Illustration: Rocco Fazzari.
The Bum Tree was beloved. Gerroa's fabled 400-year old blackbutt was esteemed for its age, size and sugar-glider population as much as the large buttock-shaped growth at its base. So Shoalhaven Council's decision to destroy the Bum Tree, and several of its majestic companions, for ''road safety'' reasons provoked a month-long roadside vigil. Yet last week council did the deed anyway - choosing to cut trees rather than the 100 kilometre per hour limit.
The south coast tree-huggers - and I use the term as an accolade - included grandparents and school groups. They'd been ''consulted'' by council, but only after the decision was made and the contract awarded; consulted about disposal of the remains. Woodchip, ma'am, or decorative plaque?
So they were wounded in their sense of justice, as well as their love. Had it been Tasmania's world-heritage Weld Valley they were protecting, under the Coalition government's promised new laws, they'd have been whacked with mandatory $10,000 fines or, for second offenders, three-months' prison. Mandatory, mind you.
This stuff is all about power. Our power over nature, its power over us, our power over each other; and how these interact with that sticky stuff we call love. The tangle gets especially interesting when those wielding the power are not (generally perceived to be) the good guys.
We tend to assume that the good is also the legal. Broadly speaking, this is true - hence our complacency. We teach it to our kids. The bobby is Mr Nice. But when the two value systems split, when the legal and the good find themselves in opposition, then the fight becomes bloody. It becomes epoch changing.
Each era has such a battle. Reformation. Slavery. Apartheid. Ours, for this century, is environmentalism. However it ends - and it may not be well - this will be our defining moral issue. Byron Smith, the Anglican minister arrested during a prayer vigil at the Maules Creek mine last week, argues that way. He and his co-arrestees sacrificed their freedom in hope of preventing the sacrifice of lives.
That may sound melodramatic. Yet 150 Australian climate records fell last year. Hottest, driest, longest, fiercest, most extreme. Summers start earlier, finish later and are more intense between. On most counts, the change is roughly double the predictions. It's a personal nightmare, endless summer where you can never get cool except by means that make the warming worse.
Pretty soon even our daggy and retrograde governments will have to admit that environmentalism is not just the way of the future. It's the only way we'll have a future. Until then - until the law wises up and catches up - things will keep heating up, and I'm not just talking temperature.
The Northern Inland Council for the Environment fought Whitehaven Coal (then Aston) over the Maules Creek mine. They took the approving Minister, Tony Burke, to court and lost in the federal courts last December. The grounds were technical, so the loss, while final, does nothing to annul the moral claim.
The mine is massive. A $776 million open cut 18 kilometres north-east of Boggabri, in northern NSW, it will exploit one of the biggest known seams, producing 13 million tonnes of coal a year for at least 30. That's a mother lode of climate change.
The mine itself will destroy 1500 hectares of endangered woodland, including migratory habitat for the endangered swift parrot, of which only about 1000 pairs remain in the wild. The litigants argued that the provision for land offset is manifestly inadequate. The judge more or less agreed - calling the Minister's conditions environmentally "undesirable" in allowing clearing of the endangered forest before the offset was agreed. But he found against them because ''undesirable'' does not mean ''uncertain''.
Unusually, Justice Dennis Cowdroy also quoted at length an ABC radio transcript where Minister Burke told how Maules Creek was one of three mining approvals given prematurely, before testing was done or conditions set, for political reasons.
But there's the mine, and then there's the coal. Air. Ocean. Food. Regardless of the judge's sympathies, and even of the legal rights and wrongs of the case, the moral question is bigger.
Just as the coal seam gas furore has forged an unexpected (if obvious) alliance between farmers and greens, generally noted for their mutual resentment, Maules Creek has spawned a remarkable alliance of greens and clergy. This used to be common. Radical priests were a favourite from central casting in peacenik times. But now that the stakes are literally earth-shattering, the churches and temples have conspicuously vanished behind the arras of orthodoxy.
Until recently. The Maules Creek protest included a Catholic priest, a Buddhist monk and three Uniting Church ministers. Arrested with Byron Smith were Catholic parishioner Jill Burrows, a North Sydney grandmother of 10, and Thea Ormerod, president of the Australian Religious Response to Climate Change (members include Muslims Australia, the Hindu Council, Caritas, Australian Jesuits, Amitabha Buddhists and the Jewish Ecological Coalition).
Reverend John Brentnall, from Gunnedah, said the protesters should be called protectors. "They are trying to protect our water for agriculture, our air, the Leard Forest with its critically endangered wildlife and a safe climate for our children, as well as the Gomeroi people's sacred sites."
In theory, all religious traditions hold earth dear. Yet they have not always acted that way. Christianity in particular has marched happily hand-in-glove with corporate greed, disguising its core message of radical openness behind patriarchic top-down conservatism.
Many blame its creation myth, the dominion over fish and fowl that Genesis supposedly gave us. I don't buy it. Even dominion brings a duty of care.
Seems to me we have two choices. Either we form an axis of planet-lovers that includes farmers, greens, poets, priests and tourism operators, to protect nature from ourselves. Or we accept that future cockroaches, as the inheritor species, will tell their children parables about the too-clever ape-race, and how the oppressor always becomes the oppressed.