Balanced principles key to energy solutions for Indigenous people

Initiating community projects for economic and social benefit panel
Initiating community projects for economic and social benefit panel

All-Energy Conference: Tracey Cooper of the Valley Centre brought a pause moment in the All-Energy Conference, bringing to the fore some views on energy from Indigenous people in Australia and other First Nations people she’s worked with.

Cooper was speaking at a session on community energy chaired by Jennifer Lauber Patterson, managing director of Frontier Impact Group, and including Luke Whiteside of the Warburton Hydro Project and April Crawford-Smith of Pingala, written about in The Fifth Estate on a number of occasions.

Some, she said, face massive power bills generally because of inadequate housing – bills that can reach $2000 for some households, meaning there is little money for food, or forcing residents to switch off airconditioning even when the temperatures reach about 50°C and higher. Meaning the issue becomes one of human rights, because it’s hard to survive those temperatures.

What had gone wrong in so much of our modern Western world, she said, was our disconnection with nature and the natural world, something that had come about in just four or five decades.

Key to many solutions was a closer connection to nature – and the future. Most First Nations people think not just of the next generation but of the next seven generations when they make decisions. They put five principles equal first in decision making – creator, community, family, kids and mother earth, she said.

“When these five things are ticked everything falls into place.”

It’s a holistic approach, “not bottom up or top down”.

As Indigenous communities took charge of providing their own power solutions, Cooper said, it gave rise to creative solutions and empowerment on other problem issues, such as water or food cultivation. So much of this rested on this inclusive approach to solutions, she said.

But the idea of those seven generations looking to our decisions were a powerful touchstone when she mentioned that water from Cape York Peninsula takes 1000 years to reach the centre of Australia through underground aquifers, and when she shared news that uranium had leached into the water at Kalgoorlie, along with nitrates, which harm kidney function.

It’s a “lightbulb switch” moment, Cooper said. “But believe me, it’s everywhere.”

On Monday ABC’s Four Corners program also flagged that at Katherine in the Northern Territory, dangerous chemicals used in firefighting foam had contaminated bore water, used for everything including drinking, thanks to Defence practices there, and in many other places by other users.

“First Nations [people] have been saying we have to think sustainably, we have to think seven generations ahead,” Cooper said.

And there’s the nub of our problem on climate, ecology and contamination.

But there was good news too. Later that afternoon, as we chatted about the devastating idea of contaminated ground water, one of the delegates said biochar was showing promising signs it could remove contamination, even heavy metals.

Maybe that’s exactly what conferences are all about – a mixing and matching of minds with a similar purpose, so that sooner or later a roadmap emerges – virtual, maybe hazy at first, but in the case of climate and cleaning up our planet, eventually gaining stronger and stronger definition.

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