Thomas Hylland Eriksen on Australia’s Boomtown and its ecological sustainability: Interview


Thomas Hylland Eriksen is professor of social anthropology at the University of Oslo. He is the author of numerous books, including Fredrik Barth: An Intellectual History; Ethnicity and Nationalism; A History of Anthropology; Small Places, Large Issues; Tyranny of the Moment; Globalization; and Common Denominators.

Here he talks about his latest book Boomtown: Runaway Globalisation on the Queensland Coast with AW contributor Sean Carey. Boomtown, will be published in July in the U.K., August in the U.S., and September in Australia.

SC: Boomtown: Runaway Globalisation on the Queensland Coast – it’s a great title and a very timely book. Why did you select the city of Gladstone for research?

THE: Mainly because I’ve long had an interest in Australia because of its booming resource industry. When you look at some of the main contradictions of modernity, one is definitely ecological sustainability. Ecosystems are remarkably fragile – for example, the Great Barrier Reef is dying through calcification or bleaching, while in Australia as a whole rainfall is precarious. In fact, Australians are obsessed by rain. They feel there is never enough, but then when the rain eventually arrives there is far too much. Also, Gladstone itself is very understated in Australia. It never gets a mention on the national weather forecasts, and it’s barely marked on the main highway running north of Brisbane. However, it’s industrially very important – it’s home to one of the largest alumina factories in the world and another one was built later. There is also an aluminium refinery, a large cement factory, a cyanide factory, and the city is a major port for coal and liquid natural gas (LNG) exports. So, Gladstone embodies classic modern concepts of growth and development that don’t resonate quite so much in Europe and North America these days.

SC: You’ve carried out ethnographic studies in a variety of locations – Mauritius, Trinidad, your native Norway, and Gladstone in 2013-14. Have you developed a preferred way of carrying out fieldwork, or are you happy to go where the people, and their behaviours and stories, take you?

THE: In these sorts of complex, developed urban environments it’s not possible to follow people around as you might in an urban slum or a village. The people in Gladstone have other lives, as it were. And, as any anthropologist knows, while you might start off with a bunch of questions, those questions will change and new ones will arise as you do your research. For example, when I went to Gladstone, I had expected to study ambivalence, and I thought there would be a significant number of environmentalists active in the city. But it turned out there were only a handful, though those that were there turned out to be some of my most important informants. Another important thing I discovered was how almost everyone was concerned with ‘health’ as a side-effect of pollution and industrialisation, while few spoke about larger environmental issues. Many people migrate to Gladstone with the idea that they will only work there for a few years, make some money and go somewhere healthier to bring up their children and so on. But then they become addicted to the money – to the job – and they stay on. I found that another big and very important issue was how the ordinary people of Gladstone felt that decisions about the future of the town were taken above their heads – by remote politicians who didn’t have their best interests at heart. But it was an easy place to work for me – people were open, friendly and indeed curious about me and what I was doing.

Boomtown scene. Credit: Thomas Hylland Eriksen

SC: How did you explain yourself to them?

THE: I said, ‘I’m here to study the booming economy of Gladstone, and some of the more problematic issues that arise from that boom.’ And I spoke to a great variety of people, including the mayor of Gladstone and many of the leading politicians. But there were a few people I deliberately kept away from – I made certain not to talk to them because I suspected that I would be critical of them in ways difficult to reconcile with the moral contract you implicitly enter into when you get to know people as an ethnographer.  Anyway, overall in my four months of fieldwork, quite short by anthropological standards, I spent time with quite a lot of people. And they were very frank with me – some even invited me to a barbie in their backyard or on the beach. In short, at least some of them trusted me. And, of course, in writing my book I have been careful not to abuse that trust. I might also add that, unlike carrying out fieldwork in say, the highlands of New Guinea, there was no language problem, so it is possible to get quite a lot done in just four months.

SC: As you describe it, Gladstone, since the mid-1960s, has been transformed from ‘a forgotten, stagnant billabong’ to a hub for essentially old-fashioned, fossil-fuelled industrialism.  Despite, as you’ve already noted, their concern with health matters it’s clear from your account that workers and their families seem to be able to bracket or suppress their concerns about the degradation of the local (and global) environment in order to continue making a living. Which, I suppose, proves that work (and its benefits through consumption) has a privileged position in defining ‘everyday reality’ for most of us in the modern world.

THE: Yes. I think that’s right. And that’s not just the case in Gladstone. In Norway, for example, where I live, many people have environmental concerns, but they also realise that they have benefited enormously from the exploitation of fossil fuels in the North Sea. They cope with this contradiction by not talking about it too much – or even not thinking about it too much. But I discovered in Gladstone, when I presented the environmental costs that are an intrinsic part of global capitalism to the harbour authorities or the PR people at Rio Tinto, that their answer ran along the lines of: ‘Well, would you want to keep the people of China poor, or would you rather let them develop a way of life that you and I take for granted?’ Also, a worker in Gladstone might respond to the same question by saying, ‘Look, if you can give me a sustainable job I’ll take it tomorrow. But it’s a job that has to be capable of paying my mortgage and my children’s education. Until then I’ll carry on working here at the factory or mine.’

SC: You also document extensively the tragic tale of Targinnie, the one-time picturesque village near Gladstone, which produced abundant amounts of pawpaws and mangoes from its orchards, but was then effectively killed off by the pollution emanating from the nearby shale oil plant. Although a few people remain, most of the population has relocated to other parts of Queensland or New South Wales. The political implications are important. You write: ‘Targinnie was too small, too insignificant, too economically uninteresting, to be salvaged when an industrial experiment went awry. Its former residents continue to pay the price.’ Tellingly, you then add: ‘It came as a big and unpleasant surprise to them that their own influence on these [commercial and political] forces was virtually zero, and that it was impossible for them to win.’ Are you really that pessimistic?

THE: I’m afraid I am pessimistic. To some extent it’s to do with what I call a ‘clash of scales’ – the gap between people living in communities, and the people who take decisions that profoundly affect their lives. I think this is a major democratic challenge in all our societies. People resent the aloofness, the distance of the decision-makers and everyone else influencing their lives. Perhaps more optimistically, we may be witnessing the starting point for a new type of populism – different to that of Brexit or Trump – against the centralisation of power. To take an example: in Gladstone itself it turned out there was a high incidence of childhood leukaemia. Now, it’s very difficult to establish causality, especially because the numbers are small. But that sort of local leukaemia pattern scares people. And it makes them feel that they’re not being taken seriously by the authorities when they raise the issue and are told that they are ‘not statistically significant’. I mean, in lots of places in Australia and elsewhere there are public hearings regarding environmental issues, and the local people take a great deal of time and effort to put together their concerns, and then the officials turn around and say, ‘Thank you very much for your input,’ and then disappear. Which is tantamount to saying, ‘Really, we don’t take you seriously.’ And that angers people – it builds up resentment.

SC: The main theme in Boomtown is what you describe as ‘the central double bind of contemporary civilisation – fossil fuel growth versus ecological sustainability’. I think many progressive economists, concerned with the depletion of the planet’s natural assets, would agree with you about that. For example, Cambridge University’s Diane Coyle has taken issue with some of her colleagues who cling to the notion that growth is mainly about increasing the amount of material products – ‘stuff’ – available to consumers. She argues, by contrast, that although those of us who live in the so-called advanced economies import stuff from China and elsewhere, a radically different type of growth – non-material or intangible – based on new ideas has been gaining traction for some time now. For example, Coyle notes that apps on a mobile device can take the place of myriad material objects. She also observes that even old-fashioned stuff can acquire new value or meaning. Aspirin, for instance, was used to treat fever and headaches but it can also be used at low doses by those at risk of blood clots, stroke or heart attack. To give another example, I recently learned that researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital discovered in a small trial that the century-old BCG vaccine appears to have great potential in treating type 1 diabetes. If larger studies confirm these findings it would be fantastic news for the huge number of people globally affected by this hard-to-handle autoimmune disease.

THE: When it comes to environmental challenges you have several schools of thought. For example, you have the ‘zero growth’ school. They argue, ‘Why do we have to have growth? Things are fine just the way they are.’ But, of course, that doesn’t take into account current inequalities, where some people are very rich and some people are very poor – and that gap has grown wider in recent years in many countries, including the United States. But it is certainly possible to have sustainable growth through intangibles or transforming stuff as Diane Coyle indicates – we just need to be somewhat smarter in how we go about it. In fact, I was asked my opinion about growth and the city’s future by the council in Gladstone, and I suggested that they might consider diversifying into the knowledge and information industry for the simple reason that growth through fossil fuels is unsustainable. I thought perhaps they should consider thinking ahead. Their response was sympathetic. They said, ‘That’s not a bad idea, but we’re still going to need energy for transport, for food production – machinery and fertilisers – and so on.’ It’s very difficult to escape the carbon economy. We’re virtually locked into it.

Boomtown scene. Credit: Thomas Hylland Eriksen

SC: Nevertheless, one of Australia’s main export markets, China, is making great strides in terms of renewables. I suspect this is in part to reduce its dependence for growth on other nations, such as Australia. That means that at some point coal and LNG exports from Gladstone will diminish significantly.

THE: That’s true, but China’s dependence on fossil fuels will carry on for some time yet. That adjustment won’t happen overnight.

SC: Your book is an indictment of the attempt of major corporations to offset some of the damage inflicted on air, land, and sea by various corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives. In effect, such initiatives in Gladstone, as you describe them, seem to be little more than a distraction technique – a sleight of hand, in other words.

THE: Yes, that’s right. For example, in Gladstone Rio Tinto supports a number of projects, as does the powerful Gladstone Ports Corporation, including a wonderful park with artificial ponds and picnic areas. And, to be fair, local people very much appreciate the park. As these corporations see it, it’s a way of giving something back to the community, but it’s also the type of thing that they want the press to write about. They don’t want them writing about the ‘bad’ things. So, we should be wary about CSR. We need to keep our eyes wide open.

SC: It’s also revealing that transnational environmentally-focused NGOs, such as Greenpeace, have not had the impact in Australia as they have in many other countries. This may be because Australia’s affluence has been in large part generated through commodity exports to fast-developing economies in the Indian Ocean and Pacific Rim regions. Indeed, Australia has experienced continuous growth for 26 years – only the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius on 37 years without a recession surpasses it. I suppose it proves that Australia’s citizens are understandably reluctant to bite the hand that feeds them.

THE: There is an underestimated cultural gap between an NGO like Greenpeace and the population in a place like Gladstone. Gladstone people suspect that ‘greenies’ sipping cappuccinos in Sydney or London know nothing about their lives.  They say, ‘They’ve never been here, and the fact they can sip cappuccinos in nice cafes is because we live in unhealthy environments and thereby support their lifestyle.’ That’s one objection. The other is that Gladstone people feel that those people working in a typical NGO are a sanctimonious lot – ‘They’re smug and just want to look good, and never get involved in the really difficult issues of where my salary is going to come from if I give up working at the LNG plant.’ The Green Party is quite strong, very visible and influential, in some parts of Australia, such as Melbourne and Tasmania. But in Queensland they have a precarious and limited presence.

SC: In Boomtown you also discuss how national identity is represented or reproduced in different countries – for example, in the poly-ethnic Mauritius, a nation we’re both familiar with, each ‘community’ gets its moment (or moments) to shine, whereas in Australia, especially with commemorations such as Australia Day, the celebration of identity is coupled with, as you write, ‘a dominant settler culture … founded on large-scale land grabbing, genocide and the permanent marginalisation of the continent’s original inhabitants’. It seems very much that settler-style Australia doesn’t have much time for historical reflection – specifically, in terms of how time is perceived or defined Australia is a society where almost everyone and everything is, as you put it, ‘future-oriented’ and ‘committed to progress and change’. All that said, you didn’t come across much overt racism while conducting research in Gladstone.

THE: In fact, the previous Labour government did try to incorporate the Aborigines on Australia Day. I saw this for myself, when I was visiting with my family, at the celebrations in 2010 in Sydney Harbour. The then prime minister, Kevin Rudd, spoke very eloquently about the Aborigines and the ancestral heritage of the country. But overall the dominant culture in Australia is of rugged individualism and supporting your family. Really, it’s a working man’s place. So, overall Aborigines are treated with disdain – they are often seen as benefit parasites, and they are not seen as conforming to general Australian values. If I might make a comparative point: it is somewhat similar to how some Creoles are perceived by some other ethnic groups in Mauritius, a society that you also know really well. In addition, in a place like Gladstone most incomers are British, South Africans and New Zealanders. There are a few people from places like Malaysia, but generally they buy into the dominant culture. And I would like to mention that some of those from Malaysia perform a great service in Gladstone by opening Malaysian restaurants where it’s possible to get a meal without French fries! But more seriously, foreigners are generally accepted in so far as they support themselves and their families. Overall, the most stigmatised minority by far are the Aborigines. A further point: in Australia, skin colour is not as important as in many North Atlantic societies; what’s important is buying into the Australian way of life. In turn, that sometimes can make life difficult for observant Muslims or upper-caste Hindus because they are not seen as full participants in the Australian way of life – they do their own thing. Notably, they don’t drink beer and they don’t eat sausages – key practices in informal Australian culture. Many Australians suspect that Muslims look down upon them in some way – ‘They don’t respect us, they don’t want to integrate’.

SC: You also suggest in your concluding chapter that the phenomenon of governing elites out of touch with the everyday experience of the masses lies behind the rise of populist nationalist and even Islamist movements. As you explain: ‘The resentment, alienation, frustration and anger emerging from below – from those who are “too few to be statistically significant”, who feel overrun and talked down to – needs to be addressed, not just in Gladstone, but across the globalised world of clashing scales.’ Which raises the interesting question: can anthropologists add or contribute to the democratic or political process?

Boomtown scene. Credit: Thomas Hylland Eriksen

THE: That problem is not confined to Australia, of course. While I was writing this book Brexit happened, Trump happened. But I think anthropologists have quite a lot to contribute to the democratic or political process precisely because of their hands-on knowledge of local communities. They learn to see the world from their informants’ point of view – from the bottom up. We understand people’s grievances and complaints – which is very different from the approach of other social scientists. Some years before he died, the New Zealand-born anthropologist Raymond Firth, who lived to be a hundred, was asked by David Parkin about the fundamental moral lesson of anthropology. Firth replied that we anthropologists are not normative in the way other social sciences are, but we are obliged to respect the autonomy of the person, regardless of the cultural context. In other words, everyone has the right to be in command of their own life to the extent that’s possible. So, from a political point of view, anthropology can contribute to the importance of scaling down and listening to people. It’s no good an outsider coming in and telling people what to do. That’s a non-starter. Autonomy for communities is also important in a way that people feel that their way of life is being respected. To some extent those concerns, rightly or wrongly, explain why Brexit and Trump happened.

SC: I think that the pro-Brexit vote was complex and multi-stranded, but in large part focused, especially among lower socio-economic groups, around experiences or perceptions about immigration to the U.K.

THE: That wouldn’t be such a big issue in Australia or even Norway, where there are plenty of jobs to be had, although there is growing resentment against Muslims in both places. Anyway, these concerns have to be taken seriously. I mean there are real issues – though sometimes these issues are not the ones that are presented by the media. For example, conflict may not be about religion, but instead about small, practical things such as children playing noisily outside people’s homes or young men loitering on the streets or stairwells on estates in the evening. The solution may not be about stopping immigration but to think about integration and conviviality. I think middle-class, left-of-centre Guardian readers have often underestimated these sorts of issues. They have been insufficiently respectful of such sentiments from people they don’t know or interact with. What do you think?

SC: I agree. I think that the pro-Brexit vote was not just, as some commentators have suggested, about social class, that is, the so-called left-behind groups. It was also about regional differences and competition between those regions, including resentment from those living in some areas about the relative dominance of London and the South-east in the overall UK economy. Another little mentioned factor was a concern about new migrant groups settling in ‘old’ migrant areas. I know from research I’ve carried out with others over the last decade or so in London, Luton, Birmingham and elsewhere that in many working-class areas, British-born ethnic minority groups perceived that their status and position within UK society, and importantly their access to local services, such as housing, the NHS and education for their children, were at risk because they felt they were competing with incomers from Eastern Europe. They thought this fundamentally unfair and, importantly, that the system ‘designed’ by remote Westminster and Brussels politicians and bureaucrats was rigged against them. Interestingly, you just brought up the subject of integration, specifically finding solutions to the problems of immigration rather than stopping it. I thought one very good idea was put forward by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown. He suggested a few years ago, and he has repeated his advice more recently, that it was important to identify such immigration ‘hotspots’, and then obtain EU funding to help those communities under pressure. As you say, these sorts of issues should not be underestimated or underplayed by politicians or officials. Of course, there was also some straightforward racism in the Brexit vote.

Returning to Boomtown. You’ve written the book without recourse to conventional academic jargon – and even when you do introduce concepts from Bauman, Bourdieu and Foucault you go out of your way to convey such ideas in simple terms. Was this because you deliberately set out to reach an audience beyond the academy?

THE: I’ve always tried to write without jargon. Perhaps some of my articles may be a bit more technical because they are written for the professional community and you have a strict word limit but, in general, I try to communicate with everyone who is interested in the subject matter that I write about. It just takes a little bit of extra effort not to use jargon and when you do need to use technical concepts I’ve found it’s perfectly possible to explain them along the way. I certainly want this book to be accessible to Australians, including the people in Gladstone. It’s my attempt to give something back. In effect, I’m saying, ‘Here is what I think but what do you think about it?’ In that way we can have a critical discussion.

SC: A final question. Are you ready for the attention of the Australian media once your book and its reflections on Aussie-ness, industrialism and ecological sustainability is published?

THE: Well, I’m hoping to go to Australia in December, and while I’m there I’m determined make the trip to Gladstone. In fact, I asked one of my informants in Gladstone to read the whole manuscript and comment on it – mind you, I paid her for this out of my own pocket – while others were asked to read bits and pieces. That was useful because they were able to correct some misunderstandings about idiomatic expressions. Also, I appreciate that not everything I say will be popular amongst everybody, but I hope that it’s taken seriously and initiate some sort of discussion or conversation. I should point out that within Australia there are publications much more critical of the mining industry than mine. Many authors are just dismissive of the industry, whereas I’m saying, just as many of the Gladstonites I’ve met, that this is complicated, and there are no easy solutions. We need to be imaginative, creative and think and act outside the box. If anything, the Gladstone experience has reminded me that the people who build infrastructure, fix our pipes and produce electricity for our laptops are crucial, often admirable and essential in our kind of society.

From Thomas Hylland Eriksen in Boomtown:
When the dry continent warms up, it gets even drier; when the ocean heats up, its irreplaceable coral reefs die and marine life is threatened; and when climate systems are pushed out of kilter, extreme weather events such as hurricanes, droughts and flooding become more common. Australia has already had a foretaste of these changes since the turn of the millennium. The country epitomises the contradictions of contemporary capitalism by creating private wealth and public poverty, reducing economic flexibility by subscribing wholesale to the principle of comparative advantage, prioritising speed over slowness, and by increasing internal inequalities. Australia is also a prime example of the fundamental contradictions of contemporary world civilisation, between large scale and small scale, and between economic growth and ecological sustainability. The resource industry is the key actor in this global passion play.

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