SCENARIOS FOR AN URBAN SOCIETY
CSIRO Wildlife & Ecology
(Paper to Ministry for Planning seminar on The Future Perth Economy, Perth Oct 25 1999)
In my accepting today's invitation it was understood that I would talk more about the future of the society than the future of the city; that my task was to provide an extended context within which others would consider how Perth is evolving and how that evolutionary path could or should be redirected.
Perhaps that is an appropriate division of labour insofar as I have no specialist knowledge of city-region planning, the dynamics of urban economies or, indeed of Perth itself. Nonetheless, I do have a long-standing interest in regional land use planning (especially in the coastal zone), population policy and regional economics and would have enjoyed the task of relating my thoughts in those areas to emerging ideas about gateway cities, multi-nodal cities and transport planning concepts such as those of your own Peter Newman (1994; 1995); a chance perhaps to re-read Geoge Seddon's Sense of Place (1972) and Ian McHarg's (1969) Design with Nature. Now, while I have adhered to my riding instructions in preparing today's remarks, I have also indulgently added an appendix to the written version of this paper under the heading Daily life in Sydney 2020. It is a somewhat dystopian short story of what life in Australia's largest city could be like in a generation or so if things go badly wrong. And, as a counterpoint to that perspective, I have added a further appendix, an extract from my book Future Makers, Future Takers (Cocks 1999), describing the plans of an imaginary post-materialism political party for making Australian cities more habitable.
So, on with the task at hand. Where might we be in 2050? If I really knew of course I'd be over at the stock exchange putting my predictive skills to profitable use instead of swanning around here. Experience has taught me to avoid saying 'This will happen'. For example, 'Most of Perth's drinking water in 2020 will come from desalination plants'. Any presumption of certainty about the coming-to-pass of future events---other than the bleeding obvious like 'The sun will rise tomorrow'---is always problematic. Even more cautiously, I am reluctant to predict the future even probabilistically, that is, to make statements like 'I think there is a ten per cent probability that most of Perth's drinking water in 2020 will come from desalination plants'. What I am willing to do is to make hypothetical statements about the future. I say 'This might happen, or it might not; and on the other hand such-and-such might happen'. I recognise and describe future situations which are imaginable or believable in cause-effect terms and which would surprise me to a greater or lesser degree if they were to eventuate; that is, would leave me somewhere between being totally surprised and totally unsurprised. In the future-gazing business such hypothesised situations are called scenarios.
For example, a best-case scenario for Australian tennis would be that Pat Rafter's shoulder heals completely and he comes back better than ever. A worst-case scenario would be that Rafter never plays Davis Cup tennis for Australia again. Understand that I am not talking odds or probabilities, just imaginable possibilities. I would not be surprised by either outcome but that does not mean I think they are equally probable.
Well then you ask, what is the value of scenarios if you can't use them to sharpen the odds and beat the bookies? The answer is that if scenarios really are believable and say something that the client hadn't thought of, they function to flag upcoming possible problems or upcoming possible opportunities. These possibilities can then be factored into today's choices somewhat like buying an insurance policy or options on the stockmarket. Proverbs provide good examples of the type of thinking that scenarios encourage. 'A stitch in time saves nine' is advice on what to do now to avoid a bad scenario like your trousers falling down and 'Great oaks from little acorns grow' is advice on how to fund your retirement if you are in the timber business.
So, where might Australian society be in 2050? I am going to spend most of my time today sketching out five scenarios which I call polar scenarios. That is, while they are not off the planet, they are in unfamiliar territiory and, like the north and south poles, they are a long way apart from each other.
Scenario 1: Struggling to cope
The first of these I have called Struggling to cope and it is also my worst-case scenario.
Most modern societies have the the resilience to cope with small crises or even one or two large crises, but what happens when a complex society like ours, one full of long-chain dependencies, is clobbered with five or six major crises in the space of a few years? And, as Shakespeare knew, it can happen: 'When troubles come, they are not as single spies but in battalions'.
Take your pick from the following list of possibilities:
Under multiple shocks like these, a complex society runs a very high risk of quickly reverting to a much simpler form of organisation. In extreme cases we call this a social collapse. The symptoms of collapse include breakdown in law and order, pervasive fear in everyday life, declining life expectancy, loss of culture, civil and political rights, health and education services and basics like running water and sewerage. In a sentence, quality of life goes through the floor. For example, Kosovar society has just collapsed. In general terms, the only protection against a multiplicity of local shocks is to build up a capacity for rapid social learning and a store of flexible redundant capital, ready to wheel into action as needed.
I have an even-gloomier variation on the Struggling to cope scenario called Failing to cope. Here, one or more global-scale shocks precipitate rapid collapse in societies around the world, including Australia. Today's four horsemen of the Apocalypse are world war, pandemic disease, global economic meltdown and a sudden global climate shift, triggered perhaps by reversal of a major ocean current. All these possibilities are far from implausible in a highly-connected world where shocks propagate freely. The only protection we can take out against such globally destructive futures is active membership of the world community. We have to simultaneously dialogue to forestall such catastrophes and make plans on the assumption that catastrophe will not strike. Cosmic catastrophes that no amount of dialogue can prevent are also possible of course. Asteroid strikes and geomagnetic reversal are two examples. While global society could take measures to survive such challenges, that is not today's topic.
Scenario 2: Muddling down
I call my second scenario Muddling down. In this scenario, quality of life declines slowly under 'do nothing' governments which act only in response to extreme political pressure or it declines under gridlocked governments which, try as they might, find they can only take actions that do not offend major interest groups. Under this scenario, so much social energy is used up in arguing about who gets what that things just slowly stop working, they clog up; not just services and utilities and markets but framework institutions like parliament and the legal system. In a rapidly changing world like ours, a society that does little to adapt to changed circumstances stands to go into slow decline even if it is not exposed to major shocks. Under this scenario we possibly end up living in hovels and taking our goods to market in horse-drawn carts along disintegrating highways.
While Australians as individuals are richly talented we do seem to make heavy weather of reforming outdated institutions---perhaps for the very reason that those same institutions have been historically successful. It's all too easy to imagine a 'muddling down' future for Australia characterised by pragmatic, laggardly, kneejerk responses to emerging threats and opportunities; like a boiling frog that doesn't read his pocket thermometer. Even a society more flexible than ours is still like a giant oil tanker that takes ever so long to turn around. Think of how long it takes to replace a city's housing stock or to upgrade the Hume highway, not to mention changing the tax system; I mean really changing it.
Some of the big challenges already bearing down on us, apart from lagging institutions and declining oil reserves are soil salinisation and acidification, dysfunctional cities and a growing-ageing population. And each of these has its own web of issues. Remaking the cities, for example, involves consideration, inter alia, of:
On the population issue, many fail to realise that unless we are increasing real expenditures on education, communications, the legal system etc by at least one per cent a year (which is about the rate the population is growing) we are actually going backwards. While an ageing population may not be as problematic as many think, it will require substantial adjustments. An accumulation of small failures can squeeze a society as surely as the anaconda squeezed the family donkey in The Swiss Family Robinson.
OK, let me recapitulate. In my first scenario, Australian society collapses quickly because we're king-hit by a number of sizeable crises squashed into a relatively short time period. In my second scenario, we decline slowly, withering on the vine because we are incapable of recognising and decisively countering cumulating threats to our way of life. You might scoff at my first two scenarios, but never forget that just as there are a lot more extinct species than living ones, there are a lot more dead civilisations than living ones!
Chasing the rainbow
Let me turn now to three more-optimistic scenarios under the general heading of Chasing the Rainbow As we all know, there is a crock of gold at the end of the rainbow if you can only get there before the rain stops. What these three more- optimistic scenarios have in common is a presumption that we Australians are going to collectively and enthusiastically attempt to shape our own future; that we are going to try to be active future makers rather than passive future takers; and that our plan will be to search for and settle on some future-shaping strategy and stick with it for decades or more. Now that last presumption would never be realised of course. No society should or would stick rigidly to some master plan for decades, although Singapore has come close perhaps.
In creating these three proactive scenarios, I have tried to base them on three socio-political strategies that are as different as possible without being outside the square of political reality. For example, shocks and squeezes aside, it is difficult to see Australia being anything other than a capitalist society with a mixed economy and some semblance of democratic governance over the next 50 years. So I've built three candidate strategies compatible with that description around the ideas of self-regulated capitalism, managed capitalism and subordinated capitalism.
Strategies also need goals. As someone said, 'If you don't know where you're going, it doesn't matter which bus you catch'. I've picked three strategies which all have the same goal, namely high quality of life for most present and future Australians. What do I mean by quality of life? People with high quality of life are able to satisfy their higher needs for creative activity, esteem and participation in community life, as well as for basic needs such as food, shelter, and security.
I could have picked another national goal, economic or military power perhaps , or given each strategy a different goal; but I didn't. It's hard, and perhaps pointless, to compare strategies with different goals. While not pausing to defend my choice of quality of life as a hypothesised national goal I might note that most aspirations presented to the community as goals are much more readily interpretable as means rather than ends. I give you interest rates, inflation rates and the trade balance as examples.
I am also assuming of course that the nation state called Australia will be around to manage itself for the next 50 years. Many commentators see national governments being reduced to impotence as globalisation proceeds. If I might add my definition of globalisation to the pile, it is the process under which once-separate societies are moving towards functioning as a single society, albeit one that is pretty chaotic and under-governed. Globalisation may be disturbing but it is certainly not mysterious. It is an accelerating expression of the same great forces that have moulded the world for the last 200 years---capitalism, technological change and the search for political emancipation. For those who believe in Kondratiev cycles, expansion of a global economy based on oil, chemicals, steel and consumer durables is coming to an end and, for the next fifty years, expansion will be achieved through growth in the information and biotechnology sectors, and perhaps through growth in the nanotechnology and advanced materials sectors.
The view I'm taking today, the alternative to the impotent-state view, is that national governments, particularly if they collaborate, will continue to be important agents of change and stability in a globalising world. I'm presuming that over the next fifty years Australia will remain a middle-ranking first-world power, making a small contribution to global governance while working out its own ways of responding to widespread domestic concerns about various obstacles to high quality of life. While there are other candidates, the four widely-recognised obstacles I will focus on here are environmental degradation, a shortage of social justice measured as life opportunities, deteriorating social relationships and a rate of economic growth which, depending on your viewpoint, is either too high or too low.
Scenario 3: Going for growth
I call my first rainbow-chasing scenario Going for Growth---economic growth. The basic belief behind this strategy is that we really have only one problem to solve if we want everyone to have high quality of life and, come 2050, be living in a society with good long-term survival prospects. That perceived problem is how to get the economy growing at a steady 3-4% year after year. The rationale behind this scenario is that if you achieve very high income per head---perhaps three times present levels---it will be possible to find the money to protect the environment and to eliminate poverty. As for the means to this end, the belief that goes easily with this scenario is that our best prospects for getting high economic growth lie in reducing the size of the government sector and the level of business regulation.
Scenario 4: Conservative development
Rainbow scenario number 2 is called Conservative Development and it's a first cousin to what has been called 'sustainable development' for some years now. Remember the wasted effort that went into developing a strategy for ecologically sustainable development in the ealy nineties? The basic perception behind this strategy is that if we want a good life for everybody come 2050 we have three big problems to solve first, none of which can be reliably solved by free markets. These challenges are to get solid economic growth, to manage environmental quality and to achieve social justice. Our only chance of surviving economically in a globalising world is to adopt interventionist industry policies derived from 'new growth' thinking; things like research subsidies and advanced education, to boost our knowledge-intensive exports. The conservative development strategy accepts that social welfare programs and active job-creation programs, funded through green taxes, resource taxes and wealth taxes, are needed to protect people from the roller coaster ride of globalisation. And that the main way to protect the environment is strong regulation of entrepreneurial activity---preferably through environmental and social impact assessment, but also through large government programs to directly protect ecosystems from people, weeds and feral animals. This is a 'tax and spend' strategy which has faith in the capacity of government to contribute strongly to solving the problems of low economic growth, unacceptable levels of life opportunities and poor environmental quality.
Scenario 5: Post-materialism
Rainbow-chasing scenario number 3 is called Post-Materialism and I'll spend a little longer on this one because it will appear stranger to most people than scenarios 3 and 4 which can be viewed as derived from either end of the current spectrum of political discourse.
Viewed as a strategy for managing the future, Post-Materialism starts from the two premises that economic growth is very much a mixed blessing and that pathological social relations are ever-diminishing people's quality of life. On the issue of environmental quality, this strategy sees our best efforts to date as puny relative to the size of problems that continue to get further and further out of hand. For example, a colleague and I once calculated that you would need to plant 12 bn trees in the Murray-Darling Basin to counter dryland salinisation. Post-materialism is a scenario of life in Australia after we reject a consumerism where most people want to buy ever-increasing quantities of goods and services, rather than take productivity gains in the form of leisure. These sorts of values are not a product of my fevered imagination. Political scientists have been recording their spread for years.
What does this scenario involve? On the economic front, the challenge facing a post-materialist society would be to see if it could slow economic growth to a crawl without shutting down the economy or spinning it into recession. Putting a cap, an upper limit, on total energy use and on the use of virgin raw materials would be a fundamental medium-term objective under this strategy. The reasoning here is that energy throughput is strongly correlated with both economic growth and environmental impact. Another objective would be the introduction of a regional land use planning system with real teeth to control all aspects of land and resource use at a region-wide scale, not just on a case by case basis. For tackling the issue of social justice, the main policy would be to narrow the spread of incomes in the community by raising the lowest incomes and lowering the highest incomes.
But Post-Materialism includes much more than slowing growth, narrowing income gaps, making regional environmental plans and dejouling and dematerialising the economy. As well as confronting the three problems of excessive economic growth, poor environmental quality and social injustice, the Post-Materialism strategy recognises the need to strenuously tackle the fourth problem of sociopathy or social fragmentation if most Australians are to enjoy high quality of life by 2050. A fragmenting society is not easily defined by a single characteristic but, to a large extent, it's one where more and more people believe that they are not needed and not wanted and behave accordingly. The symptoms of a fragmented society include alienation, crime, dissociation, anomie, conflict and mistrust. In a healthy society, people feel secure, wanted, useful, empowered, and able to grow.
Advocates of a post-materialism strategy argue that dealing with social fragmentation requires nothing less than a change in the deep structure of society, that is, in the distribution and use of decision-making power in organisations, institutions and social groupings. Clearly we are talking about a strategy that would take decades to implement.
The most dramatic change under a power-sharing scenario would be on the political front, where a post-materialist strategy would centre on creating a new tier of about 30 regional governments somewhere in size between state and local government. Simultaneously, there would be a disempowering of state governments on the grounds that they are too big to be sensitive to the people they are supposed to serve and too remote to allow people to participate in political life. Of course, even though they are lead in the saddlebags, you couldn't really get rid of the States could you. I mean, what about the Sheffield Shield competition and State of Origin matches?
On the industrial front, a post-materialist strategy would encourage worker ownership, industrial democracy and what are called stakeholder organisations, ie companies that have a sense of responsibility to the world, the environment and the community as well as to the shareholders. The education system would actively socialise children to appreciate the value of balancing competitive individualism with collaborative co-operative behaviour. The single word that best sums up the post-materialist remedy for social fragmentation is 'participation'.
Well, there you have three rainbow-chasing strategies. I only have time to spend a sentence or two on envisaging a best-case and worst-case possible outcome under each.
Under an economic growth scenario the best case outcome might be that we are all rich and willing to spend lots of money on cleaning up the environment. In the worst case, an ever-widening spread of incomes, fuelled by the absence of any direct incentive for income redistribution, might create an angry underclass and social chaos.
Under a conservative development scenario, the best-case outcome might be steady progress on all fronts---economic, environmental and social--- and the worst-case outcome might be a gridlocked society drifting slowly out of touch with a changing world. Success in achieving full employment would stand to improve quality of life for all, not just the unemployed. Alternatively, stubborn resistance from a business community faced with having to pay the full social costs of using natural resources and having material and energy throughputs regulated and taxed might result in GDP decline or half-hearted environmental management or both.
Under a post-materialism scenario the best-case outcome might be one of most people living in modest comfort while enjoying a healthy environment and the self-fulfillment that comes from playing a decisive role in one's society. The worst-case outcome would be a disintegrating economy with most people living in grinding poverty. The danger here is that if consumption were to be capped and the economy pushed to be more diversified, democratised, localised and green, business activity might simply decline rather than move vigorously towards a new production-investment mix.
Let's do another check on where we've got to. In addition to a collapse scenario and a slow decline scenario, I have now sketched out three scenarios which envisage proactive strategies for attempting to build high quality of life for our grandchildren. If time permitted I could have created other proactive scenarios. For example, I could have created one called Back to the Fifties, based on the ideas of the 'vernacular Australia ' movement. Conversely, it would be futile to create one called, say, Imperial Australia. It is just not plausible to think of Australia trying to acquire new territories. The beauty of the scenario-writing approach to future-gazing is that if you don't like any of the presumptions I have had to make to get my scenarios up and running, we can just change them and start again; not today though.
If I have to confront the question of what Australia's future might be like in light of today's scenariography, I will suggest that it would be highly surprising if the future closely followed one of my five scenarios and highly unsurprising if it were to turn out to be readily describable as some mix of my five scenarios. But as to which of the five scenarios might be particularly emphasised in that mix I have no idea.
What is particularly important here is that we continue believing in our capacity to nudge the mix around. I happen to think that my three reference strategies are as diverse a sample of our feasible options for shaping the future as might be realistically imagined. They are presented as big strategies to be implemented over decades but are probably more usefully seen as sign posts rather than destinations. That is, I want them to be seen as real, and certainly risky, alternative bearings on which to begin steering the ship of state, the oil tanker of state, rather than rigid sailing directions for the next 50 years. Tomorrow, figuratively speaking, when circumstances change, strategies can be rethought and another path perhaps chosen.
In the book on which this talk is based I develop the three rainbow strategies in some detail by using the device of presenting each as the manifesto of a hypothetical political party seeking to govern Australia over coming decades. I bend over backwards to present each strategy as fairly as I can and I am certainly not here to advocate supporting any one of them in particular. My agenda is broader than that and would be jeopardised by such advocacy.
What I want to see is a serious debate about where Australian society is going over the next several generations---not the next electoral cycle---and how it might plan to get there. I want to see us chasing the rainbow, but not haphazardly. I want a debate that recognises that if our plans for producing high quality of life all round involve major changes to values, institutions and the capital mix we can expect to be busy for some decades; and we almost certainly need to start right away. Keynes was wrong when he said that if you look after the short run, the long run will look after itself.
Certainly I would hope that my reference strategies, or variations on them, would be part of the debate but I can see that such a debate would also address questions such as:
The circumstances under which collective intervention is legitimate;
Whether there is any point in having a national goal;
Alternatives to quality of life as a national goal;
What are the major impediments to quality of life?
What effort should go into shaping the future relative to addressing today's pressing problems?
How far ahead should we be looking? Why not as far as the next ice age which incidentally is not all that far away?
My hopes for a national debate are probably doomed, despite the fact that many people are concerned about what sort of world their grandchildren will grow old in and despite the fact that many decisions made today will stand or fall on what happens in coming decades. Just for starters, the list of policy areas with obvious long-term implications includes education curricula, infrastructure provision, environmental management, defence procurement, land clearing; annual immigration levels and groundwater loadings.
For reasons which escape me, we do not seem to be able to properly debate our options for managing the long-term future. We live in a society where the long term, to quote Peter Costello, is anything the other side of Christmas. Part of the answer may be that the battlers have no surplus energy for contemplating the future. And for the majority, still basking in Galbraith's 'culture of contentment', memory and folk memory are short. For this majority, there has been insufficient recent failure and turbulence in the system to sensitise people to the possibility of future failure or, indeed, future progress. Perhaps the paradigm has to clearly fail before it shifts.
An evolutionary biologist seeking to explain our 'grasshopperism'---remember the story of the ant and the grasshopper?--- might suggest that, genetically, we are still hunter-gatherers who never had to look ahead because their environment was changing so slowly. In those days, it may even have been a disadvantage to spend time future-gazing. Today our bio-social environment is changing too rapidly to allow genetic adaptation, and we have to adapt culturally or not at all. Rapidly changing environments have always been fatal for most species living in them. Let's not panic, but if we can't increase our capacity to adapt by looking further ahead we surely increase our chances of being in that evolutionary lottery where, up till now, only one ticket in every thousand wins a prize.
Cocks D, 1999, Future Makers, Future Takers: Life in Australia 2050, University of New South Wales Press, Sydney.
McHarg I, 1969, Design with Nature, Natural History Pres, New York.
Newman P, 1995, ‘Freeways May be on Their Last Gasp’, Australian Options, 1(3), 15–18.
Newman P, 1994, ‘Sustainability and the Post Modern City: Some Guidelines for Urban Planning and Transport in an Age of Uncertainty’, in Global Forum ’94, Towards a Sustainable Future: Promoting Sustainable Development, Manchester, UK.
Seddon G, 1972, Sense of place : a response to an environment, the Swan Coastal plain, University of Western Australia Press, Perth.
Appendix 1: Daily life in Sydney 2020
On Nelo’s 25th birthday he rose early, printed off his customised copy of the First World Chronicle for Jan 1 2020 and sauntered onto the balcony for a long lazy breakfast with his partner Merede and their daughter Benita.
‘Great to have a day off’ he said as he turned on the whole-wall screen by simply thinking ‘screen’ and carefully enunciated his grandparents’ universal access code in the direction of the Integrated Communication System (ICS). ‘The trouble with being one of the lucky ones with a job, a symbolic analyst’s job at that, is that you have to work 80 hours a week to get there and then 70 hours a week to stay there’.
From their fifth floor balcony Nelo could see beyond the walls of Safehaven Park, the suburb they had lived in since moving from Perth to be in Sydney, Australia's only world gateway city and home to a quarter of the country’s 25 million people. What’s the weather like ? said Merede. ‘No smoggier than usual; certainly not a breathing unit day. I can just see the new wall they are putting up around Sowetoville, that underclass suburb near the University. That should make policing easier’ he said. ‘Why don’t they fit every underclasser with an electronic bracelet to keep track of where they are. It would be easier than walling them out and the overclass in’ she said. ‘ But you have to be convicted of something to be punished like that. Anyhow, the trick in managing the underclass is to make sure they vent their frustration and anger on their own, not on us or the service workers who live in the open suburbs’.
At that moment the ICS flashed and hiccupped discreetly and Grandpa Wong’s smiling Eurasian face came up on the holocube. ‘I wasn’t going to answer till the ICS said it was you calling. This expensive retirement village you got us into has such an intensive activity program that we’re desperate for some peace and quiet. When I was young, the old people weren’t healthy enough to play and learn and socialise. And now there are so many of us. Three retirement villages in our suburb alone, you know’.
‘Grandpa’, said Merede, ‘Nelo and I have a free day so we were calling to see if you and Grandma Wong could join us for lunch at the Safehaven Precinct Club. We’re off to the Safehaven Fitness Center soon but we could pick you up around twelve’.
I don’t know why you work such long hours Nelo’, said Grandpa Wong, ‘When I retired 10 years ago we were only working four days a week, eight hours a day’. ‘It’s still like that for industrial and service workers’, said Nelo, ‘and so they get lots of leisure time, but we brain workers, the symbolic analysts, are only a third of the workforce and can’t be easily replaced. Anyhow, I’m not sure if I would know what to do with more leisure time. Travel isn’t much fun now that you have to move around in big groups for safety in most countries. Experiencing Alaska by virtual reality in my own entertainment room is more to my taste. No wonder the tourist industry is in the doldrums’.
Merede, Nelo and Benita set off from the Fitness Center to pick up the oldies at Mon Repos Retirement Village. The electric motors in the wheels of their hybrid car made no noise and all they could hear was the small constant-speed diesel engine generating power for the lightweight batteries. They took a roundabout route so that they could stay on the main roads where carjacking was rare and where the Highway Security Service they had joined guaranteed a seven minute maximum response time from the moment you pressed the alarm button.
‘We’ll have to go screen-shopping after lunch’ said Nelo, deftly avoiding a series of large potholes in the middle of the freeway. ‘ This walk-through computer shopping is all very well but the door-to-door delivery system hasn’t been too reliable recently and I used the last of the fresh Indonesian mangoes for breakfast’.
‘Can I stay on at the Club after lunch and play in the virtual reality arcade?’ said Benita. ‘No, you have to log up more computer-assisted rote learning hours if you ever want to get to University and get a symbolic analyst’s job one day. And don’t forget to take your Easylearning pill first. We are happy to pay exorbitant University fees but you have to do your share. You wouldn’t want to become a service worker would you?’
‘What’s so bad about being a service worker?’ said Benita. We went on an excursion through their suburbs and I like those old-fashioned shops where people serve you’. ‘For a start’, said Nelo severely, ‘you would be dependent on the public health system which is no system at all and you would not be able to afford new clothes every season and you would have to cook meals in a tiny kitchen and wash your clothes at home and you couldn’t afford to be on the Webnet so you would never know what was happening around the world and...and...’ He finally ran out of breath.
Merede tried to make peace. ‘At least it would be better being a hairdresser or a medico than being an underclasser living in a shantytown suburb like Sowetoville she said. ‘They have no police, broken sewers and water every second day’. ‘And all those billboards pushing all those drugs’ added Nelo. ‘They haven’t introduced segmented advertising like the overclass and service suburbs get on the Webnet. I got quite a shock the other night when the Newheineken Group put an ad into the subscription opera on Webnet inviting me personally, Nelo Marten, to try their new Safehaven organic beer. Just how much further can they customise goods and services? Still, they don’t saturate the shows with ads like the old days; it’s called ‘pulse’ advertising and works just as well I’m told’.
‘Also, there’s no antipathy to advertising like there used to be,’ said Merede. ‘People rely on it to coach them in how to be sophisticated consumers. How do people know what they are meant to like and use to maintain their status ’til they see what the upmarket advertisers are pushing’? ‘I think megacorp sponsorship of the arts and global sport has helped a lot too,’ said Nelo. ‘With the decline in government, people need the corporations.’ ‘Sydney,’ said Benita, with a wisdom beyond her years, is really three cities isn’t it. One for the rich like us, one for the poor and one for the in-betweens’.
Grandma Wong was sitting on her verandah at Mon Repos when they arrived. ‘I’m listening to Mozart’ she said. ‘Classical music is one of the few things linking us to our past. And I’m not sure if we have any future. I read the other day that 200 mega-corporations now control 80 per cent of the global economy. Where will it all end’? ‘Come on Grandma’, said Merede cheerfully as Grandpa Wong appeared wearing his favourite kaftan. ‘Lets eat’.
The meal at the Safehaven Precinct Club was as deliciously cosmopolitan, nutritious and organically fresh as usual, although interrupted several times by Merede and Nelo pausing to greet friends. Grandpa Wong had to be coaxed into having a hot salad rather than the meat-rich meal he wanted. At the Committee’s insistence, the Club only bought food containing natural biological preservatives and packed in film impregnated with freshness biosensors.
The Club, with its mainly local members, fellow symbolic analysts, was central to Nelo and Merede’s social life. And Benita’s too. She enjoyed the Children’s Sport and Culture Program there while waiting for Merede and Nelo to return in the evenings. She especially liked holofilms of extinct species like giraffes and eagles. At Nelo’s insistence they tried Newheineken’s Safehaven organic beer. ‘They have about eighty recipes’, he explained, ‘and they package them up by suburb and social class and for special interests like religious groups and environmental groups. You know---Pilgrim’s beer! Last Elephant beer! It’s really an extension of the boutique beer movement of the 1990s. And they are working on an enzyme beer that instantly detoxifies the acetaldehyde byproducts of alcohol breakdown, would you believe’?
‘I see the underclassers are starting a new party for the elections,’ said Grandpa Wong, sipping on his beer and gazing at the smoke rising above Sowetoville. ‘They don’t seem to understand that as long as the service classes vote with the overclass they don’t have a chance. Their main policy is complete deregulation of all mind-altering substances. Bit pointless I would have thought now that any kid can brew up and swallow a culture of genetically-engineered cocaine bugs or hash bugs or even Château Lafitte bugs. Not to mention registered designer drugs’. ‘Seeing that it’s mostly underclassers making up our 30 per cent unemployment rate, why don’t they concentrate on employment policy’? said Grandma Wong. ‘Waste of time,’ said Merede. ‘With middle classes growing all round the world, the mega-corporations don’t need the buying power of our local underclass.’
‘Would you two like to mind Benita next week while I’m in Amsterdam and Merede’s in Seoul? said Nelo. ‘We can get a nannytemp in if you are too busy’. ‘Love to’, said Grandma and Grandpa simultaneously. But they secretly hoped Benita was scheduled for a home-learning week and not a learning centre week. So with that arranged they drove the Wongs back to Mon Repos and made it safely home without incident---just in time for a group spa with the neighbours downstairs and a light omelette ordered in from the Homemeals people. They excused themselves early and, after some quick personal and business networking, headed for bed.
‘Thankyou for a lovely birthday darling’, said Nelo, as he reached for the excitation cream and snuggled up to Merede in the big double bed. ‘Life is so good.’ The lights turned themselves off.
APPENDIX 2: HABITABLE CITIES
(From a 'post-materialism' scenario in Future Makers, Future Takers (Cocks 1999))
For those who live in the city there should be parks for recreation. For all users of the city there should be parks or spaces for meetings, trysts, as quiet refuges, as places to see other people, for reading and public speaking, for listening to music and for exhibitions and special occasions. They are places where people can see the sky, hear birdsong, smell the flowers, get away from the noise and enjoy the greenery. Trees, water and grass are the best basis for any park.(1)
What sorts of cities provide a quality urban environment and how will a Post-Materialism government lead and encourage regional governments to improve quality of life for Australia's city-dwellers? It has to be recognised that it takes decades or more to turn over any city’s massive investment in housing stock and public infrastructure and that improvement must necessarily be slow.
Living in big cities is highly stressful. Cities where people feel relaxed and comfortable are those where Nature has been brought back into the urban scene through landscaping, landscape gardening and the provision of public open space. Psychological health requires that people have at least occasional access to quasi-hunter-gatherer experiences in near-natural ecosystems, and daily life should attempt to simulate some of these experiences.
More generally, the key to creating ‘organic’ cities is the way in which public space is provided and used (2). A Post-Materialism government will establish a Better Cities Program, driven by submissions from community groups, for funding developments that are willing to recognise urban design concepts such as:
We will also be seeking ways to reduce the extent to which individual households, or small groups of households, depend on distribution and utility networks, eg encouraging more 'half acre' urban residential blocks supporting low-energy houses, productive gardens and solar, water collecting-recycling and sewage composting technologies (3). We will fund research into 12-volt household appliances which can be powered from domestic solar cells and fuel cells. It is technically possible for households and small enterprises to feed small quantities of surplus electricity back into the power grid. Worm ‘farms’ can process organic waste.
In medium- to high-density suburbs, we will be looking to programs that, for example:
We need suburbs that, by their bio-physical nature, encourage the building of social networks and close-knit neighbourhoods, eg suburbs with housing appropriate to different stages of people’s life-cycles and different income levels; suburbs and housing clusters designed to bring people into contact. Good urban design is one factor in countering the kinds of social and psychological dysfunction found in communities of transients. Shifting job markets, smaller families and increasing personal mobility all work to disrupt previously stable communities and challenge people’s capacity to adapt.
One absolutely central principle for improving urban environmental quality is to increasingly design all developments and re-developments so as reduce the need for motorised intra-city travel. Transport and land use must be integrated at all scales. This extends from encouraging multi-nodal cities at the broadest scale to the local-scale provision of bike paths and bike facilities, shops within walking distance, traffic calming etc. Without resorting to freeways everywhere, it should be possible to significantly reduce travel distances for commuters, goods and raw materials. Encouraging more home-based work, electronic and craft, will reduce dependence on the transport system.
While it is important to have effective public transport, it is also important to retain the convenience of the personal car. The ‘pedestrianisation’ of European cities such as Florence and Copenhagen (keeping cars out) has not been a total success. While asthma rates have fallen and kids walk to school, such cities are cumbersome to move around in. Taxis, car pools and demand-responsive minibuses are an intermediate solution. A much enhanced role for bicycling is foreseeable (4). Levies on private motor transport (5) to fund public transport may need to be considered.
1 Johnson R, 1979, The Green City, Macmillan, Melbourne.
2 Newman P, Mouritz M & Burke G, 1994, ‘Greening the City: Can the Ecological and the Human Dimensions of the City be Part of Town Planning?’, in A Vision For a Greener City, National Greening Australia conference, Fremantle.
3 Trainer FE, 1991, ‘The Global Context: Our Unsustainable Society and the Radical Conserver Alternative’, in Smith JW (ed), Immigration, Population and Sustainable Environments: The Limits to Australia’s Growth, Flinders Press, Adelaide.
4 Parker AA, 1995, ‘Cycling and Urban Travel: How Much Society Could Save by Substituting Bicycle Trips for Short Car Trips’, Urban Futures, 18, 53–60.
5 Fisher F, 1995, ‘Fairs Fare’, Arena, No 18, 8–9.