Back in the seventies there was an oil crisis. People didn't seem to learn. The fact that it was somewhat manufactured by the OPEC cartel seemed to allow us to ignore the fact that one day the oil must run out. People seem to have been in constant denial. As a nation, and or global community we have ignored the obvious, and the development of alternative energy has had to fight for it's survival.
As a teen growing up with the predictions of Paul Ehrlich, and in the shadow of Silent Spring, it all seemed rather obvious. There have to be Limits to Growth. But people seeking to develop alternative energy, calling for subsidies, warning about Global Warming, have been ignored or derided at every turn. Australia, to our shame, has sided with that giant of global greed, the USA, in working against the Kyoto Accord.
Now, 30 years of denying the obvious is coming home to roost in our own chook sheds. Recently published papers show that some data beloved of global warming deniers is wrong- the calibration of instrumentation was wrong. Global warming is a fact, and the vast thawing frozen peats of Siberia will release something like as much CO2 and methane as does the industrial world at present. It is not a question of "if global warming," but of how we survive global warming.
The other dingo in the fuel shed is oil. Australian petrol prices have increased 25% this year. Some fool was on the radio this week saying the state government should take over Port Stanvac and re-open the refinery..... as though there was cheap oil to be had. The party is over, and we have blown our inheritance, and shat in our nest.
One analysis has suggested fuel will rise by the same again within months, and prices will never come down. This is an imminent crisis. Putting thirty dollars in the car once a week is not much more than buying a multitrip bus ticket. A hundred and twenty a week for the family car will be unaffordable. Public Transport never looked so good! Except there isn't enough, and sometimes there is none at all. Many can only get to work on a bus or train by leaving an hour or more earlier. I drive my daughter to work on Saturday because there is no train early enough. Even on week days some places have no public transport.
There will be a massive redirection of the money flow in this country. Anyone who thinks they can predict the changes in the economic shape of things, beyond bare sketches, is probably kidding themselves. Indeed, since I began to write this piece, General Motors Holdens have announced 1400 redundancies at their local plant.
How might one live in such times?
There are some pretty obvious things.... like this is a really stupid time to go and borrow a lot of money to buy a home theatre system. The big consumer stores of the country may yet prove to have been merchandising more misery than the poker machines.
There are some other things, like car pooling, that may well shift from being a good idea that no one does, to an essential facet of working life- if you have a job.
But there is a fundamental choice still open to the nation. We can seek to be a nation of people- human beings- or we can seek to be an economy. Perhaps I am overstating things here, but I will continue for two reasons. I am not sure that I am overstating things, and even if I am, the overstatement makes the choice before us clear.
If we are a nation of people, the key issue is the good of the people- all the people. Whether this is expressed in the Australianism "a fair go for everyone" with it's distrust of the rich, and inherent socialism, or in a Christian theology of justice and compassion, the important thing is the people.
The really important thing is the Whole; that is, the good of the people is closely linked to the good of the planet. We are not a self contained system. We are affected by the people of China and New Zealand and France, and by the weather and wellness of the whole world. So there is no room for nationalism in the end, or for an anthropocentric bias, yet to focus on all the people would be a great step forward.
The choice made by the Howard government is different. I say "Howard" government with some caution, because Hawke and Keating before him were headed in the same direction. But this choice has been Howard's distinctive trademark. What counts for Howard is The Economy. You could argue that what counts for Howard is his distinct successfully moneyed electorate. I think it goes beyond this. He is an ideologue; it's the economy that counts. His success is in how well he manages the economy for them, and their success is how well they succeed in that economy. The poor and disenfranchised, in current day Australia, are not an indictment of which to be ashamed. They are an inevitable part, and a necessary part of the economy, for whom we will make some provision. But only some; they serve as scapegoats, and people we can make an example of... It is electorally popular to cut back on welfare payments.
So when the crunch comes, how will I live? Indeed, how do I live now? What kind of ethic says, "I will live for myself now, but live better when things get tough."?!! The more we live for the Whole now, the more the whole will protect us in the time of crisis.
A major problem for we Australians is the assumption that some kind of crisis is a "maybe." We have had it so good for so long! I remember saying in a Uni politics class (as a "mature age" student, that I thought our democracy and civil society was very fragile. I suggested that really very little separated us from what happened in "other countries" and that if we were not alert we could find ourselves living in really unpleasant circumstances. The kids in the class looked at me with some scepticism, and were a bit surprised, I think, when Dr. Jaensch agreed with me. (In his usual wisdom, Dean took me aside after the tutorial, and told me I was right to be cynical in politics, but not to be too cynical.)
Just how long would our civil society last under pressure and without the balm of affluence that is fuelled by oil? How quickly can a crisis develop?
Only a few weeks ago, in a country that boasts of its democracy and civility we saw the immediate loss of civility. I refer, of course, to the disaster of New Orleans. Those trapped in the aftermath not only broke into stores for food- who could blame them, but some also 'indulged in rape and murder, and fired upon their rescuers.' A relative few held thousands in fear.
One journalist spoke of the shock and shame Americans felt at seeing scenes they associate with third world countries happening in their own land. A cynical Australian might say America has been practicing for this event for a long time. 80% of the population had left the city. Those left were the poor, mostly unable to leave, deserted by the authorities. And most of them were black. The hatred and the violence was born not just of desperation but of racism and generations of injustice. The USA's gun ridden culture, with its glorification of violence, was just waiting for the opportunity to explode in such a situation.
However, in Australia we are not immune from all this. We don't have the sheer number of firearms and associated violence, although Sydney and Melbourne seem to be changing this, but violence lurks below the surface- and not very deeply. Anyone who's walked past a pub at night knows this.
Just how long would civility last here? And how would we live? Choosing not to go Howard's way will help. But in the end there is a choice between civility and sheer survival.
I think of the character Tom Cruise plays in The War of the Worlds. He maintains a certain civility, unlike man who steals his car. And the one who murders the thief. But this image imagines choice and autonomy. Most of the people in the movie had little or none. So it will be for us; fortunate or refugee we will have the same few options. There will be little choice but to be civil, be cowed, or join the barbarians.
The barbarians will do whatever they can to protect their position. The cowed will cavil and be abused. What will it be to be civil? For at its best civility is the response of the Gospel.
Robert Graves spoke of a friend who was a conscientious objector in the first war. They used to ask such men. 'What would you do if a dirty Hun was trying to rape your sister?'' "I'd try and get between them." said the friend. (in Goodbye to All That)
It was, no doubt, a disconcerting answer for the military officers concerned. It was also practically useless- presumably the "dirty Hun" would simply shoot the brother. But it was civil. When all is lost, I shall still not resort to barbarism. We scoff today at tidying the deck chairs on the Titanic, and the band playing as the ship went down. But what else was to be done, seeing all was lost? Rape and pillage like the gangs of a New Orleans stadium?
Perhaps, when all is lost, acting with civility means all has not been lost. To survive at any cost will mean we have lost that which is important.
Posted October 2005
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