David Foster

Gaia is anomalous. As living beings, we cannot hope to explain life through our statistical sciences because anomalous singularity lies beyond our scientific purview. 

To deploy the language of statistical mechanics, life is improbable. When a planet’s gaseous atmosphere is probable (i.e. observed in a state of thermodynamic equilibrium), that planet has lost if ever it possessed a capacity for thermostasis – in James Lovelock’s mind, the sine qua non of planetary life. But a system cannot understand itself through reason alone. In the short term, it is human civilisations at risk here and, moving from science to history, these civilisations, if history is any guide, are in a bad way. Flannery makes the point that burgeoning human population threatens human civilisations. Climate change, as geochemist Lovelock implies, is best seen as Gaia’s response to human hubris, for, if we move from science to theology, in order to avail ourselves of the proper language for discussing life, we can observe that if anything is certain, it is that human hubris, in the form of technological innovation, has led to the ever-decreasing human death rate and ever-increasing consumption of fossil fuels, in regard to which we have behaved (to quote another chemist, Cornforth) with all the restraint of a fox in a chicken coop. 

It is surely poignant that Tim Flannery’s essay Now or Never opens a Quarterly Essay concluding in correspondence arising from Paul Toohey’s Last Drinks. This serves to remind of the complete resistibility – even among Australians possessed of survival skills – of a voluntary, secular reversion to the lowest of all possible ecological profiles – that of the hunter-gatherer. The problem, in other words, isn’t one of communication but, rather, of motivation. Even if climate sceptics prove correct, a move towards frugality would do Australians no harm. This we understand, but we also suspect that such transformation will not occur, should it require the deliberate collapse of the world economy with the pre-consent of over half the world population. There are half a billion Indians presently living a Gandhian rural life, but the ever-expanding urban slums of India suggest that only a saint remains content subsisting off a hectare, in the face of ubiquitous multi-channel cable television. It is the well-heeled urban intellectual to whom the Gandhian lifestyle appeals. The villager wants none of it. 

Most of us, proffered a choice between illicit comfort and doing it tough, will opt for comfort, in deed if not word; a fortiori, given the plaudits attending the pursuit of both eminence and wealth. 

I have tried, for almost forty years, to live a sustainable rural life. It is hard going, swimming against the stream, and I’m about done. My wife and I even published a book on self-sufficiency (Slow Food, Duffy and Snellgrove, 2001). It is, at the end of the day, a dispiriting undertaking, so permit me a smile at Flannery’s endorsement of “holistic management” in beef cattle, which sounds rather like dairy farming without the dairy. Permit me a smile at Michael Pollan enthusing over Polyface Farm (Pollan, incidentally, for those who wish to read further, can certainly write: Lovelock, sadly, can’t). And I smile, not because such innovative systems can’t be made to work: it’s more a question of who’s going to put their hand up. 

Where does the water come from in this “holistic management” scheme? Who’s going to drive the solar-powered water tanker, or do we use the windmill? Who’s going to monitor fencing round that feedlot with no feed? Hungry steers break electric tapes. Who’s going to grow all the silage? Hungry cattle lose condition. No breeder in his right mind would run bulls with heifers. To fetch top dollar we need to AI then preg test all those cows, Tim; surely you can’t be denying us the technological state of our art? That would be pretty rich, coming from you. So who’s going to shift, every few days, and in between growing the silage, the tread-ins with the energisers, the silage feeder, the water tanker, the mobile trough, the mobile yards, the mobile race, the mobile crush – the missus? She prefers, these days, to jump into her car. A modern woman does not like work that involves taking orders from a husband. Even accepting suggestions, the kids? Long gone to the city. Employees? No money to pay them: we’re not all merchant bankers. Extended family? You’re joking. Contemporary partners of sons and daughters baulk at living with in-laws. In fine, your typical Australian farm-force: one old man with an overdraft and a limp. 

The hunter-gatherer lifestyle, the lifestyle of the nomadic horde (which remains the stock-breeding paragon), even the life of the peasant farmer, is predicated on sexual differentiation and reliant on extended family – utterly reliant. You can’t do it on your own but you will be. In the face of digital “propensity for individualism,” as Kim Mahood calls it, clan in the West is all but kaput.

But I bring Good News. There is glamour in poverty. It is simply hard to see through all that haze. There is happiness in release. There is meaning in frugality and purpose in celibacy. Sell the cattle to India to comfort the five million saddhus. Eat grass. The human race has long possessed a safety valve in the face of utter failure. It is undertaken instinctively on acceptance of a renunciant faith. In the past, when under duress, men and women of every stamp – Chinese, Egyptians, Tibetans, Greeks, Ethiopians, Irishmen – have renounced the devil and all his pomps to retreat from a collapsing world in response to heartfelt remorse. Scientists, in general, disapprove of faith, and contemporary dogma needs a touch-up, but the impulse to rediscover God is not yet dead in humankind. We must, perhaps, become a trifle warmer yet, but a Dark Age is good for some things.

Bring it on.


David Foster, University of Sydney medallist in inorganic chemistry and former international postdoctoral fellow of the US National Institutes of Health, won the 1997 Miles Franklin Award for The Glade within the Grove. His new novel, Sons of the Rumour, will be published in 2009. 


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 31, Now or Never. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 32, American Revolution.


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