Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
We’re at the point where the desire line splits
Give me convenience or give me death. That was the album, 20 years ago, by which the punk band The Dead Kennedys bagged-out American consumerism. Now, it looks like convenience and death may be one and the same, and Australia could yet lead the charge.
Convenience, it might be argued, was the main value of the modern century. Labour-saving gadgets and time-saving widgets meant we all spent less and less effort getting more and more of pretty much everything. Wall-to-wall carpet, door-to-door commuting, cradle-to-grave insurance. Mega-malls, global comms and rear-seat entertainment so you can take the kids on holiday without them ever actually being present.
Now, for a couple of grand, you can top up your convenience quotient with a kitchen device that custom-moulds polymer plates for dinner, then melts them down and remoulds them, all clean and sterile, ready for breakfast. No messy fights over who washes and who dries. Or a fancy French toilet that washes and dries, both, AND sucks away the smell, absorbing “odour molecules” while you, well, wait.
For a moment, what with climate change, peak oil prices, Iraq and the subprime thingo, it looked like all this might be at risk. Like we might have to stop building across our most fertile land. Stop belching carbon into the air. Stop cramming more and more energy consumption into each roll of the sun.
But no. All is well. God has smiled on the Ruddbus. All at once, it seems, we have been blessed with three celestial gifts. Where once was peak oil, now there is extra continental shelf the size of 10 New Zealands, ours to explore and exploit for oil and gas. Where once was a falling coal price, now is skyrocketing demand. And where once was the embarrassing, backward-looking John Howard, fibbing in public, unapologetic, denying climate change, now is the new happy-clappy, rosy-cheeked, Hillsongy, all-aboard-now Ruddbus. God has smiled. Or has he?
If you were writing the screenplay Australia, we’d be just at the point, about one-third the way in, where the desire line splits. Where Luke Skywalker must decide whether to stay with his childless rels or follow his dream. Where Simba must choose between running away and confronting his destiny. Where the main character – Australia – must face its defining dilemma. What dilemma, where? What’s to decide when it seems we might be the only country unaffected by the coming recession? Where’s the problem in that?
The dilemma is clear. It’s this. Our future wealth, so gleefully proclaimed, depends on selling fossil fuels – oil, gas, coal – to as many people as possible as hard and as long as possible. But our future survival depends on reducing global use of these same fuels, as much as possible, immediately.
It makes no difference that the coal will be sold to China and India, rather than locally. Or that it will mainly fuel steel production rather than electricity. Or that they will use it to build thriving modern economies to which, morally, they have every right. Burning coal is burning coal; it puts carbon in the air, and that may stop the Gulf Stream, dead, within the decade. If you do not know how scary that is you need to get out more.
It is the same with oil. Rising oil prices may be a challenge for government, but for the planet they are the best thing that could happen. As Ross Garnaut and others have noted, excluding petrol from an emissions trading scheme will only increase the difficulty of moving to a low-emissions economy. So for us to treat our 10 new New Zealands’-worth as some kind of bonanza, some kind of guarantor, is short-sighted in the extreme. And I am being kind.
That’s our stay-at-home path. Our shame path. Our do-nothing, she’ll-be-right, head-up-the-butt-mate, techno-fix, business-as-bleeding-usual path. Our Shangri La, our Y-Wurri, our tracky-wearing, forelock-tugging, sog in fronta the telly we’re-just-a-colony path, complete with its back-seat nannies and its French odour eating toilets. As Bob Hawke says in the musical Keating!, “it’s a comfy bloody country, comfy and relaxed. Not too bloody up itself, or too highly taxed.”
But here we all are in the Ruddbus, aflutter with republican flaggies, poised, breathless and shiny-faced at the fork in the road. We want to keep on clapping, but there is a second path before us. Kevin and Julia, co-drivers, hesitate. They promised us a bill of rights. But they know that if it’s rights alone we spell out, with no mention of responsibilities, Republic Australia will be nothing but a play pen.
They know that we – on this vast sunny, wind-washed island, abounding with next-century’s energy sources, with the necessary space, stability and nous – we also have a responsibility to make it happen. This is our destiny path, as inconvenient as destiny generally is. More exciting than the other but also more testing, it may be our last chance to really stand for something, and it leads – if we have the bottle for it – to the light on the hill.