Barry Jones reflects on the modern condition

Advancing Society and Culture

Australian Living Treasure, the Hon Barry Jones AC, has delivered a thought-provoking speech at the Harrison Lecture for Innovation.

From the unique strengths of Geelong, to the challenges facing humanity – with references to some of the greatest thinkers in history, like Charles Darwin, Karl Marx and Adam Smith – the erudition of one of Australia’s best known intellectuals and Australian Living Treasure, the Hon Barry Jones AC, was on full display this week, when he delivered the Harrison Lecture for Innovation.

Dr Jones is Australia’s longest serving science minister (1983-1990), a writer, lawyer, broadcaster and social activist. An edited version of his speech is included below.

Born in Geelong during the Great Depression, he retains a strong affection for the City. His most recent book, “The Shock of Recognition” – a journey through the literature and music that inspire him – was published in 2016.

Dr Jones also presented the third annual Barry Jones medal to former Deakin Chancellor, David Morgan, at the event, held at the Geelong Library and Heritage Centre on March 29.

David Morgan has served Deakin in a number of roles, starting in 1999 when he joined the University council and ending in December 2015, when he ended a decade as Chancellor, during a time of exponential growth in research at the University.

David Morgan has held other important positions in the Geelong region, including Chairman of the Geelong Economic Development Board and the G21-Geelong Regional Alliance, Ltd. He has also been a Board Member of the Australian Trade Commission and the Victorian Centre for Advanced Materials Manufacturing (VCAAM).

At the same event, Associate Professor Michelle Harvey, a highly respected Deakin entomologist, gave a presentation on her research into the potential of maggots and their microbes for improving medical outcomes for patients, and in countering flystrike in the farming sector.

Watch full event here:

The “Harrison Lecture for Innovation” by the Hon Barry Jones (edited transcript):

It is a special pleasure to be here in Geelong, the city of my birth, and to have been invited to deliver the 3rd James Harrison Lecture for Innovation, Geelong.

James Harrison (1816-1893) was a remarkable innovator, a leading figure in the important Scottish diaspora of the early 19th Century, which transformed Australia, especially in Victoria.

Born in Dumbartonshire, son of a fisherman, and apprenticed to a printer in Glasgow, he attended evening classes at the Glasgow Mechanics’ Institute. Scotland had a strong tradition of higher education, far more so than in England. Until the 19th Century, Scotland, with a much smaller population, had four universities when England had only two.

After working in London, Harrison sailed for Sydney in 1837, moving to Port Phillip, later Victoria, in 1839, working for John Pascoe Fawkner, becoming the first editor of “The Geelong Advertiser,” originally a weekly, in 1840. By 1842 Harrison had bought the paper; it became a daily in 1850. He was briefly MLC for Geelong 1854-56 and MLA for Geelong and Geelong West 1858-60.  He remained editor of the Advertiser until 1862, when he had to sell the paper to avoid bankruptcy, after having to pay heavy damages in a libel action.

He edited the “Melbourne Age” 1867-72, also writing about science under the pen-name Oedipus. He was an early enthusiast for Darwin’s theory of evolution.

When moveable type was cleaned with ether it became intensely cold.

Observing this phenomenon, Harrison became increasingly preoccupied from the 1850s with developing a method of refrigeration.

His first ice-making machine operated at Rocky Point from 1851 and he experimented with ice-making on an industrial scale. At first, his output exceeded demand, adding to his financial problems. In 1855 he took out a patent for an ether vapour-compression refrigeration system, soon taken up by the meat and brewing industries. In 1856 he returned to Britain to secure markets for his refrigerator.

In 1873 he was awarded a Gold Medal at the Melbourne Exhibition.

His ambition to developt refrigerated ships was right in principle, but flawed in execution, failing in 1873 when the ship Norfolk sailed through the tropics, the ice melted too fast and the meat rotted.

However, his process was soon vindicated, and he virtually created the Australian meat export industry. He returned to Geelong in 1892, dying a year later at Port Henry.

The Tree v. the Chimney

Our public life is riven by a conflict of ideologies, of cultures, of economic models and the current level  of  national debate is abysmal – perhaps because different groups of people are starting from different premises: the local v. the national (or the global), the familiar v. the unfamiliar, the short-term v. the long-term, the tangible v. the abstract.

I suggest the metaphors of the tree and the chimney. The tree is a symbol of nature, the chimney a symbol of human activity and consumption.

The tree provides shelter for humans, birds and animals, does much to stabilise the atmosphere, prevents desertification and may take decades to reach maturity. It can be cut down in minutes, providing fuel, building material and employment for loggers, truck drivers, saw millers. The chimney demonstrates our patterns of consumption, characterised by rapid population growth and unprecedented rates of per capita consumption.

I agree with the assertion that:

‘The economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment, and not the other way round’.

The environment is the totality of all there is in our world – the planet itself, soil, air, water, biota and minerals. Environmental concerns cannot be regarded as mere discretionary matters after the economy has had its whack.

Unhappily, controversy about a false antithesis between the tree and the chimney is argued through the prism of political partisanship. It is essential that we grasp that there is no Left-Right division on issues such as:

Clean air

Clean water

Uncontaminated soil

Acidified oceans and seas

Long term threats to the stability of the Antarctic ice shelf.

Minimising risks from extreme weather events.

Of course, the chimney is inevitability identified with employment and people are understandably anxious, even desperate, when economic, social, technological and political changes destroy their hopes of employment.  In the places where they live now.

In this very week, these challenges are reaching their climax with the closing of the Hazelwood Power Station and the imminent closure of the Australian Sustainable Hardwood (ASH) sawmill at Heyfield. Both cases illustrate the tragedy of a town/ region, which is based on an economic monoculture, and where a variety of external factors threaten communities.

The West Australian town of Wittenoom, based on asbestos, is the extreme example – but there are others, such as logging towns in Tasmania, tobacco towns in Queensland. Even when the early warning times are quite long – sometimes more than a decade – it is rarely enough. People have an emotional attachment to the places where they were born, brought up, formed families, built houses and they feel tied to location. Selling up and getting out would involve both pecuniary and psychological losses.

Hostility to globalisation, the elimination of tariff protection, automation, and exposure to unfamiliar cultures and religions is leading to a political and social convulsion in the regions. In Queensland several electorates are dominated by the sugar industry and this is the primary reason why neither of the major political parties will campaign to reduce sugar consumption, as a means of combatting diabetes and Australia’s obesity epidemic. It would be good medical science, but very bad politics.

The Portland aluminium smelter would make a fascinating case study, fit for several PhDs and some good books. The alumina comes from Western Australia and the electricity comes from 500 km away in the Latrobe Valley. The total cost to the Victorian economy through electricity subsidies amounted to $4.5 billion as far back as 2009 and must have at least doubled between then and 2016, when the contract expired. It would be fair to describe the smelter as a welfare industry, which produces not just aluminium ingots but employment, and votes.

Geelong, like Broadmeadows, Altona and Dandenong, was the site of motor manufacturing for decades, as I hardly need tell you.

Ford Geelong was the core of Geelong’s manufacturing capability from 1925 to 2016 and for much of that time it had the largest work-force. Ultimately, Australian manufactured or assembled vehicles comprised only a minority of total sales and economic reality set in.

Ford Canada, which owned the Australian plants, then pulled the plug.

Geelong is better placed than most of Australia’s regional cities to have an excellent future.

Deakin University, in the top three per cent of the world’s universities in each of the three major rankings (Times Higher Education, Academic Ranking of World Universities and Quacquarelli Symonds), is central to that future.

But there is more: the Australian Animal Health Laboratory (AAHL) is a world leader.  CSIRO maintains a Geelong presence on Deakin’s Waurn Ponds campus.

Geelong’s teaching hospitals have a national reputation. So does the Grace Mackellar Centre.

Geelong has an outstanding location with views which always reminded me of Naples. The waterfront is exceptional, as are the Botanic Gardens and other public institutions including the Art Gallery and this magnificent Library.

You have access to wonderful theatre and music. The bird life is superior.

Melbourne is just close enough to be convenient, without preventing Geelong having a distinctive life of its own. You are strategically placed relative to the Bellarine Peninsula, the Surf Coast, the Great Ocean Road and the Otways.

Jobs and Growth

The mantra ‘jobs and growth’ was repeated incessantly during the long, some thought interminable, Federal election campaign in 2016. It seemed to be taken as axiomatic that all growth is good – but perhaps it is time to reflect on the truth of that proposition.

Is all growth good? Cancer is a striking challenge to that idea, rapid and destructive growth which creates cellular life but destroys the host.

Australia ranks No. 1 in the world for expenditure on gambling. Should we be aiming for more? But all the gambling money (recorded money, anyway)  contributes to GDP and governments love the revenue produced by casinos.

We rank No. 2, it appears, in drug consumption. Would more be better?

As incarceration rates go up and more private prisons are built the GDP surges. The liquor industry is another boom area.

Melbourne currently has a population of 4 million. The current projection is for 8 million by 2051. Will that be better?  I’ll be 119 years old by then and I can hardly wait.

Employment is an essential factor in personal development, a sense of achievement and the source of income for families. But it is striking that there has been a radical rethinking within the aptly named Labor Party, in which employment to have become an end in itself. Through the 20th Century, Labor campaigned to reduce working hours.

The introduction of the 40-hour week in 1947 was seen as a triumph and it was confidently predicted that the standard working week would fall to 28 hours by 2000. It didn’t happen. Now the community pushes to maintain, even increase gross employment levels. Two income families are now the norm. Of full time workers, taking overtime into account most are working longer than 40 hours  and when commuting  times are added employers are engaged, often for more than 50 hours per week, especially in big cities.

At the risk of shocking this respectable audience, I want to quote Karl Marx. He got the 19th and 20th Century wring, but he seems eerily perceptive about the 21st Century.

Marx had read Adam Smith carefully and accepted his thesis that there are two basic and fundamentally contradictory forms of employment and time use in society, labour/time saving and labour/time absorbing. Marx dismissed the idea that production and wealth creation could be ends in themselves.  His words, in Grundrisse, Notebook V, now appear prescient:

Thus the view [in antiquity], in which the human being appears as the aim of production regardless of his limited national, religious and political character, seems to be very lofty when contrasted to the modern world, in which production appears as the aim of mankind and wealth as the aim of production.

The idea of the rise of a managerial class began with Marx’ bête noir Andrew Ure, but Marx picked up the idea and expanded it in Capital (III: chapter 23) with his prediction of a white-collared managerial and professional class entirely divorced from the ownership of capital:

An orchestra conductor need not own the instruments of his orchestra, nor is it within the scope of his duties as conductor to have anything to do with the ‘wages’ of the other musicians  …The capitalist’s work does not originate in the purely capitalist process of production… [but] from the social form of the labour process.

In “Grundrisse,” Notebook VII, Marx quoted from The Source and Remedy of the National Difficulties…, a pamphlet published in 1821 by an anonymous English radical, probably Charles Wentworth Dilke (1789-1864), a friend of Keats: “The first indication of real national wealth and prosperity is that people can work less…Wealth is liberty – liberty to seek recreation – liberty to enjoy life – liberty to improve the mind: it is disposable time [and Marx italicised the words] and nothing more”. This is an elitist view, but it takes a very optimistic view of the human condition. Nearly two centuries later we have not yet grasped the power of the idea.

Even earlier, John Adams, later the second President of the United States, long before Donald Trump, wrote to his wife Abigail from Paris in 1780:

“I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy.  My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.”

Some would think Adams’ view audacious.  Even more would think it frivolous; I see it as unusually long sighted.  Adams wrote when the Industrial Revolution was at its very dawn, horses and water power were the main sources of energy and most people toiled on farms to keep themselves alive.  The idea of a society where necessary work, repetitive drudgery for subsistence, would fall to a very small proportion of total time use must have seemed a piece of visionary raving to Adams’ contemporaries.  Now we have the technological capacity to reduce necessary work towards vanishing point.  We could then do all the things that Adams hoped for his grandchildren.  We could transform our work society into an activity society.  We still have very little idea about the extent of human potential.  It is about time we found out.

But what of those who lack confidence, led up a blind alley by their limited education and work experience, not to mention billions destitute in the Third World? The huge task of exploring human potential has never been taken seriously. Nor has the equally huge task of meeting human needs. It is the supreme blasphemy that neither has ever been attempted.