Saturday, March 14, 2009

Child Nation

I recently found a copy of E.O. Wilson's edited collection of the four great works of Sir Charles Darwin (The Voyage of the Beagle, On the Origin of Species, The Descent of Man and The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals ~ 1700 pages).

The observational powers of Darwin, maintained and extended over a lifetime of work, always amazes me. There is something resonant to me in his open inquiry without hypothesis that allows a question to be asked continuously and at the same time demands no answer. I suspect it accords with my own bias towards abductive logic.

One observation of his in The Voyage of the Beagle did strike me as both accurate, foretelling and slightly uncomfortable, particularly in the context of present discussions I am involved in on Australia's food security and water sustainability. On visiting the colonies in New South Wales, Sir Charles Darwin wrote:

"The rapid prosperity and future prospects of this colony are to me, not understanding these subjects, very puzzling. The two main exports are wool and whale-oil, and to both of these productions there is a limit. The country is unfit for canals, therefore there is a not very distant point, beyond which the land-carriage of wool will not repay the expense of shearing and tending sheep. ... Agriculture, on account of the droughts, can never succeed on an extended scale; therefore as far as I can see, Australia must ultimately depend upon being the centre of commerce for the southern-hemisphere, and perhaps on her future manufactories. Possessing coal, she always has the moving power at hand. From the habitable country extending along the coast, and from her English extraction, she is sure to be a maritime nation. I formerly imagined that Australia would rise to be as grand and powerful a country as North America, but now it appears to me that such future grandeur is rather problematical." ~ (22 January, 1836)

If we think about the oil vulnerability of Australia's road transport systems, its fertilizer and irrigation dependency in its agriculture, its relative position to the other commerce centers of SE Asia and its absence of maritime supremacy, our role other than as mine workers for removal of our commons for use by more creative others ... appears limited.

Evolutionary biologist and geographer, Jared Diamond, offers a similarly problematic analysis of Australia's prospects in his book Collapse, with great fondness. However, it takes more than fondness to alter our physical and structural realities. These are not without hope, only requiring great presence of mind. Diamond names the problems of 'Mining Australia' - in its oil, water, topsoil, biodiversity and minerals - explicitly. Parallels between Diamond's and Darwin's approaches are well made, reflecting both in a good light. Sir Charles summed this view one hundred and seventy years earlier with brutal poignancy and poetry on departing:

"Farewell, Australia! you are a rising child, and doubtless some day with reign a great princess in the South: but you are too great and ambitious for affection, yet not great enough for respect. I leave your shores without sorrow or regret."(p. 388)

Personally, I am staying, not with naivete, but with optimism and a profound awareness of the questions that we have been hoping to ignore for our entire history as an emerging child nation, holding to a temporary belief in the role of human agency in geographic determinism.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Antigone's Anguish

I went to the preview performance of Eamon Flack's adaptation of Antigone at the Perth International Arts Festival the other night. This contemporary re-telling of Sophocles's 441BC classic Greek tragedy was visually stunning and compelling. It raised for me different themes in a re-visiting of this work of timeless conflict.

If you were asked to choose your allegiances to healthy old traditions or to an unhealthy new order, which would you choose? What happens in a time of crisis where decisive direction is required to prevent the schism of a state yet the decision itself is the cause of divide, dishonor and betrayal driven by the passion of love?

In Antigone, Kreon chooses to dishonor one of his two dead sons to unify a divided kingdom and in doing so divides his own household. Antigone's conflict is one of obedience to a law she believes to be wrong, even if for the good of the State, in loyalty to a now dead brother. In the classic tension of agency and communion, of the individual in society, the dissonance of evolution is reflected in every player's decision. Loyalty to personal principles highlights the poignancy of the tragedy.

This reminded me of the fallacy of the evolutionary developmentalists that higher order systems are by assumption superior. Their superiority is determined by their quality. We resist growth actively when growth is pathological. In the recurrent themes of the tragedies throughout literature, if the tyrant king is our only option to the chaos of competing factionalism, the moral wo-man ultimately chooses factionalism rather the emergent oppressive fascism. From Shakespeare to Serbia, from Ibsen to Iraq a populous may live in fear, but may also rise to liberation, when there is the slight prospect of the choice of health in its growth.

This version of the play reminded me again of the intricacy of transition in evolution and how structures that allow for natural societal emergence in health outlive the insistent fear of evolution by escape. The forces of phobos disguised as eros evoke thanatos as the expression of agape. These four way dynamics are now to be seen as one set in a single principle of many parts. What is invisible to many is played out in this play.

In the words of composer Rachael Dease's compelling chorus (that ends the play):

Time, age us, teach us.
We are still learning,
To be wise