In a speech to the London School of Economics and Political Science on 5 October 2011, the former leader of the Liberal Party, Malcolm Turnbull, showed that some Australians have an awareness of the challenges ahead of the nation in passages like the following:
In fact the historical national accounts constructed by the late Angus Maddison tell us that from antiquity until the middle of the 19th century, several decades into the industrial revolution, China and India were the two largest global economies, accounting for between 45 and 50 per cent of the world's output over most of the 18 centuries. There are a few nations with a sense of cultural continuity and exceptionalism that rival China's, but none rival its scale. China sees itself as a 3000â€year culture, for almost all of history the world's largest and strongest country…..
Our schools and universities should be turning out the world's top students – not settling for middle of the pack, which is where one measure, the OECD's PISA study of comparative performance in secondary schooling, suggests many advanced countries find themselves…..
As worrying as the shift of manufacturing and economic output to Asia, in the eyes of many in the West, are the transfers of political, institutional and military influence that will surely follow…..
From the above one might draw the following conclusions relevant to our future:
there should be nothing surprising about the renaissance of Asian economies,
the West (and Australia) should have made better use of its period of advanced economic development to create an Asian sense of rigor and excellence in education, and
we are not at all prepared for the foreseeable shift to a world where Asian norms and standards establish a new, more demanding sense of excellence and aspiration
Turnbull suggests that the West has led the world for much less than the five centuries often claimed. Indeed, he suggests a period of less than two centuries. In the future, questions may be raised as to whether Western predominance has not depended greatly on being the first user of fossil fuels in transport and military matters, together with the unique mobilisation through corporate structures of under-utilised human energies. While the period of Western dominance has been one of unprecedented transformation, it has also been one of much destruction, leaving many questions unanswered about its wisdom in respect of the natural environment, organic ecologies, health giving food and medicine, human well-being and civilisational wisdom. Moreover, problems with fossil fuel supplies and corporate excesses suggest that these first mover advantages no longer work to the West's benefit.
Economic confidence today is based on the rise of China, India and many other parts of Asia. There are few grounds for confidence in the face of financial, political and other problems in America and Europe. Environmental confidence, such as it is, might also be best based on the renaissance of the wisdom of these people who maintained high levels of production that were much less destructive than those of the West have been. Today, no nation is dedicating more resources to the exploration of alternative forms of energy and other environment enhancing measures than China.
Sadly, apart from the Turnbull speech, there is little evidence of any curiosity about these dynamics in Australian political, academic and media activity. A piece in Asia Times Online of 19 November 2011, by Peter Lee, captured something of the ineptness of Australian comprehension of contemporary developments. Lee did the unthinkable and summed up recent American activity in the Asia Pacific Region in the following words under the heading "America: The new sick man of Asia?":
The tag line for United States President Barack Obama's appearance at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Honolulu was "The United States is a Pacific power, and we are here to stay".
The question is, is the United States a leader bringing economic and security solutions to the Pacific, or is it the new "Sick Man of Asia", infecting the region with its imperial malaise.
Until there is a heightened awareness in Australia of the dire straits of the US economy and the manner in which this compromises any aspirations it may have to lift its act in the Asia Pacific, it is unlikely that there will be much intelligent debate along the lines suggested by Turnbull's speech. In reality, global economic and financial developments are leading us to end times in terms of the world we have known through two centuries of modern Australian history. If we, and our leaders, have the wit, this could, however, foreshadow the best of times but in a form that few today might recognize.
Fundamental to these best of times would be:
a new rigor in education with standards of excellence rarely achieved by other than the best Chinese, Indian and other Asian students
a total re-evaluation of the post-Enlightenment West's materialist, reductionist scientific certainties and their impact on the availability of quality food, water, energy and environment
a critical, considered re-evaluation of the role of corporations in economic and financial activity in order to optimize their productivity and minimize their greed
a political system that does not leave so-called democratic elections at the mercy of corporate and other lobbyists and their financial contributions (a problem that is not yet acute in Australia but that is close to terminal in America)
a broad community understanding of the critical relevance of coherent, strategic excellence in administration at all levels of government
Few of these considerations are on the political or academic agenda in Australia or anywhere else in a Western world consumed with the treat of its financial disintegration. If Australia hopes, however, to participate in the best of (Eastern) times and avoid the consequences of the end of (Western) times these are the directions in which our energies will need to be directed.