Creating people's geographies
This is a nice piece by Richard Glover in this Saturday’s Sydney Morning Herald (16 Dec) and just the kind of timely reminder we could do with before the festive Christmas season, and beyond.
Last weekend I went to a 70th birthday party. The birthday boy is a great bloke, father to an endless tribe of (mostly) daughters. All spoke in turn, all ending up in tears.
There was one speech – if you can call it a speech, sobbed out briefly as it was – that was particularly moving. Some speakers can reduce you to tears after 20 minutes of slow build. This speaker did it in her first, and only, sentence. “If you knew the sort of childhood dad had, but then what a wonderful father he was to us …”
From this he extrapolates:
In that moment it seemed as if she’d identified the meaning of life: to give out more goodness than you were given. Or, to put it in the negative, to pass on less crap than you suffered.
A lot of people manage this in their lives, or at least set it as their ambition. They want more than anything to leave their children better off than they were – materially, in education, in the love they were given.
All of us, I imagine, would love to have a 70th birthday like this one; to be thought of as that transforming individual, the one who suffered darkness but who had the strength to turn it into light.
And yet, on a social level:
How strange, then, that as a society we’re so busy doing the opposite. As I sit, admiring this family, I think about that other area of our lives – the collective rather than the individual; the public sphere rather than the private.
In this public sphere our values suddenly shift. As individuals we want to make things better for our particular children, yet as a society we keep taking the burden from our own shoulders and stacking it onto those of our children.
What results is a kind of inter-generational scam:
What is the defining mark of this generation? We have developed a startling talent for shifting current costs onto future generations. And doing so while simultaneously rorting its grandparents’ savings.
How do we do this? Let me count the ways.
And he ennumerates them:
We drag our heels over global warming, using cheap energy while deferring the environmental cost. (The kids can do the clean-up.)
We sell public assets to fund current expenditure, behaving as if there will always be another Qantas or Commonwealth Bank or Telstra to flog. (The kids won’t miss what they never had.)
And we enlist the private sector to build roads, schools and prisons (each decision turning what should have been an asset into a recurring bill).
This is the scam that defines a generation: we borrow from both the past and the future to pay costs that should be borne now. Our grandparents should be turning in their graves and our grandchildren should be marching on parliament.
Neither side of politics wants to talk about this. It’s in no one’s interest to blow the whistle on this buccaneer’s raid on both the future and the past.
He then goes on to talk about Australian-specific public assets and their privatisation, before concluding:
Future generations will stare into the cupboard emptied of public assets and mutual societies. They’ll pay bills on every bit of infrastructure. And, most seriously of all, they’ll struggle to clean up the carbon we thoughtlessly pumped into the atmosphere.
At that point they’ll have a right to ask: “What were you thinking?” Or, more pointedly: “Don’t human beings try to leave the place better off, rather than worse? Isn’t that the idea?”
Back at the birthday party, the speeches give way to songs. …
I glance over at the birthday boy – part of the generation who didn’t try to shift the bill to someone else. I think of the meaning of life – well, of his life anyway. He improved on what he was given.
Is it too high a bar for us?