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In praise of Big Coal

Through its coal-digging antics, Oz has made itself the midwife of a new era of progress around the world

26 April 2014

9:00 AM

26 April 2014

9:00 AM

Why are so many Australians so sniffy about the coal industry? Everywhere I go I meet someone who has a beef with the black stuff. And it isn’t just the usual suspects — those green-hearted weepers for Gaia who think any kind of rummaging in the earth for combustible resources is a crime against nature, and who are hilariously unaware that their unproductive lives of tweeting and thrift-shopping would be impossible if a couple of hundred years ago man hadn’t burnt copious amounts of coal and in the process invented the modern world. No, even some Australians with brain cells are down on coal, talking about the scars it leaves in the Aussie earth and the black clouds of smog it raises over China. Uttering the word ‘coal’ can ruin a dinner party as surely as saying that other infamous four-letter c-word might have done a few years back.

I don’t get this because, to my mind, Australia’s coal industry is a wondrous, jaw-dropping thing. It should surely stir the heart that Australia unearths so much of this blackest of minerals, which has aeons-old sunlight trapped within it, and then exports it by the shipload to China and elsewhere, where the sunlight is unlocked and used to power progress and development. It should surely boggle the mind that 200,000 Aussies work in the coal industry, that they dig up a gazillion tonnes (or thereabouts) of coal a year, and that around 350 million tonnes of it is exported to nations that need and want this black rock’s easily teased-out energy. Through its coal-digging antics, Oz has made itself the facilitator of numerous new industrial revolutions, the midwife of a new era of progress, the provider of energy to massive, bustling emerging cities that make even the great, coal-fuelled London of the 1800s look like a quaint village in comparison. We need some Coal Pride. Maybe even a Coal Pride bracelet. A black one, of course.

The knives are out for Australia’s coal industry. This month the IPCC, the Vatican-like institution of permanent doom-mongering that issues scientific edicts with all the gusto that a medieval Pope would have churned out religious rules, said nations like Australia must stop exporting so much coal. Greenies were cock-a-hoop, because they’ve been arguing for yonks that Australia’s spreading of the black stuff around Asia is basically a silent, creeping holocaust. The Monthly says Australia needs to ‘keep its coal in the hole’. This is a country that is ‘highly educated’ and yet all it can ‘figure out how to do [is] dig up black rocks and send them to China to burn’, it says, with super snootiness. Exploiting Mother Earth’s coal resources is ‘un-Australian’, says the un-Australian Guardian. Greenpeace chastises Oz for feeding China’s ‘insatiable appetite for coal’, claiming China is ‘coal-addicted’. From this perverse perspective, Australia is a kind of global drug dealer and China its desperate junky skank.

Just imagine if eco-miserabilists like this had been around during the first industrial revolution, if back then there had been an international body whose sole job was to finger-wag at the explorers for natural resources. Humanity would have been screwed. If moaning nature-lovers had successfully halted or even slowed down that revolution, the vast majority of us would still be serfs, slaving away on tiny patches of land for a rich man in a castle, never venturing further than our garden gates, and dying of TB or syphilis at the age of 32 without having ever read Shakespeare or heard Mozart.

Coal, you see — or, more accurately, man’s discovery of its inner powers — was one of the great liberators of mankind. It was the fuel for a revolution that led to the building of cities, the creation of machines that could transport stuff to every corner of the globe, and the mass movement of men and women from the land into built-up places where within a few years they would demand the vote and education and other good things befitting their new city-dwelling status.

The war of words against China’s current use of its own and Queensland’s coal to motor a new industrial revolution is an attempt to prevent the east from undergoing the same technological, social and moral leap forward on the back of the black stuff that the west went through ages ago. By people whose very time-richness, whose ability to spend hours tweeting furiously about how horrible the coal industry is, is itself a by-product of the industrial revolution’s creation of a whole new era of human productivity and leisure time. Charming.

I love coal. I find it endlessly fascinating. It has been essential to the expansion of human civilisation. Coal basically contains ancient sunlight; it stores the surging heat of the Carboniferous period, of about 300 million years ago, when our planet was so hot even I might have signed up to Greenpeace. About a thousand years ago, mankind started to liberate this trapped sunlight, burning coal to heat homes, which meant he was no longer reliant on forestland for wood and heat. Thus could more forestland be cut down, more cropland created and more foodstuffs made. Later came the industrial revolution, when coal’s trapped sunlight was unleashed to motor trains, machines, factories and unprecedented movements of things and people. Man’s discovery of coal, his unlocking of its hidden ancient energy, helped to make all the good stuff we currently enjoy, from cities to global travel to mass democracy, a reality.

And now Australia, by carving into the belly of its land and extracting its black guts, is helping other countries to bask in the benefits of this 300-million-year-old sunlight, too. Asia can’t get enough of coal. China, which already accounts for half of the worldwide use of coal, plans to bump up its coal use by 14 per cent by 2020, with the help of Oz. India has doubled its coal use over the past ten years. It’s expected that coal use in the Asean nations will triple by 2035. And the benefits of all this coal-burning are enough to bring a tear to a proper progressive’s eye. In China over the past 20 years, 250 million people, a vast swathe of humanity, have been lifted out of poverty. That wouldn’t have happened without economic growth, which wouldn’t have happened without coal, which Australia helps to provide.

Let’s get our priorities straight. Right now, there are some things more important than tackling climate change, and one of them is delivering economic growth, energy, heat and light to the still-dark, still-poor bits of the world. Australian coal is doing its part in this great drive to industrialise more of the Earth, so be proud. Wear a black bracelet.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of Spiked in London. He is in Australia this month as scholar-in-residence for the Centre for Independent Studies.

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