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Issue #1537      29 February 2012

WA Chief Scientist visits northwest mining boom centre

On a three day visit to the mining service hub of Karratha on Australia’s North West coast, Chief Scientist of Western Australia, Professor Lyn Beazley addressed a public meeting on the aims and ambitions of science in the region. The meeting which was widely publicised in the local media and through emails to all businesses was only able to attract 20 people, while the towns’ recent karaoke night attracted 150 people.

The event was organised by the Institution of Engineers and Technology which has amongst its goals, the promotion of the interests of engineers and their profession in the community. The handiwork of engineers is very evident among mining and gas infrastructure around Karratha and the Pilbara hinterland.

Professor Beazley began her presentation by reminding those present of how old the Pilbara landscape is, where rocks have been discovered on the surface which date back 3.5 billion years – and where recently amongst these rocks were discovered microfossils which were 3.4 billion years old when the existence of “free oxygen” was minimal. In fact research conducted by a scientist from the University of WA found that these microbes “breathed” sulphur compounds.

In more recent times as part of a biodiversity survey across the state, 1,300 new species were discovered including several on the nearby Burrup Peninsular – home also to 30,000 year old Aboriginal rock art. Both these recently discovered plant and animal species and the ancient Aboriginal rock art are in danger of disappearing forever as capital’s relentless push for non-renewable energy and minerals continues on the Burrup, threatening to crowd out this unique natural and Aboriginal heritage.

While investment in renewable energy has overtaken that of non-renewable energy by $140 billion compared to $110 billion, these mining and carbon based energy projects were continuing with significant plans for further expansion.

It should be noted that the resource projects in operation and those planned for the Pilbara and Kimberley regions of WA will make the government’s clean energy targets of 20% by 2020 more difficult if not impossible to achieve as these projects will add at least another 10-15% to current emission levels.

While Professor Beazley touched on challenges and developments in geothermal (it is deeper than most parts in the world) and bio-fuels (including a local pilot algae plant), wind, tidal and solar, much work and political will is needed to overcome industries’ reliance, almost an addiction to non–renewable energy.

Finally, left out of the picture of the massive resource development of the area, was the impact on the local Aboriginal people, the local ecosystems and family and social networks caused by some of the living and working arrangements in the Pilbara. These impacts include the level of unemployment amongst some Aboriginal youth, the health and education and existential problems confronting Aboriginal communities with the sudden and invasive introduction of mining and associated technology and modern day to day living to the Pilbara region.

Non-Aboriginal people are not immune to the problems of mining in the Pilbara as the human cost of Fly In-Fly Out is being increasingly felt by workers and the communities which receive them – a disconnection from self and family.

By the end of Professor Beazley’s presentation about the wonders and marvels of science I and other people in the room with whom I talked afterwards were left wondering whether the quantitative improvements in material existence which had been wrought by science and technology had also brought similar qualitative improvements in human existence or being.

As many parts of the world are experiencing limits to material wellbeing with the deepening of the global financial crisis, maybe it is time to rethink the framework of our social, cultural and economic wellbeing and embrace systems which are more sustainable and will bring material and non-material benefits to society at all levels and for all living things.  

Next article – Smokefree alfresco dining

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