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A West Coast Response to the Jobs after Coal report

A West Coast Response to the Jobs after Coal report

by Paul Maunder
May 23, 2014

‘They’re dreamers, mate,’ was the response of a union organiser when I sent him a copy of Jobs after Coal, the new report released by Coal Action Network. I had to agree, not because the analysis of the report is wrong, it is in fact very competent, but because the alternatives proposed for the Coast are dreamlike: art galleries in coal mines, grow your own food in tunnel houses heated by wood waste, cycle trails – the usual which seems to have, at its heart, a vision of the Coast as a national park, with well equipped visitors hiking or cycling through, serviced by DOC and a few smiling locals - the glacier towns writ large. Funny how the glacier towns are serviced by non-unionised migrant labour. The only piece of reality is the option to go to Christchurch for the rebuild, which some Spring Creek miners have done, either shifting there or the family staying here and Dad (or Mum) coming home once a month, because the work is six days a week. And not so brilliantly paid either and presumably not sustainable, unless earthquakes keep happening.

Let it be said clearly, Coasters actually want to live here.

The report is basically hypocritical, for it fails to tackle the market. There is in fact no solution under the blanket market regime. We could grow our own food, and it would produce many small local ventures, but only if the supermarkets stopped importing ‘fresh’ food from the global market place (funny how permaculture, a rather nice concept, seems to have disappeared from the radar). You could retort that the consumer can buy what he or she wishes, but that’s another dream when it comes to a change such as this one. And in fact, Coasters do have gardens, do grow their own food, and do go hunting for their own meat, and do gather their own firewood. But it’s not a market activity, or takes place on the margins of the marketplace.

Cycle trails yes, but tourism is an opportunistic business, served by either national or international corporations or local owner families, and the wages aren’t great, nor are regions highly dependent on tourists culturally great - there's a sense of invasion once the numbers hit a certain level. Nor is the vision of redundant coal miners dressing up and performing for the tourist an attractive proposition.

Dairying continues to be robust, a combination of private, corporate and co-operative ownership sitting happily within the market regime, although it would seem to be a case of the country putting its eggs into one basket – something generations of economists have warned against. But it is environmentally dodgy; not only because of waterway pollution, but because the practice of humping and hollowing destroys the ability of the land to return to what it was (beech forest). A Maori friend has called it the last act of colonisation. And the recent Labour Dept report confirmed that workers in the industry are vulnerable, being placed in a feudal position.

Micro hydro power also has its complications. We tried to get one happening in Blackball, got through the feasibility study: the scheme would cost 5 million, would power the town and a mine, but how can a small community raise 5 million? And then household meters are owned by one of the big boys, so would have to be replaced – at considerable cost. We also realised there would be problems administering a local scheme. We tried the market interest, but there wasn’t any. Nice idea, but market reality got in the way.

Building and household insulation? Sure. But did I read about us shipping logs to China and them coming back as kitset houses? Market realities once more.

Of course, there are examples of sustainability: a salami company, a plywood factory, a couple of sawmills exporting to Australia and the States, a reasonably vibrant engineering sector, fish processing…able, at the moment, to survive in the marketplace.

In case this response feels negative and world weary, we have realised that there is something begging to be developed here: the manufacturing of carbon fibre from the coal. The technology is there. Carbon fibre is a high value product. Manufacturing could then be associated: bicycles, sporting equipment, cars… It’s not a matter of keeping the coal in the ground, it’s a matter of not burning it. And instead, doing something more useful. Maybe making a 51/49% deal with a suitable corporation. And protecting the startup until it can stand on its own two feet. Of some retraining being necessary, without income loss. It is remarkably obvious and energy must be put into it. It requires some market intervention; and the coal and the carbon fibre manufacturing must stay here.

The danger is that banning coal will become an obsession; a relatively easy option in NZ, for there are not a lot of jobs or communities involved. It will become as obsessive as the anti smoking campaign – sure, smoking is not good for people, but I can never understand why alcohol (associated with 75% of all crime and not particularly good for you either) is not equally the target. A sort of cargo cult gathers. And behind these cargo cults lies the uncomfortable political reality that developed nations are becoming ruled by oligarchies, using the patternings of democracy as a façade. Only occasionally (the recent Campbell Live revelations on the GCSB jack up or John Banks electoral donations) does the truth peek through. Obama is the model, together with the knowledge that factions will be co-opted as appropriate (see the Maori party in coalition with National), destroyed and spat out. It will be no surprise if the Greens are offered a deal if National get in again.

These cargo cults could stop the necessary systemic confrontations occurring – and these confrontations will be anything but comfortable.


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