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Metaphorically leaking

As far as metaphors go, the destruction in 2001 of the twin towers of the World Trade Centre could be regarded as both the most potent and vilest in the world’s history. It was both a tactical, quasi-military strike against the most prominent architectural symbol of American global power and a pointedly symbolic blow, which drew, in the semiotic sense, on its biblical forerunner, the collapse of the Tower of Babel. To add to its potency, in hindsight at least, it can be regarded as a harbinger of the collapse of the global financial system. A very disconcerting element of prophecy appears to have been at work even if there is no substantive link between credit default swaps and planes smashing into buildings. Would that it were not so, but metaphors are slippery like that, which brings me to another contemporary metaphor, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Suffice it to say that it is the biggest environmental catastrophe in US history, with all the sense of doom and, well, sadness the claim evokes. As a metaphor, it is a hefty one. For starters, it was reportedly the direct result of both technological failure and the flaunting of regulatory compliance. (I merely note in passing the presence, at the heart of the schmozzle, of that ubiquitous disaster profiteer Halliburton, without any accusation of culpability.) Next, we discover that capping the well is beyond the technical scope of the US government and its resources. Think about that.

The government is, therefore, entirely reliant on a multinational corporation and its resources to stem the flow of crude oil gushing onto the beaches and wetlands of Florida. Obama has managed to hold the line against BP in a political manoeuvre that shifts both the blame and the remedial responsibility away from his administration by leaning on BP to pay the damages bill. Next, BP’s share price goes through the floor at a rate in direct proportion to its loss of oil and rising debt. But, in a twist elegant enough for an Ayn Rand novel, BP, it turns out, is intimately linked to UK pension funds which causes the newly minted and fiscally austere British government to cobble together a ‘contingency plan’ to save Alf and Beryl’s nest egg by cushioning the BP losses. As I write, this strategy has not yet been ratified so stand by for further updates on the Beeb. Meanwhile, hairy-chested Etonians will proceed to slash and burn their way through public services to pay off the public debt accrued when a cluster of badly run banks went bust during the GFC. Socialising the losses is widely in fashion.

Why does my perverse mind regard this catastrophe as a metaphor?

In a recent lecture at Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre, Professor Tim Jackson, the marvellously entitled Director of the Research Group on Lifestyles, Values and Environment (RESOLVE) at the University of Surrey, outlined an argument for a model of human prosperity that was not based on the notion of infinite, economic growth. In essence, the argument is diabolically simple: the resources required to sustain global economic growth at current levels are finite. In fact, most things in the physical universe are finite and eventually run out, die, evaporate unless they can be contained within a viable cycle of perpetual renewal, like water or solar energy. Even so, the sun will die at some point in the future. So it goes.

Professor Jackson argues that the endless quest for novelty that underpins consumerism, and therefore the addiction to the growth economy, is largely to blame for our current dilemma. Because we are, as loyal consumers, trained from a young age to be fixated on innovation and endless iterations of lifestyle gadgetry, the world’s appetite for non-renewable resources continues to increase exponentially and, with it, damage to the environment and the social fabric also grows apace. While we sit back and watch the FIFA World Cup (I’m happily guilty, I confess) on our debt-burdened widescreen televisions (made in China), the economic model that makes it possible is self-destructing. The growth economy is failing as a result of regulatory negligence (GFC), technological failure (climate change) and consumer hubris – the blind belief that things will just go on as they are without the need for substantive change or even a modicum of the inconvenience required of sacrifice.

Which brings me back to the Gulf of Mexico, via Canberra. The Gillard government’s back down on the ridiculously named Global Super Profits Tax (GSPT) is nothing less than an act of capitulation to the forces of global capital. The resources, and the political will, to fight the massive PR campaign and blatantly spurious threats of capital flight mounted by the mining lobby was beyond the scope of the government’s means. With the mass media baying for someone’s blood (‘OK, let’s get Rudd, he’ll do for now. Then we’ll get that socialist Ken Henry!’), the nation’s democratically elected government was forced to back away from legitimately maximising returns to the Australian people for resources dug out of the ground that is the wellspring of the common good. Just as the British government is rushing in to bail out BP, our government is arse-licking the miners as if there’s no tomorrow, as if the resources are infinite, as if there is a plan for what will happen when our children have their children, as if the land is not sacred, as if we are the conquerors of creation, as if wealth trickles down, as if we should be grateful to corporate managerialism, as if all that matters is our TV, an iPhone and an investment property.

The system is leaking. Don’t get me started on coal and climate change. May Day! May Day!

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Boris Kelly is a Sydney-based writer with an interest in theatre, literary fiction and politics. In 2009, he was the recipient of a Varuna Fellowship for work on his first novel.

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  3. Hi Boris
    Your comparison of Deepwater and September 11 has been on my mind, so I just wanted to let you know that. Have you seen Rebeca Solnit’s essay at London Review of Books on Deepwater? Still on the homepage I think.
    Like a lot of others I have been following the spill obsessively, and each time I think it couldn’t get worse, it gets a whole lot worse, in large magnitudes. I wanted to blog about it myself, and after writing down some para’s, realised it seemed too big, to vast and overwhelming, BIg Oil’s influences ranging all the way from climate destruction to the release of Al-Megrahi and so on. It was as though the only appropriate blog response would have been, a photo of the haemorraghing well and a couple of well chosen words of despair laden profanity underneath. So well done on this piece, and thanks.

  4. Hi Stephen
    I know exactly what you mean. I regularly struggle with the scope of issues and how best to condense them into the blog form. The federal election, for example. Its opacity defies meaningful compression. I will have a look at the LRB reference. Thanks for that and thanks for taking the time to read the post. Are you going to the 200 launch? I’m coming down from Sydney so perhaps we’ll meet.

    • I always read your posts Boris.
      Ah the Federal election. Like an exploding car crash that is in the process of catapulting through a particularly lame circus.
      No, I won’t be at the OL party I’m afraid. I’m a terrible party person, usually to be found hiding behind a couch with a book and wondering why there;s no dancing. Have a good time though. I’m guessing there will be some very serious drinking going on and a lot of talk about books. And probably Federal elections.

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