Sunday, September 8, 2013

Australia, your chicken is ready!

Over the last 24 hours, French media have been having a field day writing what little they know about the mysterious "mad monk" who has just become Australia's new leader. French journalists all appear to be inspired by the same source material: a rather blunt French-language blog post written by a certain Charlotte Chabas and published by Le Monde [display].

A week ago, French TV viewers were shocked by an evening show revealing the degradation of the Great Barrier Reef. After all the hype generated by Tourism Australia's "best jobs in the world" stunts, the marketing seams are starting to show, and people in France are surely becoming aware that the legendary dream world that is supposed to exist Down Under could well be somewhat mythical.

The last time I was out in Australia (already seven years ago), I looked around for serious books concerning the state of the nation, and prospects for the future. Disappointed at finding nothing of interest in this domain, I was reminded of the words of my friend Geoff Brindley: "There is no writing culture in Australia." In bookshops, the shelves marked Australia or Australiana are packed with photographic albums of indigenous fauna and flora, tourist guides and cooking books. Even today, when I ask Amazon to display their books on Australia, there is simply no category of books dealing with contemporary Australian society, politics, economics, future challenges, etc.

In fact, the case of Australia has been handled expertly and thoroughly by the US scholar Jared Diamond. In his celebrated Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997), he spoke at length about the alleged "backwardness" of Australia's Aborigines, with the intention of proving that we would be mistaken to imagine the existence of any "supposed deficiencies of the Aborigines themselves".

Today, I find that this 15-year-old book (which earned its author a Pulitzer Prize) has an annoying old-fashioned tone, as if the author didn't take time, before starting to write his book, to catch up on recent findings concerning the genetics of human populations. Sure, his end-of-book notes on further reading mention the great Italian pioneer Luca Cavalli-Sforza, but nowhere in Diamond's chapter on the Aborigines is there any mention of genetics and DNA studies. Worse, when evoking divergences between Aboriginal Australians and New Guineans, Diamond refers to blood groups and the appearance of their hair, with never the slightest allusion to their respective genetic data.

Tasmanian Aborigines provide us with an extreme case of geographical isolation. When Bass Strait was flooded, some 10,000 years ago, Tasmania was probably populated by no more than a few thousand Aboriginal hunter-gatherers. By the time their descendants were discovered by 17th-century European navigators, Tasmanians had become the most technologically primitive people ever encountered on the planet Earth. Now, it's fair enough to blame the terrible solitude of Tasmanians for the absence of the elementary culture of making fire, boomerangs, stone axes with wooden handles, etc. But the author might have drawn attention to another obvious aspect of Tasmania's isolation and small population. After centuries of consanguinity, their gene pool was surely reduced to a minimalist state leaving few cerebral resources for creativity. While avoiding all references to genes, and bending over backwards to avoid being accused of racism, Jared Diamond nevertheless falls into the trap of comparing the respective "smartness" of Aborigines with a notorious pair of ill-fated explorers. "Robert Burke and William Wills were smart enough to write, but not smart enough to survive in Australian desert regions where Aborigines were living."

A more recent and (to my mind) more convincing book by Diamond, Collapse (2005), tackles the fascinating question of why certain human societies suddenly disappear.

The author's presentations of the historical tragedies of the Pitcairn Islands and Easter Island are particularly brilliant. But I was impressed aboved all by his chapter 13, whose title incorporates a disturbing pair of inverted commas: "Mining" Australia. In fact, the explanations in this chapter lead us back inevitably and directly to the starting point of the present blog post: yesterday's coming to power of the "mad monk" (who once said that the notion of climate change brought about through human activities is "absolute crap"), and an environmental disaster such as the degradation of the Great Barrier Reef. Let me quote Diamond's opening paragraph, which examines Australia's likely destiny:
Mining in the literal sense—that is, the mining of coal, iron, and so on—is a key to Australia's economy today, providing the largest share of its export earnings. In a metaphorical sense, however, mining is also a key to Australia's environmental history and to its current predicament. That's because the essence of mining is to exploit resources that do not renew themselves with time, and hence to deplete those resources. Since gold in the ground doesn't breed more gold [...], miners extract gold from a gold lode as rapidly as is economically feasible, until the lode is exhausted. Mining minerals may thus be contrasted with exploiting renewable resources—such as forests, fish, and topsoil—that do regenerate themselves by biological reproduction or by soil formation. Renewable resources can be exploited indefinitely, provided that one removes them at a rate less than the rate at which they regenerate. If however one exploits forests, fish, or topsoil at rates exceeding their renewal rates, they too will eventually be depleted to extinction, like the gold in a gold mine.
Then the author sketches the theme of his chapter on Australia in a single chilling sentence, where the inverted commas around "mining" indicate that he's using this term in its metaphorical sense:
Australia has been and still is "mining" its renewable resources as if they were mined minerals.
Diamond pulls no punches in describing the exceptionally fragile nature of the harsh "sunburnt country" that many of us came to love.

Up until reading Diamond's detailed descriptions of the low nutrient levels of Australian soils, I had always imagined naively that our agriculture was surely no less "lucky" than the many other aspects of Down Under in which Australians take pride. But this is not at all the case. We now know that the infertility and salinity of soils in Australia make them unsuitable for nearly all forms of agriculture and grazing. Then there's the terrible question of unpredictable rainfall due to the notorious ENSO (El Niño Southern Oscillation). I believe that every concerned Australian should make a point of studying Diamond's spine-chilling chapter 13 of Collapse.

Meanwhile, I was thrilled to see a victory photo of Mr Rabbit and his lovely women.

Verily I say unto you that they're as beautiful as a page from a fairy tale.

PS I should explain to readers who've never been to Australia that the title of this blog post is an advertising slogan that was used by the Red Rooster fast-food people.

I'm trying to figure out why that photo of Tony Abbott on the beach reminded me immediately of a red cock, about to crow...

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