September, 22 2010
Burrup Peninsular
William L Fox
Writing

Larry and I spend much of the rest of the day digesting what we've seen, and find ourselves in late afternoon bouncing along the dirt roads of the Burrup looking for the rock art cemetery. We remember the topography, how the site sits in relationship to the ammonia plant and Woodside, forming a shallow triangle with the two facilities, but it takes us some to and fro before we arrive just as the moon is rising. Kangaroos and rock wallabies are bouncing around, and the boulders behind the chainlink fence seem to glow softly in the aftermath of the day. Larry begins to circumnavigate the fence while I head up the hill just east of the confinement to find a place to sit and think about energy.

The rock art was displaced by the building of the Woodside gas plant. It's another inescapable irony of the Pilbara: you uproot a culture, turn its icons upside down, imprison them in the name of preservation--and then make pictures of them, which may in turn become icons of the displacement of culture by industry. That leads me to mull over the future of the Pilbara, given its resource-rich nature. The world uses just a bit more than one cubic mile of oil per year, as the late American engineer Hewitt Crane put it, seeking to make the enormous numbers inherent in energy policy discussion comprehensible to the public. That's a third of our total energy consumption of three CMOs per year, which will increase to somewhere between six and nine CMO's per year by 2050 as China and India evolve into full-blown consumerist societies. Here's what it takes in other energy sources to create a energy equalling that in a single CMO: 52 nuclear power plants developed each year for 50 years. Or 104 coal-fired power plants developed over five decades. Or four dams the size of the Three Gorges impoundment built over that period. Or an astonishing 32,850 wind turbines -- 1,642,500 in all. For just one CMO. Given that the world's reserves of oil were estimated at the end of 2006 to be only 32 CMOs, much of which will be more expensive to access than current fields, supply and demand means that the Pilbara's reserves of gas and coal and uranium are going to be exploited at a much more rapid rate in short order.

And that means the displacement here of land, people, history, archaeological remains, and entire belief systems is going to continue. What Larry and I and the photographers are looking at isn't so much what's happened in the past, but the beginning of the future. What we've been asked to do while in the Pilbara is to look at how nature and culture and industry affect one another in a unique region of the world--where the remnants of an advanced Palaeolithic social technology in one of the harsher environments in the world morphs along with Euro-Australian industry and society into something we haven't seen before. The rock cemetery is part of the story, as is the funding of Aboriginal art centres, as are the hiring of design teams to assess how to turn towns such as Karratha into livable, even desirable places. And all of it is funded, at least in part, but the mining companies, part of the price of doing business.

It's confounding, of course. As Larry and drive back into town along the main road between Dampier and Karratha, we take in the giant stacks at the gas plant flaring off, the lights of the ore trains coming in from the mines, the orange glow of the locomotive sheds, the reflection of moonlight on the salt ponds. We're getting to where it's actually scenic in our minds, a seduction of the industrial sublime where what we're contemplating is both awful and beautiful.

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