The shadow in the valley
in Environment on 26 July 2010
Published in the June 2010 edition of Meanjin Quarterly. They say I've written "on climate change at the ground level, exploring the painful but constructive dialogue that is taking place in the Latrobe Valley between coal workers, [local residents] and activists". The full essay is on Meanjin's website. Here's an extract.
Taegen, Sunday night
In early September, a week before the protest, Taegen Edwards and her partner Pablo pedalled to Smith Street in Collingwood, not far from the centre of Melbourne. It was ten o’clock and rain had begun to fall. Taegen uncoiled a roll of posters.
They had come to spruik trespass in the name of justice. The Australian climate movement was entering new territory. In seven days, scores of protesters – fingers-crossed – would be arrested at Hazelwood Power Station in the Latrobe Valley.
The young couple began taping the red and blue bills to light posts. The street was lined with opshops, cafes and bars; they were on sympathetic ground. Nevertheless, it was late, wet and difficult to stave off a sense of futility.
Pablo perked up as they came upon the office of a local politician. “Oh we’re definitely leaving one here,” he said, his bike helmet swinging from his backpack. An experienced campaigner, he was pleased at the thought of an office assistant tearing their poster down in the morning.
“Happy now?” asked Taegen, who wore a smart, charcoal jacket. She was 26 years old, a graduate of arts and economics at Melbourne University, with honours in management. Pablo smiled and she laughed, three crinkles lining each cheek.
In July, she had found herself, a little surprised, making a speech in Melbourne’s Treasury Gardens before a large crowd carrying placards. “Until recently,” she began,
“I wouldn’t have imagined speaking at a rally. I come from a long line of moderate mainstream lefties – the kind that read The Age and work as teachers and social workers because they care about people. The kind that have outraged discussions over coffee about racism, war or the treatment of refugees, but would still be more likely to go to the footy on a Saturday than take to the streets.
“But I’m here and it’s because, like many other people who haven’t got a long history in activism, the way the climate crisis is being treated by our so-called leaders has pushed me over the edge.”
Months earlier, at a summit in Canberra, representatives of 150 grassroots climate action groups, Taegen included, had voted to make September the national month of action. The summit had galvanised the disparate groups. Many people felt, for the first time, that they were part of a movement, a great global tide of truth and justice that could only swell as more scientific evidence rolled in.
Soon enough, however, plans for the month of action wavered. New South Wales would hold its climate camp in October instead, Western Australia in December. Victoria and South Australia held firm.
In Melbourne, an organising committee formed and resolved to target Hazelwood, the old brown coal power plant that supplies about a quarter of the state’s electricity. In 2005, a World Wildlife Fund report claimed that it was the most polluting power station among the major industrialised nations, per unit of electricity produced. Although the plant’s owners, International Power, questioned the accuracy of the report, its dirty reputation was set.
On Smith Street, not much farther on from the unsuspecting politician’s office, the couple decided to turn back. Through the open door of a bar over the road, they could see bodies in red silhouette dancing. Taegen had forgotten what normal people did with their spare time. She knew she had no balance in her life, but on the whole, she was pretty peppy. She had taken on a significant role in the Switch Off Hazelwood committee, as co-organiser of the large fundraising trivia night. She was also helping with the media, logistics and outreach sub-groups.
For more than a year now, she’d been employed at Melbourne University’s School of Population Health, researching the likely social and community wellbeing impacts of climate change. At work recently, she had stifled tears as she read a report detailing US plans to protect its borders against climate refugees. She clambered out of despair only by way of her involvement in the climate movement. She had to do something about it.
The tape ran out as they put up the last poster. They unlocked their bikes, wet from the rain, and put on their helmets and lights. It was nearly eleven o’clock. A small rally had been organised for eight-thirty the next morning the steps of parliament house, to launch the protest to the press. Pablo would be the media spokesperson.
It was going to be a nerve-wracking week. Taegen had no doubt that the action was right, but her mind skittered uncomfortably over the thought of arrest. She had never been to Hazelwood. Although she knew she would have to jump a fence, she could not imagine gripping it and pressing over. Nor could she envisage the moment, adrenaline and fear coursing through her body, when a man in blue would seize her and march her away.