If Australia were a ship, where would it be headed? The easy-going assumption of aspirational Australia that the destination is unending prosperity (and more cut-price deals) will not save us from the rocks of an uncertain future. David Williamson reports.

Recently my wife Kristin and I attended a charity auction to raise money for a worthy cause. I put in a low bid for a south sea cruise to Noumea thinking that it would help escalate the bid, but to our surprise we were successful. The cruise had to be taken within weeks and in the interim we convinced ourselves it was going to be great fun – a well-needed rest. When we arrived at the huge white colossus and lined up for cabin allocation our fellow passengers gave us some misgivings. School holidays meant there were oodles of children, and the adults didn’t seem to be discussing Proust or George Eliot. But we were given a much better cabin than originally promised and all seemed set for a great holiday.

It soon became apparent, however, that all wasn’t to be plain sailing. The ship was stacked to the gunwales with John Howard’s beloved “aspirational Australians”. The dinner conversation made this plain. They aspired to all manner of things: to holidays like this, to new cars, to kitchen refits, to renovations, to private education for their children, and to practically anything made of plastic, wood or steel. The one surefire topic of conversation that connected erstwhile strangers was price comparisons.

It seems that the worst thing that can happen to an aspirational Australian is to hear that another aspirational Australian got a better price deal on their plasma TV. Value for money was the touchstone of everything, including standards of service. Any slight delay or perceived lack of utter servility by our hard-working Filipino and Indonesian cleaners or waiters was angrily pounced on and condemned. Any shore expedition that didn’t totally live up to expectations was subjected to withering criticism. Forget the fact that the rugged mountains and meandering streams of one of our ports of call were awesome; the coffee ashore was “ratshit” and the sandwiches “like cardboard”. Aspirational Australia really loves a whinge. It’s the glue of aspirational solidarity.

Not that our fellow passengers didn’t have their good points. Warmth and affection within families was genuine, and civility to other passengers was the norm. These were by and large affable people. And why wouldn’t they be? Not for them the grinding poverty of most of the world, or the devastation of tsunamis or hurricanes. The worst that seemed to have happened in most of their lives was the occasional rip-off involved in a shoddy car service.

It struck me that this cruise ship was a kind of metaphor for Australia. Cruise Ship Australia, all alone in the south seas sailing to God knows where. And in fact, like Australia, many of the passengers didn’t care where we were headed. The cruise itself was the thing. The sunbaking, the chatter, the eating, the very solid drinking, and the all-important on-board entertainment. And what entertainment: we had shuffleboard, Uno tournaments, jackpot bingo, trivia quizzes, funky jazz dance classes, quilting, scavenger hunts, and if none of these appealed you could retreat to the “legends” bar and watch replays of old rugby matches in which presumably Australia had triumphed. (They must have been old.)

At night there were island deck parties with giant conga lines shouting “Olé! Olé!” under the supervision of the lissom Shona, our activities Oberführer. There were also the nightly shows in which well-drilled Australian dancers did segments from American musicals. And if you wanted something after that, there was always a big-screen, feel-good American movie in which true love triumphed and gooiness flowed like treacle. Again, like Australia at large, no Australian song was ever played, no Australian movie ever shown, the trivia quizzes were all about American movie stars and we were offered stetsons and boot-scooting. The only thing Australian about aspirational Australia seems to be their accents.

Right-wing columnists and commentators have a habit of sneering at what they call “elites”. Elites are presumably those who are not aspirational Australians. We are urged by the columnists to accept that all wisdom resides in aspirational Australia and none in the ranks of the effete elites with their wanky interest in art, films and their bleeding-heart concern for the future of Australia and indeed the world. The pathetic “elites” should accept the ballot box wisdom of the aspirationals and stop their whining, say Paddy, Andrew, Piers and the boys. Perhaps if they spent time on a cruise ship they might start to question this belief.

When we docked at Noumeau, the one must-see item on our list was the marvellous Renzo Piano-designed Tjibaou Cultural Centre. It was offered as an alternative tour to the shopping expedition or to a day at Club Med. Not only is the building, with its soaring wood ellipses, one of the most dazzling pieces of architectural design in the world, but it was full to overflowing with the finest of Melanesian artwork. In one room alone, huge carved totems from all the Melanesian countries vied with each other, their styles wildly different and highly imaginative but stemming from obviously common cultural roots. The statement of the way art evolves and differentiates as the imagination flowers was striking.

Of the 2000 cruisers on board, barely 20 chose to see this magnificent structure and half of that number were recently settled Hong Kong Chinese. The rest were off lounging at Club Med with paper parasols in their cocktails or trying vainly to find a bargain amidst produce made in China, made overly expensive by the worst exchange rate in the South Pacific.

It was somewhere about then that I decided it was legitimate to “aspire” to be non-aspirational.

The contrast with another recent cruise we went on couldn’t be more stark. A British cruise line took us from Hong Kong down through Vietnam, Cambodia and on to Singapore. Excellent lecturers from Oxford and other major universities gave talks morning and afternoon about the geography, history, culture and art of the places we were about to visit. It was like a floating university of the very best kind, and we had to arrive early and fight for seats as hordes of ageing but fit and mentally alert English jostled for front spots, many taking copious notes.

The hunger for knowledge was genuine and when we got out to see the things we had learned about, there was no attempt to sugar-coat the experience. In Cambodia, as well as the wondrous ruins of Angkor Wat we also saw the horrendous S21 camp, formerly the Tuol Sleng High School where thousands were tortured to death in former classrooms. The beds to which they were strapped, and the torture instruments used, were still there. Blood still stained the walls and floors and in the final room we saw a massive pile of skulls. In contrast to the mindless hedonism of the Australian cruise we were presented with a world of sharp and complex reality. Discussion at dinner was a lively examination of what we’d seen and its implications. The creative heights and the brutal depths of human potential resonated powerfully in our imaginations.

On board the Australian cruise ship, by contrast, there was no inquiry into anything. Certainly no questions were ever raised about why Cruise Ship Australia was so materially blessed. The thought that our ability to spend up big and drift on shouting Olé! Olé! might have little to do with our intelligence and industry as a nation and everything to do with sheer good luck never rose to consciousness.

And no one so much as mentioned the plight of the real aspirationals on board, the Indonesian and Filipino crew members who were away from their families on low-wage contracts for up to 10 months, or queried why they had one kind of lifestyle and we had another.

The credo seemed to be that whatever we Australians had was thoroughly deserved. Not perhaps because a small, manageable population came to inherit a British concern for judicial, parliamentary and human rights in a land that initially seemed limitless in its natural resources. A land of abundant pastures for sheep, wheat and cattle, abundant water, and huge reserves of coal, iron ore, gold and many other metals. A land in which the original inhabitants could be reasonably easily pushed aside.

Except of course that first appearances were deceptive. In fact we’d inherited a very fragile ecosystem; probably after Iceland, the most fragile in the world. And the fact is, Olé! Olé!, we’re all living on borrowed time.

Like a hedonistic cruise ship we’re sailing through time – not to a palm-fringed tropical island, but to a sobering destiny. We might not suffer, and perhaps our children won’t, but our grandchildren will certainly live in a very different and less plenteous Australia.

Our golden soil is the oldest and most nutrient-leached in the world. What nutrients there were were quickly used up by our early farming efforts, and from there on we’ve relied on ever more expensive and increasingly uneconomic doses of fertiliser to keep our wheat crop growing. In south-western Australia, our most productive wheat belt, the crop is literally grown on pure sand enriched by large amounts of fertiliser.

Our tree growth is the slowest in the world because the nutrients to feed trees aren’t in the ground but in the leaves, and yet we blithely cleared every tree we could. And we’re still doing it, causing massive and increasing problems of salinisation as rainwater – rather than feeding roots – goes straight down to the salt table, allowing an easy pathway up. The frightening thing about salinisation is that it is almost irreversible. The fertile valleys of Mesopotamia which once fed a thriving civilisation are still poisoned with salt after 3000 years.

In fact we have used our soils as a non-renewable resource, living high on the hog for a while but allowing wind erosion and water erosion to get rid of half our topsoil in less than 200 years.

And our abundant water supplies are an illusion, too. The early years of copious rain morphed into years of drought and it wasn’t until recently that the El Niño climate effect was discovered and we realised that flood and drought will alternate forever in our wide brown land. With climate change now well and truly upon us, the prime agricultural and urban areas are getting less and less rainfall and already NSW has decided a huge desalination plant, with its profligate use of energy, is the only way out. This in a country which still uses 80% of its water for agriculture that, when true costs of water are factored in, is marginal at most.

Some economists already believe that we’d be better to shut down our farming efforts completely as they’re a net cost to the country rather than a net gain. At best they contribute 3% to the gross national product, and the subsidies to rural areas to keep them viable already top this. John Howard tells us we must preserve a rural lifestyle, and maybe he’s right, but it goes right against his long-avowed ideology of economic rationalism.

Our present prosperity isn’t from farming; it’s largely coming from our vast coal, natural gas and iron ore deposits. Luckily a resurgent China is greedy for everything we can sell them, so our cruise ship sails on. But coal and gas and iron ore are non-renewable. Eventually, they run out. And if President Bush finally concedes that the ferocity of the natural disasters hitting his southern states might have something to do with all that extra energy in the biosphere due to greenhouse warming, then our coal exports might not be as welcome as they are now.

Cruise Ship Australia is in fact living off resources that took billions of years to accumulate. We’re eating up our past at a prodigious rate. Our grandchildren won’t have it nearly as easily as we have.

The normal counter to this argument is that technology will solve everything. We can happily eat away our future, and the scientists will come to the rescue with new clean energy sources that will save the day. Look at all those gloomy prognostications of the ’70s, such as the Club of Rome doomsday scenarios, the argument goes; they haven’t come to pass. Well, not yet, but on most estimates there are only 20 more years of easily accessible oil, and the present soaring oil prices have to be a harbinger of an energy future not nearly as rosy as the one we’ve grown up with.

The problem is that the alternatives to oil just aren’t there, or even on the horizon. Wind, wave and solar energy can’t provide nearly enough, and even atomic energy can at best supply about 25% of the world’s current power needs. Hybrid cars may cut our fuel bills, but only until oil prices surge further as they inevitably will. Coal is proving such a disastrous polluter (try finding a patch of blue over any Chinese city) and greenhouse gas generator, that its use may well be banned not too far into the future. The much vaunted hydrogen technology has run into severe problems and is a very long way off indeed.

Even if miraculous new technological fixes suddenly appear, they’re sure to have a downside. Technology has rarely solved anything. It can give us more goodies in the short term, but it’s invariably presented us with new and ever more difficult long-term problems. Technology made the machines that pump vast quantities of Earth-warming carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and the fanciful plans to liquefy it and pump it into the Earth are little more than pipe-dreams. Technological production of chemicals has polluted our biosphere comprehensively, and presented us with increasingly horrendous clean-up and corrective costs. Nuclear power produces toxic wastes with half-lives of hundreds of thousands of years. Anyone who blithely believes in the technological fairy godmother has to be living in pixie land.

Aspirational Australia will doubtless party on, playing deck games and comparing prices, but when the ship finally berths they may look out to see a destination much bleaker than they’d imagined. I finished the cruise thinking that the “elites” have an absolute right to avow that the things that mean the most to them are the works of art and intellect that our greatest creative minds and thinkers have produced, that intelligence and intellectual curiosity are not some kind of abhorrent anti-Australian behaviour, and that thinking seriously about the long-term future of our country and our planet is not some kind of cultural betrayal.

If you believe in a wider set of values than accumulating material affluence, wear it as a badge of honour next time some self-righteous journalist uses the word “elites” pejoratively against you. An obsessive focus on material acquisition, encouraged by governments who worship economic growth and little else, have locked us into a probable long-term disaster scenario for Cruise Ship Australia and for the planet as a whole.

A form of this article was delivered last month by David Williamson for the 16th Sir Rupert Hamer Lecture at Swinburne University.

Peter Fray

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