Thursday, May 23, 2013

Pop. Quiz

Once were wankers (2009) by Pants

Whenever our population hits a round number, we panic for a few weeks, check the locks on the detention camps housing refugee women and children and, once we've popped a paracetamol or three, we sit down to have a 'conversation'. In our vernacular, a conversation is a 'yarn' and it is very like a ball of actual yarn. You never know how long it is until you unravel it. But in the end, all you're left with is wool. It never occurs to us to knit this wool into anything useful.

Recently our national population hit 23 million. That's about as many as live in Seoul or Delhi. "Well," I hear you say, "these are very, very small people with nothing like the need for legroom that Australians have." Too true. Panic! The locks have been checked and changed, the appropriate medications ingested and now the yarn is beginning to unravel. "All righty", I thinks in me best Aussie accent, "let's join this flamin' conversation then." So, the other night I sat down to listen to this radio 'debate' with a panel of 'experts'.

Panic! Henny Penny called, she wants her raison d'être back. Not now man, can't you see we're freaking out here? Sorry, where was I? Oh, yes, panic. Don't you just love statement-of-the obvious experts? Never trust an answer that begins with the words, 'it's about how do you ensure...' Picture me shouting at the radio - 'we don't want more questions people, we got them in abundance. How about an idea - you have any of them?' Apparently not. What we got was a tedious restatement of the 'ishoos' we've all heard many times before. Honestly, it's like living in a perpetual brainstorming session - minus the brains.

The question was asked, 'how big do we want our Australia to be?' Now that's a bit like asking a five-year-old if she would like to spend the next twelve years of her life going to school. Her answer isn't relevant - she's going anyway. Failing war, bubonic plague or the more likely scenario of our heads all exploding at once, our population, on current projections will reach 40 million by 2040, at which point it is expected to peak. One hundred years from now, the population of Australia is expected to reach just over 60 million, i.e. less than the population of Great Britain is right now.

As usual, we the people are expected to solve the nation's future problems while those being paid to think about these things play bullshit bingo on national radio. Let's start by unpacking the apparently intractable ishoos.

Any talk of population growth is invariably linked to immigration which is itself inseparable from asylum-seekers who arrive by boat. This has traditionally been a panic button for us. When we talk about 'fitting' people in, there's a subtext. We're talking about people fitting culturally as well as physically. Our idea of an 'Australian' is someone who looks the same and acts the same as we do. We're suspicious of anyone who doesn't like to eat publicly charred pigs' innards mixed with sawdust and weep genuine tears when one group of large men in tiny clothes fails to steal a ball from another group of large men in tiny clothes. Regard, if you will, the picture above. It's a message stencilled onto the rear panel of a truck right here in Larrikin's End and it's far from a rare sight. This is our idea of a welcome mat and a fair indication of our standards of literacy.

There are too many moments when our 'conversation' about population expansion through immigration sounds creepily xenophobic. Australia isn't the only country where racists hide behind resource concerns to shield the 'stranger danger' message but in the UK, which I'll use as an example because I lived there for a long time, the 'rack off were (sic) full' types tend to be confined to the loony right. We are genuinely fearful of anything that strays beyond an extremely narrow band of cultural practices and that is something we really should talk about. We could solve this problem by simply growing up.

Recently the government announced that the so-called 'baby bonus' is to be scrapped. This is a flat payment of $5,000 to any woman who is a resident of Australia who gives birth here. It is not means-tested. No one, but no one complained. Now that is odd. Australians will not generally allow something to be taken away without a very good reason. My guess is that we're so conditioned to the idea of there being too many people here already that creating more and being paid for it seems too profligate even for Australians. It will be interesting to see how that plays out in twenty years time and even more interesting to watch the interplay with another of our great intractable ishoos - the ageing population.

The first of the baby boomers are retiring and living in their multi-million-dollar properties on their fiendish but entirely legal tax-insulated incomes. This is what we thought we wanted twenty years ago - people saving their own money and taking care of themselves in old age. We hadn't reckoned on the chaotic nature of free-market economics. It could be that the compulsory superannuation system benefits only this generation and it may have been better to capitalise on the high tax base while it was there for the benefit of all and not just the professional class.The thing about ageing is that it's entirely predictable. Instead of squealing about old people being a drain on services whilst taking pride in our ability to keep them alive well into their 90s, we should be thinking up ways for older people to continue earning if that's what they'd like to do. No one's even talking about internet-based work opportunities or cooperative living for the aged.

The word you'll always hear whenever anyone proposes doing anything even vaguely progressive in this country is 'stainabiliddy'. The Australian definition of 'stainabiliddy' most accurately translates as 'a way of stopping time'.  I think of it as related to the Spanish word mañana which means both 'tomorrow' and 'an indefinite time in the future'. Further, time has to have stopped somewhere in the 1950s when air was still fresh, faces were all white and gay people did not even exist, much less compete with you for wedding venues. Unhappily, we have a situation where we're agreed that business-as-usual is 'unstainable' so even by doing nothing, we're doing something bad. We really need to stop using 'stainabiliddy' as an excuse to write endless but ultimately meaningless reports, make some fair and logical assumptions about what we think might happen in this scary future and get on with the job.

Our most pressing problem seems to be that everyone who wants or needs to work, wants or needs to live in a major city, leaving the regional areas bereft of all but children whose parents run a pub or petrol station and old folks who potter in their gardens. Not a lot of productivity there. A further complication is that farmers, i.e. the people who make it possible for us to eat food that still has some genetic link to a plant or animal, are going broke in their thousands. No one appears to be considering the consequences of allowing that knowledge and expertise to end up on the dole queue. I could go on about this for ever. We can't even work out an area-based energy-supply mix that doesn't cost more than poor people can afford to pay whilst protecting the environment in a country that has every conceivable energy resource, few people and no snow.

'The environment' - now here's a subject about which we're almost pathologically conflicted. On the one hand, we earnestly believe that we have already destroyed our environment and on the other hand we're terrified of doing further damage to something that is already apparently destroyed so we do nothing at all. It occurs to no one that nature's job is to regenerate and it does it rather well given a fair wind and occasional rain. It may do even better if we became its ally rather than its enemy. Our environmental efforts invariably result in us destroying the native species we're trying to save whilst allowing feral species to thrive. My suggestion is that whatever we're doing now, we immediately start doing the opposite.  

To be fair, one of the panellists on that radio show did come up with a radical idea - satellite towns within commuting distance of our major cities. One small problem - lack of 'infastrucha'. Yep, this is the thing we Australians can't seem to get our heads around. If you have more people, you will need to have more schools, hospitals and that thing that is as mysterious to us as would be the complete works of Thomas Pynchon set to music by John Cage - public transport. Better not to have any more people. Right. Who's for a banger in bread then?

Just kidding. Let's talk about trains. What we now find with the benefit of hindsight is that we really should have put underground rail in our cities a hundred years ago as rail lines alone now cost more per inch than premium cocaine. And that's not counting the cost of the rolling stock and the staff and the silly ticketing machines we can never seem to get to work. The answer to this conundrum is dense population centres with business-quality internet technology. If you can't move people around without bringing city traffic to a standstill, then they need to be able to either walk/cycle to work or work from home.

Another of our national myths is that most of Australia is uninhabitable. Well, there is that big deserty bit in the middle but there are also all the lush green bits around the coast. I have driven around a fair bit of the state of Victoria where I live and I can assure you that most of it isn't desert and only a little bit of it is mountains. Compare Australia with Egypt - a continuous, settled agricultural civilisation of at least 10,000 year's duration. Almost all Egyptians live on just five per cent of the land because the rest of it really is desert and there are more than 90 million of them. Egypt is about 1 million square kilometres. The state of New South Wales has a population of 7 million in a surface area almost as large and much of it is habitable. We know that because people do live there.

But let's not worry too much about that for the moment because we do have big regional cities in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria where eco-development would be beneficial. Big money must be spent on high-speed rail links between cities, especially since building an extra airport for Sydney (pop. 4.6m) seems well beyond our wit. Just a reminder - Greater London (pop. 8.5m) has 5 international passenger airports - Heathrow has 5 terminals and Gatwick has two. New York (pop. 20.5m) has 5 international passenger airports - JFK has 8 terminals, LaGuardia has four and Newark has three. We know that moving people and product around in this country is a big problem. Let's solve it by rail and be done with it.

From Larrikin's End it's four hours to Melbourne by car and about an hour more by train. Yes, you read that right. Our train travels at 70km per hour. If I'd not personally experienced it, I couldn't possibly have imagined it. At the moment, half of that journey is by replacement bus. This has been the case for the past six months. On my last journey to Melbourne a week ago I got the opportunity to question someone from the rail company. He told me that the problem is with the signalling system. Approaching trains weren't triggering the barrier gates at level crossings. He told me that a piece of testing equipment was being brought in from 'interstate' to test this faulty signalling system. It sounded like it was having to come from North Korea. And what? We don't have testing equipment here in Victoria to 'ensure' that country cars pootling over rail lines aren't mown down by locomotives? Although, at the speeds they travel, possibly not too much risk there.

We don't have a particularly good record of building cities. I haven't done extensive research on this but the most recent example I could find of a planned attempt to create a new Australian city was this one in Churchill, Victoria. Initially envisaged as a support town for the coal industry, construction commenced in 1965. Churchill was supposed to have reached a population of 40,000 by the year 2000 but it clearly didn't have the chutzpah of its namesake and limped to a peak of only 5,000. That's some planning catastrophe - and if you're superstitious, you'd question the wisdom of naming any town in Australia after a man so intimately linked with the disaster of Gallipoli. Perhaps it's not surprising that our planners are keener to mend and make do rather than splash out on a bolt of best worsted.

Australians are opposed to central planning but we might need a little more of it in the future if we're going to avoid the twin disasters of too many city folk with dwindling opportunities and too few country folk to grow our food. Yes, it is difficult to plan long-term, but someone does have to do something because pretending that we can freeze time isn't going to cut it. In previous centuries, temples and cathedrals were commissioned that would take 300 years to build. I'm guessing that no one was thinking there'd be a cure for death in a few year's time back then. These were cultures that had vision. The surviving buildings and monuments from ancient times are amongst the most precious structures we have in this world. Some are still in use and they all connect us to the grand project that is humanity. Which brings us to the final ishoo. Australians are obsessed with the notion that 'quality of life' can somehow be quantified. Except, of course, we don't know how to do it. The simple answer to that is that it can't be done.You just have to know when you're living a good life and part of that involves facing challenges and making adult decisions.

Here's the thing - we humans inherit a lot of stuff from our ancestors. We discard what we don't want and find a use for what seems valuable to us. Not too difficult, surely. Australia does a have complex relationship with its history - which is both very short and very long at the same time. This too often translates into complete inertia. We appear to want to save every scrap of the past, unless of course there's some mineral underneath it in which case it's Bamiyan, baby. I do understand that too much of the foundations of our major cities were indiscriminately lost to the wrecking balls in the 1960s and that's why we feel so passionately inclined to protect what's left of the founding footprint of our fledgling cities. But these buildings are gone and gone forever and we have to get over it, like Berlin got over it and Warsaw and Dresden and the 50 other cities annihilated in World War 2 got over losing their built history.

Melbourne has recently overtaken Sydney as our fastest growing city and already has a housing crisis to rival its ugly sister's. Melbourne also has reasonably good inner-city public transport but a rubbish long-commute train service. The obvious thing to do in the short term is to build more housing on in-fill land and redundant industrial sites close to the city where the good transport and jobs are. The upward trend is towards single-occupancy. Build small and cheap and give young people who like to live close to the cultural centre a chance to clamber onto the property ladder. Oh, and reclaim a bit of industrial land along the river for parks while you're about it. Every now and again someone bobs up with the statistic that Sydney has more people per square kilometre than either London or Paris which is then erroneously translated into the claim of higher-density living. It means nothing of the sort. Both London and Paris have huge swaths of land given over to public parks. People in London and Paris live closer together but have much greater access to green spaces.

Much of inner Melbourne has street after street of teany-tiny old houses worth a bomb. Very sweet and charming but, if we're talking 'stainabiliddy', I can't think of a major city anywhere else in the world where anyone would expect this density level to last forever. Melbourne currently has a population of  4.25 million. The inner urban areas of London (8.5m) and Paris (10.75m) comprise mostly medium-density housing. In London, large three and four-storey terrace houses have been converted into up to six separate flats. Paris has its five-floor tenements. No one can tell me Parisians do it tough on the QoL scale. You need a reasonable population concentration to support neighbourhood services that you can walk to, never mind keeping a healthy number of restaurants, bars, cinemas and leisure centres afloat.  City planners should look at redeveloping a lot of that housing over the next thirty years. They should start talking to the residents of those neighbourhoods now and do the thinking together. Perhaps they wouldn't mind swapping their damp little cottage for a modern eco-flat and be left with enough money to retire on.

Complex doesn't have to mean impossible. I grew up in Sydney in the 1960s and well remember the protracted wars over the design and building of the Sydney Opera House. Looking back, it's a miracle that it's sitting there. If it were proposed in the present day, it would never be built. Can you imagine Sydney without its signature building? It would be like Paris sans La Tour Eiffel, n'est-ce pas? I have a tough time thinking that my fellow Australians have actually taken a couple of steps backwards since those days but I'm afraid it's all too true. We do have one great challenge and that's to make peace with all the contradictions - past, present and future - that this island continent presents us with. 

Oh, and could the experts please start experting right now or stay away from my radio...