For this week’s photo challenge, WordPress has asked us to explore what it means to find your place in the world. Where’s your safe space? Where do you go when you need to feel inspired or cheered up? Do you prefer the city over a small town? I have to admit I find this an incredibly difficult challenge because I feel very ambivalent about my place in the world. I don’t feel safe, or comforted, or any of the things that WordPress has asked us to explore. I feel that I am possibly too much, that we are too much. However, I am here. I live in a wonderful place and I’m grateful for that. The issue of whether I, and we, can live sustainably is a complex one.
I am just one person. I feel small and vulnerable like this insect on a billy button.
But I am part of a family of four. We live in a small inland city of over 400,000 people. If our city grows too large and we consume too many resources, am I just like one of these small mosquito fish, of which there are many, that eats the eggs of our native fish and upsets the delicate ecological balance of our creeks and rivers? It is out of place. I don’t know how many is too many for our small city. Perhaps I am out of place too? It is a discomforting thought.
I am one of 24.9 million residents of Australia. Most of us (about 90%) live in urban areas. Australia’s population is 0.3% of the 7.6 billion global population. The UN forecasts our population will grow to over 31 million by 2050, but I have also heard that it could grow to as much as 50 million. Can we co-exist with nature, when more and more of our resources are being devoted to food, shelter and other essentials of life, and increasingly to non-essential items too? As a developed country with abundant coal resources used primarily for electricity generation, we also have one of the highest carbon footprints per head of population in the world. When is enough enough?
Is it fair that we Aussies should sacrifice our standard of living so that people in other countries have the opportunity to have some of the things we take for granted? These questions make me feel uncomfortable about my place in the world.
I am not self-sustainable. I consume a range of products and services from domestic and overseas suppliers. Some small population centres in regional Australia have done well out of supplying my needs, and perhaps your needs as well. Many of these resources are very energy-intensive to produce. Exploiting these resources often entails a significant environmental cost. The place I want to live is one that is both economically and environmentally sustainable. But what if it is not possible to achieve both? What if we are not possible if we don’t achieve both? What if someone must make a sacrifice? Who should make that sacrifice?
The regional town of Gladstone (Queensland), which sits on the southern edge of the Great Barrier Reef, perfectly illustrates this conundrum. It is my extended family’s town. It is a town based on big, energy-intensive industries. Coal-seam gas from inland central Queensland is piped to Gladstone, and then exported to global markets. Alumina, aluminium, concrete, and toxic chemicals for the mining industry, are also produced in Gladstone. Coal trains travel from inland to the Gladstone export terminal, and the coal is loaded into ever bigger bulk carriers to be shipped around the world. There is a large coal-fired power station in the town to power those industries.
My family’s town will be hurt if these industries close. It is not my place to tell them that these industries are environmentally unsustainable. Is it fair that the good people of Gladstone be asked to sacrifice their livelihood for the sake of the public good? If it is not my place, or the place of other concerned citizens to advocate for change, then whose place is it? Is it enough to let the market decide? Australia is a free-market economy. But, if we are too much, then isn’t it an inevitable conclusion that the market will decide its place is to match supply and demand? This is an uncomfortable place for me, if not the people of Gladstone.
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