Hallett Wind Farm, June 2017

Rational Land Use

The economic rationalists would have us believe that competition is the heart of their philosophy – although I imagine in their shareholders report they would call it their rationale so as not to appear at all sentimental. They will tell us that we must have mining on farming land because it’s economically valuable. They’ll downplay or try not to mention that, like in the case of the open cut mine mooted outside Ardrossan, it will only be an economic boon for 15 years.

How long have people been earning a living from farming around Ardrossan? (Close to 200 years in the western style and millennia before that by the local Aboriginal people.) And how many more years would they do so? (Many more than fifteen, that’s for sure!)

If the mining proposals put to we, the people, were truly giving economic dividends back to the community, that would be something. If the mining proposals were not open cut in method, that would be something. If they didn’t rely heavily on Murray water or desalinated water from our small and productive gulfs, that would be something. If the methodology of marine oil and gas exploration and extraction was proven and safe, that would be something. If the methodology of coal seam gas fracking had been proven, that would be something. There would at least be a rational backbone, one that employs the cautionary principle rather than the ‘let’s just see how it goes’ principle.

To suggest that it is irrational to say ‘no’ to fracking the productive value out of land is in itself irrational. And that’s what happens isn’t it? Every time people object to land being consumed for mining, the focus swings to the people, not the issues. Objectors are accused of being irrational, emotional, and backward. This is a strategy to make conservationists and food producers – even tourism operators – seem as though we are illogical and weak and anti-progress.

And mainstream media just love a branding war, don’t they? What could be more fun than pitting opposites against each other? It certainly couldn’t be much easier. In the right corner we have the economic rationalists in their high-vis tops with spades in their hands ready to save the economy from certain doom. And in the left corner we have the longhaired anti-progressives with their pink sunglasses, a sheaf of wheat in one hand and a tethered cow in the other.

I mean, when you compare the imagery of a vast mine buzzing with super sized vehicles and churning out masses of product with the image of a quiet field, paddock, or vineyard just sitting there, which one would you think is more productive? The busy one of course! How on earth could that quietness be productive? Where’s the bustle of competition to make the economy really fly?

But the trouble with a flying economy is that it falls. The coal seam gas in the south east of South Australia will run out, if it doesn’t become an obsolete energy source first. The price of coal has plummeted in recent months and the cost of extracting fossil fuels in general has risen markedly in recent decades so that profits per unit are not what they once were plus markets are drying up – China and India are mobilized to have a renewable energy revolution and here in South Australia, we already produce over 25% of our power from renewable energy.

And then there’s the pesky side of production – waste. Waste products, waste land, and waste water. And so often, this cost is borne by the community that is left behind after Whizz Bang Co* has packed its bags and left. The cost to the community of cleaning up the land and water may never be recouped. How long before fisheries (commercial and recreational) are restored? How long before it’s safe to grow food there? How long before the water table is not polluted anymore? How long before sediments settle in the marine or river environment? How long before leaching of heavy metals stops? How long before the open cut mine is re-vegetated? Is there an onus of the company to tackle any of this before they leave? Sadly, the case is often no. They reap the profits but not the long-term costs.

And here’s the rub, Whizz Bang Co gets to achieve all this, how? With the cooperation of the government of the day, by utilizing the simplistic story telling of mainstream media to suggest that farmers, tourism operators and conservationists don’t care about the economy, and with the cooperation of everyone who buys into this fairy tale.

Economic prosperity isn’t the sole province of miners. Renewable energy offers many more times the jobs that fossil fuels do – long-term jobs. Primary production is a long-term necessity and highly competitive at the same time as being a cooperative affair. You don’t run a wheat farm or a dairy farm or a vineyard or a tourism operation by excluding every other stakeholder. You do come up with competitive strategies, expand your markets, improve your methods, yes, but you also cooperate with each other, launch joint initiatives, cross-promote, and work with the land. A healthy eco-system is, literally, food on the table and money in the bank. That’s rational. That’s logical. That’s scientific, provable, and profitable.

Tourism operators (sometimes themselves, food producers), recreational foodies, fishers, wine and brew-tasters emerge because an environment has been preserved, because the natural world – even a farmed one – has appeal and adds value to the lives of ordinary people in both obvious and profound ways, and profitable ways.

And that profit doesn’t just stay with the landholder, it flows on through the community. Whizz Bang Co is fond of quoting how many indirect jobs they generate – as if no other industry does! Every industry generates other jobs by virtue of its employees spending their money locally. But of course, many miners don’t live locally. Mining companies don’t always employ locals. And often, as has happened in South Australia in the last couple of years, the secondary processing jobs are sent offshore.

When a food producer sets up business they do so for the long haul with their feet firmly planted in the local soil. They will be there producing edible commodities for the local and export markets years into the future. Their activities will generate jobs within their company and beyond it. They will compete and they will cooperate. Of all sectors, they are the most likely to protect the land and the water they operate on. Why? Because that’s rational.

* As far as I am aware, ‘Whizz Bang Co’ is an imaginary entity, created by me just now. Any similarity to any real company is purely incidental.

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