The high point of industrialism

‘It is the ugliest town in Australia; I think you should go there.’

Photo: Thomas Hylland Eriksen

Such was the advice I received from a colleague in Brisbane a little more than a year ago. After considering a few other options, I did what she suggested. It may not be a pretty place, but it is perfect for research on overheating.

Gladstone, a town of about 30,000 souls plus a varying number of temporary workers, is a bustling, hectic, noisy place epitomising the immense power and sheer energy of industrialism – but it is also deeply fraught with ambivalence. The city councillors, the industry leaders, the hardhats working on Curtis Island just across the fjord (as we say in Norway), the motel hosts and the housewives express optimism, but also ambivalence, uncertainty, a sotto voce anxiety which sometimes erupts and becomes explicit.

I sensed the first whiff of this ambivalence already during the short taxi ride into town from the airport a little over a week ago. It took a short eternity for the taxi to arrive – this has later been explained as a function of the high cost of living in Gladstone, making it hard for a taxi owner to make money – and when it was finally my turn, I offered the couple next in line to share my taxi. They were around my age and had a distinctly trustworthy look. The lady happily got into the front of the car, while her husband entered the back seat with some more effort, since I had already filled up the trunk of the sedan with my very large suitcase, with the immediate effect that he had to place his only slightly smaller suitcase on his lap.

we don't really know what we're doing to nature


Off we went, and it soon transpired that the gentleman next to me was employed on Curtis Island, where no less than three LNG (liquid natural gas) plants are currently being built, to the exasperation of many locals, as well as to environmental organisations in remote places such as Brisbane and Sydney. – So, I said, good job you've got over there? – Well, yes, he answered, it's four weeks on and one week off. A few days off in-between as well. – But, he added without any prodding on my part, we don't really know what we're doing to nature. You know, the gas was there for a purpose. And we use explosives to get it out. Who knows how the land is going to respond.

This is coalseam gas, teased out of the crust of the earth in the interior of Queensland by creating tiny earthquakes underground. It can be compared to shaking a soda bottle, then removing the top and sucking in the CO2 which bubbles up. In a word, the earth has to be shaken a bit for the gas to emerge.

The taxi driver, a white Australian, joined the conversation. – Well, actually I'm not one of them greenies, he said; I'm in favour of jobs and a sound economy. The conversation drifted in a different direction, but the gas worker's perspective stuck. He had a good job with excellent pay, but felt uneasy about what he was doing.

This unease is just as integral to the air of Gladstone as the faint smell of sulfur and the fine coaldust which settles everywhere when the wind comes from a particular direction. Gladstone has been an industrial town since 1967, but in the last five years, change has set in a fifth gear, with very noticeable overheating effects as a result. As a woman in her thirties, a hard-working professional and a mother, said to me yesterday, ‘we didn't use to have traffic here, and all of a sudden, there are traffic jams on the Dawson highway during rush hour. Or if you have a boat and go out on the weekends, you notice the increase in large vessels. So, you know, we know that we are an industrial city, but in the last few years, there has been a lot of change.’

The industries are now many. It is as if the Government of Queensland decided, presumably with the complicity of Gladstone Regional Council and its Chamber of Commerce, to place as much as possible of the dirty, noisy and hugely profitable industry of Queensland around Gladstone. It began in 1967 with the opening of the then largest alumina refinery in the world. Then came the power station (fueled by coal from the interior), followed by the aluminium smelter on Boyne Island nearby. Those were the integrated cornerstone industries of the town at the time. But the port was expanded in the same period, and new railway lines transported coal from mines in the west as well as wheat from other parts of the state. In the space of a few years, Gladstone became a major port as well as the site of a huge alumina refinery. From the late 1970s, several industries established themselves – a cement factory, chemical plants (including a cyanide factory), another alumina refinery – and the coal terminal was eventually expanded.

Photo: Thomas Hylland Eriksen


In the last few years, a new coal terminal has been under construction, soon to be finished; the port has been expanded more, and Gladstone Harbour has been dredged to make room for larger ships, making the water muddy and with possible adverse effects not only for fishing, but also for the Great Barrier Reef. In addition, the southern part of the formerly wooded and idyllic Curtis Island has been transformed totally. Ten thousand workers fly in and out to the island on a regular basis. They are engaged in building three, possibly four very large gas refineries. If you go for a drive into the country north of Gladstone, you'll notice the coal railways and a scattering of industrial plants as you go – nowhere else in Queensland is the density of factories anything near this – but you will also see the unfinished gas pipelines, meandering their way like thick worms through the hilly scrubland, across the dry subtropical forest and towards the mudplains leading to the Narrows, the shortest crossing to Curtis Island. Machines the size of dinosaurs clear the land to make space for the thick, shiny snakes soon to electrify the homes, factories and sweatshops of China and India.

Gladstone is overheated, it is fraught and it is ambivalent. It represents the height of industrialism, as one of the largest coalports in the world and soon one of the largest ports for exporting liquid natural gas. Yet it is unmarked in the collective Australian psyche. It doesn't even figure in the national weather forecasts on TV, and many Australians have scarcely heard of the place, in spite of the fact that Gladstone is the epicentre of the mining boom which has shielded the Australian economy from the recent economic crises. Environmentalists in the large cities may want to shut the whole place down as it is a major contributor to Australia's global carbon footprint. But there is no easy way out. There are, in Australia as elsewhere, genuinely mixed feelings about what we are doing to the planet.


By Thomas Hylland Eriksen
Published Dec. 5, 2013 1:29 PM
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