Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Weird Scenes Outside the Coal Mine

By Simon Grose

The MH17 disaster and the carbon price debate tossed up some surreal juxtapositions.

Ukrainian coal miners were among the first responders to the crash site of Flight MH17. Like slaves redeemed from a netherworld, in coal-dusty charcoal grey clothes they sullenly stalked through sun-drenched grainfields and rows of towering sunflowers.

Their usual work takes them as deep as 1.2 km underground to follow coal seams in grimy gloom, wary of death on every shift. Suddenly they had a day or two in the fresh air to search for people who death had claimed about 10 km above in the bright summer sky.

The victims were people from a different country. Where democracy is a default condition to grumble about, not an abstract right to be fought for. Where graft and corruption are suppressed and corralled, not endemic throughout society. Where their homes are not in a war zone.

They had been flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. A Ukrainian coal miner might afford a summer holiday on the Black Sea coast, but a journey to the rich cities of western Europe or the vibrant metropolises of Asia would be beyond his aspirations. Just keeping his job, getting paid and staying alive for more than 60 years is enough.

Their trade is an ancient one. The earliest record is from around 3500 BC in China, where people harvested coal from surface outcrops. Year by year, generation by generation, smart adaptive humans have got better at digging deeper, burning more and better.

A far more ancient trade is weaponry, driven by the same innovative instinct. For more than 100 millenia Homo sapiens has been making weapons to kill animals and themselves, from clubs and spears to aircraft carriers and atom bombs.

Close to the top of that ladder, the Russians created a machine the size of a small van that can fire an explosive warhead at around three times the speed of sound to seek out an aircraft’s engines as it flies 10 km or higher across the sky and blast it into a zillion bits.

Eastern Ukrainian coal miners may sympathise with the separatists. But now they are back underground, hacking into fossilised carbon and bringing it up to be burnt. At least they had their day in the sun.

Speaking of coal miners, last time in this column I urged the science lobby to engage with Clive Palmer to swing his vote their way. Not long after we saw Palmer standing beside Al Gore, announcing that his Senators would vote against a carbon price and for an emissions trading scheme that would lie dormant until other major economies joined in. Gore actually endorsed this stuff after his Australian connections (including former Australian Conservation Foundation president Don Henry and ex-Greens adviser Ben Oquist) advised him that this was a worthy outcome.

Politics is the art of the possible. No hide, no Christmas box.

Simon Grose is a Director of Science Media (