marcus westbury

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Tiny Revolutions (Meanjin Essay)

January 21st, 2011 by marcus

I am about to head off for 3 and a bit  weeks in the USA so updates may be sporadic for a while. In the meantime if you want to read something longer and chunkier of mine, the good folks at Meanjin have just put my essay Tiny Revolutions from the last issue online. It’s about globalisation, Newcastle, and how Renew Newcastle came about. It’s a long – but hopefully worthwhile – read if you’re interested in such things.

Tiny Revolutions

At more than 200 years since European settlement, Newcastle is an old city in Australian terms. It’s a fading but to my eyes beautiful seaside city of a bit under half a million people. Like many industrial cities in the developed world it has been battered by the loss of once formidable heavy industry. In a global economy that demands specialisation and scale, its steelworks—once the defining symbol of the town—has been a casualty. The BHP operation once dwarfed much of the city around it. A decade after its closure, the site is little more than a hole in the skyline, some rusting ruins and unfulfilled promises of new industries and opportunities. Where blast furnaces once stood nature slowly reasserts itself. Here the mighty works of the industrial era and its toxic legacies lie idle.

When the BHP Steelworks towered over the economy and geography of Newcastle—as it did when I was growing up there few would have suspected it would ever be too small to survive. Now there are newer, larger cities of steel thousands of kilometres to the north. They’re fuelled by global not national demand, by billions not millions of people, by cheap labour and economies of scale once impossible to imagine.

Today Newcastle digs up its exports. It is the largest coal port in the world. Coal is both a boom and a portent: a precious, finite and poisonous resource. Each ship sets sail on an ever-rising sea. Though the community is fiercely divided about whether the end should come by caution, consumption or calamity, few in Newcastle would argue that coal can last forever.

The riches being mined nearby are not reflected in the cityscape. Newcastle is no shining resource-rich boom town. The old city declines and decays. Well over a hundred empty buildings line the two main streets and the once vital commercial heart of the city has become an anachronism of forgotten trams and consumption patterns long past: designed for a local economy before the rise of suburban shopping centres, global brands and car culture made such things obsolete.

There are at least six billion perspectives on globalisation. There are stories of great opportunity (development, economic liberation and transformation) and of great destruction—social, environmental and personal—in every community, in every culture. Both sides of the globalisation story are reduced to simplifications, yet really they are stories of complexity and contradiction.

For this story of Newcastle it is necessary to reduce this complexity to a problem of scale. It is a story is about accepting contradiction and the opportunities offered by cultural globalisation to repair some of the damage wrought by economic change. It is tale of looking for the small solutions to giant problems: of rebirth and renewal through a series of tiny revolutions.

Read the rest at the Meanjin web site.

If you want to find out what happened next check the Renew Newcastle web site or see what the good folks at Lonely Planet have been saying.

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