The Australians voted this weekend to destroy their own home. To their credit, the election just passed is the first election in the English-speaking world to hinge on climate change, which is itself a huge step. But ScoMo stayed in power on a platform that commits Australia to being Asia’s coal mine and China’s factory farm.
I’ll leave the political classes to dissect the political results, but here are some random observations on the Australian view of the world which led them to vote to become Lostralians.
First, nature. Australia is as urbanised as every other developed economy, but Australians stand in a uniquely mechanistic relationship to their country. Fraser Island, for example, is a singularity: it’s the world’s biggest island made completely of sand. As such, it has all sorts of weird geographical and ecological features. When I went there, I was hoping for something special; what I got was Disneyland on four-wheel drives.
A friend of mine’s aunt decided it was time to drive around the continent. She purchased a massive mobile home – essentially a truck – and put a trailer on the back. The trailer was for her four-wheel drive. Fuel consumption aside, she created an environment which put a layer of metal between herself and the country she purported to be exploring. Nature, but from behind the windshield. Another friend has been through the red centre on the Simpson Highway using – you guessed it – a four wheel drive. Not on a camel, not on a horse, not part of the environment, but an observer from inside a car.
Nature seems, for many Australians, to be something you vanquish or hide from. There is no equivalent of the Appalachian Trail, the West Highland Way, or the other multi-day and multi-week walks in other parts of the world. Nature is not a place for contemplation and quietude; it’s somewhere you go for school trips and thrills.
Second, although a “No one’s going to tell me what to do” attitude prevails everywhere, it is very strong in Australia. This, I think, is an expression of the split in Anglosphere politics, described by many as that between right- and left-wing politics. This distinction is well past its sell-by date; the split is between selfishness and public-spiritedness in politics – and I mean in politics, not private life. Many people’s politics lean to the right, but those same people are generous in time and money on public-spirited causes. The distinction is whether politics should institutionalise that public-spiritedness.
In the case of many charities, the distinction amounts to whether I donate time and money to my own pet causes (“no one’s going to tell me what to do”), or whether I have it collected as tax dollars and redistributed according to the politico-social consensus that democracies are supposed to encapsulate. I won’t address the general case, but I will say that for climate change, relying on public-spirited private action amounts at best to doing nothing, and at worst to destruction.
On the hand of doing nothing, those who protest most loudly about the incompetence and arbitrariness of public support for social goods are those most blinkered to the massive subsidies that the fossil fuel and agri- industries have claimed for themselves. We are continuously hectored by the mantra of free markets, but many mines and factory farms would go broke, unsubsidized by tax dollars, in a true free-market system.
On a more quotidian basis, doing nothing amounts to maintaining the status quo, and look where it’s got Lostralia: the Murray-Darling River system is more or less trashed; business-as-usual threatens a large swathe of the Great Barrier Reef so that Lostralian coal can spread Australia’s carbon footprint yet wider by worsening India’s already appalling air quality; inaction has seen drought, floods, heat waves and desertification become the norm in ever-widening swathes of the country.
On the hand of active destruction, “no-one’s-going-to-tell-me-what-to-do” is a notion of freedom that amounts to license; to the idea that I shouldn’t be prevented from driving my SUV just because some greeny tells me, that I shouldn’t have to eat less meat just because some bunny-lover gets offended. You don’t have to take this argument to ridiculous lengths – I shouldn’t be prevented from murder just because of some grieving relatives – to see how shallow it is; but it is this argument that underpins the frontier mentality that dominates the way Australians think of themselves.
But climate breakdown is fuelled first and foremost by private excess, and it is only through public action that behaviour will change. Only if tomorrow’s SUV-carnivores are treated with the same public disgust as today’s drunk drivers, will we avert disaster (and not only in Australia). The ecosphere is the most public of all public goods, and as such, should be publically managed, not privately apportioned. If that means putting limits on behaviour, so be it: not driving drunk is the price we pay for safe streets; consuming less is the price we pay for a planet that’s habitable.
The great irony is that Australia was the last continent to adopt a carbon economy. Until the white settlers arrived in the late eighteenth century, Australians lived a carbon-neutral existence. Given the newcomer’s attitudes to those who preceded them, the hardest pill for many to swallow would be to learn from those who arrived forty millennia earlier. That learning may or may not have happened under a Labor government; it won’t even be considered under ScoMo. So welcome, Lostralia, to climate collapse.