Why I'm Hunger Striking For The Climate


Once upon a time I lived in Bowen, the site of the Abbot Point coal terminal and a one-way ticket to climate catastrophe. I spent my rite-of-passage fruit-picking phase there as a backpacker in the baking hot capsicum fields. It wasn’t so bad; in many ways Bowen is paradise.

Gateway to the Whitsundays and the Great Barrier Reef, the small farming community is in an idyllic setting with unspoilt beaches hidden from the reach of snap-happy tourists and hotel developers. I used to make the most of the early finishes that harvest work allows and go snorkelling on the reefs closest to the shore, resting my sore muscles in the warm, clear water, and taking in the exotic range of colourful corals, parrot fish, turtles, and countless other fascinating species whose names I never knew. I often wondered why the area hadn’t been spoilt by developers in the tourist industry. I guess now I know the answer: it’s going to be spoilt by the mining industry instead.

For many years Abbot Point has been a small-time coal exporter, but now its original terminal is well on the way to a 50 million ton capacity, and five new terminals are to be built. The terminals will be owned by BHP Billiton, AP-X, Indian companies Adani and GVK, and Clive Palmer’s Waratah Coal. This expansion brings export capacity to more than 400 million tonnes, converting the world-heritage listed Great Barrier Reef into the world’s biggest coal terminal, and doubling Australia’s carbon emissions over the coming decade. The reef will not survive its conversion to a coal-export superhighway.

Queensland is set to become divided over economic gain versus ecological imperative, and the road to Galilee is paved with coal. The Galilee Basin in the state’s centre begins the journey of Queensland’s coal exports, with mega-mines such as Adani’s Carmichael mine – twice the size of Australia’s current biggest mine – set to churn out 60 million tonnes of the carbon-emitting fuel annually. Climatologists claim that if the Galilee Basin’s reserves are mined and burned they will account for a whopping 705 million tonnes of CO2, or 6 per cent of the entire world’s available “carbon budget”, whose limit is set in accordance with efforts to restrict global temperature increases to below two degrees. Beyond this limit we are headed for an environmental catastrophe that will likely see the end of humankind.

Adani and GVK provide the road to Galilee, or, more accurately, the railway. Hundreds of kilometres of railway are to be laid between the Galilee Basin and Abbot Point, trampling agricultural land and wetland ecosystems, and providing the infrastructure required for the ignition of this volatile carbon bomb. Few hands are in many pies, and there is money to be made from this treacherous gamble on our future. The final piece in the puzzle is freight rail company Aurizon’s acquisition of 51 per cent of Hancock Coal Infrastructure, which is currently owned by the heavily indebted GVK. Aurizon, formerly QR national, is the pivotal point in the entire scheme. If Aurizon do not acquire the controlling stake in Hancock Coal Infrastructure the railway becomes unviable.

So far environmental groups have achieved no traction in their efforts to convince these fossil fuel giants to make their money from less damaging practices and help us get on track toward a sustainable future that unarguably benefits us all. The state and federal governments have been unresponsive to pleas for stronger regulations and reviews of environmental impact that are in line with emissions reductions targets. Aurizon are keen to plough ahead with their pivotal acquisition, ignoring the obvious investment risks posed by the shaky project and the even greater environmental risks outlined in letters received from numerous environmental organisations. We may have reached the final stop along this particular track.

It is time for a resistance more potent that letters, petitions and placard-waving rallies: a hunger strike. Hunger-striking for a cause, though radical, is nothing new. The practice has its roots in Irish history as a socially normalised form of non-violent resistance, governed by a consistent set of rules, in which participants fasted as an act of political protest with the objective of achieving specific goals such as policy change or debt recovery. In Ireland fasting was often carried out literally on the doorstep of the offender’s home, as allowing a death on one’s doorstep for the sake of a wrong of which one has been accused was considered a great dishonour. Fasts did not tend to last until death, however, with many being restricted to a specific time period, such as 24 hours. St Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, is said to have used hunger striking as a political tactic.

The most famous hunger strikers people tend to think of are Gandhi and the Suffragettes. In India hunger strikes were also detailed in the Ramayana and other ancient texts – and were used in a very similar way to Ireland. Gandhi’s hunger strikes were immensely effective due to his fame and standing, as the British were reluctant to tarnish their reputation by allowing him to die in their custody. This enabled the Mahatma to communicate his message of protest against British rule of India in a non-violent manner that often achieved the desired outcomes.

The Suffragettes provide some of the most remarkable historical examples of non-violent hunger-strike action the world has ever seen in their efforts to secure voting rights for women. Only a century ago British women such as Emmeline Pankhurst frequently took their strikes as far as arrest and imprisonment, resulting in force-feeding, as the authorities did not wish to create martyrs of them for political purposes. American Suffragettes followed the British example a few years later, and were similarly successful in gaining universal voting rights for women.

Imagine living in a world in which Gandhi had not taken drastic action. A world in which the Suffragettes had not taken action. Now imagine a world in which climate activists did not take action.

The coalition of hunger-strikers congregating in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley from Friday 30 August follow in the footsteps of some of the greatest social justice advocates who ever lived, and have goals of no lesser importance. Indeed the stakes are far higher. Climate change is undoubtedly the most pressing issue of our time, with sweeping impacts that will leave no one unaffected. A line must be drawn. We all need to choose a point at which we are prepared to take personal action – to stand up and be counted – and that means something more radical. Petitions and polite letters to the powers that be clearly aren’t working, and I fear that I’ll still be waving a placard while the waves of a rising sea are lapping at the steps of parliament house if we all continue with business as usual.

Our hunger strike will command attention, it will cast the spotlight on Aurizon as the pivotal point of the project, it will call for dialogue, and it will aim for resolution: the coal must stay in the ground. I’m fasting for nothing less than our future.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.