In his book The Lucky Country, Donald Horne was taking a satirical swipe at the politicians and populace of this fair country. His assertion was that many things had fallen into our laps without a great deal of thought or effort on our behalf.
His ideas came to mind the other day when the issue of climate change once again dominated the headlines. I had also just listened to a podcast with a scientist from back in the 1970s advocating our need to use solar energy. It cast my memory back to a trip I had made to Israel in the late `70s. I had been astounded to see solar panels on a multitude of rooftops there. They were jerry built and quite haphazard in appearance, but they provided hot water for thousands of people and saved the country having to generate excess electricity. ‘Why weren’t we doing that?’ was my thought at the time.
Now as I ponder our future as a country, I agree with Horne’s perspective. We have been blessed and lazy to boot.
First, there was an abundance of gold for us to dig out of the ground, making Melbourne one of the wealthiest cities in the world in the late 1800s. We didn’t build grand Victorian buildings out of thin air or the multitude of pubs dotted on every major street corner without the back-up of shining yellow metal and mad keen miners to keep the economy booming.
Next came the Spanish Merino sheep and the vision of the McArthur family – possibly more the wife than the husband – to kickstart an industry that is still thriving. Every school child of the 1950s and `60s knows the expression ‘we lived off the sheep’s back’ to explain our wealth and economy. Italian couturiers know the value of fine wool. Don’t try to buy a bespoke merino wool suit unless you work in the upper echelons of business or banking, or someone leaves you an inheritance.
Finally came the minerals boom of iron ore, copper, alumina and assorted metals no-one knew or cared about until technology made them valuable. Now we dig up the backyard with great gusto, shipping the raw materials around the world, keeping our fingers crossed that the price remains high and our exports exceed our imports. And governments bless the industry as royalties flow in and the budget looks in better shape than expected.
So, what is wrong with this picture? It strikes me that all of this has been too easy, lacking in intelligent and farsighted thought. We have not really value added to what geography and climate have afforded us.
That scientist back in the `70s got it right. We should be exploiting our sunshine, creating hectares of solar farms to generate clean electricity and using our combined intellect to add value to that product. To use solar-created electricity to make green hydrogen would be a good start. Yes, it would take effort and vision and money. But it would not just make us lucky, it would make us clever, innovative and far more secure than we are now.
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