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Jonathan Swift’s foresight

By William York - posted Tuesday, 28 July 2009

How did he do it? Dean Jonathon Swift writing Gulliver’s Travels in 1726 made a long range forecast of such incredible accuracy that it would be the envy of any climate modeler. In this forecast you glimpse Kevin Rudd, the ANU, the academies and many practical men who may bring doom and destruction to Australia.

You may recall that on one of Lemuel Gulliver’s voyages he is rescued from a desolate rock by a rope dropped from a manoeuvrable island that floats in the air. It is the kingdom of Laputa, a small island no more than a few miles wide that can be steered over a country called Balnibarbi. The king of Laputa rules Balnibarbi and if the citizens below prove troublesome then Laputa can bring perpetual night to a rebellious town by keeping it in permanent darkness or at least until the citizens mend their ways.

There is an interesting resonance with our present rulers in Canberra, with a city that, to many, appears to float disconnected and threatening darkness to those who disagree. Perhaps the Cabinet town meetings are the equivalent of Laputa hovering over its citizens.


But Swift’s insights are much deeper. The ruler and courtiers of Laputa are devoted to the study of science and music to the exclusion of most other activities. In fact Gulliver is regarded by the court as of little interest since he can make no contribution to their activities. The structure of Canberra, its bureaucracies, universities and academies - but little industry - looks to be the modern realisation of the realm of Laputa.

The king of Laputa would understand the language of Canberra with its “detailed programmatic specificity”. The problems of government require endless enquiries, initiatives and meetings with few decisions except to have further enquiries, initiatives and meetings. This might befuddle most citizens but it would resonate with king of Laputa ... In fact Swift was satirising the Royal Society with its endless meetings and discussions while the society itself appeared to bring no general benefit to the community.

Gulliver is befriended by a practical noble who is despised by his peers for his common sense and understanding. Gulliver is given leave by the king to depart and descend to the country of Balnibarbi, to be guided by his noble friend. He is amazed on descending to see what looks like a ruined country with its capital Lagado in a sorry state.

His host, whose estates are the complete opposite, explains:

“That, about forty years ago, certain persons went up to Laputa, either upon business or diversion; and after five months continuance, came back with a very little smattering in mathematicks, but full of volatile spirits, acquired in that airy region. That, these persons upon their return, began to dislike the management of every thing below; and fell into schemes of putting all arts, sciences, languages, and mechanicks upon a new foot. To this end, they procured a royal patent, for erecting an academy of projectors in Lagado and, the humour prevailed so strongly among the people, that there is not a town of any consequence in the kingdom, without such an academy. In these colleges, the professors contrive new rules and methods of agriculture and building, and new instruments and tools for all trades and manufactures; whereby, as they undertake, one man shall do the work of ten: a palace may be built in a week, of materials so durable, as to last for ever without repairing. All the fruits of the earth shall come to maturity, at whatever season we think fit to chuse, and encrease an hundred fold more than they do at present: with innumerable other happy proposals.

“The only inconvenience is, that none of these projects are yet brought to perfection; and, in the mean time, the whole country lies miserably waste; the houses in ruins, and the people without food or cloaths: by all which, instead of being discouraged, they are fifty times more violently bent upon prosecuting their schemes; driven equally on by hope and despair: that, as for himself, being not of an enterprizing spirit, he was content to go on in the old forms; to live in the houses his ancestors had built, and act as they did in every part of life without innovation: that, some few other persons of quality and gentry had done the same; but were looked on with an eye of contempt and ill-will; as enemies to art; ignorant, and ill commonwealths- men; preferring their own ease and sloth before the general improvement of their country.”

Here we can see the forerunner of contemporary green politics. The courtiers like Garnaut and the Treasury mandarins analyse and report on the future assuming that energy technologies of the “politically correct” sort will arise to take the place of the old and despised uses of fossil fuels or the satanic uranium nucleus.


As in Balnibarbi, much contemporary green politics is bi-partisan. The present leader of the Opposition, Malcolm Turnbull, banned incandescent light bulbs when he was Minister for the Environment and the present incumbent, Peter Garrett, having "burned" fossil fuels in an earlier career now talks of banning plastic shopping bags. Indeed the description of Balnibarbi is a foretaste of the future state of Victoria, foreswearing the use of brown coal, unable to harness the wind and not being able to draw enough electrical energy from its neighboring states to keep the lights on.

The energy rent-seekers who have visited Canberra return to their home states with a vision for the future and government financial support, either directly or by regulation fortifying this vision. The academy of “projectors”, the old term for promoters, has its modern realisation in climate change institutes to be found in universities while the professors devise new schemes, write letters advising business to change its ways and attend conferences of like-minded persons in agreeable cities of the world.

We have not yet got to the State of Balnibarbi but Jonathan Swift has told us what to expect.

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About the Author

William York likes to find the funny side of life. He used to write for BRW back in the late 1980's.

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