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Strong community ties can endure the toughest global conditions

By Peter McMahon - posted Friday, 7 February 2003


Recently I asked my mother about her memories of the Great Depression and World War Two. The depression, she said, was just a time of hardship and sadness. Something to be endured, and hopefully never repeated.

She told me about the thin, scruffy and haggard men who would come to the door asking for work, and maybe chop wood for a meal. In the winter they might sleep in the shed, and in the summer on the beach. The local beach was alight with the flickering fires of workless, homeless men.

She told me about hearing the women crying, not able to make ends meet, and the desperation in the men's faces. How her own clothes were made from the rags my grandfather collected, anything to earn a few more shillings.

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But my mother was lucky really. My grandfather was a genuine handyman and would turn his hand to anything to make do. My grandmother was a skilful seamstress, and my mother was always well dressed. They were both well known and respected in a neighborhood where everyone was doing it tough. So my mother suffered less than some whose parents were less resourceful and less situated in a community.

In fact, strangely enough, when I asked her what is was like for her as a child, she thought not too bad. The economy was down, times were tight, but people compensated for this by sticking together. People would help each other out, take up the burden, keep each other going. Taking a walk, or doing the shopping, or just hanging out the washing, would become a social event, gossip and hints and advice exchanged. Solidarity maintained, spirits raised.

The depression only ended with the war. Australian men, the married ones first, joined up, desperate to get a regular wage. They knew about war from the preceding one, but at least the fighting was in Europe and Africa, a long way away. And then the Japanese got into it and the war was suddenly very close to home. My grandfather had a special knife for the women and girls if the Japanese had invaded - thankfully we don't know if he could have used it.

Then the Americans beat the Japanese in the Coral Sea, and Australia was safe. Allied submarines progressively severed the vital supply links, and although the fighting went on for some years, Japan was effectively beaten. Its high-risk strategy had failed.

Australian men and women, many far too young, died in the war and families and friends grieved. My mother recalled the school children gathering round one of their own who'd lost a brother. But again, people pulled together and made the best of it. By late 1945 they had suffered some of the worst trials in modern history - a global depression and global war - and they had survived And they did this more than anything because they had stuck together.

Currently, experts around the world are discussing the prospects of another global depression. With the economy failing to pick up after the dotcom boom and bust, and possible war in Iraq keeping the markets nervous, the world economy is looking very shaky.

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Whether this will translate into full blown depression - with greatly reduced demand, greatly increased unemployment, and the political instability that inevitably results - is yet to be seen.

It was World War Two that ended the Great Depression as governments re-armed and put men and women in uniform, and effectively adopted a Keynesian economic policy. This time it may well be war that tips the world over into global depression. The global economy is very weak, and the oil price rises that will likely be associated with the war could be enough to tip it over the edge.

This all depends on how the war goes of course, but if the US loses control at any point, or the Iraqis fire their own wells, or any other such disaster occurs, the price may rise to levels that make the bad days of the 1970s look like minor adjustments. And this when that other crucial oil supplier, Venezuela, is enduring a sustained political and economic crisis that is disrupting oil flows.

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About the Author

Dr Peter McMahon has worked in a number of jobs including in politics at local, state and federal level. He has also taught Australian studies, politics and political economy at university level, and until recently he taught sustainable development at Murdoch University. He has been published in various newspapers, journals and magazines in Australia and has written a short history of economic development and sustainability in Western Australia. His book Global Control: Information Technology and Globalisation was published in the UK in 2002. He is now an independent researcher and writer on issues related to global change.

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