Saturday, October 18, 2008

Will people head bush when The Long Emergency begins to bite?

One of the enduring themes of apocalyptic thinking is the flight from the city. It's a common thread in discussion groups devoted to Peak Oil, reinforced by a long list of movies and books plus the burgeoning Survivalist movement in the US. Because so much of our media content originates in the US we tend to swallow big chunks of it undigested, often without paying close attention to how well it fits our rather different Australian situation.

The last thirty years or so, where increasingly our view of the world comes not from the stories of our ancestors or any sort of local cultural memory but from this electronic media soup we all swim in, has seen a certain set of ideas about the Australian Bush, current when I was a kid, gradually fade away. In the fifties the idea of the Bush as something to be tamed and conquered was current. The sense of the difficulty of whitefellas surviving unaided in the Bush (think Burke & Wills), the idea of the almost superhuman strength and endurance of the early settlers, hacking their way through a dripping primeval wilderness up to their knees in mud to turn the hills of South Gippsland into productive farms.

These ways of thinking about rural Australia have faded, to be replaced by other memes: the beauty of unspoiled nature (to be enjoyed from the air-conditioned comfort of the Landcruiser or tourist boat), or the managerial notion that with the proper application of modern knowledge plus plenty of industrial fertilizer and horsepower, the return on agricultural investment will rise in a steady and predictable way.

Our Australian landscape is far from tamed though, very far from the vision of say rural France with its patchwork of small productive farms and tidy vineyards, or of the American Midwest with its wheat lands growing on a rich bed of recent glacial tilth left over from the Ice Ages.

It's tough living outside of the cities in Australia, even in green South Gippsland. Our soil is ancient and leached and our weather unpredictable even before we had the phrase Climate Change to kick around. There will be no flight from the cities to the country in Australia if things get tough. Our battle will be to stop the traffic going the other way. We need to think of ways of making our life out here more stable, more sustainable (to use a word that is rapidly becoming worn and useless from overwork), and more attractive for the young people whose intelligence and strength will be needed to keep our communities viable and vibrant. It's easy to mistake our growing population of retirees with their comfortable houses on the skylines of the district as guarantors of continuing prosperity. However if Peak Oil means our rural economy wilts as less energy is available, and the cities prop themselves up by sucking the countryside around them dry of every resource, the next generation of retirees will be looking out on a landscape covered in regrowth and feral pines, with a few half derelict towns scattered along crumbling roads.

We need to rethink how we can live in this landscape if this vision is not to become reality. Our present pattern of settlement is no more than a thinly spread industrial suburb of the city, to be abandoned once it makes no further economic sense. We need to build communities which can live self-reliantly in this landscape and which are self-directed as well.

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