Daily Archives: 31 March 2009

Guy Pearse re-visions the quarry

This blog post is retrieved from my earlier blog, Family Life, first posted 31 March 2009. Judith Brett’s Quarterly Essay Nº 78 is in part an update of Guy Pearse’s Nº 33.

Guy Pearse, Quarry Vision: Coal, climate change and the end of the resources boom (Quarterly Essay Nº 33, 2009)


This essay made me think of Marshal McLuhan’s famous piece about Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘Descent into the Maelstrom’. In the Poe story, when a mariner’s boat is wrecked in a giant whirlpool, he manages to survive because he stops to observe the way the vortex works. The water spirals slowly swallow all objects, but some of them return to the surface. The mariner clings to one of these recurring objects and survives. McLuhan offers this as a model for how to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing and potentially destructive environment. In Quarry Vision, Guy Pearce doesn’t single out any obvious floaters, but he certainly takes a clear-eyed look into a maelstrom and, to muddle my metaphor beyond salvage, cuts through a world of spin to argue that clinging to coal is not going to save anyone.

I approached the essay expecting that my virtue in reading such a worthy piece would have to be its own sole reward – but in fact it’s a completely engaging essay, full of pleasures, if it’s possible to speak of something as frivolous as pleasure in such a dire context. The essay argues that we have been lied to, or at least deliberately misled, assiduously and at great expense, by representatives of the big carbon emitters and particularly the coal-miners and exporters.

Not one credible piece of economic research suggests that making deep cuts in emissions by 2050 would cause even a temporary recession, let alone ‘crash’ the economy, or ‘cut GDP’, or send energy prices spiralling, or cause whole industries to shut down or flee our shores. Every serious study of the costs finds that deep cuts would delay the trebling of the economy and doubling of real wages by a few years at most later this century. The same analysis finds that acting sooner generates about a quarter of a million jobs more than would delaying, and many of the steps that reduce our exposure to carbon prices save rather than cost money.

However, you’d know none of this from the apocalyptic language that dominates the political debate.

‘Policy,’ he says, and presents evidence, ‘is contaminated by patronage at every turn.’ The Garnaut Report was full of potential loopholes, carve-outs and escape clauses. The Green paper didn’t stop them up and the White Paper, which is what we’re up to now, continued in the same vein:

It was a surrender to the same forces in whose interest John Howard had governed, but with one important difference. The question of whether emission cuts would occur was now gone, because, unlike Howard, Rudd was agreeing to take on obligations commensurate with a 60 per cent reduction by mid-century. The policy agenda had shifted markedly. How deeply and quickly Australia should cut emissions was still contentious, but quantity and timing were no longer the central issues. The big questions now were to do with the quality and morality of Australia’s emission cuts: where the emissions were cut, who made the cuts, how the cost of the cuts was apportioned, and whether the answers to these questions would be made with the short- or long-term interest of the nation in mind.

The answers that Pearse comes up with are dispiriting. He argues in the end for the ‘unthinkable’ proposition that Australia should phase out coal exports over the next couple of decades. If we were to do that, we would be playing an authentic leading role in the ‘Climate Change War’, on the side of humanity, rather than being a significant player on the other side as we now are and will continue to be under current policies.

It’s hard to believe that an essay that cuts through the bull and obfuscation as clearly as this will not have a powerful effect on the course of events. I’ve written to my local member and to the Prime Minister. I think we can expect a huge increase in the vote for the Greens at the next Federal election.

A footnote: Quarterly Essays are edited by Chris Feik, who does a brilliant job. Like many if not most good editors he renders himself almost invisible. I consider him (I’ve just gone Internet hunting and seen that he’s male, and was or still is ‘a young academic’) one of the unsung heroes of our time.

Posted: Tue – March 31, 2009 at 04:28 PM