Opinion

MSJ Series: Just Coal Transitions In The More-Than-Human World

Following on from the past fortnight’s highly successful Multi-Species Justice Symposia series, political economist Beck Pearse discusses economic justice and the future of coal in Australia.

Image by Hasin Hayder, via Unsplash

The future of coal is in doubt. Declining coal production and major challenges to coal mine approvals in Australia are now established trends. Renewable energy is set to become over half of the nation’s domestic electricity production by 2030.

This is good news for human and non-human lives on the line as climate crisis develops. At the same time, thinking about coal industry transition requires deeper questioning, about what kinds of economies and relationships with the non-human world are possible beyond fossil fuelled capitalism.

Debating the future beyond coal

There are many well-researched proposals for just transitions away from coal and other fossil fuels, addressing questions like – What scale of fossil fuel asset write-offs in Australia would be fair and necessary to ensure we don’t break the global carbon budget? Could a liberal internationalist program of ‘cooperative decarbonisation’ make an Australia moratorium on new fossil fuels feasible? How are coal workers and regional economies impacted by industry transition already in play? What kind of industrial policies can best secure decent green jobs?

These are all important questions to tackle. However, any one discrete policy proposal to address Australia’s coal question will not alone tackle the structural malaise of inequality in contemporary capitalist societies. Economic justice requires a broader set of reforms.

Recent discussion about a Green New Deal (GND) in the US shows a way forward. A GND could be an ambitious program for economic justice, linking decarbonisation to measures to tackle inequality, precarity and wage stagnation. It calls for major public investment in renewable energy, sustainable agriculture, and water supplies, and at its centre – new rights to employment, housing, and public transport.

To secure a globalised GND that genuinely tackles the coal question, it will be crucial to push against the techno-speak of ‘zero-net emissions’ in the existing framing of the climate goal. The later opens up scope for governments to displace the abatement task away from fossil fuel production e.g. with carbon offsets or geoengineering. These mechanisms are an evasion of the major questions concerning fossil fuels. Experimental engineering of the carbon cycle may further threaten life on the planet. Campaigns for a GND and other progressive economic reforms will need to resist technological fixes, and prosecute a popular social justice argument for keeping fossil fuels in the ground. Crucially, there is further reckoning to do when it comes to envisioning economies beyond coal.

Rethinking justice and inequalities in the age of climate crisis

Given the integral role fossil capital accumulation has played in fundamentally altering the biosphere and in turn, threatening human and non-human life, we need to carve out a vision for multi-species economic justice.

Our challenge involves what Dipesh Chakarbarty describes as thinking in two registers. That is, trying to get a grip on humanity’s geological agency (which demolishes the human-nature divide) while also attending to enduring questions of social justice (uneven development, rising income and wealth inequalities, gender and racial discrimination, and more).

New lines of ecological thought in marxist, feminist, and decolonial political economics are crucial to the project of rethinking economic justice in the more-than-human world. These traditions provide the tools we need to historicise and politicise how value is extracted from human and non-human natures, helping us to identify who benefits and at what cost.

The historical and contemporary operations of settler capitalism are at the heart of our ecological crisis in Australia. Since colonial forces declared terra nullius, governments and capital have regarded land and non-human life as unlimited resources. Australia’s economic development has proceeded via the domination of non-human others and violent denial of indigenous sovereignty.

Many hotly contested mine proposals show how the coal commodity continues this brutal environmental change.

Coal capital and the politics of devaluation

Coal capital has a number of orientations to human and non-human life. Some bodies and communities are deemed productive and assigned monetary value; others are constituted as waste, as useful but unpriced, or as a threat. Expanded coal capital accumulation proceeds through the systemic devaluation of human and non-human life deemed ‘outside’, or in excess of, officially valued coal. However, there are problems. The scale and pace of coal development has been stemmed in recent times.

Consider the proposed Watermark coalmine proposed for the northwest NSW. Gomeroi people on the Liverpool Plains have objected to Shenhua’s proposed mine, which entail plans to cut-out and relocate an entire rock face with grinding grooves and other artefacts from sacred sites during the thirty-year life of the proposed mine. Federal review of the government’s ‘management’ of indigenous heritage has been stalled for over a year, with no resolution in sight. Gomeroi, landholders and environmentalists have all argued the many drawn our mine review procedures fail to meaningfully protect land, water, and non-human life.

Protections for endangered species are also weak and contested. For instance, the Queensland government’s recent environmental approval for the Adani mine was given despite its impacts on the black-throated finch. Government decisions like this do the political work of devaluing life rendered ‘outside’ coal’s value proposition.

‘Threatened species’ are subjects to be managed to make way for coal. Environmental law and regulation has proven incredibly weak means to avoid loss of life, and the case for a new generation of environmental laws is increasingly urgent.

As it stands, our environmental regulations calibrates human/non-human relations on profoundly unequal terms. For instance, biodiversity ‘offsets’ for coalmine approvals are common. It usually means directing coal companies to purchase land with similar flora and fauna in order to compensate for destruction at the mine site. The goal is ‘no net loss.’ But the devil in the detailreveals offsets fail to arrest aggregate loss.

Biodiversity offsetting parcels up ‘units’ of non-human life in abstraction from place. This ignores the material specificity of non-human natures and renders conservation as a matter of trade-offs or exchange in biodiversity credits. Questions like how much coal development is too much?rarely get asked in mine environmental approval processes.

Thankfully, there is a little good news on this front. Earlier this year, the court finding that a coalmine proposed near the NSW town of Gloucester was in the ‘wrong place at the wrong time’ points to another way to answer the coal question. Here, the importance of place, as well as concerns about the global carbon budget came together in a judge’s assessment that the mine should be refused.

A multi-species economic justice outlook on Australia’s coal question must take this kind of integrative thinking further. Only by thinking broadly and deeply will we have a chance at coming up with adequate answers to the coal question and climate crisis.


Rebecca Pearse works in the Department of Political Economy, and is a Key Researcher at Sydney Environment Institute. She is a lecturer for courses on the political economy of gender, labour, migration, environmental management, and inequality. Beck’s current research investigates socio-economic changes associated with new coal and renewable energy industry developments in rural NSW.


From June 12-20, The Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Sydney hosted a series of four symposia, Thinking and Enacting Justice In A Multispecies World. Featuring international academics and experts, these events explored the question of what justice means in a multispecies context.