The coalition’s encouragement of developers such as York Potash forms part of a neoliberal assault on the environment
I recently took a trip through the Moors, en route to Whitby. The train from Middlesbrough meandered through miles of lavish Yorkshire countryside, stopping at tiny hamlets like Castleton Moor, and Ruswarp.
It was positively barbaric. Yes, the cottages are beautiful, but try getting a signal on your mobile. And if you do get a signal, try ordering a delivery from Ocado. This isn’t entirely metropolitan snobbery. Whitby, a grand seaside town, is also the only town I’ve visited where “golliwogs” can still be won in arcade games.
Now they want to dig up this achingly lush landscape for some potash, a fertiliser ingredient. Imagine my sorrow. Sarcasm aside, the 11 local organisations now opposing this development have a real grievance. This will be one of the biggest mines of its kind in the world, and will despoil 4.5 hectares of the 100 hectares of forestry already owned by York Potash, a subsidiary of the mineral mining company Sirius. The landscape is not only of aesthetic value, but also provides carbon storage, biodiversity and forms a natural flood defence, all of which are difficult to put a cash value on.
Sirius promises that any negative effects will be outweighed by the creation of 1,000 new jobs. This is always the fastest route to the moral high ground for mining and development capital. Thus, some of the opposition from environmental campaigners hinges on the prospective damage to the economy, particularly tourism. But this merely highlights the false nature of the dilemma – growth versus sustainability– posed by mining interests.
The real underlying issue in this, as in most controversies related to the exploitation of natural resources, is democracy. As George Monbiot has argued: “The first prerequisite for protecting the environment is a functioning democracy.” Whether it is in Brazil, India, Canada, or Britain, the struggles that take place are invariably over who gets the final say in what is done with the planet’s wealth.
Take, for example, the Rio Tinto potash mine in Mendoza, Argentina, which was approved last month. Opposition centred on potential environmental damage and the creation of salt waste deposits that would pollute the drinking water. Rio Tinto was not trusted by locals to keep the area safe and clean. In addition, the opposition felt that they should have a say in how the country’s resources were exploited. This environmentalism of the poor is sometimes erroneously called “resource nationalism”: it is just a matter of democracy.
On the face of it, mining in the Moors is a different proposition. The major objection is that it’s taking place in a national park, conserved for the benefit of the public: a blot on a beautiful landscape. Surely the opposition is conservative and romantic? But taken as part of the government’s wider strategy for development we can see that similar issues are at stake.
This government is engaged in a hasty retreat from environmental commitments regarding regional development. The potash development follows the abolition of the Regional Spatial Strategies inherited from the last government that, while foregrounding industrial development, included targets for the reduction of greenhouse gases and the development of sustainable industry.
Furthermore, the government is intent on handing more leverage to business in how development takes place. Regional development agencies funded by central government were disbanded in this government’s Public Bodies Bill as part of a wider offensive against the public sector. The bill also included a plan to sell off the national forests to private developers, a controversial proposal abandoned at the last minute. These agencies have been replaced by local enterprise partnerships, which are not funded by central government but involve voluntary relationships between local governments and businesses.
As a result, local authorities wishing to generate income and encourage development must subordinate everything to creating a convivial environment for investors. The York and North Yorkshire Local Enterprise Partnership naturally makes the potash extraction industry a central component of its growth strategy. You can hardly blame them – there aren’t many other opportunities coming in areas, particularly Scarborough and Whitby, hit hard by spending cuts.
So, here is the problem. Two major developments of neoliberalism obstruct environmental justice. First, neoliberal reform has been hollowing out what little democracy parliament affords us, the shift from quangos to voluntary coalitions between government and capital merely confirming popular exclusion from decision-making. Second, when the economy provides few investment opportunities, neoliberalism offers “accumulation by dispossession”; turning over previously public goods, whether hospitals or park land, to private profit. This can always be presented as “creating jobs”.
The only answer to this is to assert popular sovereignty over the environment. On that account alone, it would be a step forward if Yorkshire residents stopped the potash mine.
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Go here to see the original: Donald Ray Bernard: Creating Jobs and Changing the Economic Landscape From Diamonds in the Rough