Like most Australians, I start each morning by kneeling before a six foot bronze statue of the God of Innovation, Malcolm Turnbull. I recite my daily chant, “Agility, Agility, Agility” and give thanks for the latest start-up to grace my local area.
Caught up in this cult of innovation, I’ve been blinded to a far more powerful and disturbing cult which has overrun Australian politics: the cult of human sacrifice.
The Global Capitalist Cult
In December last year, former foreign correspondent for the New York Times, Chris Hedges, wrote a powerful piece for the progressive news and commentary site Truthdig, called Capitalism’s Cult of Human Sacrifice.
Hedges discusses the link between idols and sacrifice throughout ancient and modern history. Canaanites gave up their children for the God Moloch, while millions were sacrificed for the utopian visions of fascism and communism.
Profit is the idol of contemporary capitalism and the God of Profit demands sacrifices. The many millions of people who live on the frontlines of industrial capitalism, close to its coal mines and oil refineries, have been its early victims.
“They are cursed from birth to endure poverty, disease, toxic contamination and, often, early death. They are forced to kneel like bound captives to be slain on the altar of capitalism in the name of progress.”
These victims of toxic capitalism have often been from Indigenous, poor and African-American communities. Fossil fuel companies have been drawn towards remote locations and places where locals lack the resources to fight back.
These places become sacrifice zones, in Hedges’ words, “areas that have been destroyed for quarterly profit… environmentally destroyed, communities destroyed, human beings destroyed, families destroyed.”
Hedges toured many such sacrifice zones across the United States with artist Joe Sacco and together they created an illustrated account called Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt. He also discussed his insights with Bill Moyers in 2012 and the interview is compelling, illuminating and devastating viewing.
Canadian climate activist Naomi Klein also articulates the sacrifices demanded by capitalism in her urgent and brilliant book, This Changes Everything. She writes “power from fossil fuel always required sacrifice zones – whether in the black lungs of the coal miners or the poisoned waterways surrounding the mines.”
These zones include “whole subsets of humanity categorised as less than fully human, which made their poisoning in the name of progress somehow acceptable”.
The Australian Chapter
Klein uses Nauru as the ultimate example of a sacrifice zone. Mining of phosphate in the 20th century made the centre of the island uninhabitable and largely infertile. More recently, because of our collective mining of fossil fuels, Nauru faces an existential threat from rising sea levels.
As early as 1997, Nauru’s then president Kinza Clodumar told the UN Climate Conference: “We are trapped, a wasteland at our back, and to our front a terrifying rising flood of biblical proportions.”
Now thanks to Howard, Rudd, Gillard, Abbott and Turnbull, Nauru is a sacrifice zone in yet another sense. Australia has categorised waves of innocent men, women and children fleeing persecution as less than fully human. Somehow it is acceptable for Australians to poison their minds, bodies and souls as they languish in devastating cultures of physical and sexual abuse in a remote prison camp.
For decades us privileged Westerners consoled ourselves with the idea that although sacrifice zones were an unfortunate by-product of our comfort, they happened to disempowered others and they happened out of sight.
The time for this awful brand of complacency is over.
Chris Hedges writes in stark language regarding the early victims of industrial capitalism.
“They have gone first. We are next. In the late stages of global capitalism, we all will be destroyed in an orgy of mass extermination to satiate corporate greed.”
The terrifying daily headlines about the climate emergency are beginning to testify to this.
It’s the urgency of the climate crisis that leads Klein to this conclusion:
“In 1776, Tom Paine wrote in his rabble-rousing pamphlet Common Sense, “It is the good fortune of many to live distant from the scene of sorrow”. Well, the distance is closing and soon enough no-one will be safe from the sorrow of ecocide…
The sacrifice zones created by our collective fossil fuel dependence are creeping and spreading like great shadows over the earth. After two centuries of pretending that we could quarantine the collateral damage of this filthy habit, fobbing the risks off on others, the game is up, and we are all in the sacrifice zone now.”
It’s not hard to find evidence for the spreading shadows of sacrifice zones.
Ever larger swathes of Australia’s natural beauty are being sacrificed. This week we’ve discovered 95 per cent of the northern Great Barrier Reef has been severely bleached. Earlier this year tens of thousands of hectares of ancient Tasmanian forest were burned for the God of Profit.
It’s not just our natural wonders. Ever more land is being given over to coal and coal seam gas companies.
Look at the map of coal and gas titles and applications around the country above, or read about the immense fossil fuel impacts on land and water across Australia on the Lock the Gate website, and you get a pretty good sense of the spread of sacrifice zones.
Central Queensland is at risk from 31 new or expanded coal mines and a new coal seam gas field, while the Darling Downs is threatened by 15 new or expanded coal mines and 26,000 coal seam gas wells.
Current coal and coal seam gas exploration licenses cover 6 million hectares of the fertile farming country and native bushland in the Gunnedah Basin and Liverpool Plains.
The Hunter River, the Sydney Drinking Water Catchment, the Fitzroy River Catchment, the Condamine River, the Dawson River and the Great Artesian basin are all at risk from coal and coal seam gas projects.
Given the scale of the destruction, many readers could just take a walk around their neighbourhood and experience this sacrifice firsthand.
Guy Rundle’s February piece in The Monthly, Opened Ground: The Big Fracking Mess of Resource Politics, conveys not just the spread of sacrifice zones in NSW but also the corrupt resource politics driving this expansion.
Much in the essay resonates with Hedges’ description of the disempowerment of those within sacrifice zones:
“The political system is bought off, the judicial system is bought off, and the law enforcement system serves the interests of power. They have been rendered powerless.”
Hedges describes the “willingness on the part of people who seek personal enrichment to destroy other human beings… and because the mechanisms of governance can no longer control them, there is nothing now within the formal mechanisms of power to stop them from creating essentially a corporate oligarchic state.”
And you better believe Mike Baird’s anti-protest laws are about shutting down informal mechanisms of power from challenging this corporate oligarchy.
Lest you think asylum seekers, natural wonders and rural folk are the only victims, the climate crisis is coming for everyone. February’s shocking temperature records and the high likelihood of significant sea level rise should dispel that myth for you.
Resisting The Cult, Renewing The Earth
Calling the spread of sacrifice zones grim is like calling Malcolm Turnbull a letdown: it’s a profound understatement. But at least there are remedies for the former.
Hedges tells us we can only speak of hope when we “smash our idols and liberate ourselves from their power”. We must smash the hypnotic hold the God of Profit has over our collective consciousness. We must resolutely oppose human and environmental sacrifices at the altar of capitalist ‘progress’.
He argues the path ahead is clear and the stakes could not be higher.
“We must physically obstruct the extraction, transportation and refining of fossil fuels or face extinction. Those who worship before the idols of profit will use every tool at their disposal, including violence, to crush us. This is a war waged between the forces of life and the forces of death. It is a war that requires us, in every way possible, to deny to these industries the profits used to justify gaiacide. It is a war we must not lose.”
The resistance is growing and will escalate this coming May. From May 4-15 there will be a global wave of mass actions targeting the world’s most dangerous fossil fuel projects. They will demand fossil fuels be kept in the ground and call for a rapid transition to 100 per cent renewable economies.
Here in Australia, concerned citizens will converge on the world’s largest coal port of Newcastle on the 7th and 8th May to oppose the export of pollution.
It’s the next big battle in the most important war of human history.
We are running out of time to win.
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