I’ve spent bits of the last two days sat in neo-Gothic wood-panelled halls listening to sages on the stage. Some of the sages have been great. Others, well, that’s why I took a book, innit? This is not, after all, my first go at this rodeo.
It’s the “Adelaide Festival of Ideas” again, that under-funded and well-meaning effort at civic education. As ever, it appeals mostly to Whitlam’s children (my name for those Australians who got to go to university in 1972/3/4/5) because of Saint Gough (1). And as ever, it’s not only a curate’s egg, but, well, meh.
The first thing I went to, on demography, was okay – something like a quarter of Australians born overseas, another quarter-ish with one or both parents born overseas (I’m in that category). A million fewer people living in Australia by 2030 because COVID has stripped out the 64% of the annual increase that comes from migration. Where are we gonna put all these people (glib statements about being able to use water resources better were all that the speaker had to put out, which was, well, surprising).
The second thing, which was on death, was my favourite. A good first speaker, whose wife had been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimers aged 55 (the only thing in favour of that iteration of the disease is it’s usually pretty quick, relatively speaking). A palliative care nurse turned death doolah, and a sparky mid-career-change-following-cancer-diagnosis speaker too. Lots of interesting perspectives. I wanted to rattle of a reading list (After Many a Summer by Huxley, The Denial of Death by Becker) but instead went down the “Sixth Great Extinction and karma’s a bitch” route in my question, which was well received.
Had a fantastic veggie burger in a favourite Italian cafe haunt on Rundle Street, the site of a fab meal in June 2002 with one of the ones that got away (waves at Sally).
The final session was a gobsmacker. It was by a clearly very intelligent organised guy on work he and a team had done about getting the US to net zero by whenever (2040? 2050?) and various scenarios for how you would do it (spoilers, really, you can’t). To hear someone STILL talking about carbon capture and storage, the ultimate fantasy technology, with a straight face, in 2021, was, well, bracing. We are deep deep into the bargaining phase here. There is an unthinking techno-political salvationism that still dominates what passes for our thinking/public discussion. And this was on even fuller display this morning, at the “Powering our Future” talk.
As soon as I saw how many people were on the stage, I knew there would not be any time for Q and A. I didn’t bother to time each of the speakers, but each of them basically spoke for too long, with varying amounts to say (the word ‘innovation’ got sprinkled around like the magical pixie-dust that it is). The final speaker explicitly over-ran his time, but had some of the most provocative (in a good way) things to say.
And there was, as I’d suspected, only time for one question (why did I defer? What is the matter with me?). It was, naturlich nonsense, a shoe-horned in self-advert devoid of usefulness. Thank goodness I have never done that, oh yes…
But the basic problems were a) too many speakers (a perennial problem with this Festival, as with others, for understandable institutional reasons) most of whom had b) too little to say and c) none of them going “yeah, look, we’ve been failing for thirty years, so, you know, it’s really really unlikely that we are going to stop failing just because I am here with my new technology/report/job title”, which is surely the starting point for anything worth engaging with?
Technosalvationism up the wazoo. Yawn.
Fortunately I met someone interesting and after a coffee, off we both trooped to a bravura demolition of Australia’s catastrophically-bad China policy. Only marred by some soft-pedalling of what the Chinese are up to in Xianjang being described as “unfortunate” and “unfriendly.” George Orwell would be chortling over this as an example of, well, Politics and the English Language.
I think I was booked in for another slot in the arvo, on “No Planet B”, but tbh I have learnt the hard way not to overdo it, because eventually I forget that I came with low expectations and I start to flounce/act out/whatever. Best to pretend (to myself as much as anyone else) that I am capable of a simulacrum of Zen..
Tomorrow? Maybe. Dunno. Will depend on whether friends are up for a catch up.
What does it all add up to? (Not so much)
The goal of the organisers of these Festivals, which have been going for 20 years, is I presume to “create a more informed civil society.” But the opportunities to allow people who attend to find other people who they might form longer-term loose relationships with are never fulfilled. It is enough, it seems, as far as the organisers are concerned, to do what amounts to TED talks in the flesh. (And if you missed it, here is every TED talk you ever saw, mercilessly skewered.)
There are some pretty simple, cost-free and quick innovations that could be introduced, but never are, for various reasons I claim to understand well. I’ve learnt not to let the gap between the presumed aims and the actual methods and outcomes bother me, for reasons I explain in this blog post (tl;dr – I don’t have kids, and so can be less panicked at the seeming inevitability of the world heat-doming to the ground). I just go along for the ride, without getting riled. So it goes.
(1) Not so saintly if you were East Timorese, obvs.