Sunday, October 14, 2012

On the barbie

As a child of the Cold War, a time long ago when bedtime stories about the end of the world usually involved nuclear war between East and West, I have always thought of Australia as the probable last redoubt of civilization. I blame Neil Shute's On the Beach: The idea was that fallout from a nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the United States would reach Australia more slowly than any other place in the developed world.

Fast forward four decades, half a century, some other comparable stretch of time. Today, bedtime stories about the end of the world usually involve polar melting both north and south. And far from being civilization's last redoubt, "Australia is the canary in the coal mine" of global climate change, a harbinger of things "we can expect to see in other places in the future." From Jeff Goodell, Climate Change and the End of Australia:

Over the course of just a few weeks [in 2011], the continent [was] hit by a record heat wave, a crippling drought, bush fires, floods that swamped an area the size of France and Germany combined, even a plague of locusts. "In many ways, it is a disaster of biblical proportions" . . . . Australia — which maintains one of the highest per-capita carbon footprints on the planet — has summoned up the wrath of the climate gods . . . .

Australians [fear] that their country may be doomed by global warming. [That] year's disasters, in fact, [were] only the latest installment in an ongoing series of climate-related crises. In 2009, wildfires in Australia torched more than a million acres and killed 173 people. The Murray-Darling Basin, which serves as the country's breadbasket, has suffered a dec­ades-long drought, and what water is left is becoming increasingly salty and unusable, raising the question of whether Australia, long a major food exporter, will be able to feed itself in the coming dec­ades. The oceans are getting warmer and more acidic, leading to the all-but-certain death of the Great Barrier Reef within 40 years. Homes along the Gold Coast are being swept away, koala bears face extinction in the wild, and farmers, their crops shriveled by drought, are shooting themselves in despair.

Neil Shute really did fail to foresee the future. Perhaps time has come to rewrite his apocalyptic classic. The new title, though, might have to be On the Barbie.


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