Ideas for a brighter future for all

Coal versus coral

In Gladstone/Yallarm/Koongoo, a gateway to the Southern Great Barrier Reef and home to the deep-water channels of all day, peak hour shipping traffic, I hear the almost audible groan of the Australian climate cultural cringe.

This groan is heard aboard the resort catamaran as we leave Gladstone Habour for Heron Island Resort and the University of Queensland Research Station. We travel via the same harbour where ships arrive to transport fossil fuels.

One of my fellow travellers– clearly a Gladstone local – points to smelters as we pass, explaining to her Reef excited children, ‘THIS whole town exists because of THAT’.

And herein, epitomises the ‘cringe’. 

The Australian climate cultural cringe translates as a nation whose local and global identity has at once prided itself on a wealth of natural resources and simultaneously, our spectacular nature. 

The recognition that the removal of one is destroying the other is an Australian’s jagged pill, manifest in Gladstone and in conflicts throughout the nation.

Deep in our national psyche, we struggle to reconcile this cultural dissonance between pride in our beautiful Reef and our once prized but now Reef killing fossil fuels.

 It’s a lot.

Gladstone, Queensland

Back on our catamaran, as we chug along toward the bluest open waters, ginormous red rusted rectangles appear like an orderly queue of extraction. 

While our boat rocks and rolls with the swell, these ‘big boys’ – one of my fellow travellers unexpectedly observes their masculinity – sit motionless, immovable.

Tanker traffic dwarfs tourism and research station traffic from this city.  The universally reliable source of local insight, my cab driver, tells me that only around a third of Gladstone workers earn the ‘big money’ in the resources industry. 

He’s not far wrong with ABS data in 2021 finding around one in five Gladstone workers are ‘Technicians and Trades Workers’ and another quarter employed as ‘Labourers’ and ‘Machinery Drivers and Operators’. 

I guess many of these workers keep the ships and their cargo moving and their cargo in return – this week at least – keeps worker’s families and communities afloat. According to the Gladstone Ports Corporation in 2022, moving en masse 120 million tonnes of throughput per annum, around 80 per cent of which were exports.

So I begin tanker counting.  The child sitting across from me tells his family, ’33!  There’s 33!’.  And before I can do my own recount (I reckon he’s missed a few), someone yells, ‘Dolphins!’ and we all lose interest in the ship count.

We are easily distracted by marine life, drawn away from the extraordinary behemoth that is the industrial complex of Gladstone where coal, LNG and aluminium top the most shipped list. 

We are on our way to visit the Great Barrier Reef.

Originally coined by AA Phillips in 1950 writing in the literary journal Meanjin, the ‘cultural cringe’ was targeted at Australian writers and their ‘inability to escape needless comparisons’, especially to their English counterparts.

 In contemporary vernacular, the cultural cringe signals a sense of cultural inferiority and simultaneously, a search for Australian identity and pride therein.  The idea signals a nation, unsure of itself, seeking the approval of others.

There hasn’t been much approval of late.

"How can we not cringe?  Day after day, we fail our own pub test, naked to the world as hypocrites and again, not as good as the others…whoever they might be, but they’re not from here."
Coal

The daily, increasingly heated (that’s intentional) brawls of fossil fuels and carbon emissions THIS, and the Great Barrier Reef and mass coral bleaching THAT, belts Australians making them collective repository of both fossil fuel shame and ecological collapse.

How can we not cringe?  Day after day, we fail our own pub test, naked to the world as hypocrites and again, not as good as the others…whoever they might be, but they’re not from here.

We jump to defend ourselves, we point fingers and we hang our heads. My cab driver tells me that Australia will never stop mining and in the very next breath, how hopeless he and his Gladstone community feel about the recent mass coral bleaching.

Exasperated, he asks, ‘What can we do about it?’. 

As was Phillip’s retort to the weight of English opinion in 1950, ‘[T]he nightingale does not sing under Aus­tralian skies’. We have our own ‘birds’. 

To be ‘unself-consciously ourselves’ at this critical moment is to know that it is not ‘coal vs coral’ but rather ‘coal and coral’ that beleaguers Australian communities and stymies homegrown climate action.  We’ve loved both.

It has been politically fruitful to enflame this tension between two great Australian loves, particularly during state and federal elections in regional Queensland and other places similarly positioned. 

‘Coal vs Coral’ becomes wedge politics of ‘regional vs urban’, ‘conservative vs progressive’, ‘left vs right’, men vs women’, ‘old versus young’ and the pinnacle, ‘jobs vs environment’.

But like dolphins spotted on a tourist boat in Gladstone harbour, these are distractions.  They mean we can’t see the proverbial Reef for the corals.

Nemo

Phillip’s thought the cringe a greater enemy to cultural development than Australia’s isolation from the rest of the world. He suggested instead, not a ‘strut’ of likely the arrogant kind but rather a ‘relaxed erectness of carriage’.

Similarly, the Australian climate cultural cringe is a greater threat to our progress on climate action than the wrath from the rest of the world.

 Indeed, the cringe comes not from the recognition of who we are to the rest of the world, but the acknowledgment and acceptance of who we are to ourselves.

Australia is both coal and coral – not enemies but rather part of larger story of people and communities that we know best.

The Australian climate cultural cringe and the unhelpfulness of its conflicts feed national uncertainty and stall meaningful action.  

Realising that we are different boats the in same harbour – and indeed that both coral and coal share states of decline – could lead to more productive conversations and support for the urgency of change.

First published in Crikey

Author

Dr Kerrie Foxwell-NortonDr Kerrie Foxwell-Norton is an Associate Professor of Environmental Communication at Griffith University. Her work focuses on ways to engage and inspire Australian communities to act on environmental and climate change challenges.

Dr Foxwell-Norton is a theme leader and member of the Griffith Climate Action Beacon and the Griffith Centre of Social and Cultural Research.

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