June 17, 2014

Killing the golden goose

We humans have a penchant for killing golden geese. We can't help ourselves. We come across a good thing, enjoy the experience in one way or another, desire more of the same, and so do it again, and again. And then we think of ways we can have the experience more often or more easily, expand its boundaries or intensify its effects: in other words, we get greedy.

When I escaped to my first Greek island, I couldn't fly there direct. In fact, I took a train from London through France and Switzerland to Brindisi on Italy's Adriatic coast, from where I sailed to Patras in Greece. Then I went by train to Athens, from where an island-hopping ferry took all day to reach my destination. Late in the evening, I climbed a steep cliff path, worrying about a donkey carrying my backpack. I walked the narrow uneven streets of a tiny main town looking for a room or roof space where I could sleep. These days, Santorini has an international airport and many boutique hotels offering luxury service typical of a myriad establishments elsewhere.

When I first snorkelled on the Great Barrier Reef, I took a Chinese junk with fewer than two dozen people from Port Douglas to an offshore island. The boat came to a halt somewhere between the two and the boatman had to dive beneath to fix it while we sat soaking up the sun and gazing across the Coral Sea. We got there eventually. Now you can travel with hundreds of people on hundreds of high-speed catamarans to multi-level pontoons that provides a variety of services. Reef tourism generated more than A$6 billion in 2013, employed more than 60,000 people, and brings about two million visitors a year (figures from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority). Inexperienced snorkellers and divers can break bits of coral off to be washed up on the beaches of Cape Tribulation. A recent report confirms that the state of much of the coral, particularly on inner reefs, is 'poor'.

Anyone who reads this blog will know how often I return to Byron Bay in New South Wales. This most easterly point of the Australian mainland has five magnificent beaches, its own resident pod of dolphins and a je ne sais quoi that repeatedly draws its fans back, almost slavishly. The residents have fought hard to prevent high-rise development, monstrous burger bars and antisocial water sports, and to preserve the town's quirky alternative culture that evolved from surfing and hippiedom decades ago.

Now they have a real battle on their hands, however, in the form of a proposed large development on the west side of town. This will increase the permanent population of Byron Bay by a significant proportion and bring many more visitors, whose cars will clog already congested streets and whose numbers will pack out cafes and bars way beyond already stretched capacity. The local Byron Shire council have rejected the proposal three times. But the developer obviously considers himself above the democratic rights of citizens to determine how their town 'progresses', and has appealed to the state government for approval. That New South Wales government is of the political persuasion that supposedly espouses the 'small state' and devolution of decision-making, so it will be interesting to see how they resolve the dilemma of dogma versus greed.

Inevitably, the West Byron project will have an adverse environmental impact. Not far beyond the furthest part of Belongil beach in the picture above is a creek of the same name. There are no homes nearby, holiday or otherwise, and most people do not venture that far up the beach, so the creek has excellent birdlife and a tranquility that belies the town's hustle and bustle. It is feared that koala colonies will be disturbed by the proposed plan and the pristine creek waters put at risk of pollution.

There are even fatter, shinier geese along Australia's remarkable east coast. Hundreds of thousands if not millions of people aspire to live in 'harbour' developments of ostentatious houses complete with their own docks. Others want to moor their boats in posh marinas, even if it's at the expense of Indo-Pacific Humpback dolphins that don't like deep water. Or drive their 4WDs along beaches on the world's largest sand islands, leaving their plastic behind from camping and fishing and restricting the range of the nation's last few pure-bred dingoes. Land is cleared or reclaimed and sea channels dredged to build ports that accommodate bulk carriers transporting Australia's coal and gas riches to demanding Asian markets.

And the coal and the gas comes from more and more mines and wells spreading out like grabbing fingers across the land, some of it prime agricultural land. Queensland, not content with developing the Surat Basin and the Bowen Basin and the Moreton Basin, has huge plans for the Galilee Basin and the Maryborough Basin. Much of the product is not for Australian power stations but to generate export revenue to get the states back in the black. You see, not so long ago coal brought in lots of dosh, creating a 'coal boom' that got everybody excited, and addicted to the wealth. Unfortunately, falling commodity prices have coincided with right-wing state governments that have no misgivings about sacrificing landscapes and all who live within in order to solve their budgetary deficit problems. But if current economic trends continue, the land will have been despoiled and the mines will be stranded assets: the goose will have been poisoned and there will be no more riches to be garnered.

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