For most of the past two decades, Australia has been in love with the mining industry, and principally because Australia thought the mining industry was in love with it. We succumbed to the classic pick-up lines like naïve fools, selling ourselves like an affection-starved teenager, only to wake up in the morning to find our handsome lover is actually an amoral brute, ready to dump us and move on when our body no longer offers the most attractive deal in town.

What is left when the bed is empty is much more damaged than a few ruffled and stained sheets – it is a scarred landscape and destroyed ecosystems, ghost towns, and the scattered human remnants of dysfunctional communities with high divorce rates and estranged children. And, of course, a few millionaires as a token of his previous affection, though many more disillusioned or broke investors: a house bought in Port Hedland two years ago for $1.37m recently passed in at auction for $373,000. This pattern has been repeated almost without exception since first gold rush in 1815.

That may be a broad generalisation, but history has proven it to be generally true. How do we make sense of this trail of destruction? How do we even value some of the remnants? What if there are lessons for the future? Or perhaps even more challenging, what if some of the things done and created were actually of lasting value?

Out of Place (Gwalia): Occasional essays on Australian regional communities and built environments in transition is a poignant collection of essays by an eclectic gathering of 10 academics, mostly with architectural positions. They survey this changed landscape of Australian mining communities and come up with some extremely insightful understandings. They unravel many of the events and circumstances that led to the remnants we see today, centring on the fascinating ghost mining town of Gwalia, in the middle of Western Australia.

The old Sons of Gwalia Mine closed down in the early 1960s, and within weeks, virtually all of the town’s residents just packed up and left, leaving intact houses and many possessions and artefacts on the shelves. A new mine with the same name recently opened nearby, but uses fly-in/fly-out workers, and so the old town is still in its time warp. I spent a fascinating day there a few years ago, poking through the traces of people gone 50 years, whose hard work and hard life in a harsh climate had effectively come to naught. In a way, this town is emblematic of Australian mining developments and the various accommodations that were created to serve them.

The contributors to Out of Place have sifted through a wide variety of places and times, and pursued different themes in an attempt to understand what happens and why, when mining comes to country. Photographs from old Kalgoorlie are analysed to discover what made the town tick, and how it affected far-away Perth, from where water was piped 600 kilometres.

Prefabrication, a hot topic amongst the sustainable building community today, is the subject of another chapter. Yet another looks at the innovative holistic building-community design that made Shay Gap in the mid ’70s, and concludes there are positive lessons to be learned there. The place of women in the gold rush of 1851 is considered, as is the unsettled history of race riots in Boulder in 1934. Charters Towers and its audacious The World Stock Exchange gets a good unpacking, and no historical examination of mining in Australia would be complete with considering Queenstown and its moonscape environs, which still attract tourist dollars.

In my view, the most crucial chapter for those of us who engage with urban planning and building design is Mathew Aitchison’s, entitled Back to the future: FIFO, mining and urbanisation in Australia. He concludes that if future mining resembles the remote operations seen in films like Avatar, or perhaps like the US military’s drone controllers who work in airconditioned offices in capital cities, that any local or regional benefit that mining may have brought with it, albeit temporary, will instead be added to the wealth count of our major coastal cities. The outback and regional areas will just be left with enormous holes in the ground.

Out of Place (Gwalia) is a sober but rational look at a broad range of issues and implications that arise when we dig stuff on a large scale. The mining industry cannot criticise it for being negative or biased – indeed it probably should have hit some of these targets a bit harder. Nonetheless, it is an important contribution to the discourse, and recommended.

Dick Clarke is principal of Envirotecture and director of sustainability at Building Designers Australia. He travelled to Gwalia in 2010 as part of an extended study tour of the Kimberley and remote WA. PDF copies of his blog from that time, The Hairy Frog, are available on request from Envirotecture.

See Willow Aliento’s review here.