Monday, 3 September 2012

Turning into a Global Backwater; A good Thing?

Australia and New Zealand are the most isolated developed countries in the world and we are both far removed (geographically) from most the major global centres of power, such as Europe, America, Russia and China. Of the new global powers forming in the wake of Americas decline, (a resurgent Russia, China, India, possibly Brazil) India is the closest but Indonesia, which is shaping up into a powerful regional player, is directly between us. So on a global level, while peak oil advances, shreds global transport, and communication lines forcing more regional forms, Australia and New Zealand will become greatly isolated and removed from the world stage. This could well be seen as a positive advantage.

Militarily there are obvious changes. There was an AISO report released recently from the cold war about a potential US-Russia war, accordingly we wouldn’t be hit in major way (the most we’d have to do is evacuate Adelaide for a few days and have 2000 deaths, light by nuclear war standards). I expect similar things would happen with any major ‘global’ or even a major regional war; we won’t be targeted for several reasons. The important parts of Australia (going by population levels) are all in the southern coast (focused on the east more than the west), facing away from everyone – this makes attacking more difficult. The land also forms an effective defence – similar to Russia (think Napoleon) – and thanks to Submarines the obvious solution of sea transport can be stopped, sea denial tactics are possible, with submarines, against even a superior navy, which massively limits the enemy’s logistic support. This works the other way as well, limiting our ability to project force against most other states.

Economically we have a major advantage in a deglobalising world. Most of our economy is based around our high levels of natural resources, notably agriculture and minerals. in a world where resources have to be used close to where they’re extracted this type of economy coupled with the world class education, research centres (a large amount of research is done here) and a still competitive (but currently in trouble and losing ground) manufacturing base that’s exploring new technologies , such as 3D printing, will be quite powerful. The main problem (and this applies to New Zealand) is that we rely heavily on our extraction exports for our wealth, not that we don’t also use the extractions (we’re self-sufficient in steel for example), and as global trade takes a hit we will see our wealth (measured in such things as GDP) drop quite drastically and also in the real terms of imported goods (everything from Indonesian sweetshop clothes to high precision German equipment). However, since we posses a large resource base and some local manufacturing (especially in base products e.g. steel, aluminium and local renewable energy companies), a large agricultural surplus and good education this is solvable.

First off, we would have to solve the energy problem, a full review of our energy situation will be another post (significant research needed), so I’ll cover the basics. Almost all of our electricity resources are local, whether its coal from the La Trobe valley (lignite) or Tasmania Hydropower (same for New Zealand) and renewables are increasing their share of the electricity production. This could have the interesting effect of having Tasmania become an Industrial (lots of hydropower) and/or chemical production (the necessary agriculture is there and cheap hydroelectricity for hydrogen and other chemicals) centre while the other states scramble to retrofit /rebuild for the new economic situation, New Zealand is also in a similar position. Our renewables are definitely up to the task but it will take time, luckily we can quickly gain access to the necessary resources.

An interesting area will be agriculture since we export a lot (e.g. 50% of our Milk) and while the sector is taking hits from globalisation, the potential remains. So what to do with all this spare capacity, two things; transition to a compact, organic and sustainable farming and food distribution system (I expect part of this will include more small farms) and generate much more bioenergy (the fusion of these two will be quite interesting) for, in order of importance, supplying rural areas with energy (urban areas have other ways), industry, individuals and finally exports (if energy exporting is still a possibility) or military. Currently there are quite a few projects here for farm made and used bioenergy (e.g. a piggery that makes then used biogas and waste heat), a useful adaptation because it directly makes our food system more resilient. Another area will be the replacement of petrochemicals with agrochemicals (e.g. bioplastic) that no longer have to compete against the now cheaper petrochemicals (yes there are limits and problems, but it can help).

Being a global backwater isn’t that bad for us economically, once adaptation has taken place.

Culture will be an interesting area for Australia. Our main cultural heritage is British (I include Irish and Scottish here), followed by a strong mainland European presence and now an increasing oriental influence from the increasing Asian immigration. But, while it has died out recently to globalisation, there has long been a strong Australian culture focused on the bush (think of Ned Kelly, A.B Banjo Paterson’s Poems or the Boxing Kangaroo) that could well see a revival. To illustrate I’ll use food, this comes in two ways ; Bush tucker or native Australian food, like kangaroo (a very good meat), being used more often instead of traditional ingredients and a unique cooking style that draws on all the cultures that have immigrated to Australia (known as fusion cooking).

As the rest of the world recedes, I expect a strong Australian culture will develop and become highly distinctive from the other major cultures of the world.

Therefore, while there are great challenges ahead, which will bring great pain, for Australia these are surmountable. We occupy a safe, resource rich country and have the ability to use these advantages. Becoming a global backwater is actually not that bad.


  1. Hey Leo,

    Nice work. Organic and sustainable agriculture requires a massive increase in available labour which you mentioned in the population shift to rural areas. As a society we also need to close the nutrient loss cycle (most nutrients eventually end up in Port Phillip Bay in Melbourne).

    You're right too about rural towns as historically people have lived in towns and had productive land in the outlying areas, although in Anglo Saxon culture there was a slightly greater tendency to live on outlying farms (a risky strategy though).

    Have you checked out the video on Cuba's transition to organic agriculture?

    In Australia, perennial plant agriculture has a lot to offer because of the mild climate, but is often overlooked as most of the plant stuff that we eat and use as stock feed is based on annual plants.



  2. @ CherokeeOrganics
    I've heard of Cuba's special period and this film about it before.
    haven;'t heard of this particular video before tho.

    I've been hearing about the shift to perennial plants for a while, both using things like orchards and breading new wheat varieties and i can imagine them being successful down here.

    For the popualtion shift there's currently two things i imagine happening, the first is the extra labour/skills requiremnts for farming and the second is the labour/skills for the support structures which will become increasingly local.

    I hope our transition isn't as abrupt as the Cubans, they succeeded but a lot of suffering happened, the good thing is that its not an unkown now.

    As a permaculturist, what are your views on integrating biofuels/bioplastics into the farming system and local economy?
    While its been proven that large scale ethanol production isn't a good idea, i'm wondering more about a small scale version intergrated with a closed loop economy, e.g. biodiesel to power a small machine shop to make equipment or power local transport systems.