Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
The dust that dare not speak its name
Talk about a cry for help. French farmers have to make do with blockading the Champs Elysees or whatever. But our plucky paysannes can now send their dust to speak for them.
And speak it does, in great billowing gobbets. Not just to Macquarie Street, either. That dust gets everywhere, infiltrating every crook and nanny, cataracting every sparkling view – as though Sydney were some trifling Adelaide or Kalgoorlie. The country flexes its muscle, and its message is this: dust can steal Sydney’s éclat, its very Sydney-ness. And while one dust storm a century might be dismissed as bad luck, two in a week starts to look like carelessness.
I happened to be visiting Pittwater on The Day of the Dust. Gale or no gale, the brownout was complete, and it was hard not to see a certain poetic justice in this forcible reminder, for the splashy seaside classes, that much of the country hasn’t seen water for months, even years.
The dust breathed an unearned air of authenticity across Sydney’s east-burbs. For a moment, the lines of armoured 4WD kiddy-carriages outside every school looked like genuine off-roaders as if, just for a second, reality had been allowed in.
Even in Redfern, the scrubbers and washers were out within minutes, blasting the house, drenching the car, watering the concrete. Stop! I wanted to yell. Don’t you get it? This is the very solipsism that brought us here. But the bigger picture is as nothing to the head-down hosers of bare cement.
The poetic irony goes further than the dirtying of views and cars. For us, as for most of the world, central Australia might as well not exist. It is almost a paradigm of unthinkability. It’s Timbuktu. That’s why we do things like nuclear testing there. It’s why BHP Billiton’s proposal to turn the Olympic Dam uranium mine into an open-cut operation is even contemplated for approval. Because it’s there, not here. Or was there – until, like Burnham Wood, it came here.
Open-cut uranium mining? It’s a gash a kilometre deep, churning 410 million tonnes of radioactive dirt per annum, “dewatering” the local aquifers, using 253 megalitres of water a day. No wonder the locals call them water thieves.
Of course, BHP’s environmental impact statement devotes a couple of pars to dust management. BHP proposes water trucks – like the ones they spray roads with. And they’ll monitor airborne particulates at nearby Hiltaba Village (so small even Google Maps can’t find it) and the thriving metropolis of Roxby Downs. That’ll do it.
A possibility the EIS doesn’t contemplate, however, is that several thousand tonnes of the stuff might reach the Opera House, or even Mount Egmont, where it lay so thick people thought their cars had rusted overnight. Where even New Zealand rains couldn’t wash it away.
But the dust wasn’t just mine tailings. And the issue isn’t just whether we’re all going to be glowing in the dark by Halloween. As the tendrilled satellite images showed, the cloud continued to collect precious topsoil as it headed east. This was the stuff of life, central Australia’s remaining hope of ever becoming fertile, stripped off and dumped in the sea.
How stark a reminder do we need that clear-felling, hard-hoofed, salinating farm practices that now own the country are shortsighted? Or that the curious etymological accident that makes homophones of farmer and pharma has lethal potential?
Post-holocaust, they said of that red dawn. Weird, like some nuclear winter. For me, it was more like Banjo Paterson’s hirsute hero had blown into town, frightening the ladies. Murder, bloody murder! yelled the man from Ironbark.
That’s the human take. If, however, you’re a whale, or even a single-cell phytoplankton for which there is no singular noun, dust has an upside. Entire species – entire planets – depend on it.
Dust fertilises the oceans, feeding the plankton that dwell so sweetly at the bottom of the food chain. Not only does this benefit fish populations, and in turn dolphins, whales and two-legged mammals, it is also a brilliant form of carbon capture.
Never mind clean coal, or Gunns’ pine-forest sequestration propaganda. Entire organisations exist simply to seed the oceans with iron-rich dust of the kind we have in bucketloads, encouraging surface blooms that will absorb CO2 then drop as “marine snow” to the sea bottom, and stay there.
Dusting the oceans may therefore be seen as terrestrial pay-back; rains fertilise the earth, earth fertilises the sea. Even if we cannot make our deserts bloom, a la Israel, even if we can’t water our dirt, we can dirt our oceans.
Admittedly, as the biogeochemist Ken Buesseler found in his recent Southern Ocean study, we may need to dust and keep dusting. But that’s where we come in. Hose away, drive away. What goes around, comes around.