do we get these people?
temperature had plunged overnight and a grim slate-grey sky hung over
the city as I crossed the lane to the Brushtail Café, looking
for light and warmth and a decent vegetarian breakfast.
flurry of cold sleety rain came down and I wondered if my name was in
Belinda Neals freezer. Hell, maybe shed thrown the whole
Sydney White Pages in there.
These days, more and more commuters are filtering down Werrong Lane
towards the station. A year ago, these folk used to drive to work, but
they cant afford to any more, so they drive to any unrestricted
parking they can find and walk to the station, where the platforms are
now as crowded as Roslyn Oxleys gallery after the Henson raids.
Ah yes, the nude kiddie pics affair entertained everybody for a brief
shining moment before the petrol crisis forced its gloomy way back onto
the front pages. In the first three months of this year, petrol sales
fell by more than 5 per cent. That means traffic is down by the same
amount. If that trend continues, traffic will be down by 20 per cent
in a full year.
political class has really stuffed up this time. Coming generations
will look back in dismay at the stupidity of successive governments.
Theyll scratch their heads over the FuelWatch fracas, when the
government and opposition squabbled for a week over a possible saving
of four cents a litre and by the time that blew over, the price had
gone up by twice as much.
Never underestimate the extent to which abundant cheap oil transformed
politics and politicians. Before the Second World War our cities and
economies needed big organizations to get people and goods around. There
were huge rail and tram networks and most of it was run, of necessity,
by the government. It was a time when you had to pay attention to the
But then a flood of cheap oil was unleashed on the Western world. A
private car for every family suddenly became possible. The freedom of
movement offered by the car bolstered the shallow market ideology of
individualism. Politicians were seduced by the ease with which they
could freeze, minimise and dismantle the big social systems of transport
in favour of an atomised cottage industry of car sales yards, servos
Of course few looked too closely at the inevitable downside: if every
family owned a car let alone two or three parking, pollution
and the necessary road space were going to transform our cities for
And then came the freeway, carving destructive swathes through the old
inner cities and pushing outwards to create vast sprawling car-dependent
suburbs. The more freeways they built, the quicker they filled up, because
traffic expands to fill the road space available, at least in peak periods.
Many grumbled about traffic but few asked the really fundamental question:
what will happen when this flexible, super cheap, source of energy inevitably
goes into decline?
The neo-classical economists complacent response was most fatuously
stated by Dr Brian Fisher of the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and
Resource Economics. "If the price is high enough, even roosters
will lay eggs", he said, when asked about peak oil.
Even for an economist, thats a dumb response, because roosters
cant lay eggs. But if the price was huge, and the rooster somehow
responded, most people wouldnt be able to afford the eggs anyway.
The current generation of mainstream Australian politicians have only
the barest shadow of a race-memory of crisis. The idea of the system
thats ticked over all their lives suddenly collapsing into shortages,
rationing and social chaos, is alien to their thinking.
Lets look at the crises in Australian history. There was a depression
in the 1890s, but the country was rich and expanding, so it was quickly
forgotten. We lost a lot of men in the First World War but unlike Europe,
the country was never invaded or trashed.
A decade after the Great War came the Great Depression. Now that was
a nasty shock, but it didnt come to a country already devastated
After the depression came WWII. Well, from September 1939 until December
1941 it was just a distant show to which we were sending troops. It
got a bit nasty after Pearl Harbour, but by the time the Japs got to
New Guinea, they were literally at the end of their tether. Apart from
Darwin an outpost with a few weatherboard houses flattened by
air raids the country wasnt trashed by the war.
And after WWII its been easy street just about all the way. Weve
had a couple of generations of politicians who cant even imagine
anything going radically wrong. This bunch of energy illiterates think
the market can magically supply some cheap new energy source. In NSW
at least, theyre blithely pushing on with schemes for the biggest,
most expensive, freeway projects ever. Nuts, absolutely nuts.