Indigenous Faith and Energy Activism
Monday, 10 April 2017
| Chris Marshall
The Melbourne Town Hall was the scene of the Community Energy Congress on 27-28 February. Convened by the Coalition for Community Energy (C4CE), the Congress brought together over 600 delegates to hear about the growing impetus for the development of community energy projects across Australia, whereby local communities come together to build sustainable energy and reduce dependence on fossil fuels.
The two days of the Congress were characterised by a sort of evangelical fervour, with regular expressions of excitement from the platform and even the odd exhortation to applaud ourselves for being on the right side of history. Despite these confections, the key underlying message from the two days – that planet Earth has no choice but to transition entirely to renewable energy and that the old fossil fuel technologies must be done away with as soon as practicable – is irrefutable, and the 600 delegates were well-justified in their confidence that they are in the vanguard of a movement that will eventually not only involve the whole world, but that may well save it.
We heard Ross Garnaut speak of the need to aim for zero net carbon emissions by the middle of the century, of the great diversity of opportunities now available in renewable technologies and of the urgent need to put a price on carbon. We heard Candace Vahlsing, Senior Policy Advisor for Energy and Climate Change at the White House Domestic Policy Council, talk about President Obama’s efforts to expand solar power access to low income families and of the transition by churches across the US to community solar. We heard from many other fine speakers.
A feature of the Congress was that the organisers had invested great effort in bringing the Indigenous voice into the forum. There were several Aboriginal leaders from across the country, as well as two representatives of Canadian first nations groups – and they were given a prominent place on the program for the two days, both in the plenary sessions and in the breakouts.
One plenary was devoted to simply hearing the stories of the Indigenous Australian delegates, who came variously from the WA Goldfields, the Kimberleys, Perth, the Gulf region of the Northern Territory, far north Queensland and western New South Wales. With regard to the move to renewable energy, a key theme was that the embrace of renewables is for Aboriginal people a step towards self-determination – a rejection of dependence on the mainstream world, a reduction of the amount of money that goes out of the community in power bills and an increase in social capital and community resilience.
And there was another key theme. Two of the Aboriginal delegates challenged the audience to consider the issues from a Christian perspective – and their challenge was bold and overt. Uncle Ike Gordon, a leader of the Nyemba nation from Brewarrina, after speaking movingly of the enormous difficulties facing his people, looked out at the 600 eager faces and asked them, if they had any faith at all, to pray for his people in their efforts to find their way forward. Geoffrey Stokes, a Wongatha man from the WA Goldfields, challenged the audience to answer the question: ‘To whom did God give ownership of the Australian land mass?’ and, when the question was met with an awkward embarrassment, he asked it again and then proclaimed strongly that ‘God gave this nation to the Aboriginal people!’
And so the first peoples of this country are speaking prophetically to the nation, and those who were for so long dismissed as irrelevant and rendered invisible are now able to bring a challenge to faith at the very time that the mainstream churches have lost much of their authority.
If this was a conference about renewables, then these faithful Christian disciples had in mind a range of possible renewals – of the land and its resources, of human societies and relationships, and of the spirit.
Chris Marshall has worked with Aboriginal people and their organisations for many years and is currently working in a corporate development role with the Taungurung Clans Aboriginal Corporation, a Koori First Nation entity.