It’s Official. God Hates Coal.


It isn’t often a policy document slips into our newsfeeds bearing the imprimatur of God.

Click on God. He has 1.2 billion mutual friends and better-than-Hubble eXtreme deep field pics in his ‘Out-of-this-world’ photo album.

How many I wonder tried to open the hyperlinks and friend God after Pope Francis issued his Papal Encyclical, (Laudato Si, On Care for our Common Home) last week.

Not too many lapsed Catholics, one might reasonably presume.

Not too many from Broken Rites, the advocacy group for victims of sex abuse committed against children by church personnel. Maybe not so many from Catholics for Choice, another advocacy group for Catholic women’s reproductive rights campaigning against the ‘Vatican crusade against birth control and abortion’. Nor might we find too many eager frienders among the health professionals and NGOs combatting the spread of HIV/AIDS who would remember Pope Benedict XVI’s anti-condom campaign in Africa in 2009 – notably endorsed by our own Cardinal George Pell.

Despite these wretched crimes, the encyclical was greeted with great excitement around the world. Here, it was hard not to enjoy it pulling rank on our chief Catholic supplicant PM Tony Abbott and rather gainsay his own ‘Coal is Good for Humanity’ decree. Awks.

Less attention was given however to a section on Indigenous rights. Taking Him at His Word:

‘… it is essential to show special care for indigenous communities and their cultural traditions. They are not merely one minority among others, but should be the principal dialogue partners, especially when large projects affecting their land are proposed. For them, land is not a commodity but rather a gift from God and from their ancestors who rest there – a sacred space with which they need to interact if they are to maintain their identity and values. When they remain on their land, they themselves care for it best. Nevertheless, in various parts of the world, pressure is being put on them to abandon their homelands to make room for agricultural or mining projects which are undertaken without regard for the degradation of nature and culture.’

That’s putting it mildly, as perhaps you’d expect. In fact Francis’ inclusion of First Nation rights in a document on environmental stewardship did not directly link climate justice with an untrammelled tradition of dispossession.

It needed to.

For climate change forges another frontier of incursion, displacement, impoverishment and appropriation of Indigenous lands the world over. Climate change reprises colonialism, which we should note was distinctively coal-fired.

Here in Australia the historical coincidence of colonialism and coal is unmistakable. Watts’ coal-fired steam engine was invented just two years before the First Fleet arrived in Sydney Cove. The steam engine would soon come to relieve such transportation, and trade, along with industrial production, from the variable conditions of water-wheel and wind power.

Coal-fired industrialization and colonial expansion are intimately entwined histories. They were in cahoots in the annexing of foreign lands and the extraction of their resources.

The use of coal on a commercial scale from the late 1700s powered an explosion of growth in manufacturing between 1760 and 1840, when coal mining began at Wollongong. As we know this period saw the march of the Australian frontiers on little cloven trotters. Our fleeces from ever expanding pastures supplied the Lancashire wool mills, just as the steam-power loom began to replace the hand loom.

By 1865 the economist William Stanley Jevons had already declared coal ‘the factor in everything we do’. But less known is the recognition in 1896 by Swedish chemist Svante Arrenius of what we now call the greenhouse effect: that the large-scale burning of fossil fuels would permeate the atmosphere, trapping the sun’s heat within it, warming the planet.

If only Arrenius had written a papal encyclical in 1896.

Coal powered the machinery of colonial expansion, stoking the engines of trade, mobility, and incursion. An extractivist ethos was at work in colonialism as the rationale for dispossession.

It remains a ‘factor in everything we do’ to this day, no less the ongoing degradation and appropriation of Indigenous ancestral homelands.

First Nation Peoples, such as Pacific Islanders are already losing their homes to rising seas. Inuit have already been evacuated from the Alaskan coastal village of Shishmaref. In the Autonomous Region of Gunayala, Panama families are already being displaced by sea level rise.  Sami Reindeer herders in the Arctic circle are facing ‘tjuokke’ – the locking away of lichen pastures under a solid sheet of unseasonable ice, disrupting their nomadic livelihoods.

Some of the Western fossil fuel conglomerates who stand to profit from exploration on these newly inhabitable homelands, such as Royal Dutch Shell, rose to corporate ‘supermajor’ status through the erasure of Indigenous cosmologies. Shell developed an oilfield in Sumatra in the 1890s and today plans to start exploratory drilling for oil in the Chukchi Sea off the coast of Alaska at Point Hope, the Inupiat’s ancestral lands.

Naomi Klein has dubbed these homelands ‘sacrifice zones’ on the ‘disposable peripheries’ of western capitalism. This latest phase of ‘neocolonial plunder’ through fossil fuel conglomerates continues the entrenched environmental racism that the papal encyclical draws attention to.

An opportunity was lost however to name these as ‘carbon frontiers’. They represent the ongoing plunder by fossil fuel corporations of indigenous lands increasingly vacated because of the disruptions of exacerbated storms, sea-level rise, salination, drought and bushfire.

The irony cannot be lost on those who have, over centuries, fought and survived colonial violence, disease and dispossession to be driven off their lands by a new enemy – climate change. Land rights is now at the forefront of climate justice.

In this latest round of dispossession – coal-fired dispossession – our faithful PM might try heeding the dieties and spirits who knew long before Francis that, when the indigenous ‘remain on their land, they themselves care for it best’.

Liz Conor is a columnist at New Matilda and an ARC Future Fellow at La Trobe University. She is the author of Skin Deep: Settler Impressions of Aboriginal Women, [UWAP, 2016] and The Spectacular Modern Woman: Feminine Visibility in the 1920s [Indiana University Press, 2004]. She is editor of Aboriginal History and has published widely in academic and mainstream press on gender, race and representation.