[This was published at On Line Opinion 29 Nov 2011.]
It is characteristic of some past societies that their highest accomplishments occurred just before a precipitous decline in their fortunes, according to Jared Diamond in his book Collapse. It is less common that a society’s trajectory comprises a slow rise, a plateau and a slow decline. Diamond does cite some societies that were able to shift their strategy and successfully negotiate a crisis, so a crash is not inevitable.
The former pattern, accelerating into a crash, is a signature of a society oblivious to imminent peril. At least, the leadership of the society is oblivious to warning signs of a crisis, and they just keep on doing what they have always done. Or perhaps they become more and more dissolute, like the later rulers of ancient Rome.
There is an eerie sense of unreality in Australian public life. The things our leaders argue about, and the evidence they pay attention to, are largely irrelevant to our real situation, which is one of rising multiple crises. The longer the crises continue unattended, the worse will be the consequences.
Another feature of ancient Rome was circuses, whose role was to keep the people distracted. One recent circus involved a visit by the Queen. My problem with this was not the constitutional arrangement, though I do have a republican view. Rather it is the way so many people go gaga, egged on by a media frenzy. In doing so they abandon their critical faculties, give away their power, and become sheep to be herded by the powerful for their own ends.
The next circus was the visit of President Obama, likewise milked for the public spectacle and stoked by a media frenzy. In the course of this our Prime Minister announced that US Marines would be allowed to train unsupervised on Australian soil, and that she wants Australia to export uranium to India. Both of these actions support US power plays, in particular its efforts to “encircle” China.
Both the Australian and US Governments are largely captives of the wealthy. They govern mainly for the big corporations. It is the modern version of the eighteenth century competitive mercantilism that Adam Smith railed against. Thus uranium exports give big mining companies what they want. Containing China means limiting China’s ability to cut into markets coveted by US corporations.
The two nations on the planet most likely to wage a nuclear war are Pakistan and India. Pakistan is highly unstable, to the point of being a barely functioning state. To pour nuclear fuel into this highly volatile situation has to be the height of stupidity. Placing US marines in Australia is highly provocative to China, and will ensure we are embroiled in any trouble between them. Both the US and China trample on the rights and livelihoods of ordinary people in the countries whose elites they deal with. Australia should have nothing to do with any of these sordid dealings.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard is sickeningly sycophantic towards the US. She does this to bolster her precarious grip on power. She crawls to the mining companies. She is pre-occupied with power plays within her own party, and betrays not the slightest evidence of any vision for the country, beyond “moving forward” – but to where?
The Labor Party itself is pre-occupied with gaining and keeping power. To do this it has jettisoned all principle and almost all policy, and simply follows the polls and focus groups. Losing membership and voter sympathy as a result, its hold on power depends on money, and for that it prostitutes itself to the highest bidder. The Coalition is no better, apart from being a little less hypocritical about its strategy and reason for being.
The presently powerful in Australia of course have no interest in changing present arrangements because that would only reduce their power. Thus for example we don’t get a serious attempt to reduce greenhouse gas emissions because that would reduce the profits and power of mining companies. Companies that deal in efficiency and renewable energy do not have the wealth and power to sponsor government themselves, so we are locked into the status quo.
Our financial situation is precarious because private debt is about 160% of GDP, built up mainly by a bubble in house prices. Our banks are at considerable risk if international conditions deteriorate, which they are highly likely to do. However our mainstream economists are oblivious to the danger because they are in thrall to an abstract theory that has little to do with reality. Our governments in any case would not have the guts to undertake major bank reform, because the banks are also wealthy and powerful.
There is currently an enquiry into our media, precipitated mainly by scandals in the Murdoch press empire in Britain. Media ownership in Australia is highly concentrated, and news coverage and commentary are highly biassed towards the interests of the presently powerful. Serious discussions, like this, of our real needs are given little space. The chief executive of the Fairfax empire recently argued the case in public for avoiding any increase in regulation of the media. A longer string of platitudes and cliches it would be hard to find, for example about “freedom” of the press, “quality journalism”, lack of bias, the need for strong scrutiny of government (no argument, I’d just like to see some scrutiny that goes deeper than he-said, she-said) and so on.
Such a fatuous recitation of self interest, and such a complete failure to address the highly constricted state of public discussion, is further evidence of how oblivious are influential people to our real needs. The media are the means by which a society conducts its affairs. The people have every right to ensure the discussion is as full as possible. We are fools to have let a handful of people become the gatekeepers of our social and political conversation.
Reasonable estimates say that humanity is now using the Earth’s resources at a rate about 50% above what it can provide. In the rich countries we use resources about 400% faster than they can be renewed. We are in a state of overshoot. Unless we change our strategy very soon, our societies will not only revert to the level of wealth we had many decades ago, but we will suddenly become much poorer, because we are degrading the Earth. We are reducing its capacity to provide even as we increase our demands on it.
It is actually possible to rapidly increase the efficiency with which we use resources, so that we could reduce the pain of the imminent crisis. However it is not in the interests of the presently powerful. Nor therefore is it in the interests of the prostitute governments they sponsor. Therefore we carry on, not only with business as usual but with growth, accelerating towards the precipice. As Jared Diamond says, societies may choose failure or success, it is up to them.