Cruise Ship, Meet Iceberg
[There's a back-story here which Crikey have been following. A few days after appearing in The Bulletin, the full text of the speech on which the article was based was requested by someone at the PM's department. And a few days after that, the usual suspects (Bolt, Ackerman, Henderson) appeared in their respective columns pouring scorn. The timing of these events is seen as suspicious.]
For mine, the article itself starts pretty shakily. Williamson sets the scene of a cruise ship, and the types of people encountered there. The concept of sampling bias obviously doesn't worry Williamson as he proceeds to extrapolate from the passengers of that cruise ship to the entire nation. Such a concentrated dose of, and such extended exposure to, their fellow countrymen would doubtless drive anyone to a skewed perspective of them. I've always found it fairly easy to cringe at the behaviour of other Australians whilst out of the country, and so I'm sure it's far worse in the confines of a cruise ship.
So while he is pretty scathing — in many cases overly so — the basic point is well taken.
He wades in to attack the blind materialist "aspirational" nature of Australian society. The anti-intellectual, hyper-critical, and superficial are all aboard Williamson's cruise ship and he is not happy. They drink at the bar, overindulge themselves on leisure and entertainment (mostly American), and generally drift along making the occasional unflattering comments about the neighbours. I have some sympathy for this appraisal. We have no real intellectual tradition to speak of, at least not one that extends to the general populace. This leads to a blissful unawareness of the direction taken, where we just drift and blindly consume the fruits of our natural resources (like the passengers on a cruise ship, see).
Williamson argues that by far the most important factor in the success of our nation has been the exploitation of natural resources. We are stripping the country bare — at first through farming, but now mining — and are completely unaware and uninterested in the long term consequences. Of course being an actual writa he put it more betterer than I dun:
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.
The environment only has so much to give, and we haven't exactly restrained ourselves. I'm glad I'm not the only one to think that maybe we should just give up on farming altogether:
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.
The stated facts here are certainly worth following up on, but it does make you wonder. Towards the end he makes a particularly resonant point:
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. [...] 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.
So while sustainable energy production is a global problem, our particular dependence on coal is going to be more of a problem for us than other western countries. And we are not doing much of anything about it.
The general (i.e. not just scientific) intellectual tradition, which Williamson argues is missing from the Australian character, might seem like a fairly indirect approach to these specific environmental problems. But I think he's right. It is analogous to the relationship between basic scientific research and specific technological advances: you can't have the latter without the former. The basic scientific research provides the foundation on which to build the edifice of technology.
In the same way, I believe that a strong general intellectual tradition is a foundation for a culture that is willing to face up to its problems.