Stories of a shady past and an unpredictable future

As the pattern of a new year begins to emerge, Australia Day is once more upon us. When I was young it passed almost unnoticed, marked only by a long weekend, but we’ve since become more determined patriots. Along with the snags, the flags.

As in 1938, when Aboriginal Australians took to Sydney streets to publicly express displeasure at people having fun on their day of infamy, every January now attracts noisy public argument about the nation’s foundations.

As it should. Celebrating the day that set off a protracted assault on Australia’s First Nations is signally divisive, driving a wedge between Aboriginal people and the rest of Australian society. No amount of self-congratulations and flag-waving can hide that.

For this year’s event, the narrative of British redcoats landing at Sydney Cove has faded into the background as we look for themes that unite all Australians on this day. We may stick with a refurbished January 26, though I still think it’s the wrong day.

But there’s something deeper and wider at play here than when and how Australia celebrates its birthday. It’s about the power of narrative to move us, even when that narrative is little more than fantasy embellished with random factoids.

Julian Cribb (find him at is an Australian author and journalist with a strong investment in science and what it can reveal about the future. A former scientific editor of The Australian and CSIRO’s chief publicist, his books feature titles like The Coming Famine, Poisoned Planet, Surviving the 21st Century, Food or War, and Earth Detox.

Cribb has identified ten long-standing threats to humanity: Extinction and eco-collapse, resource scarcity, global overheating, weapons of mass destruction, pandemic disease, food insecurity, global poisoning, overpopulation, uncontrolled technologies and mass delusion. A miserable list if ever there was one.

“The end of politics”, his latest blog, is about the hopeless, hapless efforts of governments everywhere as conventional narratives unravel, creating “an existential crisis they do not understand and whose course they appear impotent to change”. 

“None of the usual levers work,” he writes. “You can’t halt wildfires by printing money, settle Covid with tax breaks, subsidise the sea so it stops rising, or battle global overheating with armies.

“The whole political juggernaut, lovingly hammered, screwed and bolted together by politicians and economists over nearly two centuries, is at last seen for what it is: a fantastic, rust-bucket contraption of whistles and wheels that no longer works, if indeed it ever did.”

Cribb and others like him, me included, have wrestled with this stuff for years. Having taken on board everything that science has told us about our future, how can anyone feel anything but severe discomfort, deep disquiet, even depression?

How do we cope? We make fun of it. We describe Cribb (and me) as a cheerful soul who will be even happier when everything goes to mush or we’re all dying from heat or a virus. And we spin alternative narratives about economic recovery or the rule of law. Or (in the case of Australia Day) how we’ve made Australia a better place.

This is the human condition. I’m spinning a narrative right here, right now. I’m trying as I always do to follow dictums of science and ensure it’s objectively true, but inevitably there is something of myself in what I say. Everyone is a storyteller.

In his post, Cribb lists all the -isms of politics – communism, capitalism, deism, socialism, liberalism, monarchism – whose “frivolous arguments” have distracted us from “the main task of trying to save ourselves”. 

There is a vast panoply of political and economic theories built up over millennia that try to make sense of the world, in turn providing a framework for countless public luminaries to express forcefully, righteously, sometimes eloquently, why their line of thinking was the way to go.

Ever-worsening threats to human civility – and ultimately to human life itself – justify Cribb’s assertion that standard political and economic narratives with their tenuous connection to reality are frivolous. Often in the past that didn’t matter. Now it does, and the spin has become plain to all with the arrival of Covid on top of climate-changing weather disasters. 

The credibility of our political leaders is under strain as never before. Alert to personal danger – and observing experts, let alone politicians, struggling to explain Covid’s various twists and turns – people are seeing the limits of political and economic conventions.

A whole new conversation is emerging – exciting, fascinating, unpredictable, terrifying. This is going to be a wild ride.

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