'Switching back on: a review of Anna Krien’s The Long Goodbye: Coal, Coral and Australia's Climate Deadlock', by Sophie Allan

cover of QE #66

When it comes to talking about climate change, I’ve been having a strange experience where I’m struggling to understand the relationship between words and reality. Something has snapped, and although I reach around for language to help me understand things about existing in this moment in time, there’s only a feeling of sludgy unboundedness.

It’s this feeling like we can talk and talk until we’re hoarse but it’s not changing the fact that we’re experiencing catastrophic environmental degradation and we’re not really doing anything about it. I’ve been avoiding the news articles. I don’t know how to have conversations about it. I don’t know what to say anymore, and I barely know what to do, but I try to save water, I try not to consume more stuff than I need to. Every day I worry about what the future might be. If I have a baby, what its future might be. And I don’t know what to say anymore.

I’m ashamed to confess this stuff, because I know it’s weak and hopeless – and I know we need hope – but at this moment my personal reaction has been to flip a switch somewhere to the off position. And that off switch seems to have something to do with my ability to produce words.

I don’t know how Anna Krien would relate to this, but from where I stand, her essay on the Adani mine, the Great Barrier Reef and Australian politics looks like nothing less than an impossible feat – the result of a powerful mind, a resilient spirit and a natural ease with narrative. In this moment of political madness, linguistic manipulation, continuing colonial violence, environmental degradation and erosion of democracy, here is a writer who is able to use words to help us relate to the fact of our existence, rather than fling us further into the kind of confused darkness I’ve been fumbling in.

Krien has somehow managed to march up to this mess, decode it and then talk about it. And I’m clinging to her work like it’s a lifeboat. It might not help save the dying reef. And it’s not likely to stop the Adani mine. But being led to an understanding of what is going on in this country by someone who respects my humanity enough not to lie to me could be enough to make words mean something again. And maybe if words mean something they can help me come to terms with reality and face it, rather than just switch off.

At the launch of her Quarterly Essay, Krien described the skyline of towering book stacks that populated her desk for the duration of this writing project. She was reading books on something like twenty different topics, so complex and manifold is an inquiry into climate change and Australia’s political response to it. Her editor pulled her back from the edge of the abyss, suggesting that the thing would never be published if she didn’t resist the instinct so clearly demonstrated in her work for absolute thoroughness.

You can imagine how hard it would have been for Krien to let the essay go to publication. When do you draw a line under it? There seem to be daily developments coming in from around the country and the world under the categories of natural disasters, renewable energy triumphs and shady, profit-mongering political deals.

In May Krien did let the essay go, and what she ended up with is nine chapters that investigate, and link together, some of the big ideas that all of us really need to understand as we hurtle towards whatever the future holds. Krien covers the reef, the mine and all the moving parts involved: social factors (un/employment), economics, royalties, Indigenous land rights, environmental advocacy, and how these are all playing out in a narcissistic game of capitalism and politics.

As I read the essay, little lights spark in my memory – I recollect the news stories covering a lot of this, news stories that had bobbed up and become submerged again before I had time to connect them to the bigger picture. And this is exactly what The Long Goodbye does.

On page four, we get the cannonball to the guts: “Over 65 per cent of the northern reef is dead.” Krien starts by providing an inventory of our ailing ecosystems: mangroves turn white in far north Queensland, kelp forests in Western Australia and Tasmania perish, algae coats coral off the north-west coast and blooms at an unprecedented scale in Victoria’s rivers, oysters die en masse in the south.

The facts Krien lays out on the environmental degradation of the reef and other ecosystems are devastating. But perhaps even more so is the scene described in Australian Parliament, when a Greens senator drew attention to a tweet sent out by a professor in charge of evaluating the bleaching of the reef – the professor and his students had wept when they saw the results – and members of the elected Coalition “laughed and gave sarcastic sighs of sympathy.”

Every time I think of this scene my pulse rushes in my ears. There are many moments like this in the essay. During the time it took me to read it, I had to have several breaks where I put it down for days at a time. The thought of returning to it gave me a huge stone in my guts.

Krien demystifies the relationship between politics, business, and media, and how they work together to fake a rational economic argument for coal mining, and the Adani mine in particular. Central to the argument for Adani is the fact that the mine will create 10,000 jobs for the underemployed of Queensland, the creation of which is the mayor of Townsville’s “moral responsibility”. So it’s sort of crazy-making to find that Adani’s own figures guy has reported under oath that Adani will provide “on average around 1464 employee years of full time equivalent direct and indirect jobs.”

Throughout The Long Goodbye Krien labours to unpick this type of manipulative rhetoric: mines go through an “approvals process” rather than an application process; the Minerals Council of Australia calls royalties (the payment for the product that they purchase) part of the “total tax burden”; “overburden” is the life that exists where someone wants to open up a mine; the Landscape Guardians lobby to stop wind turbines.

Krien’s ability to detect and disentangle untruth seems almost instinctive. And it may be in part. But what seems effortlessly explained must actually take hours and hours to research, check, cross-check, draft and tighten. In the third chapter of the essay, ‘Getting to yes’, Krien explains what power the traditional owners of the land are supposed to have, what power they have in practical terms when a mine is being planned, and the unethical ways that business and government bulldoze on through no matter what. Look at the way she can process, condense and communicate a really complex idea:

In 2012 along came Adani, and depending on how you view these things, the Wangan and Jagalingou [W&J] people were going to get rich quick or lose their land, again, before they had even got it back [via a standing Native Title claim]. Again there was the ‘right to negotiate’ and the W&J people squared up. The wider claim group put forward family representatives to negotiate, and in a unanimous vote they decided against the mine, which would turn their country into an ‘open void’ (mining-speak, not my own), a 280-square-kilometre coalmine. In their unresolved title claim, they had applied for the right to camp, fish and be buried on country – there was no case here for coexistence. Adani did not blink and lodged an action with the tribunal. As expected, Adani was given the green light, granting it two mining leases. The mine, the tribunal declared, was in the public interest.

The Long Goodbye is full of brilliant elucidation – sections that act sort of like ready reckoners for what has (or hasn’t) been popping up in your news feed over the past few years, minus the spin. She’s consumed it, digested it and laid it out for us. And it makes you realise just how difficult it has become to find out exactly what is going on. The South Australian blackout, the human context around decommissioned coal-fired power plants, the inner workings of the relationship between policy and commerce.

And even though these parts are by no means dry or static, the essay is carried along by Krien’s excellent narrative journalism. She visits a small coalmining town in far western Queensland, Moranbah in the Bowen Basin, and eyeballs for herself the realities of the coal economy. She weaves into this the situation in the small Indian villages we are being told so desperately need coal. She spends time with a farmer who’s fighting Gina Rinehart in court for the right to clean water.

To understand what has led us to this moment is to understand the options that are now available to us for the future. And it seems like it all comes down to whether or not we can let go of the profit-god. It’s almost inconceivable: those of us with inordinate privilege and excess giving some of it up for the other living things harmed by capitalism. Everyone just using what they need. This is really the most hope I ever feel, when I’m thinking about this kind of thing. Even though the space between here and there seems insurmountable.

But there are ways to chip away. Krien suggests having politicians wear the names of their financial supporters on their clothing the same way grand prix drivers do. With an understanding of how things are working at the moment, the idea of this kind of transparency is exhilarating. And maybe it’s way too radical to dream that something like that might happen. But Krien’s essay, her words, gives you enough of a taste of truth that you switch on and give it a second thought.

Sophie Allan is the Founding Editor-in-Chief of Chart Collective. Her writing has been published in Griffith Review, Global Weather Stations, By the Book? Contemporary Publishing in Australia and The Writers Bloc.