Editorial: Mining Earth

As John Scott notes in this issue of Arena Magazine, once upon a time ‘miners’ were the working men who went down the mines and dug the dirt. Today ‘the miners’, in Australia at least, typically refers to the mining companies, if not to the particular entrepreneurial personalities of certain mining company owners and executives. Not only has the slide been away from recognising who does the dirty work as opposed to who owns the means of extraction, but members of those more abstract categories ‘voters’ and ‘television viewers’ seem to identify with ‘the miners’. Mining may be judged crucial to the Australian economy, but more culturally regnant than that, ‘the miners’ are a part of a larger national story: of Development, of our dry and dusty land, of our relationship to the ‘frontier’, with all the heroic connotations those terms carry.

The advertising campaign of the Minerals Council of Australia in the lead up to the demise of Kevin Rudd’s original mining tax, and of Kevin Rudd himself, was replete with identificatory dialogue and symbolism. Not only were we in this together—the resources boom would deliver us all—but the rough edges of mining could be brought into our suburban living rooms cleansed of all violence to environment or people. In ads with such high production values, mining was weirdly suburbanised and the message was clear: from the red earth would come our white goods from China, in much the same way that FIFO would deliver to cash-strapped suburban families the chance to stash it away, no (social) violence done to families and relationships in the process.

The big miners, we were reminded, are out West, up North and in the Centre—iconic locations, mysterious elements of the soul of mainstream Australia. And within this, mining companies went further than ever before to apparently identify with Indigenous futures. Young Aboriginal graduates with degrees in engineering and minerals, but sitting on country, were the face of contemporary mining; burying Lang Hancock’s suggestion of sterilising the Aborigines to so cleanse the frontier, here they were modernised and respectable, not even the diggers, but rather technologists of Development and at the core of the Australian dream.

As always, the ideologists and managers of our national discourse bamboozled not only the public but the media as well; unless of course we want to see most mainstream media as long having departed the ethical ground the Fourth Estate was said to occupy. The number of falsehoods and fantasies that circulated; the investment of both major political parties and unions in mining development at whatever cost; the celebration of clean science and magnificent technology; a belief in mining as the salvation of Indigenous communities and core element of Australian economic success: no wonder ‘the miners’ attained a god-like stature in Australian society, especially given the death of criticism and the anti-intellectualism of nearly every organ of Australian media and culture.

As the mining boom now winds down and the GFC increasingly impacts on Australia, perhaps some larger truths about the meaning, context and potential legacies of the manic period we have just been through will emerge. Certainly many activists and some activist academics have for a long time been seeding doubt, and some of those people and organisations are represented in the issue of Arena Magazine: Gavin Mudd reporting on the range of mining legacies that are set to expand exponentially and which have never been a real concern of the mining companies so many laud; Friends of the Earth who have been keeping those who would listen up to date on the legacies of uranium mining especially, but in this issue report on perhaps the newest mining development, deep sea mining; and other activist groups waging imaginative campaigns against coal and coal seam gas, as written about by Deborah Hart.

In this issue of Arena Magazine contributors put the lie to many of the claims and fantasies propagated by ‘the miners’ and their political boosters. First let’s check just how much mining does contribute to our economy and to jobs, and also how much of the dollar return goes into the hands of Australia’s most a-social, and most powerful cabal; second let’s see if mining’s specific dangers are taken seriously by industry or politicians; third let’s get rid of that warm and fuzzy feeling about the North and the Centre and be clear about what mining is doing there to Indigenous communities; fourth let’s realise that in the context of peak oil on the one hand, and Growth for growth’s sake on the other, mining is everywhere, including your own backyard and at the cost potentially of unimaginable environmental destruction.

Actually, as one manic period in Australia seems to be slowing, a new golden age of resource extraction is taking off more generally. With the aid of new technologies that may transform previously untapped or uneconomic resources (deep sea deposits of zinc, copper and gold, shale oil, CSG), and newly functional materials like rare earth minerals used in new communications technologies, mining and resource development is transmuting and diversifying. At the same time ‘old’ mining resources like Australian coal and iron, responding to developing nations’ new requirements, are in near endless demand, and supply if we choose to extract them—and that seems to be the case absolutely for both Lib and Lab, if for some different reasons. Where Lib is more dedicated to ‘wealth creation’ than Lab, and Lab is more concerned about ‘jobs’ than Lib, both are utterly committed to Growth, and both will turn a blind eye to the environmental implications to maintain their belief in this overriding economic, and fetishised, principle.

Of course, as we have seen on many occasions already, the contradiction between growth (=jobs) and environment is a very difficult one for a party and labour movement founded in another era, and believing themselves to be working still, fundamentally, with the contradictions and agents central to modern society: workers and companies or bosses battling it out around the distribution of the social product. Having taken on the tenets of neoliberalism and adopted growth per se as at the consensus heart of politics and economy, they have already shifted significantly from the larger ethical framework in which the Old Left once operated, which was first a concern to identify the contradictions at the heart of the violent social disparities and unfairness of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and the causes of human alienation. While the former—the battle over the social product—seems still to be the cause for which high-profile Labor men like Martin Ferguson, Gary Gray and Paul Howes work, the latter—a broader, ethical sense and desire to grapple with the core contradictions of a historically novel situation—seem very far indeed from their ken. They, like most of the Labor Party and much of the labour movement, work from assumptions about social life that no longer hold (and the Labor Party will never recover its distinctive contribution and political identity until it fully recognises this).

In relation to mining, the implication of this is not that the power differentials between owners and actual miners are of no concern. Indeed throughout the world true miners work in some of the most dangerous conditions for the smallest possible wages: the young African men and boys who dive down skinny holes in the ground to pick up bucketfuls of rare earth or dig or sift for diamonds; South American miners trapped in dilapidated mine shafts and working for peanuts; even Tasmanian and New Zealand miners trapped or dying in dilapidated mines! But the changed situation to which I am referring does mean that a broader ethical enquiry is demanded because they are new circumstances, and the values we take for granted have to be submitted to new tests against the new realities that we can establish to be true. Environmental destruction and its impacts, climate change, new examples of social alienation need to be exposed and analysed; but more profoundly, as the intellectual Left always attempted, we need a diagnosis of the central powers and their relations which define the field of force behind such developments, which have consequences ‘all the way down’ for everyday life.

John Hinkson in this issue of Arena Magazine links Australian mining to a more general diagnosis than either the concern for workers’ conditions and capitalist power relations or environmental destruction and climate change. Observing the GFC and China’s own potential economic troubles, he points to the vulnerability of those countries dependent on export-led economies and their integral link to globalisation, a techno-scientific capitalist development with basic consequences for our orientation to nature and to others.

Certainly jobs do come into this equation: the loss of them, in Australia, through offshore manufacturing and servicing, an outcome now reaching crisis proportions. With China the new powerhouse of a globalised world, that country’s presently primitive forms of accumulation and exploitation mean big losses for working families in Australia. Jobs in mining will neither balance those particular job losses out, nor will mining money generally offset the effects of the GFC in Australia if China’s own development bubble bursts (a set of dependencies barely mentioned in media analyses of the contribution of mining to the Australian way of life).

More generally still, globalisation is a framework of relations that lends itself to a certain ideological formation and cultural outlook. If neoliberalism is globalisation’s executive engine clearing the way for transnational finance to establish operations wherever it is economic to do so, it also rests on the revolution in communications technologies, and on mass globalised transportation of commodities and products. The technologies of the borderless world and cultural orientation towards such ‘openness’ come together, as Hinkson points out, with an attitude towards the earth as ‘reserve’: as always-already having a use value, although parts of it might be waiting still for actual Development. This is an orientation of capitalism, but it is also implicit in every fibre of the techno-scientific apparatus devised and in operation around the exploitation of Earth.

The environmental implications of old and new mining are vast. First, there are the local and regional legacies of mining in its proliferating forms—the potential poisoning of aquifers, river systems and oceans; the destruction of landscapes and prime farming lands; the piling up and potential disturbance of toxic residues in remote locations: irrational outcomes given that we largely understand the long-term consequences of these actions. Second there is the huge contribution to climate change that burning Australian coal makes, and its fundamental link to the making of our white goods, all with built-in obsolescence and mindlessly desired as part of a soulless Australian dream. Third there is uranium, not only the localised consequences of mining and toxic residues, but the ‘cover’ our uranium will give when used for ‘peaceful purposes’ in countries like India as they begin to mine their own uranium deposits for non-peaceful ends. And finally, there is the necessary connection between environmental destruction of homelands and social devastation of Indigenous communities, whether in Australia, Brazil, Africa, Papua New Guinea or elsewhere.

In an article in this issue of Arena Magazine on Paradise Lost, Justin Clemens elaborates Milton’s understanding of mining as hell in what might be considered the period of early modernity. From antiquity in fact, mining has been held suspect for its rapaciousness and destructive capacity. Today the fundamental fact of mining’s destructiveness, put together with twenty-first century techno-scientific capitalism takes us way beyond a problem of greed, although that exists, to an enormous problem of cultural hubris, inter-generational irrationality and potential self-destruction. The notion of the reserve that contemporary mining assumes, suggests a central logic of the contemporary world as the undermining of all that constitutes our embeddedness on Earth and the forms of fellowship that follow from it.

Support Arena

Independent publications and critical thought are more important than ever. Arena has never relied on or received government funding. It has sustained its activities largely through the voluntary work and funding provided by editors and supporters. If Arena is to continue and to expand its readership, we need your support to do it.