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Fishica » STEPS » Philosophy & Art » Belonging to the Land by Felicity Haynes

Belonging to the Land

by Felicity Haynes


I enjoy playing philosophical games with young children, and we were discussing the concept of belonging. Does your hair belong to you?  Does it belong to you after the hairdresser has cut it off? Do you belong to your body or does it belong to you? Do you belong to your parents or do they belong to you? But they were the ones who asked the question: “Does the land belong to you or do you belong to the land?”

The former is part of our western understanding of ownership of property we have paid for; the latter is of course the way of understanding that indigenous people have always had, that we have to be responsible caretakers of the land.

About thirty years ago historian Geoffrey Bolton wrote a book Spoils and Spoilers in which he analysed the impact of colonising our land. His attack was largely on urban sprawl, or developers who took over rural land and destroyed it and he defended the agriculture system for finding ways of adapting to an ancient and difficult land.  His comments however are still pertinent to those land developers who are buying and subdividing the market gardens on the outskirts of Sydney for profit, making it harder for city-dwellers to buy fresh and local food.

Thinking of his title it seems to me there are two ways of spoiling our land which are irreconcilably in conflict and reflect the opposite faces of belonging. The first is held by those who consider it their right to exploit the country to serve preconceived economic goals regardless of the cost to the environment. It is held by those who continued to use DDT on fruit crops when it threatened the whole ecosystem. It is held by those who continue against all evidence to believe that genetically modified crops will increase profits and do no harm to the environment. And in particular it is held by those who see it as their right to mine their own land as long as they follow the legal process and pay lip-service to EPA requirements. Similar financial arguments were mounted by the Southerners in favour of slavery.  They claim it is their right to exploit the land they have purchased and its people for their own benefit with the emphasis on legal rather than moral rights.

The coal mines in the Hunter valley and in the East Appalachians were allowed to proceed because they offered arguments like the following:

  • We own the right to mine our own property.
  • If you increase the mining tax on profits (or make us pay neighbouring property owners for lost opportunities), you will take away our ability to invest in Australia’s financial future.
  • We provide a large amount of coal generated taxes and government revenue.
  • Even if we make the place unhealthy and ugly, we have built the railroads, the roads, recreational centres, jobs for you.
  • Coal mining reclamation is a relatively new science and will continue to change, evolve, and get better. We will put things back the way they were.
  • There is abundant coal available and it is a relatively cheap source of energy.
  • Give global warming a rest.  It won’t happen.

In May this year, the NSW government  refused an application for an open cut mine in  the Upper Hunter – an operation that would have extracted 36 million tonnes of coal over 25 years. Bans were also placed on the site to prevent mining in future. Opponents had raised concerns that the mine would affect water quality in the Pages River and Kingdon Ponds, vital sources for the region’s 2.4 billion dollar  thoroughbred industry. The mine owners protested that  their proposal had complied with government planning and the decision would cost  400 jobs and $3.7billion dollars in revenue.

Look more closely at the argument. It is still all about economics and legal rights. Similar financial arguments were mounted in favour of slavery when the landowners in  America’s South saw their exploitation of people as part of their right to their right to exploit the land and its people for their own benefit and in so doing to make their country rich.  They turned a blind eye both to the human misery they caused and the exploitation of the land’s natural resources.  Even now, despite his consideration of stopping any mining in the Margaret River area, our Premier is threatening to override the rights of the aboriginal people in the Kimberley so that the mining can go ahead and give him his revenue. Well, they’re aboriginal  and remote and there is no alternate way of getting money from the land so we will not consider their protests against spoiling their land at all.  Large corporations like Monsanto are using the same economic arguments to control the genetic stock in agriculture regardless of the damage genetically-modified crops do to health and the land.

How can they ignore consequent human suffering and potential long-term and irreversible damage to the land? In the Hunter Valley, rivers disappeared through consequent cracks in the land, or were slowly killed by toxic gases released by the mine. Beenup mine was closed by BHP because it was not financially viable, but it left in its wake a toxic slug creeping inexorably towards the Blackwood River.  But they still maintain that the mine was beneficial for the community.  It could be that they just don’t see potential damage. The concept of belonging to the land just doesn’t fit in their way of seeing the world.   The cost of carbon emissions is not a relevant factor for them. It is not so much that they choose to ignore long term possible or human costs. It’s just that they really don’t see them, just as the majority of people in a Western society don’t see ghosts, or angels.

My property is called Lot 4064 in the accompanying map of the coal mine site. On their original map they inadvertently placed the opening to the mine shaft on my property. I am very concerned that their dewatering will lower the groundwater so that my 50 acres of lovely natural bush will be under threat, if not from toxic waste dumped on the ground next door, then from loss of water.  There is also threat to the Leederville aquifer which supplies drinking water to Donnybrook and Bunbury. And there is threat to the endangered wildlife, including the phascogale and the redtailed cockatoo, which live in the state forest and on my property.

So that leads me to the other way of spoiling the land, that of living in it, celebrating its stubborn resistance to change and pollution and of being responsible for it rather than using its riches as a right. This way of spoiling the land requires us to  enter into a loving relation with it. Those who have a close identity with the land feel responsible for its long term welfare. They spoil it in the sense of giving more to it than they take, especially in labour and love, of nurturing it to protect the watersystems and the soil, even from natural events like climate change. Caring for the land in this way is to guard against possible subsidence, lowering of groundwater levels through dewatering, poisoning of soil from toxic waste and damage to ancient aquifers which provide water to towns and farms. It sees constant road trains of coal on our highways as not only annoying but dangerous for air pollution and expenditure of carbon energy. It sees the displacement  and suicide of people who have lived on neighbouring properties for generations as immoral. In short, it cares for the land as well as for the people who belong in it now and in future generations.

Is there a way of presenting this need for responding to and being responsible for the land to those who thing it belongs to them? I cannot understand how the mining companies could say “We will proceed despite the very loud, passionate and intelligent protests from Margaret River people”. LD Operations has in fact spurned people who resisted them too angrily, dismissing them as irrelevant to their commercial concerns and refusing to make them an offer to buy their property..  How could they not see the possibility of their damage to neighbours who have cared so much for the land? How could they dismiss the damage to the forest they drive their trucks through 24 hours a day for 20yers as negligible?  How could they be promoting the export of coal as a source of energy in the light of all the information we have about CO2 emissions to the atmosphere causing drastic and irreversible climate change?   But they have been immersed in their paradigm for so long that it creates inertia. We could use economic arguments, like the threat to the tourist industry to support our case. But strangely the argument that it will lower property values holds little sway with them and long term costs and benefits are outside their scan.

As late as 2007 George Bush was claiming that America’s future lies in coal. Western Australia’s huge wealth largely relies on its mineral wealth.  But Jeff Goodell in his book Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America’s Energy Future shows how its reliance on coal has led to an empire of denial that blocks politicians and big business from the investments necessary to find alternative energy sources that could eventually save us from fossil fuel – mining-related deaths, the widespread health consequences of burning coal and the impact on our planet’s increasingly fragile ecosystem. It is a political claim that the actions of mines, corporate boardrooms, commodity markets and legislative chambers interrelate to induce a national inertia.

The disastrous economic recession we’ve just been through should have provided enough of a shock to their belief system that would make them reject their central belief in economic growth at all costs. They must be made to see that the economic paradigm particularly in relation to nonrenewable energy, is essentially self-destructive because it kills or exhausts the  land which supported their growth, They are like the frog who can be boiled alive if the water they are immersed in is heated gradually enough. Only a shock will jolt them out of their complacency. The intensity and heat of the public protest against the coal mine did just that, surprising the State Government and shocking them into a realization that there are lots of other people who feel differently from them.  We can only hope that  having been shaken in their belief that the land is theirs to exploit, they will begin to embrace the concept that we can act together to improve the earth’s ability to sustain us for future generations.

Postscript on ethics in government

I’ve actually written a book on ethics and our reasons for doing the things we do. I wrote to Colin Barnett claiming that he had mistaken the making of money as an end in itself, not as a means to good government, which of course means caring about the general welfare of the people.
I could have couched the argument in purely ethical terms.  Traditional ethics of justice (rather pompously called deontology) underpins our legal system, so when Colin insists that due process is followed and that the miners have a right to mine their own land in keeping with the law, he is acting ethically, that is he is being consistent with the law. He is also ethical in treating equals equally in relevant respects, and unequal’s unequally  in relevant respect, though what is relevant begins to beg the question when the rich get richer and the poor suffer.
There is another branch of ethics however which says don’t look at the principle, look at the consequences of your action. Colin Barnett is looking closely at the short term harm of possibly being sued by LD Operations if he prevents them proceeding, and the benefits of a quick profit if he allows them to proceed. The principle of consequential ethics though is seeking the greatest good for the greatest possible number, and on this residents of Margaret River, and indeed the whole of Western Australia, lose out if their tourist industry suffers, if their water systems are damaged irreparably. Indeed there are negative global consequences of ignoring carbon emissions, of pursuing non sustainable resources for energy, either for us or for India, and of threatening endangered species including the burrowing crayfish (engaewa pseudoreductus, endemic to Margaret River, Osmington Area) and the small lifestyle farmers .
How are we to resolve this difficulty? By appealing to a lesser known branch of ethics, that of care, which is a holistic, embodied emotional response which operates outside the rational and scientific rational systems we are embedded in. This is the ethical framework Sister Teresa operates with, simply to responding to the immediate situation with one’s heart. This is why Brent Watson can draw a crowd with his rambling emails and persuade them to feel for the situation, drawing the scorn of politicians and journalists.
Neither of these three systems is adequate in themselves. All three aspects, the rational consistency, minimizing harmful consequences, being responsible to others, need to be involved. And if all three are considered at the most universal level possible (that is, outside our local legal system, beyond our current scientific knowledge) then the mines would not be allowed to proceed.

Further Information

To read more about the proposed mine and/or voice your concern please follow this link.

To read more about Felicity Haynes & Tingrith Meeting House please follow this link.

If you are interested in upcoming workshops held at Tingrith Meeting House, Margaret River please contact Felicity on tingrith63@hotmail.com or by phoning the farm on 08 9757 4014.
You may also like to visit www.tingrithmeetinghouse.com