In the face of climate crisis megafires and an air quality health crisis, 40,000 people rallied and marched in Sydney to demand action on Wednesday night. The city is choking, and New South Wales is on fire. In Randwick on Tuesday, the air pollution was 11 times higher than “hazardous”. Such is the density of the smoke that fire alarms inside buildings are being triggered across the city. There’s a run on P2 air filtering face masks at Bunnings Warehouse; people were desperately messaging the Uni Students for Climate Justice page asking if there will be some for sale at the rally.
As we’re poisoned in Sydney and as firefighters battle blazes across the state, millions of people are recognising that the climate crisis is not some future threat; it is upon us. With only five days’ notice, the Uni Students for Climate Justice pulled off this mass demonstration. The anger at the rally was palpable. People came in P2 masks and with home-made placards. One, a picture of Parliament House ablaze, read: “If we burn, you burn with us”. The crowd spilled from Town Hall onto the tram tracks of George Street. At the back of the rally, where the speakers couldn’t be heard, a marching band started a street festival.
People have been asking where Scott Morrison is. We know where he is: somewhere praying and speaking in tongues, concocting some scheme to introduce more homophobic and transphobic legislation after Christmas. The bigger question is where the fuck is Labor? Oh, that’s right, the opposition leader is touring Queensland coal fields pledging his undying love for the fossil fuel industry. But what about the forces who are supposed to be on our side? Where are the environmental NGOs? Where is GetUp? Where is Richard Di Natale? By and large, they have focused on parliament and on lobbying and on appealing to businesses to find a conscience, break ties with Adani, put a few solar panels on their roofs and use a bit more recycled paper. That strategy is up in flames, along with NSW.
Almost the entire political establishment, and almost every aspect of Australian capitalism, is tied to the fossil fuel industry by a thousand threads. Coal is king. It’s the country’s biggest export. We need regular city demonstrations of 40,000 people to start disrupting business as usual. We need unions to start treating the climate crisis like the urgent threat to working class living standards that it is. The Maritime Union walked off Port Botany last week because of hazardous air quality. Good – but we need more. We need to use the social power of strikes to shut down the profits of the big corporations to win immediate provisions for our safety – more sick leave, more safety gear and more professional paid firefighters – and to win a transition to renewable energy. As the rally chanted on Wednesday “One struggle, one fight! Climate justice, workers’ rights!”
As the crowd spilled onto the streets, I was reminded how much the environment movement has changed over the last few years. From the “be the change you want to see in the world” and “think global, act local” politics of consumerism, the message today is becoming “system change, not climate change”. But system change will not come through a change of government or a change in the boardrooms. We need a radical restructuring of the economy – a total dismantling of capitalism and the building of a world run for human need rather than business profits. No more polite appeals to the climate criminals, no more “climate elections” to elect another class of liars and careerists, no more wasted time lobbying people who have already proven that they won’t act. As one placard at the rally read: “No one is coming to save us, except us”.
Just as the last federal election campaign was getting started, a massive explosion ripped through a toxic waste facility in Campbellfield in Melbourne’s northern suburbs. Two workers—both Tamil refugees—were hospitalised. Surrounding suburbs were blanketed with highly toxic smoke.
It has become common, in recent years, to hear assertions that the world is already in the midst of a transition to a green economy. This kind of “green triumphalism”, however, is little more than a fantasy—one that is (and often consciously intended to be) a barrier to winning the kind of radical change we need.
The escalating horrors emerging from the war in Ukraine have put the danger of nuclear energy back in the spotlight. Days after Russia’s invasion, President Vladimir Putin said in a military address he was “ordering the defence minister and chief of the general staff to switch the Russian army’s deterrent forces [i.e. nuclear weapons] on to a high alert mode of combat stand-by duty”.
Hundreds of people in Lismore woke up on Monday morning trapped in their houses. Most of them went to sleep with the reassurance that, despite flood warnings, their houses had never been reached by flood water before—including during the “big floods” of 1954, 1974 and 2017. But after the Wilsons River broke the town’s levee wall, it kept rising far beyond what had been projected. An evacuation order was issued at 1am, while most people were sleeping. They woke to water in their houses—which are mostly on stilts—climbed into attics and onto roofs, and waited.
Few people today are so naive as to believe that recycling, using a “keep cup”, switching off lights or having shorter showers will be enough to avert the unfolding environmental and climate catastrophe. The accumulation of evidence of the global and systemic nature of the problem has been sufficient to convince most that any genuine solution must involve radical changes to society as a whole, rather than just a shift in the consumption choices of individuals.
Quentin Beresford’s book Wounded Country: The Murray-Darling Basin—a contested history, published in September 2021, is a warning. State officials, politicians and agribusinesses risk turning Australia’s premier food bowl—the Murray-Darling Basin, which covers 14 percent of the Australian mainland—into desert.