Poets speak up to Adani – free e-book

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My contribution

A Brief History of Coal and Effort

1 The heart of England

A shoal of Chubb splash up river casting spells. Along the way we have been tasting
blackberries, comparing the different styles and flavours like connoisseurs, startled as gushed
water swirls into the current pumped by some invisible industrial production part of the
planet’s modern plumbing.

The towpath finds gardens, roses, wagon-wheels and octagonal pergolas made of pine. The
breeze lifts, fingering leaves burning red from the outside in, and around a turn a mill’s brick
walls tower over three men taking a smoko. The noise of moving parts is unsettling, a world
of manufacture hidden by bricks, and ad hoc repairs and additions, a bricolage of labour and
industry, supplementary to the air and our consultations with flora and fauna. Fluorescents
dangle ingots, ghosts in the grey water, but I’m getting something of the canals’ reasoning.

We finish the walk with a pint of Old Speckled Hen at the Grand Junction. The bar has moved,
the place is different, but the beer garden is the perfect place to have a drink/think by the
canal. Canals were an overnight sensation – Brindley’s Bridgewater Canal, England’s first, cut
the cost of coal in Manchester by 75% and helped fuel the industrial revolution oiled by water,
steam, invention, the cross-fertilisation of ideas and techniques, revolution in the financial
world and blatant disregards.

2 Germany

Modern warfare requires vast supplies of synthetic materials. Long before the invasion of
Poland, IG Farben chose Oswiecem to site its factories. This small agricultural town in Upper
Silesia was adjacent to vast coal fields and sat on the confluence of three rivers. It became
known as Auschwitz. The architect Lothar Hartjenstein designed a plan of:
the concentration camp itself (Auschwitz I) . . . with its barracks,. . . , hospital, prison,
work shops, and auxiliary structures such as the Kommandantur, the offices of the
Gestapo, the barracks for the SS men, and so on – but it also shows, to the right, a pleasant
village for married SS men and their families, including a hotel, shops, sports facilities
and, on the edge of the barbed-wire fence close to the prisoners’ hospital, a primary

The complex produced synthetic rubber, aviation and shipping fuels, plastics, resins,
methanol, nitrogen and pharmaceuticals, all feeding the voracious German war machine.
35,000 slaves worked there, 25,000 died there; life expectancy was three months. Some were
processing the powerful pesticide Zyklon B to kill their own tribes. In the winter, decorative
showerheads were added as an afterthought.

3 Australia

A few names glimmer. Castor and Pollux are directly ahead, inseparable brothers, patrons of
sailors. To the left is Mars, ochre god of spring, chthonic god who with ambition turned to
death becoming god of war. In between floats a rich sanctuary of darkness, an abundance of
nothing and silence, but through the glasses a garden surfaces.
I track the patient path of a satellite arcing overhead, Venus shines over the invisible sea
behind us, the airport is tinsel. The clock measures twelve billion years. At ten-past-four the
Koels start, a simultaneous urge, juveniles judging from the crook sound, rough songsters
failing the audition. I’m starting to feel with the tenderness of illness the cold of a posthumous

The eastern horizon is still dark; the city to the north is alight in a complex transfer of power.
200 million years ago our star powered swamps whose plants and trees bequeathed their
remains, accumulating layers as peat. The world shimmied, seas and great rivers deposited
sand, clay and other mineral matter accumulated burying the peat, the pressure forming
sandstone and other sedimentary rock, and their sheer weight squeezed water from the peat
burying it deeper, the heat and pressure transformed peat to coal; 120 metres of plant material
produces one metre of coal, an inheritance we are wasting on heating the planet.

Empedocles, without a lab, concluded all things are mixtures of air, earth, fire, and water, I
guess earth covers all the minerals, including carbon, which with hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen,
phosphorous and sulphur comprise 97% of you and me. Carbon is the maestro of bonding,
creating long carbon chains and rings forming intricate molecules, like proteins and
carbohydrates. Why worship any other element, like gold or uranium?

With carbon we are declaring war again against life, all species, not just human. If it’s not
global warming, it’s deforestation or pollution. We put such effort into flooding the
environment with chemical emissions and effluent leaked and targeted to feed profit from an
obese world.

Who are the architects of this destruction and who are complicit with this destruction? Well
I am flicking the switch, listening to music, using the computer, enjoying comfort. Who loses
the most? Indigenous peoples and ‘developing nations’ first, and then the planet. Australia’s
biodiversity is continuing to decline and yet there are clean ways shining.

Notes: The quotation is from Robert-Jan van Pelt, ‘Auschwitz: From Architect’s Promise to
Inmate’s Perdition’, Modernism/Modernity 1.1 (1994), p82.
‘Fossil fuel burning set to hit record high in 2017, scientists warn’, The Guardian, 13
November, 2017

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