“They told us we wouldn’t get here, there were those who said we would only get here over their dead bodies. All the world today knows that we are here and we are standing before the forces of power in Alabama saying ‘We ain’t gonna let nobody turn us around!’” – Martin Luther King Jr, Selma to Montgomery, March 1965.
I will never know the names of the people who marched from Selma to Montgomery with Dr King and chances are you won’t either. Nor are you likely to know the names of the people who walked with Gandhi on the Salt March, yet our history and imaginations are caught by the thought of hundreds of ordinary people going to (and walking for) extraordinary lengths to fight for justice. No matter what came, nothing would move these people, and nobody could turn them around.
These walks have often been taken and led by people on the margins, whether on the wrong side of segregation or an invasion, people who were willing to do whatever it took to achieve freedom.
This year a small city in rural South Australia has captured the attention and imagination of the climate movement. This place is called Port Augusta. Home to two dirty coal fired power stations facing closure, you wouldn’t be wrong in saying that the town’s future is uncertain. However, out of this uncertainty the Port Augusta community has found hope and started to organise and write its own future.
In July this year – faced with the closure of the coal plants – a community vote was held by a local group called Repower Port Augusta asking residents whether they wanted solar thermal or gas to replace the town’s coal stations. Overwhelmingly the community voted 4053 to 43 for clean air, more jobs and the chance to see Port Augusta lead the country by building Australia’s first solar thermal power plants.
Not only has the community chosen solar, but a broad alliance of unions, the local council, small business, environmental NGOs and health organisations has been formed in support of the community’s call.
Despite this near-unanimous support across civil society, the federal government has given no meaningful commitment to ensuring solar thermal is built in Port Augusta. Just this month Energy Minister Martin Ferguson backflipped on his commitment to close 2000 megawatts of Australia’s dirtiest coal fired power plants by 2020. These negotiations failed as the coal companies valued their power plants higher than what the government was offering. If this is the case the government needs to act now and take away the $5.5 billion of free compensation promised to these brown coal companies, and to start funding solutions like solar thermal in Port Augusta. The government promised us a clean energy future; this is their opportunity to do it yet they continue to fund more pollution.
In the face of this inaction the Port Augusta community is ready to move again, this time joined by hundreds of others from across the country. On Sunday September 16th the community will hold a rally to launch a one-hundred person, two-week walk from Port Augusta to Adelaide. This walk will take the community vote to the state’s capital, where thousands of people will stand alongside the community and call for the federal government to support solar thermal in Port Augusta. As my friend Gary, a worker at the power plant and one of the hundred walkers, says: “it doesn’t matter when you join, it matters that you join”. So if you are reading this in Adelaide, make sure you’re in Rundle Park at 1pm on the 30th, and if you’re elsewhere in Australia there are SOLARdarity walks taking place across the country – you can find yours here.
Whilst these walkers won’t face down Sheriff Jim Clark as they did in Selma, they are part of a movement facing one of the biggest crises in human history. With every step forward this movement will usher in the day when smoke is replaced with mirrors and the air of Port Augusta is clean once again. Until the government funds solutions not more pollution, “there ain’t nobody who will turn us around”.