BusinessWeek is reporting that Australia is moving to China. At the rate of a million tons a day, Australia is excavated, poured into trucks, loaded aboard barges, and floated off to the Middle Kingdom. There it is employed in the service of high-winding the national economy so that the Chinese may live like Americans. Which is their right: if Americans can live like Americans, everyone else should be able to, too. Problem is, it would require the resources of 5.3 earths for everyone to live like an American. And we only have one.
It is the iron-rich region of Pilbara that is migrating to China. “Pilbara” is the Aboriginal word for “mullet,” the fish that used to run in the mountain creeks there. That was before the native peoples were displaced by stockmen and ruffians. Now the earth itself is leaving.
The red earth here contains an estimated 24 billion tons of iron ore. In the 1970s it left in smaller quantities and returned to Australia in Toyotas and Mazdas; now the dirt is going offshore forever, to house and transport workers in the cities of China.
While it’s a complex industry, at the basic level mining is dead-simple: Dirt is dug from the ground, loaded onto trucks, taken to trains, then put on boats. It is the scale that stuns, particularly in this operation. The trucks are two stories tall. The trains are two miles long, and they pour like rivers down the mountains to the coast, where the carrier ships await. The million tons of ore the ships carry away each day is up by 70 percent in the past five years, and most of it is bound for China.
[The ore] is loaded onto 325-yard-long bulk carriers waiting by purpose-built wharves 500 yards long. About eight of these massive ships leave every day.
Selling itself to China has allowed Australia to evade the global recession—its unemployment rate, at 5.1%, is the same as it was before the transnational money-munchers went into a swoon.
Some Australians, however, wonder whether, in the words of one Tony Wiltshire, the mining people are “just here to make a buck and go, or build something sustainable? The question is whether we’re going to have mines with towns, or towns with mines.”
That’s a question easily answered. I lived in a mining town for 15 years. Except it’s not a town anymore. It died, slowly, long before I moved there, after the mines played out. It has always been thus, for mining towns. My “town,” when I lived in it, was no longer a town—it was, rather, a “ghost town.” Once the earth is all used up, the Pilbara will go ghostly, too.
The Pilbara is a 193,000 square-mile chunk of territory on the Indian China, so it’s going to take a while to ship it off to China. But it’s going fast. And other regions of Australia are migrating as well.
As large as the Pilbara project is, it is just one of many China has funded in a boom that has both enriched and troubled Australia. The Chinese aluminum company Chinalco owns about 9 percent of Rio Tinto, which has been transformed by China’s demand for iron ore into the second-largest miner in the world. Rio Tinto, which had a net income of $1.4 billion in 2003, now earns more than $10 billion a year, and 70 percent of those profits are from iron ore.
China buys A$22 billion worth of iron ore from Australia each year. In 2009, according to the Australian government, nearly a quarter of the country’s exports, A$42.4 billion worth, went to China. The year-on-year growth was 31 per-cent.
The greater part of Chi-na’s interest in Australia lies in the ground.
Chevron’s Gorgon natural gas project at Barrow Island, off the northwest coast of Western Australia, will cost $37 billion to build and employ 6,000. China has committed to buying gas from the project for 20 years. Chevron (CVX) is also developing a liquefied natural gas (LNG) project at Wheatstone in the same area that will produce an estimated 8.6 million tons of LNG annually.
More than 60 new direct Chinese investment projects have been approved this year by Australia’s Foreign Investment Review Board and are expected to total A$23 billion over their lives. Huge mining projects need the type of capital that is not easily available within Australia, and 99 percent of current Chinese investment in the country is in the resources sector.
Sleepy little outback communities are finding themselves wholly transformed by decisions made, or not made, by people they never see, living thousands of miles away.
[In] Wandoan, a hamlet of 300 homes in outback Queensland, on the eastern side of Australia, life has become contingent on decisions in steel towns in China or at the headquarters of Mainland-based multinationals. Mining giant Xstrata, to take one example, has been planning a A$6 billion coal mine that is part of a A$150 billion complex of projects in central Queensland to export coal and LNG to Asia.
Ray Mortimer is a local real estate agent and head of the town’s business chamber. “The mine’s been on the drawing board for a long time,” he says, “and people feel like they’re being strung along. Xstrata has bought 70,000 acres of the most beautiful grazing land for seven mines. Forty families were coming to grips with whether to take the money or stay where they’ve been for generations and didn’t really want to leave. When they did leave, it caused the local supermarket to close down. Then Xstrata stopped buying. Then two months ago it was on again, but now it’s up in the air again.”
“There are deeply mixed feelings over the mine,” says Mortimer. “Older people have no sense that this is going to be good for the district, because all they see is their communities being decimated. For the businesses who are meant to profit, whether it’s mine mechanics or hardware or all the small businesses in the towns, they don’t know from one week to the next whether they’re going to have a job or not.”
Dina Fraser, whose family has owned the local pharmacy in Wandoan for 40 years, says the mine project has been anything but a blessing. “A lot of people have lost their properties to acquisitions by the mine and some have left town,” she says. “If the mine doesn’t happen, the town might just fade away. There’s great upheaval about it and a happy farming community has been turned into something else, and you could say a lot of people wish the resources were somewhere else.”
Harold Hills peddling mines have ever sold them on the promise of “jobs.” Australians are finding that such promises often prove hollow. In June, local people were stunned to discover the Sino mine project in the Pilbara was advertising only for riggers, crane operators, and fitters who could speak Mandarin. That sorta counted every local out.
Says John Sutton, national secretary of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union: “As more Chinese investment comes in, it’s inevitable that they’ll want to bring in their own workforce, with lower costs and conditions than the locals. Why else would a company advertise in a way that shuts out pretty much every Australian job applicant?”
“The reality is that industrial discrimination against local people is huge,” says Tony Wiltshire, who tries to place Aboriginal peoples in mining positions. “The big corporations fly workers in and out, and see these mines as short-term projects.”
Like I said: prepare for ghost-towning.
Millennium was historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto’s brash, ambitious attempt to fashion “a history of the last thousand years” that would cover the entire world. In my view, he didn’t wholly succeed. But he did succeed in convincing me of one of his theses: that the “Atlantic dominance” that we in the West were born into, and which therefore appeared to us to be the natural order of things, is, in truth, and in the long view, an anomalous and transitory thing. And that at least since peoples started getting busy in other peoples’ business, “Pacific dominance” has most often been the way of the world—and is the world we are now returning to. In the 15 years since I read his book, I’ve been watching it happen. For it is happening. Bodily moving great swaths of Australia to China is a mani-festation of it.
Some months ago I noted with amusement a piece in the New York Times wherein officials of the US Navy fretted that China had announced it now intended to conduct naval exercises in the Pacific. This was regarded by these Navy people as an Outrage, despite the fact that China is in the Pacific . . . and the US, pace its various assorted imperial territories and possessions, really is not. Since then I’ve bookmarked probably an additional 40 or 50 stories, all with an eye towards writing a piece documenting the shift in global economic dominance from the US to China. As a result, I now, as has been the case ever since I began writing, back when I was five years old, suffer from “too much information,” a condition that plagued me decades before it entered the culture as an abbreviation—TMI. So who knows if the thing will ever get written?
The nut of the thing is that the Chinese believe in “Chinese exceptionalism” every bit as much as Americans believe in “American exceptionalism.” And, as our president saw, and said—one of the reasons he is crucified by our knuckledraggers as a traitorous Muslim Marxist—all peoples in all nations consider themselves exceptional. It’s as natural for them as it is for us. America has set the standard for how “best” to live, materially, on this planet, and the Chinese are determined that their people shall live that way, too. And their model is one that American capitalists actually envy: offering individuals material comforts, but withholding from them those pesky personal/political freedoms that can sometimes so irritatingly interfere with transnational moneymaking. Of course, the Chinese are beginning to discover that it is not so easy to deny people individual liberties once you’ve put some money in their pockets. And everybody, eventually, is going to have to learn that no one can live like an American. There just isn’t enough planet.
In the meantime, however, those Australians who are “benefitting” from shipping their country off to China are discovering that they are able to live like Americans.
As country towns across Australia grapple with obesity, remote mining communities are finding they’re also battling the bulge.
GP Sue Evans says after a 12-hour shift in the dust and heat, miners are turning to TV dinners and beer.
“Well over half of all the men I see are overweight and many of them have a BMI (Body Mass Index) of over 30, almost half of the women I see would also have the same issues.”
“I think people forget just how significant regular consumption of alcohol is in making a person obese,” she says.
Dr Evans is concerned workers in the town consider five beers a day as normal ‘light drinking’.
She says limited access to fresh fruit and vegetables is also contributing to the problem.
Dr Evans believes it is important to raise awareness of the health issues surrounding obesity.
But efforts are underway to tackle the problem. Dr Evans says a company-subsidised gym is helping, along with initiatives like walking groups for new mums.
Yep, that’s the way to live. Work outdoors for 12 hours a day, but need a gym to work off excess poundage.