It took me almost two weeks to unwind … but having reached Sydney on our way south from Brisbane, I feel like I have eventually arrived in Australia. Why did it take so long to unwind? Probably because things wind in reverse direction in down under. When I spotted a snail in Dorrigo National Park I noticed there was something awkward, but I couldn’t tell at first. Then I realized that the snail shell did wind clock wise. Alex joked that Bart Simpson once asked, staring into the porcelain, if the Coriolis force changes its direction on the southern hemisphere. It does indeed. Try it and flush. It might therefore have taken my mind this time even longer to adapt to local conditions and find its direction.
Australia was from Noosa to Coffs Harbor defined by endless, beautiful beaches and varied wildlife. Since we have taken the Waterfall Way we drive through hundreds of kilometers cattle farmland with occasional subtropical rainforest national parks in between. I observe the small villages and the wide space even between single farm steads. It appears as if Australia consists merely out of six urban areas: Brisbane, Surfer’s Paradise, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth; The urbanization rate must be above 80%. And my impression is confirmed by Wikipedia: 89%. Of countries proper, which are not city states, only Japan and Brazil have a higher urban population.
Australian cities are nevertheless different from what I know from China, Japan or Europe. They are widespread and people live predominantly in detached houses. We are told by Sydney friends, that Sydney extends over a similar area as Beijing, which is divided into 24 councils and some 600 neighborhoods. But Beijing, which is roughly 16k km2 large has to fit in some 20 million people; Sydney has only 5 mio inhabitants on 12k km2 and large parts of the town feel like a park with houses tucked into the forest. Apart from such large agglomerations, one leads a pretty isolated life and can easily choose to refrain from interaction with the outside world.
It seems though that Australians do not want to be isolated. Most of them live along the coast lines, and I believe it is this peculiar geographical dimension of that continent-like island, a huge desert within and fertile only along parts of the coastal margins, which contributes to urbanization and thus to a peculiar cultural development: Australians seem due to this geographical peculiarity more vulnerable to the negative effects of capitalist consumerism.
Another reason might be the permeability of a society which is defined by being of an immigrant nature. Chinese friends from Shanghai who have moved to Sydney a few years ago, tell us while queuing up for dinner outside a Vietnamese Pho restaurant, that Sydney is very similar to Shanghai: things are absorbed fast; news spreads quickly by word of mouth propaganda; traditions and customs have no chance to establish themselves. I am tempted to assume that there is not much more than rumor mongering in Down Under considering that supermarkets like Woolworths sell only tabloids with pregnant celebrities staring at the consumer while waiting to have your purchase stuffed into an insane amount of plastic bags. Woolworths is with AUD 59 billion annual revenue Australia’s second largest business after Wesfarmers, another retailer. Like last summer in Japan, I am amazed by the might which those retail conglomerates have in our consumer societies. Whatever they shelf is what the average person will ingest.
We drive 35km across town and back for a bowl of beef noodles. Where else would one do that? Either there is scarcity of good food or people get influenced to easily in their consumer habits. Or both. If Sydney stands for the urbanized Australian society at large, then these traits speak of a society which is highly susceptible to the forces of the market and smart marketing. Documentaries like Food Inc., Supersize Me or Fed Up have clearly shown, which health havoc the profit greed and the marketing psychology of MOCs cause to consumers. I have seen little counter initiatives in Australia like pictured in the documentary Demain, which are mushrooming in Europe and pockets of the US like Oregon, Colorado and Washington State. The question crossed my mind not only once: why?
After five weeks and more than 5000km traveling from Brisbane to Melbourne with some detours to off the beaten track destinations I have come to a conclusion. It might be over simplified, because I haven’t seen much of this vast country, but I have traversed the area which is home to about three quarters of the Australian population. Thus I believe that my impressions can be generalized to the society at large: Australia is a nation which thrives on the exploitation of natural resources and human resources to such a degree that its affluence hampers technological innovation and cultural progress. It is in its essence a shockingly backward pleasure society.
Now, I don’t want to offend anybody with this conclusion and I am far from pointing with a finger on Australians or Australian politics. Similar issues are prevalent in other societies which are close to me, in particular the German speaking countries of Europe and China proper. But I take the perspective of an independent observer who tries to understand the dynamics of cultural biospheres, someone who wishes to learn best practices and wants to avoid worst cases; and I speak as a father who looked with some expectation into Australia as a potential habitat for our two children, since I feel that our time in Shanghai and China as such is coming after more than a decade to an end.
Australia and New Zealand were two natural top destinations, since we enjoy our life in an Asian setting. Both countries seem to reflect on a societal dimension our own family microcosm, which oscillates between Europe and China. An Anglo-Saxon frame society, thoroughly changed by immigration waves from other European and Asian countries. English as first language and Mandarin as second most spoken language as shown in below map served as a good indicator that our expectations would be fulfilled. The formula was simple: take one teaspoon of good old Europe, another of good old China and a third one of a rather unknown composition and mix it with an awesome surf under blue sky and indefinite sunshine. The recipe was promising, but it didn’t go down well. What remains is a memory of a stunningly beautiful country, a peculiar and endangered flora and fauna - apart from flies, which seem to be the only species which outnumbers humans – and an admirable surfing culture. So much for the upside.