The EJ Series, part 12: Lock the Gate, place and environmental justice

George Woods from the Lock the Gate Alliance shares the story of her place and the work being done by Lock the Gate on environmental justice. This article is based on a presentation by George Woods on a panel entitled ‘Environmental Justice and Place’ at the Environmental Justice 2017: Looking Back, Looking Forward Conference, University of Sydney, 6-8 November 2017.

'Stop CSG - The Lock the Gate Alliance National Week of Action' by Kate Ausburn (2012). Sourced via Flickr Commons.

The place I live is Awabakal and Worimi country, that the Awabakal people called Muloobinba, and which my people call Newcastle, named after another coal city in the United Kingdom. The place I live is on the banks of the river that the Awabakal people call Coquon, and my people call the Hunter River.

250 million years ago the Hunter Valley was covered with permian forests and conifer forests, of a tree called glossopteris, and many hundreds of millions of years ago this sea-level rise blocked up the opening of the river into the ocean, and virtually the whole thing became swampland. Eventually, all of those forests became buried, and over the last 200 to 300 million years, they have become fossilised, and now they are coal.

In the Hunter Valley, we mine around 200 million tons of that coal every year from 20 or 30 odd open cut coal mines that are very large and have caused a great deal of disruption of place in the Valley. Most of that 200 million tonnes glide past my window, as it is mostly exported to Asia, and burned for electricity. We export large volumes of former forests to other countries, and Australia’s biggest single contribution to climate change is the coal export industry that is primarily concentrated in my hometown and my region.

The place where I live and where I grew up is a fulcrum for a turning world. There is a lot of past there, and there has been a lot of dramatic environmental change, and that change has been cataclysmic for the Awabakal people who lived there before my people invaded.

For the last 15 years or so, I, along with many others, have been a part of efforts that try to prevent the Newcastle coal export and the coal industry from getting larger. Our efforts have abysmally failed. Coal and coal export industries have roughly doubled in the last ten years, and this has made me reflect on the role of people in trying to protect the environment and create positive and just social change.

Now I work for Lock the Gate, which is a grassroots network with several tens of thousands of people and hundreds of community groups around the country that brings together different people from extraordinarily different perspectives and experiences which are united by the goal of protecting land, water and people from the impacts of unconventional gas and coal mining.

Lock the Gate is all about people who care a lot about place, and in many ways, Lock the Gate is unsophisticated and deeply unfashionable for that reason. We live in a globalised world where quite a lot of people in society, and in my community, have no fidelity to place. When I was growing up in Newcastle, all my peers wanted to do was get out of there and go and see something else. It is deeply unfashionable and seen as quite parochial to commit to place. Nevertheless, Look the Gate is a network that is unafraid to be unsophisticated. Unafraid to express itself soulfully about how people feel about the land where they live. Lock the Gate brings people together from across the spectrum who in Australia’s recent history has been at loggerheads with each other and have had deeply antagonistic, even violent relationships.

Traditional owners have a strong sense of place, farmers have a strong sense of place, and conservationists have a strong sense of place. All of those different types of people come at the idea of ‘place’ from different perspectives. Lock the Gate is a network that transforms all of those people. It has changed me, to be working for it, and to come across people who also love this continent and my region, but from a different perspective.

My place has changed a great deal and in the last 10 or 15 years. The coal mining industry, which has been there for a long time, has breached the boundaries of what many people in the region feel is reasonable. The mines are much, much bigger than they used to be. In many instances, mines now occupy about 16 percent of the floor of the valley. They are enormous. They create a great deal of air pollution, and they have disrupted the river by digging up creeks and sending them in other directions.

I think a lot about the future of my place because the sea level is rising and a lot of the city infrastructure that exports coal is likely to be underwater in a hundred years’ time. It makes me think about the changes that have already gone past in the city where I live and the region where I live. These changes are what have led people who live there now, and who feel greatly connected to it, to feel disrupted in their sense of place.

This sense of disruption of place is what academic Glenn Albrecht, who also comes from Newcastle, has coined solastalgia. The term describes the feeling that you get when you miss your home even though you are still there because the landscape has changed so fundamentally. I live in a place called Stockton now on the north banks of the Hunter River, and Stockton is experiencing the terrible problem with coastal erosion caused by climate change and partly caused by engineering. The beach is being eaten away, and every time there is a big storm, a few more metres fall into the sea. At a public meeting held in November 2017, to talk about what to do about coastal erosion, an old man said: “I feel so sad that the beach is gone, it’s like losing a friend.” I also think that if the sea-level rises and the beach that I played at when I was a kid in were swallowed up by the ocean, I would probably feel the same way.

What we try and do at Lock the Gate, is to speak to people’s feelings about their place and make it okay to be parochial. Make it okay not to be global and sophisticated. Make it okay to say I love this place and it is worth fighting for. There is a balance to be struck because of everything changes. Climate change is not the only change that has been brought to the region where I live, and change occurs over centuries and millennia even without human interference, but we are accelerating it.  We at Lock the Gate are trying to come to terms with the change that has already occurred and will continue to occur. But, at the same time, we are re-centring people in feeling connected to the place where they live and connected with other people who feel the same way, with whom they had previously not thought they had anything in common at all.

George Woods is an activist and environmentalist from Muloobinba, Newcastle, in Awabakal country. She has been an environmental and climate advocate and activist for over fifteen years and has worked variously in paid unpaid roles ranging from direct action confrontation and community outreach with the grassroots collective Rising Tide to lobbying Ministers and coordinating Australian advocacy at the international climate negotiations for Climate Action Network. She is currently NSW Coordinator for Lock the Gate Alliance.

Website: http://www.lockthegate.org.au/