About eight years ago, Glenn Albrecht began receiving frantic calls from residents of the Upper Hunter Valley, a 6,000-square-mile region in southeastern Australia. For generations the Upper Hunter was known as the “Tuscany of the South” — an oasis of alfalfa fields, dairy farms and lush English-style shires on a notoriously hot, parched continent. “The calls were like desperate pleas,” Albrecht, a philosopher and professor of sustainability at Murdoch University in Perth, recalled in June. “They said: ‘Can you help us? We’ve tried everyone else. Is there anything you can do about this?’
Residents were distraught over the spread of coal mining in the Upper Hunter. Coal was discovered in eastern Australia more than 200 years ago, but only in the last two decades did the industry begin its exponential rise. Today, more than 100 million tons of black coal are extracted from the valley each year, primarily by open-pit mining, which uses chemical explosives to blast away soil, sediment and rock. The blasts occur several times a day, sending plumes of gray dust over ridges to settle thickly onto roofs, crops and the hides of livestock. Klieg lights provide a constant illumination. Trucks, draglines and idling coal trains emit a constant low-frequency rumble. Rivers and streams have been polluted.
Albrecht, a dark, ebullient man with a crooked aquiline nose, was known locally for his activism. He participated in blockades of ships entering Newcastle (near the Upper Hunter), the largest coal-exporting port in the world, and published opinion articles excoriating the Australian fossil-fuel industries. But Albrecht didn’t see what he could offer besides a sympathetic ear and some tactical advice. Then, in late 2002, he decided to see the transformation of the Upper Hunter firsthand.