Crisis? What crisis?

If we want to move towards ecological sustainability, we cannot ignore the life-worlds of people who make their living in the fossil fuel industry, says Thomas Hylland Eriksen, currently on fieldwork in the industrial town of Gladstone in Australia.

From backwater to industrial hub: In Gladstone,  people have a very perceptible pride in the achievements of the town. Photo: Thomas Hylland Eriksen

Where are you now? What are you seeing when you look around you and out of your window? What sounds are you hearing?

– I’m in my flat in central Gladstone, after a day spent out and about. It is getting dark. Peering out, I can see the lights from the coal terminal, as well as a brand new block of flats across the street. In the distance, it is easy to discern the lights and smoke from QAL, the alumina refinery that was the world’s largest when it was completed in 1967. I hear the dim noise from the factories and loading facilities, as well as that of trucks on their way to Port Central. In Gladstone, industry is never far away.

Has fieldwork been as you expected it so far?

– Actually, I think I should say no, although I didn’t really know what to expect. The town is far more pleasant and welcoming than I had dared to hope for, and it has been easier to approach virtually all sorts of people than I had expected. Also, a number of new topics have presented themselves, such as the fluctuations in the housing market, which are not only interesting overheating effects, but have also had real consequences for the social fabric of the community.

Events/encounters from fieldwork that you have to think of more than others?

– Hmm … I’m not sure if I should spill the beans … but OK, I’ve been poking into some of the communities on the periphery of Gladstone that are not feeling the heat, but rather the coldness of change. In other words, where things are slowing down rather than heating up. The village of Targinnie is now a ghosttown, for example, and talking to people about the way in which it was emptied, following a major industrial scandal, has made a big impression.

The lights from the coal terminal and the alumina refinery: In Gladstone, industry is never far away. View from Thomas Hylland Eriksen's window. Photo: Thomas Hylland Eriksen

"Look, he says, I do what I can, but I have to feed my family!"

– Most of your writings from the field have centered around one issue so far: The importance of coal. But your most recent piece was about an imported species that causes lots of trouble in Australia and is said to be a serious threat to the local fauna: the cane toad. You write:

"In my research on local responses to accelerated change, the cane toad and species invasion may seem to be peripheral concerns, but I have found a substantial local engagement relating to the toad and its impact on the environment – stronger, in fact, than the local opposition to coal and gas. This stands to reason, since most of the inhabitants of Gladstone make their living directly or indirectly from industry, shipping and mining, while the cane toad has no defenders.

Reading this, my first thought is: Because of such paradoxes nothing really changes towards more sustainability?

– When you live in an industrial town, and relate to the people who live there, your job as an ethnographer is to explore their point of view, and here people have a very perceptible pride in the achievements of the town.

– It is important to understand that until the late 1960s, Gladstone was a backwater, a small town in decline, and the development of the coal port, the alumina refinery, the power station and other industries was, and still is, widely seen as a blessing. A local history book published in the mid-1980s is entitled, simply, “Gladstone — The City That Waited”.

On fieldwork in Australia: Thomas Hylland Eriksen

– This kind of narrative is often glossed over by critics of the fossil fuel industry. If you want to move towards ecological sustainability, there is no way in which these life-worlds can be ignored. So, in other words, we are talking about real cultural complexity.

Reminds me of what Robert Pijpers told us about Sierra Leone after the civil war? People are happy about the heightened activities.

– Yes, I’ve been reminded of earlier conversations with Robert about the concept of crisis several times since I arrived here. But there are many levels of engagement with the surroundings. Just the other day, I went to see a bloke who was extremely environmentally conscious at home, recycling everything and maintaining a large compost for his vegetable garden and so on. At the same time, he also works as a welder in the industry. Look, he says, I do what I can, but I have to feed my family! This aspect is often lost on people who look at industrial towns like Gladstone from afar. And on the whole, people here want new developments to secure their economic future and that of their children.

Overheating a good thing?

What is for you the most interesting/important thing you have learned about overheating in your fieldsite so far?

– Well, perhaps that overheating can often be perceived locally as an essentially good thing. What may look like a crisis from the outside is not necessarily perceived as a crisis locally. True, there are concerns about the quality of the air in the city, for example, and some experts argue that there are suspiciously high incidences of certain diseases that may be related to air pollution. Also, there are people who don’t eat local seafood.

– But on the whole, it seems that Gladstonites are looking forward to the next big thing to happen when the current large-scale projects are finished. The environmental risks — the fine coaldust that settles everywhere at times, or the white alumina dust which sometimes blows from the refinery to nearby schools and residential areas — are accepted as a necessary side-effect of the good life and material security provided by the industry.

– How I’m going to deal with this analytically I don’t know — remember that I’m still in the middle of fieldwork. I’m still taking notes and will continue to do so for many weeks to come.

Heading to one of the largest coalports in the world: Gladstone. Photo: Thomas Hylland Eriksen

One could argue that defining the three major crises before going on fieldwork was somehow "un-anthropological". Gladstonians, it seems, might define their crises totally differently?

– Well, it depends on your frame of reference whether or not a society is in crisis. If you take the long-term, large-scale perspective, it is easy to see that contemporary fossil-fuel dependency is a bad idea, but not for people who make a good living in a society based on those very same fossil fuels. So, perhaps the crisis talk was just a way of getting us going.

– Being here, the main crises I perceive as being part of people’s life-worlds are the crises of housing (prices are down right now) and of future employment. Whether or not a society can be in a state of crisis when most people don’t see it that way is an analytical question which will have to be dealt with later. But in principle, there is no reason why the answer can’t be yes. Back in the 1970s, we were joking about our society “standing on the edge of a cliff, about to take a long step forward”.


You have been doing simultaneous fieldwork with your Overheating colleagues. How have your experiences been so far?

– Initially, we had ambitious — but unrealistic — plans to have regular Skype meetings. Well, first of all there is the issue of time zones; secondly, you need a really good internet connection for this kind of thing to be feasible. So instead, we’re using an Internet platform called Podio for internal communication and ongoing discussions, and it works well — we throw out ideas, write short field diary entries and raise questions of general relevance, and in this way, we’re able to keep the conversation going and look for common denominators as we go along.

What connections do you see to the other projects? Have you had many aha-moments when hearing from the others in the field?

– Yes, we’ve got many connections. Let me just mention one which has to do with the nature of boomtowns — hotspots into which people move from elsewhere. In such places, there are always strangers present. There is a pressure on housing and other infrastructure, stories go around about how the strangers don’t behave (they take drugs, or they litter, or they fail to take part in community activities), there may be a shortage of teachers and nurses (because of the increased cost of living), and new class differences emerge. We keep an eye on these kinds of parallels, in addition to other things. Being in contact with the others, who are also on fieldwork, gives an opportunity to sharpen some research questions and to develop a broader horizon for others.

Your plans for the coming days?

– Well, tomorrow I’m spending most of the day, I hope, with a local activist who is strongly involved in environmental issues, and we’ll be going around a bit. I then have an appointment with a mining company, which I’m very much looking forward to, and expect to be toadbusting again on Tuesday evening. Other things will doubtlessly come up as well.

What should I have asked you that I haven’t?

– Hmm … you could have asked about the existential dimension of fieldwork, perhaps. Well, it is hard to be away from my family, and I miss them. On the other hand, I’m lucky in that people here actually agree to spend time with me, and many take a real interest in what I’m doing.

– Even though I’ve discovered that beer no longer agrees with me, and I now try to stay in the shade as much as possible (as many Queenslanders do as well these days; the state has the world’s highest incidence of skin cancer), the Australian way of life is still easy to relate to for me as a Norwegian; both have a dominant ethos, you might say, of a version of egalitarian individualism.

By Lorenz Khazaleh
Published Jan. 21, 2014 11:46 AM - Last modified July 10, 2017 11:37 AM