Industrialism and ambivalence on the Queensland coast: Part 1

| 9th August 2018
Old alumina refinery

Old alumina refinery

Accelerated industrial growth in a neoliberal economy has had a profound impact on the people of Gladstone, Australia. Professor THOMAS HYLLAND ERIKSEN, an anthropologist, investigates. Read part two tomorrow.

Wherever you turn, there are visual, audible and sometimes olfactory reminders of industry.

Even the sunset is sponsored by the global resource industry in Gladstone, Queensland. Looking west in the early evening, you cannot help gazing at the three tall chimneys of the power plant as they interfere with the yellow disc just about to sink below the horizon.

It is a vibrant industrial city, one of the world's largest coal ports, with two large alumina refineries, an aluminium smelter, three LNG (liquid natural gas) plants, a cement factory, a cyanide factory, and much more. It is prosperous, thriving and energetic.

But there is a Faustian dimension to the contracts signed by workers and executives: these industries threaten people's health, pollute the local environment, and contribute to global climate change.

Industrial landscape

Approaching Gladstone airport in a smallish propeller plane from Brisbane, you notice the contrast between the serene greenery of the remaining forest cover and the raw brutality of the small open-pit mines and construction areas.

There is a clash between the blue Pacific Ocean and the crimson pools of bauxite refuse from the alumina refinery; green pastures next to barren fields of red wasteland reminiscent of Martian landscapes; beaches and suburbs rubbing shoulders with smokestacks and warehouses. 

Before landing, you catch a glimpse of the industrial port facilities that define the boundary between city and sea. There are hundreds of empty coal wagons on railway side tracks. Then you see the distant metal structures of the LNG terminals on Curtis Island, the cranes at the wharf, and the foreign cargo ships waiting to load.

Wherever you turn, there are visual, audible and sometimes olfactory reminders of industry.

Gladstone is a child of globalisation. Since the industrialisation of the then fledgling rural town began in the 1960s, its population has mushroomed along with the growth of its export-oriented, resource-based industry. 

Change has been rapid, and has turned the city into the undisputed industrial hub of Central Queensland. Yet with globalisation comes vulnerability and powerlessness.

Industrial powerhouse

Until 1967, Gladstone was mainly integrated with the surrounding countryside and had no fossil-fuel related industry. 

Its cornerstone enterprise was Swift's meatworks, which grew in importance and prosperity as a supplier of tinned meat to Allied forces during the Second World War. 

The meatworks were closed down in 1963, and on the very same site, one of the world's largest alumina refineries was opened in 1967. It would eventually get its electricity from the coal-driven power station on the edge of town, opened in 1976. The alumina would eventually be turned into aluminium at the nearby Boyne Island Smelter from 1982. 

With the opening of the Moura railway line for transporting coal from the interior of Queensland in 1968, and the construction of a coal terminal at Barney Point, Gladstone had, in the space of just a few years, become a fully-fledged industrial city.

Industrial developments in the Gladstone region have continued at an uneven pace. 

A second alumina refinery has been opened in Yarwun west of the city; Cement Australia operates a factory at Fisherman's Landing just north of Gladstone and a mine in Mount Larcom to the north-west; there is a quarry, a chemical factory and many auxiliary activities – scaffolding, mechanical workshops, transport companies and so on – adding to the industrial, and industrious, face presented by Gladstone to the visitor.

Research expectations

The main research question raised by my recent research in Gladstone concerns local responses to these changes, and the unintentional side-effects of rapid industrial growth more generally. 

No matter where you look, there are signs of industrial activity and growth. Wherever you turn, there are visual, audible and sometimes olfactory reminders of industry.

Fine coal dust settles on your window sills and garden chairs, city beaches are deserted due to the visible pollution of the water, the dredging of the western harbour to allow large ships to enter has been fraught by controversy and environmental concerns. 

There is a constant hum of distant machinery and din of heavy trucks passing through the Port Access Road intersecting the city centre.

I had expected to devote much of my attention to exploring ambivalence around climate change and the use of fossil fuels. It stands to reason that people who depend on fossil fuel-intensive industries for their livelihood should take a sanguine position towards questions to do with climate change and environmental destruction. 

Still, considering the recent (and ongoing) controversies around LNG developments and dredging, the relative lack of environmental anxiety and wariness towards the fossil fuel industries initially came as something of a surprise.

Limited options

Although the green movement is vocal, well-organised and at times influential in Australia, it is all but invisible in Gladstone. 

In the 2012 Queensland elections, the Green Party got 2.1 percent of the votes in the greater Gladstone region (602 votes), compared to 7.54 percent in the State. 

As one of my interlocutors said, if Greenpeace would offer him a sustainable job enabling him to pay his mortgage and his daughters' education, he would take it immediately, but for the time being, he had no other option than holding on to his factory job.

Instead of widespread environmental activism, what I found in Gladstone was a strong commitment to industrialism. Admittedly, this was coupled with an anxiety about health risks, and a somewhat muffled concern with the local and global environmental destruction wrought by fossil fuel-based industrial activity. 

Yet, with the exception of a few heroic green warriors, some of whom have formed the Gladstone Conservation Council, attitudes to industrialism are on the whole positive. Unlike in cities like Melbourne and Sydney, green voices seem largely powerless.

This Author

Thomas Hylland Eriksen is a professor of social anthropology at the University of Oslo. He is the author of Boomtown: Runaway Globalisation on the Queensland Coast (Pluto 2018).

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