Oligarchs, Ecocide, and Reclaiming True Politics
Early this year, and after something like a decade of shambolic, dogged staggering forward, the first train-loads of coal left the infamous Adani mine in central Queensland. It was emblematic of the fossil fuel industry as a whole: a relentless pursuit of profit in the face of the overwhelming reality that it is rapidly destroying the habitability of our planet.
The UN has the gall, or naivety, to suggest that coal has at last been "consigned to history". But 2021 witnessed the largest ever consumption of coal for electricity, and, going off predictions by the International Energy Agency's, it’s yet to peak.
Some have had the optimism—to put it politely—to think that things are looking up under the new Labor government. This was, after all, the 'climate election', the one to usher in the desperately needed transition. This transition, however, seems to be one from cataclysmic ecocide, to merely catastrophic ecocide. I suppose it is an improvement, but forgive me if I seem unimpressed.
The reality is that the Labor government has us on exactly the same planetary trajectory as the last lot; they’re just jogging there, in place of Morrison’s flat-out sprint. They seem entirely uninterested in increasing their meagre 2030 commitments, which likewise seem remotely reasonable only in relation to the sheer murderousness of the Lib-Nats. Make no mistake, they are not. The new government seems similarly uninterested in any meaningful action to end fossil fuel use. Shortly before the election, Albanese said Labor would continue to support coal mines which "stack up environmentally", an impressively insoluble phrase, and are set to allow for the existing 114 new coal and gas projects planned.
Perhaps Queensland Senator Matt Canavan wasn't wrong when he described COP26 as giving the "green light" for coal. After all, prices have reached an unprecedented high, stocks are up, and, slowly, we all cook to death.
"Don't be afraid, don't be scared... "
Since the 1960s, the Australian political incumbency has had an intimate relationship with the mineral industry, dutifully serving the interests of these corporations. This relationship has become only further entrenched over the years, with the current Australian duopoly showing little interest in stopping them.
It shouldn't be surprising that they play along. After all, the mining industry provides enormous financial contributions to both Labor and the Liberal-Nationals. A 2018 report by the Grattan Institute showed the industry contributed 22% of all corporate political donations between 2015 and 2017, the largest of any sector. Another, by the Australia Institute, found that in the preceding five years, more than 2 million was opaquely donated to the federal Liberal Party and Queensland state Liberal National party by mining companies seeking approval for contentious projects in the state. Every one of these projects subsequently received major state support, including favourable changes of environmental legislation.
Labor of course receives contributions from corporations and bodies like Santos, Chevron, and the Minerals Council of Australia. But their biggest patron from the fossil fuel industry in recent years has been Woodside, whose titanic and ecocidal Scarborough gas project has earned the Labor seal of approval.
And financial contributions are just the beginning. Much, for instance, has been made of the revolving door between politics and big business. As investigative journalist Michael West reports, more than half of Australian politicians subsequently move into high roles in major industry and lobbying after retiring from politics, and the fossil fuel industry is a particularly egregious example. Politicians therefore have a major incentive to court corporate favour.
Another recent report from the Australian Democracy Network points to this alliance between politicians and the fossil fuel industry as a major example of state capture in Australia. State capture, a term not too long ago reserved for oligarchic corruption in post-Soviet state re-construction, is increasingly being used in the Australian context, recognising the deeply undemocratic influence of capital in the political sphere. It points to a dense web of cronyism, clientelism, and regulatory capture—where the political entity which is supposed to regulate commercial interests ends up serving them.
This has created an environment in which, as Guy Pearse has written, the self-identified 'Greenhouse Mafia'—a powerful cohort of fossil fuel industry lobbyists—has “dominated almost every greenhouse-related consultative committee established by the federal government and its agencies”.
In the case of Adani's Carmichael project—and beyond the manipulation required to even get the green-light in the first place—the Queensland State Government and Federal Government gave immense support to the project. This includes $4.4 billion dollars in subsidies, hundreds of millions in diesel fuel subsidies annually, and free access to the immense quantities of water necessary for washing coal—not to mention extinguishing the native title rights of the Wangan and Jagalingou Traditional Owners to land on which the project sits.
The entire industry is kept afloat by subsidies, inertia, and a grim pursuit of profit at any cost. It uses the kind of arithmetic that can only make sense to the already ultra-wealthy: that anything, anything, will be done if it can accrue even a slight profit.. Everything else—cooking the planet and ending life as we know it—is an externality.
Accumulation by combustion
New coal projects in this nation are not 'economical'—if that word can still be said to mean anything at all. It is telling that in recent years financial institutions are moving so rapidly to halt investments in such projects; speculating in soon-to-be stranded assets is a bad move, even by capitalist standards. But with enough cronyism, fiscal sensibility is no prerequisite to making money, for a small few at least. A project need not stand on its own; it can simply be an apparatus of wealth extraction.
The mechanism that ties together this program might, to use David Harvey’s term, be described as accumulation by dispossession. That is, a political-economic program that systematically shifts wealth from the poor to the rich—trickle-up economics, you might say. An obvious example in this case is subsidization, the awarding of public wealth to private interests. The IMF reports $11 million USD is given to fossil fuels companies globally every minute in subsidies.
The Adani mine is no exception to this. The project was widely analysed to be insoluble in any market sense, but through the absurd support provided by the State and Federal Governments, the project has been made artificially ‘economical’. In this, they have continued a long tradition of neoliberal governance: privatize the profits, socialize the costs.
While we're at it, the same is true on the other end, in India. There, Gautam Adani receives continual political privileges from his close personal relationship with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, pocketing vast swathes of cash—Adani made $49 billion in 2021 alone—to become Asia's richest man. Meanwhile communities face profound health effects, Adivasi people are forcibly displaced from land for coal projects, and the generated energy is sold on—to the relatively small middle class who have access to the energy grid—for profit. In this way, India is emblematic of neoliberal 'development' as a whole: after decades of economic liberalization, the 'national' GDP has grown meteorically, and the poor have stayed poor.
In both India and Australia, the driving force for this project is capital accumulation—the extraction of wealth from the absolutely vast majority of this planet's population—enabled by the rot of democracy by corporate interests. This isn't simply a matter of quid pro quo. Mundane corruption is of course nothing new, but the logic of contemporary fossil fuel-political regimes exists so far beyond the pale it is difficult to express with words. It is the logic of greed pushed to the absolute, unimaginable extreme.
This, as it turns out, is the problem with having senseless profit as the fundamental organizing force of your economy; the thing about having an economy which allocates power inversely to one’s capacity for empathy.
Resisting ecocide, resisting oligarchy
The picture is grim, no doubt. When nearly the entire political incumbency falls dutifully in line behind some of the clearest agents of planetary destruction, what does a fucking vote do? If ever we had genuine democracy in the Global North, cronyism has killed it.
Many of us want to believe that the crises of ecological destruction are a managerial one, that we can vote out one team and vote in another. But as long as these alliances between governments and corporations exist, this is a fantasy. The near-complete capture of the major parties by the fossil fuel regime makes the promise of electoral politics merely an illusion. Where then, is democracy?
Not too long ago, there were a dozen coal mines proposed for the Galilee Basin. Only Adani's has made it through; the others shelved or abandoned. And Adani's mine has weathered immense attrition in making it to reality. Its capacity was hugely reduced and it has emerged years behind schedule.
What happened? People organized and acted. They locked themselves to machinery, blocked roads and rail lines. They physically slowed down construction, stood in front of trucks, forced investors and financial institutions to avoid the project, occupied ports—whatever they could do to halt its progress. All across the continent, and internationally, people mobilised against the project in recognition of their agency to decide the future.
This is nothing new. The last four decades on this continent show a storied history of environmental direct action. The Franklin dam, Bentley, Broken Hill, James Price Point, Jabiluka—the list goes on. The present owes so much to those who acted to resist destruction.
Or, think back to late last year when activists from Blockade Australia majorly disrupted the Port of Newcastle, the world's largest coal port, for eleven days. Of course, they were quickly labelled extremists by such luminaries as Barnaby Joyce. But amongst the reality of fossil-fueled ecocide, the hegemonic rhetoric that this kind of action is 'extreme' is now an impossible notion to entertain. There is simply no parallel for the extremeness of the fossil fuel corporations. Perpetrating ecocide is one of the most singularly violent acts imaginable, and it is happening at an unimaginable scale.
But this is bigger than coal, bigger than any one industry or single-issue campaign. Fossil fuels are only one tentacle in the beast of corporate control. If not destroyed, the mechanisms of cronyism that have kept coal alive on this continent will continue not just in the fossil fuel sector, but wherever it's profitable to do so. Weapons manufacturers will create war, those with the most wealth will shape policy to acquire more wealth, and those who profit off destroying the biosphere will keep destroying the biosphere.
And still we are expected to believe that every three years, we will have the opportunity to 'vote the bastards out'. But it's bastards all the way down. Our political-economic structures simply do not allow for meaningful change. That's not to say that there aren't degrees of bastardy, or that there aren't situations where at least somewhat meaningful change can’t occur through changes in state governance. But it will not stop ecocide. The reality is, there is no conceivable federal or state election result which will stop extractive industries cooking the planet. The system will not—cannot—move towards saving the world when there is still money to be made in destroying it.
Electoral politics on this continent is about the furthest thing there is from genuine democracy, short of just shooting peaceful protestors on the street. This is not the news many people want to hear. But it is a crucial wake up call, for all of us to become active political actors, to reclaim our ability to have a say in our future, and to destroy the ability of elites to act without the consent of the people they harm.
My point is not that physically blockading infrastructure is the only meaningful resistance either. What is meaningful is acting on the ground, whatever that might be, to construct the world we want to live in. Unbound by the performativity of electoral politics, we can embrace a politics where it is our actions that create our future. Embracing our political agency means acting directly to affect the problems we observe. If we see need in our community, we can provide for it. If we see injustice, we can correct it. If we see another planet-cooking mine being built, we can stop it. We simply have to.
Because, when the dominant structures of power move so decisively towards unimaginable destruction and horror, the imperative becomes to resist the forces of political pacification which plague us, sewing despair and fatalism. The antidote to despair is, and always has been, action. Because, as Alok Sharma pronounced in concluding COP26, "history has been made here in Glasgow.” Indeed it was, but not the one we wanted. While we continue to allow elite interests to make it, it will never be. We must decide it is no longer theirs to make.
Morgan Heenan is a writer, musician and activist. His work centres on creating social-ecological wellbeing and the cultural and political change needed to get there.
Editorial illustration by Phillipa Clarke (@pictures_by_pip)