Features | Society | Oceania

Apocalypse Porn

When I checked in at Sydney Airport for a flight to Perth, the Qantas operative greeted me with ‘bad news’. Due to a technical hitch, there was – gasp – ‘no audio-visual’. I couldn’t have been happier. Forty winks was in my grasp. ‘Such a long flight,’ she lamented. Passengers were provided with a $30 voucher to buy books.

By Richard Neville for

This might seem a trivial incident, but in futures-speak, it is possibly a ‘weak signal’, an infinitesimal clue of things to come. (Erratic tech, entertainment addiction, the vitality of print.) Such clues are rarely noticed, except in retrospect. The world’s first hand-held, chip-driven calculators flew out the doors in 1970, presaging the future of portability. Yet IBM spent another 10 years flogging its mainframes.

The collapse of Enron produced a feast of portents. Executive hubris, ethical terror, the plunder of staff entitlements. Chairman Ken Lay was a buddy of President George W Bush, pouring $1 million into his campaign coffers and lending him a Lear Jet. The energy giant lavished gold on its top brass – Lay’s 1999 bonus exceeded $42 million. Its deals were dodgy and it was adored by financial journalists.

In short, this was rogue capitalism in full flight that was treated as an aberration rather than a sign of systemic avarice and deception. If the signals had been heeded, Wall Street’s financial malfeasance could have been corrected sooner, without spiralling into the bloodbath of today.

Degrees of survivalism

In the 21st century, weak signals seem to be intensifying. Michelle Obama has suddenly projected the guerrilla gardening movement into the heart of public awareness by turning the first organic sod in the White House’s vegetable garden. Let a thousand zucchinis bloom – and they will. When Michelle plonked herself on the street with a bunch of raggedy London schoolkids during the recent G20 summit, hugging them, inspiring them, she may have signalled the end of the frigid and forced classroom photo-ops beloved  by Australia’s politicians. Mrs Obama’s elevation of the backyard vegie patch is a coded warning of hard times ahead and a call for self-sufficiency.

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It is a message that penetrates across global boundaries. A few months ago I noticed an odd sign at the entrance of Blacktown Girls High School in Sydney: Sustainability Street – It’s A Village Out There. As I later discovered, thanks to a report by journalist Nick Galvin, the girls had planted nearly 1000 indigenous trees to create a wildlife corridor along the edge of the school grounds. The students were pushing for water tanks to be installed, a full carbon audit, car-pooling and designated paper-free days.

They were keen to create a ‘kitchen garden’ in a disused part of the school; one that reflected the playground’s ethnic diversity by having different plants represent different cultures. In my day, all we did at school was grumble.

This is the soft and sensible side of survivalism. In the think tanks, on the blogs, on YouTube and at middle-class dinner parties, the chatter is apocalyptic. Store weapons, horde gold, buy candles. Prepare for peak oil, peak water, peak fish, peak topsoil, peak debt, peak everything. It’s the end of suburbia, the rise of anarchy, the arrival of pre-emptive law enforcement (British cops have ‘identified’ 200 schoolchildren, some as young as 13, as potential terrorists).

Survival sites are having a field day. EfoodsDirect.com offers a ‘3-Day Responder’, designed to meet the ever increasing need for families and individuals to be ‘prepared for anything’. It offers one adult three days of healthy, storable food for about $2 a meal. The ‘Patriot Pack’ contains a two-month emergency supply. It looks yummy and claims to be storable for 15 years. A global meltdown doesn’t mean you have to miss meals.

‘The game will soon be over’

It wasn’t so long ago that high-profile futurists – no, not me – were promoting a scenario of The Long Boom, ‘a vision for the coming age of prosperity’, that now seems a fleeting vision. Today it is the doomsayers who dominate, and to be frank, there is something exciting about listening to the promulgations of catastrophe. A former writer for Rolling Stone, Jim Kunstler, has long depicted a future scenario of The Long Emergency.

Kunstler regards the creation of suburbia as the ‘greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world’, and foretells its tragic destiny: ‘The psychology of previous investment suggests that we will defend our drive-in utopia long after it has become a terrible liability.’ He, like other soothsayers, sees our lives as becoming ‘profoundly and intensely local’, and he believes the future will be far less about mobility and much more about staying where you are. An ‘enormous problem’ will be the production of food.

A few weeks ago in San Francisco, a brilliant Russian-born economist, Dmitry Orlov, drew over 500 people to a talk on ‘Social Collapse Best Practices’, where he mocked the current strategy of Western Governments: ‘The ship is on the rocks, water is rising, and the captain is shouting, “Full steam ahead! We are sailing to Afghanistan!”‘

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Orlov believes the ‘game will soon be over’, and that economists haven’t a clue what to do next. He says people should ‘forget growth, forget jobs, forget financial stability’ and concentrate on ‘realistic’ new objectives: food, shelter, transportation and security. The immediate task of government is to deliver necessities on an emergency basis, in the absence of a functioning economy, with commerce at a standstill, with little or no access to imports, and to provide for a population that will be largely penniless.

Orlov is hopeful that society could remain intact and will be able to resume a ‘slow and painful process of cultural transition, and eventually develop a new economy, a gradually de-industrialising economy, at a much lower level of resource expenditure, characterised by quite a lot of austerity, but in conditions that are safe, decent, and dignified’. Still, it might be wise to stock up on Patriot Packs.

The environmental impact

It took decades of simmering pressure to catapult the issue of sustainability into global awareness; where it is now in danger of being waylaid by the fiscal meltdown. While the crash will curb the excesses of the shopping religion, it will also deter investment in renewable energy.

Herman Daly and other eco-economists have long stressed the urgency of leapfrogging ‘beyond growth’, evoking a carbon-neutral lifestyle that nourishes self-reliance, human rights and all the bright ideas that keep civilisation rolling along. What other choice do we have? Humanity’s consumption already exceeds the capacity of Earth to regenerate its resources by 30 per cent.

As we embark on the inescapable transition to sustainability, it is expected that GDP and the money supply will decrease while NGOs will multiply and the pursuit of innovation accelerates. This mind shift will be hotly contested, especially by a traumatised corporate media clinging to the growth/spend/Lear Jet paradigm and playing dirty. Expect incessant calls for war. Expect reports on future wars to be sanitised even more so than today.

Do not expect to be reminded that these ‘wars we have to have’ are also wars that accelerate global warming. The Iraq invasion has produced over 141 million metric tons of carbon dioxide and similar pollutants, according to Oil Change International, which concluded the ‘costs of the war would cover all of the global investments in renewable power generation that are needed between now and 2030 in order to halt current warming trends’.

Participants at the anti-G20 protests in London were routinely depicted as ‘anarchists’, as if to ram home a warning that those who oppose unbridled casino capitalism are coming to eat your children. The marchers were citizens.

How can you have a sane society made up of competitive self-interested individuals all trying to get as rich as possible? How can governments strive to rescue the environment, when they prepare for perpetual war?

Although ‘being green’ has gone mainstream, the environment continues to decline, largely because of economic activity. This decline is linked with the wealth gap and a scarcity of resources. The stately shift to post-growth economics will not be end of the world – it will be the re-birth of the world.

On the emission-exuding Qantas return flight from Perth to Sydney, the audio-visual was in full swing. The movie was a remake of a ’50s classic, The Day the Earth Stood Still. It got lousy reviews, but after a second Bloody Mary, I was on the edge of my seat and our planet was on the edge of extinction. It was gripping. I felt aroused and helpless at the same time, a defining quality of apocalypse porn. No sex, plenty of death and a wild-ride future.