Julie Anne Genter

Cycling to Southland — Epilogue

by Julie Anne Genter

This is how the story ends.

Yesterday I took apart my bike and crammed it into the small rental car of a friend attending the festival. We drove back to Dunedin airport, where incredibly helpful people gave us materials to pack up the bike. Upon arrival in Wellington, I unpacked it, put it back together (with the assistance of friends I ran into in the baggage claim), and cycled back around the bays. I was slightly surprised and very proud that it worked properly!  A half hour bike ride now seems impossibly short.

The festival itself was a great success. Sunday was a community open day in the town of Mataura, where I (and hopefully quite a few locals) learned a great deal. The star of the weekend was a fifth generation Queensland farmer named Sid Plant, who has direct experience of a mine moving in and destroying a farming community. His community of 64 families has dwindled to 11, as the noise, dust, and other negative impacts of the mine have driven people to sell off and move out. He said the land would take at least a million years to return to its pre-mined state. His story was poignant, and actually brought tears to my eyes as he played a song written about the sad fate of his town Acland.

We are up against something big. The powerful corporate interests that stand to make a lot of money from selling fossil fuels, especially as liquid fuels and fertiliser become more expensive, have money and influence on their side. Local and central government tend to be optimistic and enthusiastic about the potential to increase growth, and reluctant or unable to challenge the proposals. The public are busy trying to make ends meet and raise their families. They usually just want to avoid conflict, and would like to trust in the professional competence of those proposing the mine and/or those charged with regulating activities. Given the financial challenges facing many families, survival of their nearest and dearest is paramount, and they may not feel they have the luxury of protecting an abstract entity called The Environment.

For decades the argument has been that there is a trade-off between prosperity and environmental protection. It was right there in the answers to the poll on the Southland Times website yesterday. It essentially asked: Do you agree with the protestors that coal mining will be bad for the environment, or do you think we should go ahead because it will make us rich? When it is posed as this kind of dichotomy, it is easy for people to believe the Government’s rhetoric about a ‘balanced’ approach — just a little more environmental degradation for a little more economic growth won’t hurt us.

The green paradigm shift is the recognition that we don’t have to trade off our health and well-being for a little more economic growth. All the additional fossil fuels we burn from now on will only make it harder for us to transition to an economy that is not dependent on fossil fuels, and will worsen climate change. We have the opportunity to do things differently, and in a way that benefits us all.

It may not be good for mining companies, who have a mindless and ethic-free imperative to return a profit by doing the same old thing. But companies are not people. The people working for mining companies can do something different, and possibly much more enjoyable. We need government and regulation to step in and create the incentive for new activities that won’t result in catastrophic climate change, that won’t threaten our essential farmland, and that will build up (rather than destroy) our communities.

We must start with education and outreach, listening and learning. The more people involved in the conversation, the more robust our collective decisions about the future of our economy will be. As someone said at a closing meeting of the festival, a tiny flame as been kindled in the community of Mataura. I look forward to watching it grow.

This is how the story begins.

Published in Environment & Resource Management by Julie Anne Genter on Tue, January 24th, 2012   

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