Monday, 14 January 2013

Australia: A Coastal Nation

Here are two key facts about habitation in Australia. The large central desert precludes settled life for the majority of Australia; note that most of the north coast is only slightly more habitable. And secondly, the ability for dense settled life to exist in a thin strip around the southern half of the coast (focused on the south-east) that extends, judging by the location of Brisbane and Perth, up a 1/2 of the east coast while only up a ¼ of the west coast. From this, we can easily see that Australia is predominately a coastal nation, which would imply a strong maritime tradition, while also being isolated by distance from any neighbouring nations.

Before we analysis the potential course of Australia’s future based on these two facts, we need to answer an important question about the past and present. Why doesn’t Australia have a strong maritime tradition?

Just to be clear, I’m talking about a nation wide maritime culture, rather than a local or regional maritime culture.

Potential reasons;

1) The British. When Australia was settled, the British dominated the seas, both economically and militarily. Coupled with the lack of a large-scale indigenous maritime culture to start from, the large disincentives from competing with the British would have easily stopped the development of a maritime culture.

2) The inward push of settlement. Since Australia was almost completely open to European settlement, most of the expansion and focus was inward and land based, rather than sea based. This limited the available resources, cultural and material, that could be used in maritime pursuits.

3) The cost of infrastructure. While small boats can be built without a lot of infrastructure, a major maritime culture requires larger ships and the supporting infrastructure. since the necessary infrastructure has increased as ship technology has advanced, it has become impossible to emulate Rome’s feat of going from having no navy to dominating the Mediterranean in 30 years and revolutionising naval warfare almost overnight (Rome is admired for a reason). This lack of infrastructure limited any development of a large scale maritime industry and culture.

4) Low labour inputs. This affects the later stages of Australian history, late 20-early 21st century, rather than the early stages. Since culture is a large part of a population’s shared knowledge, actions and meanings, a large maritime culture requires lots of people to be directly or indirectly involved. However, since modern ships have small crews relative to their size and industry is highly machined based, the mass of people needed to form a maritime culture is lacking.

Any of the reasons given here could be enough and some of them may have had no effect, but what I’m trying to show is that there are clear historical reasons for Australia to have not developed a national maritime culture. And now the world is entering the downward phase of overshoot, with several changes that make developing a national maritime culture more likely.

The factors that make this more likely are;

1) Rising costs of land based transport. With oil supplies declining, road based transport systems are going to disappear, rail will be severely weakened, and while alternatives exist, sail is incredibly cheap and energy efficient (you actually gain energy rather than use it). This makes it a highly desirable form of transport for a coastal nation, at least between our capitals.

2) Revolutionary change is upon us. The entire maritime system as it stands now will be replaced as fossil fuels disappear, setting everyone back to zero. This resetting of the playing field will allow Australia to compete successfully and develop in the maritime scene.

3) Localization. If a ship is needed it will more and more likely be built locally (depending on the size this means in the region or nation) and manned by locals, rather than being built in faraway ports. This affects all countries. This will favour countries which already make at least some of their own ships and Australia already makes its own warships.

 4) Rising use of labour. Since fossil fuel use is going to decrease, more people are going to be involved, both directly and indirectly, in ships and related industries. This includes the crew, sail makers, builders, longshoremen, merchants and so on. More people being involved means a larger extelligence, and thus a bigger maritime culture.

As I have just shown, there are ample reasons for a strong maritime culture to develop, so what are the effects of developing a maritime culture?

1) Ease of internal transport and Social Cohesion. Travel by sea has generally been the fastest and cheapest method available, especially over long distances. While there is a potential rival in the form of airships, I have my doubts on that (during overshoot, afters another thing). And since most of the population (80%) is within 50km of the coast, coupled with trains for improved land transport and Australia’s population won’t become isolated from itself.

2) Wider availability of goods. While most goods will be coming from the local and regional areas, many important goods will come from farther away. Things like spices, silk, coffee, tea and other high value low bulk or otherwise easily transported goods will arrive form far away. Coupled with Australia being a mega diverse continent and able to produce these goods in disparate areas, and quite a few of these could remain available. Best case scenario would be similar to the Roman Empire,  where even isolated peasant families had access to some luxury goods (maybe one or two high quality pots, a brick house, tiled roofs etc)

3) Increased Sea marauders. One of the mainstays of societal collapse is the rise of bandits and marauders as law enforcement disappears, the most damaging form of this phenomena is sea based raiders since they can quickly move around and strike undefended targets. Athens was sacked this way as the Roman empire declined, and so were many other cities along the coast. Chances are many sea raiders will be from other parts of Australia, rather than from Indonesia (except in the north) since the distances from Perth or Sydney to Indonesia are a bit long for raids.

4) Fast military transport. Depending on the situation, this is either a good trait or a bad trait. It allows armies to quickly traverse parts of Australia. Marauding armies controlled by warlords will be able to quickly move and conquer, while defending armies will be able to quickly reinforce areas. This improves the chances of Australia remaining intact, since victories can be easily exploited.


  1. Hi Leo. I reckon you're spot on in your assessment. The docks in Williamstown where they build ships are an impressive place. I reckon it is very wrong as a country to give up on your heavy industry despite the cost.

    The other thing that perhaps should be considered is that like the lack of fertility in the land (soil) and probably because of it, the seas surrounding Australia are particularly lacking in fish stocks. This may have reduced the need for large sailing fleets with all of the accompanying infrastructure.

    The port of Adelaide is closed to large ships and most containers travel Melbourne to Adelaide either by rail or road. Still it is cheaper to send containers Melbourne to Perth via ship than road.

    I remember reading too that before federation the colony of Victoria was particularly frightened of attack from the Russians. Even the visit of the Great White Fleet was a bit of a drama, but at the time they went all diplomatic and just feted them instead. Very wise. The HMS Cerberus which is now sunk at Half Moon bay was purchased from the UK to protect Victorian waters.

    As you quite rightly point out, you can do a lot of damage with low tech equipment (ie. the sacking of Athens).

    It's 37 here at the moment, which is just not good...

    Take it easy. Chris

  2. In a lot of small and some big ways the Goverment has made decisions that are intelligent in the face of overshoot. Keeping our shipbuilding capacity, refusing to store uranium, no nuclear power plants, carbon tax etc. A lot of stupid ideas too.

    I didn't even think of the fishing idea, but it makes sense and considering that the whaling ships at albany were made in Norway, it has the ring of truth.

    At the time, fear of foriegn invasion made sense since Britian might not have decided to defend us. Now, port phillip bay and the sydneys eqivalents are well fortified and we'll be forced to build a defensive (at least) navy.

    The lesson from the sack of Athens is preparation and and remebering that low tech weapons kill just as well as high tech. If Athens had even a wall of rubble it wouldn't have been sacked, but like a lot of Roman cities it had torn down it's wall.

    Its hot over here too, glad i've only had to walk to the cinema.

    Stay well and hope the farm survives. Leo