This shy and introspective woman came out of her chosen seclusion because she began to see that a monster was devouring the world where her grandchildren were growing up — a monster fully endorsed by myopic governments and heads-we-win, tails-you-lose laws.
The monster is the coal industry and its offspring, coal seam gas. The result of her journeying and talking to hundreds of people affected by its untrammelled advance is another book, Rich Land, Wasteland — how coal is killing Australia.
Every Australian politician ought be locked up with this book and not let out until they’ve read it; and then they should all be frog-marched around the devastated moonscapes that the mining industry has made while they were looking in some other direction.
Indeed, its impact on readers has been such that several have bought as many as a hundred copies, which they have posted to politicians in the hope that the small voices of a multitude of Australians might be heard through the roar of subsidised diesel machinery, money that doesn’t talk but rather swears at the top of its stentorian voice.
I have known the author for more than twenty years and I’ve been in regular communication with her during the more than two years that this book monopolised her life from conception to publication, so I have an idea of what she’s been through and how much the task damaged her spirit and drained her energy.
But I also know how indomitable she is; one lone woman to whom the smell of an oily rag is a luxury, with no background in investigative jourmalism and fortunately backed by a small and courageous independent publisher (and later a large international house as the book’s significance was recognised) has done the job our news media should have been doing instead of inane lifestyle supplements, wall-to-wall sport, tabloid ‘news’ and snarling shockjockery.
The result is a harrowing read. It’s an account of how the people who are the true backbone of Australia have been betrayed by the very politicians they have voted in for generations, of the astonishing cynicism of big business and the heartless flacks and gun-for-hire lawyers who represent it, and of the grief, loss and plain bodily suffering as an entire way of life has been trashed in less than one of those generations.
She’s not a fringe deep-greenie. She isn’t anti-mining — she agrees that any civilisation depends on the resources of the earth and on their judicious use. What shocked her — and her readers — are the scale, speed and consequences of the devastation.
An early and just as appropriate working title for the book was Coal Wars, appropriate because of the ravaged, polluted land the industry leaves behind looks like the aftermath of a titanic battle. And where it isn’t digging monstrous holes, it’s claiming huge tracts of prime agricultural land to sink fracking wells and link them with a web of pipelines and pumping stations, creating a nightmare for the broad-acre farmers on whom our food security depends.
Attempts to stop it, or at least to restrain its appetite, are rarely successful, and then only at the cost of what to ordinary people are heavy costs — mere pocket change for the Palmers and Rineharts — and the disruption of normal life by not only the need to organise and campaign but also by the dread of losing their lives’ work and their families’ futures.
The book is thus an account of the unseen side of the Faustian bargain Australia has made with big business; but the difference in this bargain is that only a minority of Australians are forced to pay the price — their livelihoods, their health and the soul of the land they live on. Solastalgia, a term coined by Glenn Albrecht, is the genuine sorrow for the loss of all the benefits provided by a living, sustainable environment, benefits that don’t figure on corporate balance sheets or the arid calculations of conventional economists.
It’s a big book and although it’s written with the author’s characteristic clarity and directness, it isn’t easy to read because of the inherently depressing picture it draws of a gigantic process seemingly run out of control and crushing the life out of the land. It cries out for photographs, but that would have made it too expensive for many readers. Fortunately, the internet has solved that dilemma; the book has its own website with photographic slideshows which tell the story of devastated landscapes, poisoned rivers, disappearing creeks and blighted lives in great breadth and great detail.
Governments at all levels have simply looked away and pocketed short-term revenues, often a mere token reward, while the industry has gone barging with their support into more and more territory, including federally funded nature reserves like Queensland’s Bimblebox.
When you read this book, it will be hard not to feel anger — because the damage they and the media don’t care to tell you about is being done in your name. In her conclusion, the writer reminds us that ‘we need not be helpless to stop it’.
Visit her own site where she tells not only of coal but also of the wild things with whom she shares her mountain.
Rich Land, Wasteland — how coal is killing Australia
Pan McMillan Australia