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Seeing red on dams, not green

08, May 2011

Seeing red on dams, not green

Barry York

From: The Australian

January 14, 2011 12:00AM

NO new dams of significant size have been built in Australia for more than two decades.

During the recent long drought, the dam question arose again but the response from experts and governments was along the lines of: "Why build a dam if the climate has permanently changed in a way that means there will be less rain in future?

Opposition to dams has been a key success in the development of the green movement and the Greens party since the early 1980s. But the term opposition understates the situation: it is really demonisation of dams.

In the Green quasi-religion, dams are evil, akin to a Satanic force. Thus, there must never be any big new dams built. Not ever.

The Green policy is expressed at their website as a principle: "There should be no new large-scale dams on Australian rivers."

Had the Greens been as influential in the second half of the 1970s as they have been since the mid-80s, it is unlikely that the Wivenhoe Dam, on the Brisbane River, 80km from Brisbane, would have been constructed. (After years of planning and building, it was opened in 1984.)

The Wivenhoe was designed, following massive floods in 1974, with a flood mitigation function alongside the usual water supply role. Like all dams, it is an example of human beings changing the natural world, by unnatural means, into something very useful and necessary to us in terms of our needs, standard of living and future progress.

To the Green mentality and ethos, changing nature is destroying nature, dams are an assault on the "delicate balance" in nature, an example of human arrogance going too far.

In this regard, the Green outlook is a remapping of traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs and myths about the Garden of Eden and fall from grace as a result of humans eating from the tree of knowledge.

We polluted the garden with our progress and Judgment Day is coming for us all, but we may seek salvation through 'sustainability'.

It is indicative of our strange times that opposition to dams, as a matter of principle, can be seen as left-wing.

What is the traditional practice of left-wing parties in power on this question? What is the left-wing theoretical foundation for a policy on dams?

In practice, revolutionary left-wing parties in power - such as the communists in Russia/Soviet Union in the 20s and 30s and China in the 50s and 60s - were gung-ho in the building of dams.

They did so because making a revolution is about changing things for the better, raising the standards of living and opportunities for liberation from wage slavery.

To borrow from Karl Marx, it's about "unleashing the productive forces" - not forcing them into a sustainable relationship with nature.

It's about an attitude based on "You ain't seen nothin' yet!", not "tread gently - nature's resources are finite". But this is red politics, not green.

In chapter one of The Communist Manifesto, Marx expressed his enthusiasm for the revolutionary consequences of the rise of the new bourgeoisie in transforming nature and extending human horizons.

He said: "It has been the first to show what man's activity can bring about. It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former Exoduses of nations and crusades."

It is unlikely that he would not have been as awe-inspired by the wonders of large-scale dam construction and the range of benefits on such a vast scale arising from dams: the capture and storage of safe and reliable water supply, generation of hydro-electricity, irrigation, flood mitigation and recreational uses (all on a scale unimaginable in Marx's time).

The Wivenhoe Dam on the Brisbane River worked effectively in mitigating bad floods around Brisbane in 1999 but, alas, despite its 1.4 million megalitre flood mitigation capacity (on top of its water supply capacity of 1.1 million megalitres) it could not stop the extensive damage that occurred during the current floods.

There needs to be debate about all this.

To what extent did the Wivenhoe mitigate the flooding of Brisbane? How much worse would it have been without that mitigation capacity?

And, while rejecting dogmatic opposition to dams, let's look to the future: geo-engineering and its possible roles in controlling rainfall.

It always strikes me, when these issues arise, how backward the social system of capitalism really is.

Human lives and billions of dollars are lost, yet only a pittance is invested in geo-engineering research and development, let alone dams, and even that is contested by the reactionaries.

Barry York is a long-time leftist who blogs at Strangetimes


Published in The Australian January 14 2011

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