Pressure and determination from ordinary people can, and will, help change political attitudes to things that damage the climate.
I’ve seen how actions from a few reduced an earlier poison threatening life through the environment, lead. The determination of ordinary citizens took on the might of the petrol companies and forced them to removed a major commercial lead additive from fuel that contaminated the air.
And I saw how the anger of one woman helped clean up a deadly mining town, run by one of the world’s biggest miners, when she realised how damaging their sloppy commercial practices were to the health of her children and others who lived near the mines.
I was born in Broken Hill.
This was a great mining town, source of massive wealth for the whole of Australia, producing mainly lead, zinc and copper, but also producing a death sentence or acute sickness for miners and their families, and anyone who lived around the rail line taking lead ore to the smelters further south.
I remember bitter tales and folklore told by my grandmother, of men dying in pain from working in the mines, of the poverty of the widows and of the pigheadedness of unions and management.
There was a myth that the mighty Barrier Unions looked after their own workers. I am not so sure that was as true as the unions would have us believe.
Take the “lead bonus”, for example. This was an extra payment to miners, introduced following determined social pressure, ostensibly to allow those who dug the metal ore out of the ground to share in the wealth their work created. There were good years in Broken Hill, when the price of lead sold overseas meant new clothes and holidays. The price of lead was especially high during the years of the war, when the metal was needed to make bullets and tanks.
But supposing, as my grandmother told me, lead breathed in from the ore and dirt and soil in the town killed miners and crippled kids. The widow often couldn’t work in that town - and until the lead bonus, miners didn’t make enough money to pay for decent insurance – that cost a few pennies a week but certainly wouldn’t make a widow rich. And at that time pensions were a dream only in the minds of very few politicians.
Sometimes the miners’ wives grew sick from lead poisoning, caused by washing lead soiled clothes of the miners. Sometimes the children grew sick, playing in soil that was thick with contamination from dust blown in from the mine. Sometimes familes grew sick eating vegetables grown in soil saturated with lead dust and cooked in water filtered through lead.
The real economics of the lead bonus was to allow the miner to accumulate up some meagre assets, so when dad came home from the mine one day wearing a shroud, the family had some possessions to pawn for food.
A massive memorial at the top of the mines lists names of those many men who died directly in the mines; The first name on the memorial is shown to have died from lead sickness.
My grandfather wasn’t around when I was born, thanks to the mines. My father wasn’t around when I was born - I sometimes think of the irony if the bullet that killed him in the war was made from lead from Broken Hill.
There weren’t health services in Broken Hill then as they have them now, monitoring and testing the children every year to measure the amount of lead in the tiny bones and brains. Kids were slow witted and sickly. My grandmother had seen what was happeing to the young children then, and she blamed the lead. She wasn’t going to let that sort of sickness happen to her grandson.
Although there was good work available in Broken Hill during the war, my grandmother and her daughters packed me into a bag and moved down to Adelaide.
There were some who stayed, those who had no way out or felt loyalty to their mates.. The same sort of loyalty as happened in other parts of Australia, such as in asbestos mining towns.
As soon as they could, my family got this young kid out of Broken Hill. You might think with that level of brainwashing I had about the dangers of lead, I would avoid the stuff at all costs. But the world I grew up in didn’t work like that. Lead was big money and a big part of our lives.
The house we moved to in Adelaide had lead in the paint on the walls. There was lead in the paint on my cot. I played with lead toy soldiers.
When I was about 10 years old my uncle showed me how to melt lead and make my own sinkers, so we could go fishing. I soon adapted that skill to make my own lead moulds for toys, using lead I picked up along the side of rail tracks.
My mother had a collection of lead crystal glassware, so sparkling! There was lead lining in the ice chest.
In my teens I had a lead belt that I wore when I went spear fishing, and I loved tinkering with old car batteries, a great source of acid and lead for weird teenage experiments. Sometimes I would try to be practical, and re-condition the batteries.
There was lead in the petrol I pumped into my cars, and in the air I breathed from passing traffic; I was 44 years old before the government banned the use of lead in petrol for cars.
When television came to Australia, there was lead in the glass of screens of the heavy monitors, to prevent radiation; just like in x-ray rooms. And so it goes.
Of all the blood tests I’ve had in my life, I don’t remember any doctor telling me that my blood was tested for lead deposits. I do wonder now if nosebleeds (those I had when I wasn’t fighting) were a symptom of lead in my system, if my slow wit could be traced back to those fishing sinkers.
When I went back to Broken Hill several times over the years I met friends of my family who had stayed and fought the mining companies, to clean up the waste dumps around the mines and and make the companies pay to have the ore trains covered, so dust couldn’t drop off along the tracks. New mines were forced to pay for massive projects to remove top soil all around the town- in one place to a depth of dozens of metres - to get the surface lead out of town and make for some possibilty for a normal life.
It was individuals and citizens groups who forced these changes, not the unions, not the political parties.
If one person, with a network, can force a giant company to get the lead out, I have high hopes the same will happen now, with ordinary citizens forcing polluters to get man’s excessive carbon pollution out of the soil, the sea and the sky.