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Paying the price for greed and idiocy

By Hugh Selby - posted Friday, 28 November 2008

Those who talk of pending disasters are doomed no matter what. If they are right then their predictive powers are never applauded, but remembered, if at all, with bitterness. If they are wrong they are pessimists, trouble makers, and fools. It may be this knowledge of "no win, guaranteed loss" that explains our leaders" present inability to confront the possible, or probable consequences of the global economic meltdown in our own Canberra backyard and around our nation.

Think back to the response to the Canberra bushfires, the World Trade Centre attack, and the tsunamis that swept away whole neighbourhoods.

There was an immediate organised reaction which put to use skills and resources, both paid and volunteer. At the local, national, and international level there is a capacity (sometimes inspiring, even if later criticised as inadequate) to respond quickly to a specific crisis event.


How different are our reactions to those more gradual crises that creep up on us. Diffident, sometimes grudging reactions build slowly until what was a suggestion for response becomes an imperative for organisations. Good examples are the HIV-AIDs crisis and climate change.

It's hardly surprising that whether the disaster is a red splash of instant terror or a recognised long term threat to our survival we crave the quick fix. Nothing is more attractive than the miracle vaccination against the disease, an army of carbon credit traders and regulators to make us feel good about our part of the solution to global warning, or laws which lock up terrorist suspects and keep them out of sight and mind. We want to believe in solutions.

The global economic disaster has some features which reflect our experience of HIV-AIDs and global warning. It began far, far away. It has grown out of our sight and control. It has reached our shores, and its effects are now rippling out across the land, marking the doors of some and sparing the doors of others.

"Wealth creation" is on hold, but the needs of our marked jobless neighbours and unexpectedly poor retired are not. We need to confidently measure and provide for much more assistance in the basics of food, clothing, shelter, access to health and education services.

And then there is the challenge of supporting businesses which will fail without assistance, and the related challenge of substantial job creation as people well trained and wanting work scramble for the little that is available.

"This is all an exaggeration”, they say. “There are successful bankers, politicians, industrialists all saying that we’ll ride through this. There is no need, no reason to be alarmist.” True it is that we as a community will ride through this (though the rich and powerful will have a much easier ride), but we can take steps to minimise the harm, to have that sense of community and useful compassion which characterises our response to the short, sharp disaster.


What if we keep denying this economic and community disaster on the basis that the market will do a U-turn tomorrow, next week or in the new year? In 1929 there was much dithering about what to do when the global markets crashed. It was a dithering that caused a lot of avoidable suffering. The U-turn was years away.

In 1929 life ran to a different beat. In suburbia bread was cooked in the bakery around the corner, there were mail deliveries six days a week, and a few egg laying chooks shared the back yard with the dunny and a vegetable patch. The non producing birds might run headless for a while when the kid with the axe didn't truss them properly. Free range and very organic.

Nostalgic? Not a bit of it. Less than a dozen years after the War to end wars, a decade after the flu pandemic, and about to dive into a decade of economic depression in which those who had jobs clung to them.

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About the Author

Hugh Selby is a teacher. He has followed several other occupations all of which influence his life view. His superiors consider him too practical to be an academic and his local Attorney-General recently described him in the press as a "pseudo intellectual". These are matters of perverse pride.

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All articles by Hugh Selby

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