Thousands of ‘grey Nomads’ are travelling endlessly around Australia contributing in a small way to the destruction of the very environment they apparently admire. Good luck to them.
Debates about how we should live have long been a part of the human experience. Thanks to climate change, and the very real prospect of civilisational collapse, however, they have assumed a growing urgency and importance. Or they have for some people, at least.
Even though the reality of looming environmental catastrophe is increasingly evident, it is not just powerful vested interests and their political supporters that choose to deny, downplay or ignore the consequences of our collective and individual actions. On the contrary, anyone jetting off for their annual foreign excursion or succumbing to the siren song of endless consumerism is doing their bit to stuff up the planet, too.
Such contradictions are well enough known to need no repetition here, perhaps; not least because there seems to be little we can do about them or their inherent contradictions. On the contrary, we are frequently assured that consumer demand is vital if we are to have continuing prosperity and growth.
But if this self-serving mantra was ever true, it looks increasingly implausible these days: not only are the benefits of economic development unequally distributed across borders and generations, but endless growth is simply not possible on a finite planet.
So how should people who have the luxury of exercising agency and choice behave in such circumstances, especially if they have children who will inherit a looming dystopian future? One answer seems to be doubling down: ie., even more self-indulgent consumerism, albeit with a dash of growth of the personal rather than the economic variety.
I speak from experience. I’ve just spent a couple of months as a putative ‘grey nomad’, driving across Australia’s wide open spaces in my preposterously large 4WD, towing what turned out to be a rather modest trailer. There are tens of thousands of people doing similar things all over Australia, some of whom are equipped with caravans that are worth more than many suburban homes, and are not much smaller either.
Consequently, ‘getting away from it all’ and communing with nature in remote parts of the country is much harder than it sounds, and not just because of the mind-bending distances between stops. Nowhere is free from people immersing themselves in Australia’s unique and astounding hinterland. I genuinely don’t know whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing.
On the one hand, it’s really rather wonderful that people are actively exploring the land in which they live, especially when this requires some physical effort, too. On the other hand, of course, the amount of resources being consumed in the process is a bit hard to justify: self-absorbed consumption doesn’t get much more conspicuous.
Indeed, it’s not hard to see why the local indigenous communities in some parts of remote Australia might feel a bit miffed and/or nonplussed at the sight of wealthy urbanites breezing through their towns on the way to some scenic extravaganza or other. Juxtapositions don’t get much more jarring than this.
But even if it can be a bit socially discomfiting at times, it’s all good for the local economy, right? Maybe. There are certainly lots of campsites around Australia catering to the Nomadians. How much of the wealth this generates actually ‘trickles down’ I’ve no idea, but possibly not that much to judge from the continuing poverty in many indigenous communities.
I for one didn’t feel entirely comfortable about all of the above, and not just because I can only sustain a limited number of conversations about the comparative merits of different sorts of camping equipment. Yes, I’m an insufferable snob, no doubt; but it’s hard not to be conscious of entirely unearned, arbitrarily determined good fortune when so many experience anything but. That sensibility is even more discomforting when put in an international context, of course.
If citizens of Australia struggle to look after their own natural and social environments, how likely is it they will have any impact on the wider world? We could decide to shut down the coal industry as an act of good international citizenship, of course, but that’s clearly not going to happen; or not until it’s too late to make a useful difference, at least.
Given the enormity of the problems we collectively face and our apparent inability or unwillingness to address them, a bit of pleasure seeking doesn’t seem unreasonable. Indeed, some have – rather implausibly, perhaps – argued that it’s an entirely rational response to an unfixable problem. Or it might be if you’re an ageing, self-absorbed single with no offspring – like me.
Most of ‘us’ – if there is such a thing – aren’t, of course, and dealing with the prospective ‘end of the world as we know it’ is a bit more challenging. Political leaders, be they democrats or autocrats, continue to peddle comforting myths about the possibility of engineering a brighter future – and not one illumined by firestorms, either. The surprising thing is that most people still choose to believe them, despite the evidence of their own eyes.
Yet political and social structures everywhere will inevitably come under great pressure−to put it delicately−in the future as environmental disruption gathers pace. In such a context, perhaps communing with what’s left of nature in a suitably insulated and appointed recreational vehicle makes sense, for the privileged minority who can do so, at least. Whether it’s possible to insulate one’s intellect from what’s happening in the rest of the world is another question, but one which the Nomadians generally seem untroubled by.
To be fair, though, not all the Nomads are ancient. Many young people are touring the country, too, frequently in outlandishly large vehicles that are contributing to the destruction of the very natural heritage they apparently admire. But given that their elders don’t seem too concerned−despite their outsized role in creating our current crises−can we blame youngsters for wanting to see what’s left of Australia’s unique environment while they still can?
Agonising about ethical environmental behaviour is clearly a good problem to have, and one that is beyond imagining for much of the world’s population. Even in this country−especially in this country, perhaps−many will regard discussion of our possible responsibilities to foreigners and fauna as pointless, self-lacerating nonsense.
They may be right. ‘Good’ behaviour really is pointless if it occurs in isolation and invites derision and incredulity rather than emulation. Following personal preferences−even those we know are adding to, rather than addressing, problems that ultimately threaten our very survival−may be entirely rational in such a context.
A bit of mild cognitive dissonance may be quite bearable compared to being bombed by Putin, living in a Syrian refugee camp, or confronting the prospect of imminent famine in sub-Saharan Africa−to mention only a few of the panoply of horrors that continue to plague the world.
Are we obliged to care about the fate of strangers when our individual actions can do next to nothing to help them? Certainly not. Why pick on the Nomads then? Because the lifestyles of privileged Australians−like me−tell us something in microcosm about the way the world works and why it’s so difficult to change.
Our individual preferences may be entirely rational and understandable, but they’re not going to save the planet. But we’re not obliged to do anything about that either, of course−especially when it may already be too late.