Sunday, July 21, 2013

The abject moral and strategic failure of a “fortress world”

Just as Kevin Rudd was announcing his New Guinea “solution” to boat people the riot on Nauru was hotting up, reporting to have cost Australian taxpayers $60 million. Australia, which briefly governed New Guinea, will now pay its former colony (and, as of mid-2014 it now wants to do the same to Cambodia) an undisclosed sum to ensure future asylum seekers, if arriving by boat, will never settle in fortress Australia. This is to be the case whether they are found to be genuinely fleeing from terror, or whether they simply want a higher standard of living, rather than the poverty available to them back home.

Bob Carr, the Australian foreign minister when I originally wrote this, had at that time recently taken to informing us (before any official judgment) that an increasing fraction, perhaps even a majority of people desperate enough to try a leaky boat to Christmas Island are “economic” refugees. (Especially Tamils from Sri Lanka, even though one recently self-immolated in Sydney rather than be sent back.)

Of course, Carr (and his successors in the Abbott-led government) vilified such forms of “boat people” because Australia can then lawfully deport them without breaking its obligations under the refugee convention. Since almost all migrants who arrive by plane do not seek asylum their motivation to move here must be mainly economic, so this is surely ok to Australians and their leaders (or do we pretend they move here to increase our standard of living?)

Although Carr and his class will not remind us, to be an economically-driven migrant -- to aspire for a higher standard of living -- is to follow the path of virtually every person who has moved to Australia without being transported as a convict.

In 2002 I attended my first meeting of a scenarios think tank for the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. Our job, as scientifically-trained futurists, was to consider how the global socio-ecological-political future would unfold over this century, and what this would mean for future human well-being. We developed five main scenarios (one, which was hyper-optimistic, was eventually dropped). One of our possible futures was the “fortress world”. This was a world of increasing haves and have-nots, where the haves were separated from the have-nots by strengthening barriers; financial, educational, electronic, physical, legal, social and so on. The ultimate barrier may be thought. Ultimately, at least in an idealised fortress world, such discrimination is so legitimized, so rationalized and so normalized that the existence of anything else is forgotten, thus erasing the chance of perpetual unease or even and guilt.

To a minority of us at that meeting, this future world was not only plausible, but discernable in nascent form, though of course we were aware of countering trends, such as the spread of literacy and the growth of the internet and mobile telephony. But one of our co-chairs (raised in the majority world; that it is to say he at some stage successfully penetrated the fortress) argued forcefully that this scenario was absurd. In fact, he felt it so far-fetched that it should not even be on the table. He almost got his way. When most of us returned for the next meeting (missing Paul Raskin, the best-known futurist among us, who had argued most cogently for the plausibility of the fortress scenario before withdrawing permanently from the process) its name had been changed, in an undemocratic and Orwellian coup, to “Order from Strength.”

The same co-chair, despite being born in the second most populous nation on Earth, was also convinced that overpopulation was not a problem. One day he told me, airily, that “Boserup had solved it”. He misinterpreted this eminent Danish anthropologist to be a supporter of Julian Simon, and before that, of Mao Tse Tung. Both Mao and Simon believed that the more people there are on our planet the better, because each new person has a brain and two hands, and can therefore contribute to the solution.

Such thinking was common in the “cornucopian enchantment”, which started sometime around the election of Ronald Reagan. With a faith reminiscent of King Canute, people entranced by its spells really did seem to believe that ingenuity would endlessly trump scarcity, that the Limits to Growth was the real fantasy, that cheap energy would be endless, and that perpetual population growth did not matter.

In 2013, the stubbornly high cost of energy is a major contributor to high food prices and to other living costs, which in turn is a factor for the social unrest in Egypt, the unemployment in Europe and the widespread anxiety almost everywhere. Despite the alleged bonanza of shale oil and coal seam gas its high cost and slow rate of extraction mean that the price of energy remains uncomfortably high, at about 75% of its 2008 peak, before the financial bubble burst, when, for a while, it seemed that conventional economic theories would be revealed to be as naked as Hans Anderson’s mythical emperor.

The hope of “Health for All by the year 2000”, declared in 1978, died soon after, just as the Cornucopian enchantment took hold. Rather than development, hard work and social justice, market forces and trickle down were to solve all problems. In such a world foreign aid could be safely and morally reduced, leaving just enough to garner votes for the Olympics.

Australia, for the time being, remains the lucky country. Certainly, many asylum seekers aspire to share our good life, while it lasts. The Australian Climate Commission has told us that much of the world’s remaining fossil fuels should remain unburned, lest we poison ourselves with dangerous or even lethal climate change. We have an ocean of solar potential but a string of Prime Ministers who instead support the expansion of domestic coal seam gas production and coal exports. Like Tony Blair, Kevin Rudd and his successor Tony Abbott go to church, but their faux Christian values are revealed in their cruelty to asylum seekers (Blair revealed his in his support for the illegal invasion of Iraq).

Rudd, in his first incarnation as PM, favoured a modest increase in our miserly foreign aid budget. It remains to be seen if the bribe we will pay New Guinea for strengthening the Australian fortress will be classed as foreign aid. Fortress Australia certainly looks attractive, in the short run, to most voters, at least if we can shut our ears, mind and heart to the misery that exists, and to the conflict that is increasing. But in the long run, the indifference and arrogance revealed in this policy will be remembered, and resented.

The world is in increasing disorder. Civilisation will breakdown unless we and other fortunate populations populations can contribute to global solutions rather than to temporary bandaids. The export of clean and affordable energy is one such solution. Another is to awaken from the Cornucopian enchantment. If we do, we may glean enough resources to keep the nine billion people predicted to inhabit out small world from destroying civilization by 2050, but this seems unlikely if we follow our current trajectory. Limits to growth are real, close and frightening. Mainstream economics with its “more of the same” complacency must be reformed, and Australia must generate and export genuine solutions.