(Sitting with) the Discomfort of Change
Updated: Jul 3
In the transition to a post-carbon economy, Regional NSW is wrestling with the disruptions of change as Australia moves to a renewable energy-fuelled future. It’s challenging beliefs, knowledge, and values. Through a statewide creative project, Regional Futures, Dubbo-based artist Kim V. Goldsmith has been exploring what this transition to renewables and beyond means for the regions and its inhabitants—human and non-human.
If you live anywhere west of the Great Dividing Range, it is not hard to see how renewable energy infrastructure is changing the aesthetics of our rural landscapes. For some, rolling hills of tall, white wind turbines, their blades gracefully arcing through the skies, are a symbol of opportunity, or at the very least a more secure future in an unstable climate and post-carbon economy. For others, they are a blight upon the landscape—a source of noise, annoyance, and a negative impact on the visual amenity of a bucolic outlook.
Travel further inland, and expansive arrays of black, shiny solar panels behind security fences, covering kilometre after kilometre of cleared land, are yet another startling reminder of this new era of renewables. The land immortalised in Dorothea Mackellar's 1908 poem My Country is in a state of hurried change in response to the urgent need to adapt to the even greater extremes of a rapidly changing climate, shaped by the demands of human activity.
What we don't often think about is the country Mackellar was romanticising was vastly different under Aboriginal stewardship to that which the British took as theirs in 1770. Lieutenant James Cook, who claimed the east coast of Australia for Britain, wrote in his journal: 'so far as we know [it] doth not produce any one thing that can become an Article in trade to invite Europeans to fix a settlement upon it'.
Britain was determined to change that status, and 120 years after the establishment of the first colony, Mackellar was writing of a 'stark white ring-barked forest' as a feature of her beloved Australian landscape.
However, change is constant, something our regional museum collections remind us of. I had the pleasure of visiting the Wingham Museum in the Manning Valley last year as part of a self-directed residency for the NSW Regional Futures project. I wandered through a maze of rooms in a building built about 1870—an overwhelming visual smorgasbord of relics from past eras and industries, lost natural histories and human achievements. As I deeply inhaled the old leather of stock saddles and admired the fine lines of horse-drawn sulkies—fondly recalling a childhood spent riding the wide, sweeping plains of the family farm further west, I wondered at what point the museum might house an early model electric car, adding yet another chapter to the story of the region.
Regional Futures, an initiative of the Regional Arts Network and funded by the NSW Government, tasked 29 artists from across regional NSW to explore ideas and make art about what the future of the regions might look like. This was the starting point for two Regional Arts Development Organisations, Orana Arts and Arts Mid-North Coast, to initiate an inland-coastal dialogue between four commissioned artists. I'm one of those artists who, with some financial support from Dubbo Regional Council, has been able to spend a year exploring threads of the broader project theme—more specifically, looking at a post-carbon future powered by renewable energy. As artists, we have come together over the year to discuss our findings, share ideas and resources, and plan presentations of our work in Taree and Sydney.
The project-centred art I make in my interdisciplinary practice is underpinned by a lot of reading, questioning, immersion in the landscape, talking to knowledge specialists and the broader community, thinking, and writing, before getting down to creating.
I love sonic worlds and the craft of field recording, particularly hidden, sub-surface sounds within our environments, and stories of our connections to the natural world, our complex regional landscapes and wider territories.
My work for Regional Futures has looked at the impact of a human-dominated world and built infrastructure on non-human species, which I more often refer to in my work as 'more-than-human', as a nod to other forms of intelligence. At the same time, I'm keen to capture the thoughts of individuals in our communities about how they feel about the future. It's not a question we get asked very often. Both these elements of my Regional Futures work are about giving a voice to the voiceless.
Since May 2022, I've travelled over 6,000 kilometres across regional NSW, from my home in the Central West, the site of the first Renewable Energy Zone to be declared in Australia, to the Mid-North Coast and Manning Valley. There was also a trip to Albury for the National Renewables in Agriculture Conference.
During this time, I spoke on and off the record with fellow artists, scientists, environmental advocates, retirees, people with disabilities, educators, students, migrants, social workers, journalists, small business owners, farmers and land managers, cultural educators, renewable energy generators, consultants and users, public servants, politicians, people who are on and off-the-grid, influencers, and change-makers.
So, how do people in the regions feel about a post-carbon future? The answer to that is as varied as the number of people I spoke with.
Many are trying to be hopeful. Some are fearful—believing it's too late, and some think there's still time to take action that might slow the rate of change. A small group see it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and others trust we're a resourceful species who will adapt through innovation, intervention and technology. A handful said they hadn't thought about it, and an even smaller number said they don’t believe in human-induced climate change.
Watching the broader conversation from the side-lines of my social media accounts, I note outrage expressed about the latest wind or solar farm developments on the outskirts of our rural cities and towns, much of it from privileged, older Australians concerned about the loss of visual amenity or productive agricultural land. Then there is that conversation I had with a teacher about children in her classes being more concerned about their personal safety at home and whether they have food on the table at the end of the day than lessons on climate change.
One spring afternoon in Dubbo, I spent a couple of hours with a man I'd met on Twitter to find out why he had installed a solar and battery system on his family's ex-housing commission home in a part of the city that was once a housing estate. Stephen and his family moved to Dubbo about six years ago, and he acknowledges their position and action on renewables are unusual for the area. They own their house and spent a small financial windfall on their solar battery set-up.
Stephen wonders what the future holds for his neighbours. He recounts how during Covid they didn't have their electricity meter read for some time before receiving a bill for $2,800, followed by another for $1,300. The move to install a 'personal power plant' came with the realisation power prices would continue to climb and they couldn't afford to do nothing. "We live in a very low socio-economic area, I honestly don't know, looking at our electricity bill, how some of our neighbours are coping. We've got two kids, and I know a lot of my neighbours, they've got kids...maybe they're not paying the bills. Maybe (the) electricity's being turned off."
When I recorded his story for Regional Futures, Stephen spoke about the right of everyone to have access to technology that offsets the rising costs of living and how Governments must take the lead. "I can see a future where it's not going to be survival of the fittest, but it's definitely going to be the haves and have-nots, and it's going to be related around power and energy."
Back in the Manning Valley, retiree and community volunteer, Margaret is thinking the same as Stephen. "Currently, anyone who's renting, who doesn't have solar power, is paying a lot more in electricity charges than those who own their own property and who are able to make the decision to go into solar. I feel that a lot of people will be left behind because at this stage it seems to be an individual choice and not something that's universal."
Meanwhile, positions of privilege persist. I am one of the privileged. I acknowledge as a white, well-educated, property-owning descendant of a convict who arrived here with the First Fleet in 1788, who travels and has chosen to spend time exploring human connections to the environment and the wider world, I am in a position of extreme privilege.
My recording equipment is expensive, and those recorders, microphones, computers and web-based technologies are resource-intensive and part of the problem, despite the trees I plant, the solar panels on my roof, and the energy-saving measures I employ. My feelings and thoughts about my impact on the planet are complex and inconsistent even though I believe we need to make far greater changes to our behaviour and mindset if we’re to avert a more hostile climate.
As someone with a deep love for regional Australia and the natural world, who believes in other forms of intelligence on par with ours and the right of other species to exist in a healthy environment, I'm uncomfortable with the shape of our transition to net zero. We need renewable energy sources to underpin our post-carbon future for the benefit of all. However, regional Australia is currently doing the heavy lifting as an energy supplier to the cities and coast, as suppliers of food and future electricity. Like the carving up of this country into vast areas of cleared farmland in the 19th and 20th centuries and the expansive urban development of the past few decades, the rapid push to large-scale renewables is leaving scars on the landscape that are more than just aesthetics. It comes at a cost to the environment, changing the function and flow of our regional ecosystems.
Our transition to a post-carbon future is leaving some people and species behind. As more than one of my Regional Futures storytellers said, we are a most destructive species and wherever we live, we will have an impact on the environment. The challenge is creating equity in our transition to a fossil-fuel-free world, and in the process, developing a more connected and entangled life with those other species with whom we share the planet. In the meantime, we must sit with the discomfort as we seek a better way forward.
The Regional Futures group exhibition, 'Artists in Volatile Landscapes' is the culmination of 18 months of creative development and research undertaken by 30 NSW artists under the Regional Futures umbrella, produced by NSW Regional Arts Network and funded by Create NSW. The artists with diverse practices and mediums have responded to the question, 'What does the future look like in your region?' The Regional Futures exhibition and symposium opens in Sydney on the 21st of July . Kim is participating in a panel at the symposium titled Listening Better - Artists as Transcenders and will address the question: How do artists enable us (humans) to be more attuned to the environments and the more than human world that we inhabit to ensure a healthy and thriving eco-system?
For more information, see the Regional Futures website:
Kim V. Goldsmith is an interdisciplinary artist and writer who has an interest in sound, field recording, social ecology, and storytelling. She is based near Dubbo on Wiradjuri Country.