It was while taking a break from snorkelling over the Great Barrier Reef that I learned of Trump’s triumph. The Americans sitting next to me on the boat were pretty chuffed about it: I shrank from pointing out to them that one of Trump’s pledges was to cut funding for climate-change research, thereby multiplying the chances of the demise of the very phenomenon of Nature that they had travelled all this way to enjoy. No matter: American taxes will be diverted to space research instead, so future generations of tourists may have other planets to exploit and degrade.
We’ve been in Australia visiting friends and relatives. It’s been 15 years since our last visit and almost 40 since my first but I still get a sense of a place that is a pastiche of America – the vast territory accommodating generous plots of land per house, the big skies urging people out of doors – and of Britain, as evidenced in the tangible traditions and trappings of governance persisting from colonial times. No doubt much has changed since then – my expertise does not run to a proper analysis – but wherever we went our chaperones would to say “Of course, it’s all changed since you were last here”. Some of this would be down to recent influxes of migrants who have brought with them different customs and practices but, more prosaically, there are cumulative pressures on the cities which face the global trend of population concentration. And in dealing with this, Australians have a particular crisis of sustainability to resolve. Much of the housing stock is low-rise and widely-spaced in a suburban idyll which lacks adequate public transport infrastructure. The resulting reliance on cars is disturbing: in the households we encountered it was common for each adult to own a car and to drive it to the nearest shop.
And the architecture of the houses themselves is environmentally unfriendly. Traditionally, in very hot climates, houses were built to take advantage of whatever naturally cooling properties could be exploited. In Egypt and in parts of southern Italy, for example, houses would have thick walls and high-domed interiors with vents to allow cooling breezes: in colonial Australia they were built of wood, raised from the ground, surrounded by overhanging verandas and, ideally, situated so as to take advantage of natural shade and prevailing winds. But nowadays all of this is ignored in favour of universal modern building techniques and the panacea of air-conditioning. In the face of 30 degrees Centigrade I appreciate air-con as much as the next person: but what does it ultimately cost us in degrees of climate change?
Then there is the other kind of climate that is changing: the geo-political one. The shifts brought about by the economic rise of Asia and China now loom large over Australian politics. Its alignment with the economies of the West can no longer be taken for granted and, especially now that Trump proposes to abandon free-trade negotiations with Australasia, Australia will be obliged to take its business elsewhere.
Perhaps this is all too much for the “Grey Nomads” – the baby boomers who have taken to their mobile homes so as to follow the fair weather around their vast continent and take advantage of the zero costs of clothing, heating and keeping-up-with-the-Joneses. They may just be able to see out their time in the remnants of the old Australian dream while the young generations forge a new one.
But what of the dispossessed aboriginal people? I have never spoken to one, though I saw groups of them sitting under trees in Perth, performing for tourists in Sydney and wandering disengaged, like ghosts, through the streets of Cairns. Perhaps they are just biding their time until, after the climate-change apocalypse, they can once more take custody of the land and nurture it back to health.