In the Adani debate, one side of the brain is out-shouting the other
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In the Adani debate, one side of the brain is out-shouting the other

At Windsor Bridge, the locals recently celebrated 1500 days of continuous occupation in defence of the country's oldest urban square and the sweet wooden bridge that the Roads and Maritime Services want to replace with an ugly modern job that is mining truck-capable.

At the same time, the federal government behaves increasingly like some savage pimp, threatening military and fiscal brutality to force us back into a fossil-fuel addiction we yearn to escape.

"The left brain manipulates the world the right brain understands it." Illustration: Simon Bosch

"The left brain manipulates the world the right brain understands it." Illustration: Simon Bosch

It's like we're living a parable from Iain McGilchrist's 2009 book The Master and His Emissary; the divided brain and the reshaping of Western civilization. McGilchrist, a British psychiatrist, argues that the brain hemispheres are asymmetrical, in size and power as well as shape and function, and that the hemisphere responsible for narrow, exploitative utilitarianism increasingly out-yells that which sees the bigger, more complex, more connected picture.

For me, it's an argument that resonates. Everywhere I go right now, normally placid, even quite bourgeois people are saying, "What's going on? Soldiers to protect mining? In Australia? Governments outlawing peaceful protest? Huge public subsidies to help tycoons to destroy our reef, trash our towns, pollute our Great Artesian Basin? Has the world gone completely nuts?"

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Locals have celebrated 1500 days of continuous occupation in defence of Windsor Bridge.

Locals have celebrated 1500 days of continuous occupation in defence of Windsor Bridge.Credit:Tamara Dean

Of course, the left-brain/right-brain thinking/feeling dualism was discredited decades back. McGilchrist acknowledges this. Nonetheless intrigued by why the brain hemispheres are so different, he argues anew that they have profoundly different roles.

They're still interdependent. Both are necessary for thinking, feeling and imagination – but in different ways. Essentially, the left brain focuses, decontextualises and simplifies. It does ego, separation, bureaucracy and exploitation. It gets things done. The right brain is more intuitive, hazier but more connected; empathetic, richer, more poetic, more allusory.

"The left brain manipulates the world," says McGilchrist, "the right brain understands it." Simplifying v complicating; separating v connecting; solving v enriching. I'm avoiding the words male and female here, but you get the picture. Gradually the left brain – focused, blinkered, cocky, loud – manspreads over the right until everything tips out of whack and (since our minds make our world) civilisation dies.

Here, now, the left brain manifests as the rock-jawed, pinstriped phalanx, corporates and politicians hell-bent on spending our money on mines we don't want and motorways we don't need; the armed, the uniformed, the fully equipped, the deeply self-serious. Right brain, meanwhile, is played by the soft and singing. Armed only by belief, they are grassroots community organisations like the Knitting Nannas, the Better Planning Network and Lock the Gate. Gender-specificity is not required, but it is conspicuous.

Of course, the idea that troops should protect big mining was Tony Abbott, not Malcolm Turnbull, and no one takes Abbott seriously any more. Or do they?

Trace Turnbull's trajectory from when he crossed the floor for climate to now, when he blames renewables for South Australia's energy crisis; invents a gas "shortage" to blackmail the states into CSG submission; and makes like Gautam Adani is the best thing for Australia since, well, Mad King George. It's simply bizarre – unless he and Abbott are sharing the same ventriloquist.

Who? Well … could it be the Institute of Public Affairs, that notoriously secretive fossil-fuel lobby group part-funded by Gina Rinehart and loved by Abbott, who likened them to Jesus Christ and at a 2013 IPA dinner said: "a big 'yes' to many of the 75 specific policies you urged upon me"?

In June 2015, IPA produced a report on the Galilee Basin mine, titled The Life-saving Potential of Coal: How Australian coal could help 82 million Indians access electricity. Four months later Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg embarked on his "moral" case for coal, insisting it "will lift hundreds of millions of people out of energy poverty, not just in India but right across the world".

Coal never was good for humanity, unless your left brain excludes clean air and a liveable planet from the equation. Left brain, seeing part but not whole, takes internal self-consistency for truth and therefore inclines to dangerous over-optimism.

Left brain lies back, counting the money, trusting the techno-fix, buying the rhetoric – like "clean coal" and CSG as a "transitional" fuel.

So, did we even have a gas crisis, so cleverly averted? Or was it all a ruse? What of Adani? Why is a government so desperate to subsidise a billionaire who even the banks won't touch, for a project few believe is viable and whose yields for Australia – in taxes, royalties and jobs – will likely be much, much lower than stated, yet whose destructive capacity is virtually limitless?

Many in the industry, including University of Melbourne researchers Dylan McConnell and Tim Forcey, argue that the supposed gas shortage was negligible or illusory. Like the housing shortage, it is less a crisis of supply than of pricing, driven by sales into an insatiable global market yet providing the pretext for open-slather exploitation, with the Turnbull government threatening to blackmail states like NSW and Victoria that resist this dirty and invasive industry.

"All states that have coal seam gas have the opportunity to exploit it," says the Commonwealth Grants Commission paper, arguing that failure to exploit gas should be punished. They could equally argue "all states that have massive solar, hydro or wind power have the opportunity to exploit it", but they don't.

Why not? Because, in a classic instance of left brain out-shouting right, reason and efficiency figure less here than tribal ideology.

But perhaps all is not lost. "When our leaders fail us, ordinary people have to become heroes," says fifth-generation bushie and Lock the Gate founder Drew Hutton.

Brendan Shoebridge's fine new film, The Bentley Effect, chronicles Lock the Gate, which has miraculously unified farmers and environmentalists to resist CSG, and win: "Hippies standing alongside really conservative farmers," beams Jenny Dowell, then-mayor of Lismore. The trucks roll in, and are stopped. In seven years, more than 430 Australian communities have declared themselves CSG-free.

Our leaders have failed us, hugely. Now it's up to us. Help resurrect right brain. Join Lock the Gate. Save the Pilliga. And come to Bondi Saturday to Stop Adani. Be there, or be square(-jawed).

Elizabeth Farrelly is a Sydney-based columnist and author who holds a PhD in architecture and several international writing awards. A former editor and Sydney City Councilor, she is also Associate Professor (Practice) at the Australian Graduate School of Urbanism at UNSW. Her books include 'Glenn Murcutt: Three Houses’, 'Blubberland; the dangers of happiness’ and ‘Caro Was Here’, crime fiction for children (2014).

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