Coasters Turn Out In Droves: It’s precisely the widening gulf between those with actual experience of things like guns, chainsaws and drilling machines, and those who regulate their use, that accounts for the angry crowd at Greymouth’s Messenger Park on Sunday, 17 November 2019. In the rarefied atmosphere where decisions to shut down whole industries are made, hands-on experience is not only rare – it’s despised. What do workers know about anything?
THE NUMBERS WERE IMPRESSIVE. Indeed, it looked as is half the Coast had turned out to give this government a piece of its mind.
Many of those present wore their work-clothes. Lots of high-viz vests and brightly-coloured safety helmets – those universal signifiers of blue-collar labour – were on display. Hardly surprising. The West Coast has long celebrated its status as the birthplace of the New Zealand labour movement. Trade union historian, Bert Roth, dubbed its fiery founding fathers – Pat Hickey, Paddy Webb and Bob Semple – “Two-Gun Men from the West Coast”. Labour’s current MP, Damian O’Connor, has been called many things in his time, but a “Two-Gun Man” isn’t one of them!
About the only thing the modern Labour Party has to do with the region’s two-gun men is its grim determination to turn them all into One-Gun, or No-Gun, West Coasters.
It’s what makes law-abiding gun-owners so damned mad. Growing up with firearms invariably instils a strong ethic of care and responsibility in their users. Seeing up-close what a high-powered rifle can do to a deer or a pig makes sure of that. If the bureaucrats sipping coffee on Lambton Quay, most of whom have never fired a gun in their lives, understood that ethic, then they might be a little less fearful – and a lot less judgemental.
It’s precisely this widening gulf between those with actual experience of things like guns, chainsaws and drilling machines, and those who regulate their use, that accounts for the angry crowd at Greymouth’s Messenger Park. In the rarefied atmosphere where decisions to shut down whole industries are made, hands-on experience is not only rare – it’s despised. What do workers know about anything?
That’s the question isn’t it? What do workers know? The answer, of course, is “more than they think”.
For a start, they know that human-beings have been changing nature for millions of years. From the moment some brave ancestor pulled a burning branch from the edge of a blazing forest, our species ceased to be just another mammal. From chipping flint to smelting steel, humanity’s relentless drive to innovate and alter has granted it, in the solemn language of Genesis: “dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”
You don’t truly understand this truth until, using your own strength and skill, and the strength and skill of your workmates, you collectively transform your world. And that sort of truth: the knowledge you gain down in a mine or felling a tree: you won’t find in a book anywhere.
Workers know that all those people in the cities going on and on about “keeping the coal in the ground” don’t understand that without the high-quality coking-coal from places like the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand, the world’s steel mills couldn’t function. Without steel there is no modern world. Without coking-coal we’re back in the Iron Age – cutting down whole forests to make the charcoal crucial to the smelting of iron and most other metals.
Workers know what civilisation is made of because they extract it every day.
Farmers are the same. They know what it takes to coax crops out of the ground. How much they are beholden to forces no human-being can ever truly tame or control. They also know what city dwellers pampering their pets in suburban bungalows do not. That the relationship between human-beings and animals has always been one of ruthless exploitation. As inescapable as it is irreducible: we consume them.
It’s a hard world – as hard as the callouses on the hands of those who work it. And there is precious little which the world is able to surrender to us without long and bitter struggle.
In the process of exploiting its plants, animals and minerals is humankind damaging this world? Are we ruining the atmosphere by wrenching from its bowels the fossil fuels that make our lives so much easier?
The answer from the protesters of Messenger Park is “Yes.”, and “Yes.” And, unless we want to return to the day before that brave ancestor picked up that burning branch, they’re telling us to “get over it”. Nothing comes from nothing.
Nobody lives closer to Mother Nature than the people of the Coast.
It’s hard work.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 22 November 2019.