Monday, 17 December 2012

Historical comparisons for a potential mass migration from Indonesian

One of the things that happens when an area goes through Overshoot is that populations will sometimes respond by picking everything up and move somewhere else (other options include dwindling, internal war or other forms of collapse). While it’s certain that this will occur somewhere during our current process of Overshoot (which is more or less global in scope), I’ll look at the specific potential of an Indonesian mass migration to Australia. In this post, I’ll look at the similarities and differences to this possibility of three past mass migrations and in one case a theoretical one. This is a broad analysis as opposed to a detailed one.

The broad characteristics of this migration would be:
  • North-South Migration
  • staging point of the North Coast (for further expansion)
  • Multiple hops as opposed to one via long distance Sea travel
  • Established population on the other end
  • Fuelled by overpopulation
  • in a decline phase
  • The North Coast is a very inhospitable place for agriculture, by Indonesians and Australians
  • Potential military invasion and a large (in the millions) population movement

1) The Austronesian Expansion
The colonisation of Islands as far east as Easter Island and Madagascar, is the main migration (non-western) in the Asia-Pacific’s history via Sea.

·         Fuelled by population growth
·         Long distances travelled by Sea
·         Done by the ancestors of Indonesia’s current population
·         Variety of environments and land types encountered

So, as can be seen the Austronesian expansion shares some important traits, not least of which is the shared people as well as a potentially similar technology (once motors pass away).

·         West-East migration rather the North-South
·         Mostly to uninhabited islands
·         The majority of Islands were fertile or had good access to food
·         Generally, only small amounts of people were moving at any one time; say by the hundreds or thousands in any one year as opposed to tens of thousands.

However, these differences are quite big and the difference of scale for how many people involved completely changes the logistics and organisations involved, the size of ships needed as well as the lack of previous settlements.

Verdict: While it does share the large distances involved, this migration was more the colonisation of virgin land or in some cases a slow process of interbreeding with the locals rather than the displacement of another population. Also, the northern coast of Australia was continually visited but never settled by the Austronesians. This marks the Austronesian expansion as an unsuitable model of a potential Indonesian mass migration.

2) Why it’s called Anglo-Saxon
Overly simplified summary: The decline of the Roman empire left Roman Britain weakened and under constant Pictish assault, as well as a large famine and plagues. So they hired Saxon mercenaries to defend themselves, purportedly to bury the dead as well. Said mercenaries liked the place, so after two invasions (the guy who Arthur is based of stopped the first one) they took over and then interbred with the locals while dramatically changing the culture (e.g. back to paganism instead of staying Christian). More a cultural change than an ethnic change, but we can treat it as ethnic to explore possibilities.

  • Happened during an Overshoot period of history
  • Happened to a peripheral part of an imperial system as that system declined
  • Happened to a settled area

The overall context from the human element is effectively the same, no small thing. It can clearly be seen why a comparison is so readily drawn between this example and our vision of the future.

  • East-West migration rather than a North-South
  • Britain is really small compared to Australia, e.g. the Woomera test range (in South Australia) is as big as England and used to be twice as big
  • The north coast is relatively infertile (as in barely farmable) compared to England and natural land routes out of it to the rest of Australia are through deserts and/or mountains
  • No equivalent to the Picts, however famine and plague is possible.
  • Completely different motivators, as far as I’m aware the Saxons weren’t overpopulated and were just opportunists

While it clearly shares the human context, as seen above an equally (if not more) important element is completely different, the environment and natural world in which this process took place is very different to Australia’s.

Verdict: Shares the context of our situation and while there are only three similarities, they are important similarities.  However the differences are equally massive and affect both sides e.g. their aren’t going to be many locals who are going to support the invasion compared to the Saxon invasion, who were supported by several cities who rebelled and aligned with the Saxons. There also lacks the positive feedback loop in the initial stage to reinforce their migration by bringing more easily farmable land under control with each step. While useful, large differences exist and need to be kept in mind because they are potential game-changers.

3) Failed Greenland Norse colonisation of Vinland (America) and a successful alternative history version, similar to Britains colonisation of America and Australia.
The Norse Greenland colony shows the importances of having a well-resourced and equipped staging point if the journey can’t be done in one go. British outposts along the way for supplies and way stations helped the white settlement of Australia. The Vikings abandoned their settlement in Vinland due to a variety of factors, lack of equipment, support, numbers, hostile natives and problems back in Greenland which prevented adequate support. Britains colonisation was under entirely different circumstances and didn’t suffer most of these problems, such as over 90% of the natives being killed by disease and therefore not putting up major resistance. The successful alternative has a concerted attempt by the Norse (non-Greenland included) to colonise Vinland, using Greenland and Iceland as way stations.

  • Has the jumping points, similar to the role the North coast would play
  • Greenland’s habitability is the closest to the North Coasts compared to all the other alternatives. Note that the climate cycle (on the 100-year ranges) favoured the Norse in Greenland.
  • Distances are in the same realm rather than being different by magnitudes.
  • Is to a settled area
  • A concerted effort is a possibility

The closest of the scenarios surveyed so far, superficially this looks like an appropriate model.  

·         Neither population is in a similar position as their counterparts, e.g the Norse weren’t overpopulated and the Native Americans weren’t in decline
·         East-West migration instead of a North-South
·         Wasn’t a period of great change, among which the dominant transport option is in decline.

The Vikings could rely on most of their boats and the underlying tech, the modern world doesn’t have this luxury and since boats are a relatively complex technology (compared to feet and carts) which require appropriate infrastructure to build, run and maintain, not traits that facilitate mass usage during catabolic collapse. With fuel supplies declining, it will be increasingly harder for standard maritime operations, let alone the successful settlement of the North coast, which would require supply runs and boats taken from other operations, since new ones can’t be built quickly and sail based ships will still be redeveloping. In their own way, these differences are important.

Verdict: While this scenario is the closest, there are still large gaps and to succeed the alternative history required the Norse to unite behind this single goal and bend their power towards it, which requires a strong stable government. In current terms it would mean that the Indonesians would have to reallocate significant resources during catabolic collapse (unlike feet, fleets have to be built) which isn’t a trivial task. Also, while Greenland was in its habitable phase of its many cycles, the northern coast doesn’t have a habitable phase as its problems are to do with the soil and wildlife rather than climate.

Important notes:
  • All of these past migrations were East-West or West-East rather than North-South, this is a massive difference. Climate and biome types (e.g. desert, tundra, taiga, grassland, forest etc) changes slowly or not at all when travelling East-West (assuming altitude stays the same) but changes rapidly when moving North-South. for a full discussion on how this affects technology and population movement I recommend Guns, Germs and Steel (by Jared Diamond). This means that an Indonesian migration would have to either skip areas (like Europeans skipped to South Africa) or spend a long time adapting, which would require a good transport and communications network to use all of their options, since no one place will have them all
  • The Austronesians annually travelled to Northern Australia but never settled there for two reasons. First, the Northern coast isn’t a good farming area, its barely marginal and its telling that 50 years of Industrial agriculture has failed to succeed, and if any farming system can ignore the negative local conditions it’s the Industrial system (since that’s a large part of its design). Second, due to the effect mention in the paragraph above, the Austronesians who travelled to Australia lacked the appropriate skills, crops and animals that were only available further north. Since this is mostly solved the Indonesians (and hey, potentially the New Guineans as well) will certainly settle the Northern Coast (well, bits of it, since large sections are uninhabitable except for hunter-gatherers). I’d guess at a population of around 10-50 thousand with the lower range more likely.

Summary: None of the historical examples are fully adequate to examine a potential Indonesian mass migration because all have major differences, and since all these factors affect each other, the similarities aren’t actually as good indicators as a glance would show. This doesn’t mean they’re useless examples, but is has to be recognised that as Australia is also a continent, the differences it causes among human patterns are just as great as those between Europe, Africa or Asia. The human patterns, structures and processes of Europe (or any other continent) are an imperfect model for human patterns, structures and processes in Australia. As Overshoot progresses we will see these differences manifest as the fossil fuels that have been used to ignore environmental conditions go away in the wind.


  1. Hi Leo,

    This was an interesting question that was raised on the ADR. At first I thought, no way. But on reflection, I don't know.

    The three scenarios presented were well thought through. The game changer up North is that agriculture has been tried time and time again and it just fails - as you mentioned. On the other hand, mobile adaptive populations with low densities work very well. My gut feel though is that the populations will move East to West Papua, because the climate, soils and plants are familiar. The problem is, those areas have been settled for many millennia and have the maximum populations that they can support already.

    The convicts and settlers (for surely the guards were unable to return either) of the First Fleet had to be resupplied from Cape Town. This was at a time too when the environment was far more robust on both land and at sea. This may be instructive too? Dunno. I'm interested to see where you take your thinking.

    Your choice of studies in maritime research and engineering seems quite astute. Sail technology is a reasonably proven technology, but like organic farming it's one of those areas that only a small portion of the population practice and as such recycle / update those skills.

    Speaking of which, a few weeks ago, a vintage tractor group dropped by the farm to check out the view. The tractors were up to 60 years old and the group did all of the machining for parts and servicing themselves. Very cool, well in a vintage tractor kind of way.

    PS: The Internet now competes with the chooks who are out in the orchard until 9pm. The wallaby ripped the top off a 3 year old apple tree last night too, so I've been putting up more guard cages today.

    Happy summer solstice.



  2. @ CHerokee Organics

    We can leave the Chooks out as long as there locked up or night (once had a fox attack because the door wasn't locked), or just leave them in the avairy (no birds), they like perching in the bush.
    Only had problems with possums here.

    Mobile small densitie populations will certainly be present, its just that with the numbers were talking (22.8 million here), they'd be lost in the fluctuations. As for moving in to Papua, that'll depend on the Papuans as much as the Indonesians. Afterall, they could start a movement to the east if climate change does enough damage. I don't no any example of two large populations moving into eachover, it'll be unique.

    As for being supplied from Cape town, as much inexperience with the local enviroment in farming as lack of agricultural ability, some of America's first colonies had the same problem or starved. It basically boils downs to, if you want to move lots of people, you need good logistical support. I forget to mention it, but the saxons (as mercenaries) were supported by the locals initially and wouldn't have grown much food, thats why having several cities joining them was important, access to granaries (looting the country side, while doable, has its problems).

    Some of my ancestors (convicts and a guard) were settled on Norfolk Island and then evacuated because it was to hard to support.

    A happy summer Solstice to you and your Wife.

  3. Hi Leo

    I've been thinking about all this for a while. My take on it is that the inevitable breakup of Indonesia will produce a whole raft of small kingdoms (happened a few times before to the Indonesian archipelago) and a vigorous pirate culture. These pirates will basically control the seaways to the north of Australia and venture at times down the east coast on raids.

    How these raids are dealt with will depend on the state of the States: again, I think there will be centripetal forces in Australia which will see the states taking back power from the Commonwealth (due to economic stagnation and an imbalance in the way the different states develop). Climate change and a decline in tax revenue will see a decline in Federal support for the Northern Territory. Imagine living there without air conditioning or generous tax breaks and subsidies! Without the Public Service, would the NT have an economy? I foresee a de facto abandonment of NT to the indigenous population. I also foresee an decline in Queensland's fortunes as export industries fade away.

    With the States flung back on their own resources, which states will be happy to subsidise over the long term the defence of Queensland or the payment of Danegeld to the raiders to keep them off the Queenslander's backs?

    In the longer term I think we'll see a Northern Territory and the northern part of Queensland falling under the control of an Indonesian sub-kingdom, but only along the coastal fringe. I agree with you and think the actual population will be small: it will be just a trading outpost really.

    As for the rest of the country, I think Melbourne, Sydney and Perth are going to be city-states, with the kind of brutal governance which such city-states tend to develop. Adelaide is in a weaker position as it doesn't control its water supply. The likely future mass population movements out of Indonesia will I think be episodic and of brief duration in response to turmoil and economic collapse. Such brief population movements are easily dealt with, especially when the barrier is the ocean. The elites of Australia's cities will be able to command the resources and the will to resist any invasion of this type, even with a much depleted future economy.

    It will be ugly! But if you look at the State governments, you can see already that they are highly pragmatic and quite savage beasts. The Federal government, on the other hand, represents the interests of large organisations which will be either dead or dying within a few years, the power of the public service whose revenues will be shrinking, and for public legitimacy it has projected onto it the aspirations — of a quasi-religious nature — of the mass of the population. This legitimacy will be radically undermined as the economic underpinnings of the Federal government collapses. My belief is that the current parliament of lawyers will be replaced, briefly, by a military commission after some particularly egregious failure but the military commission will fail too as the States start acting more independently.

  4. @ Lloyd Morcom

    This mondays post is titled Federation Vs City States.

    Only exploring a limited part of it (just the basic spectrum), another scenario is a restructuring of the federation (the states will be more independant) to be a far looser afair. A unified nation of Australia's size isn't an untried thing in a non-fossil fuel world (e.g. America), however it is for a collapsing world.

    While Adeliade is in a weaker position, it is distant enough and it could easily use Sydney/Melbourne/Brisbane rivalry to stay independent. A west-east divide would come first.

    One of the comments in one of Club Orlov posts mentioned the lack of livability for europeans in the outback/NT without Airconditioning. The Aboriginals will take back the outback, and potentially parts of the north coast, the smart option is to give it to them but that isn't neccesary.

    It wouldn't be so much the other states not subsidising queensland's defense, so much as Brisbane (which is almost next to the NSW border) deciding to withdraw defensive forces further south.

    The pirates and their control of the seaways is the actual danger, since that cuts off most of the world. Any damage from internal raids or piracy is likely to be generated internally to Australia rather than externally.

    1. I think the damage to trade on the sea will be confined to the north. The Roaring Forties will continue to connect Australia reliably to Europe. Out via the Cape of Good Hope and the Great Australian Bight, back to Europe via Cape Horn and the Atlantic. My dad was at sea in the nineteen-forties on an ancient coal-burning tub which still did that run, loaded with Tassie apples, mutton and beef, calling in at New Zealand on the way. It's going to continue to be the natural route for sail, and is likely to stay pirate free for nearly all of its length.

      I think a lot of confusion regarding Indonesia comes from an incomplete knowledge of that country. It's mainly made up of mini cultures, confined to certain particular regions. Currently it's being dominated by a Javanese elite and their huge army's job is to try and keep the country united. They did have a period of expansion which ended with the conquest of East Timor. Now they've lost that, and are battling an insurgency in West Papua. There is also a long history of a Sumatran struggle for independence, which is quiet at the moment but as with every thing, it depends on the resources available to the central government. The moment the economy turns down they'll be dealing with domestic insurgencies left, right and centre. Then in a few years we'll be dealing with a whole lot of new nations to our north.

      I think the Indonesian domination of northern Australia will be something that happens more by default than by design. As the Australian economy contracts, the non-paying bits will be shrugged off, and that will include the north. The Indonesians will move in quietly via trade, and aggressively via piracy.

      How quickly climate change will bite is an important but open question. However, it will mainly affect the sparsely inhabited parts of the country. The biggest single populated and economically important area to cop it will be the Murray-Darling basin. However long it takes, I fear that area is inevitably doomed. It currently produces a large part of our agricultural surplus. I think we will be slowly forced back to a situation where all of our resources will be needed to feed ourselves. At the moment we produce enough food to provide for around four times our population (

      I agree that the aboriginals will take back a lot of the country, although I think also that a lot which was formerly inhabitable will no longer be so. The coming economic contraction will hit them hard too and force cultural changes on them which will be profound, but they will coalesce around successful adaptions and move on, as will we whites and Asian descendents! I've always been struck by the extent to which aboriginal culture has penetrated white culture in an almost completely unacknowledged way. My thinking is that in the areas where industrial farming and mining isn't possible but where aboriginal culture works, both aboriginals and the whites in those areas will quickly become part of a common aboriginal-based culture. This culture will wash up against a city-based culture in the remaining agricultural areas, and have small pockets in the cities. The cities though will carry on as they are now, run mainly by the kind of ignorant, privileged oligarchies so wonderfully represented by the current Victorian Baillieu government.

      I agree though that some vestigial Federation will remain.

    2. Firt: i'll admit that i don;t have a good knowledge of sailing or seamanship.

      While the Cape Horn section looks like it will stay pirate free, i remember reading a description of it by Darwin and it was desolate. The return journey from Europe, if it goes through the Suez canal (not impossible, canals are quite old and simply to maintain) then a return of the barbary pirates is possible plus the persian gulf. If it goes around Africa, well Africa already has pirates. Most likly only heavily armed merchantmen will travel the route.

      For Indonesia, as the cultures fragment, multiple expansions could occur of each culture. If those new nations are all one culture then they might be stabler, depends on how small they are. And it will be by default, the outlying areas are left alone, or they form seperate goverments.

      My stance on climate change is, I don't have a clue how it will actually affect anything (say more rainfall here, rain in this season, hurricanes there, etc), but it will be big and interesting.

      This time around the aborigines have horses, camels, new crops (even if they remain hunter-gatherers) and cattle (a lot of stockman in the outback were aboriginal). Even if climate change wasn't coming, they would change dramatically. What will happen will depend on the area, the central outback will most likely be aboriginal, the north and aboriginal-asian hybrid and the south an aboriginal-white hybrid. The exchange will go both ways, cities will sell artifacts to the aboriginal culture, while some will live in the city. I doubt the cities will stay the same, this change will affect all.

      At worst (for the federation) it will become what the roman empire became, a symbol and dream of a unified Europe without ever becoming real.