Veneers of sustainability: the public sector's collusion in opencasting
Last week another opencast coal story broke across the environment pages of Scottish newspapers. You’d be forgiven for missing it, despite the egregiously appalling nature of the proposal – to entirely drain the beautiful Loch Fitty in order to make way for seven more years of opencast mining at St Ninians – because it seems there’s always another coal mine coming in Scotland, always another outrage. There are already 11 mines producing 5 million tonnes every year, with a further 27 mines weaselling their way through the planning system.
The Loch Fitty proposal, however, stands out not just because of the bizarre loch-draining scheme, but also because of public sector agency’s open-eyed collusion in the project. Sepa approval of the plans might seem weird enough, with their claim that only draining the polluting loch could restore the ecology already wrecked by 14 years of nearby opencasting. But in an extra-absurd twist, Creative Scotland, the national arts funding council, are offering £150,000 to the Scottish Resources Group to put up an “iconic welcome sculpture” at the entrance to the proposed redevelopment park, the blandly-named “Scottish World”.
The Scottish World world project is a work of “land art” by Charles Jencks, a sculpted landscape park that will be built once the coal is exhausted. It will represent “the continents of the world, celebrating Scotland’s Diaspora and how they have influenced history”. The drained Loch Fitty will be replaced by a “loch in the shape of Scotland together with further water features which will be surrounded by dramatic cliffs”. The over-reaching claim for the project is that it will “create a major tourist destination for Fife and Scotland which capitalises on both the prime location of the site”, and that it is, laughably, “already a feature of interest to motorists using the M90”.
What vision! Car-drivers speeding down the motorway will no longer have to put up with views of Loch Fitty and its messy surrounding woodland – instead they’ll be able to enjoy sculpted lawn terraces and wooden sculptures. And what better way to celebrate our glorious mooted future as an independent nation under the neoliberal-lite hand of the SNP than through a concrete-fringed loch in the shape of Scotland!
Needless to say, the Creative Scotland-funded welcome sculpture will be commissioned through “a competition… in the mining communities of Fife”. Presumably this will include the immediate community of Kingseat, the majority of whose residents, according to community council chair Forbes Stuart, are completely opposed to the project. Presumably these are the same communities with whom Sepa conducted a “consultation and advertising exercise”, although Stuart also claims that Sepa didn’t consult local residents at all – hardly surprising, if Sepa sees its role as advertising the project.
The veneer of community consultation in the publicly-funded sculpture is precisely the same veneer found in the Sepa decision, and it’s the same veneer as that presented by the false sustainability of the entire project. Scottish World represents a vision of a Scotland made sustainable by total management. There will be no polluted lakes, because every lake has been drained. Ecosystem diversity will be achieved through high profile land art. All the trees will be made into sculptures designed by the local community. Faced by the impossibility of achieving a sustainable relationship with the land, of finding a positive role in the existing ecology, the public sector is choosing to drain it all and start again.
Organisations like the Scottish Resources Group have to provide this kind of veneer in order to buy the support of the public sector. As long as it looks like a community engagement strategy, as long as it looks like some kind of sustainability, then that’s enough to get the approval of Sepa and Creative Scotland – even though, in actuality, it’s nothing of the sort.
Coal mining is anything but sustainable – there is still no such thing as clean coal, especially when coal-fired power stations are more CO2-intensive than any other type, and are the largest and fastest growing source of greenhouse gases within the power generation industry (rising by over 30% between 1999 and 2005). And being able to enter a sculpture competition is little comfort to a local community that, thanks to opencasting, may be experiencing a 70 percent increased risk of developing kidney disease, a 64 percent increased risk of developing chronic lung diseases, a 30 percent increased risk of reporting high blood pressure, and reported higher rates of cardiopulmonary disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, hypertension and diabetes.
Our public agencies are being willingly co-opted into support of opencasting. As the possibility of meeting the Climate Change (Scotland) Act’s 2020 target of 42% reductions on 1990 levels rapidly recedes in the face of ever more rapacious opencasting, as the Scottish Government’s willingness to discuss embarrassingly-missed targets vanishes in the face of a referendum in the same year, we can expect our public bodies to leap on anything that looks like sustainability, or at least anything that can be given a sustainable spin. It falls to the actual public not to let them get away with it.