Sustainability and Social Issues in Australia

Australia, despite being one of the richest societies in the Asia Pacific area is also amongst its youngest, the process of its settlement having begun (in 1788) just about 200 years ago. The British Empire had by then already won its first battles in India, and was about to begin the process of colonising Asia, bringing the Pax Britannica to millions of unwilling and resentful people.

Busy eyeing the precious stones encrusting the Taj Mahal and the vast riches of the Indian plains the British had very little time for the land find in the distant Pacific. Not being people to lose opportunities, they did however send war ships to appropriate the vast land from the people living there for thousands of years This nonchalant acquisition was followed by settling the land with convicts serving penal terms, felons and criminals who had little place in society in England.

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The land, larger in area than the continental United States, was progressively occupied by the British over the nineteenth century and became a formal commonwealth of states in 1901. Australia’s distance from England, coupled with the British origin of its settlers, enabled it to become self governing right from the beginning and led to the emergence of a unique and vibrant society, a community that grew in isolation and built a new world for themselves.

Whilst Australian society as it exists now is two hundred years old, much of its radical changes and developments took place only after the 1940s. The spread of the Second World War, first in mainland Europe and then in the Pacific, led to sharply increased contact of the Australian people with other western societies, the interaction of various cultures with the local ethos, traditions, and way of life, and the forging of a distinct and unique identity. The post war era has been one of change.

Societal change has been continual, rapid and global, creating challenges that have arisen out of developments in science and technology, national economies, political governance, international power alignments, human rights, and globalisation, as well as out of the demise of colonialism and the freedom of millions of enslaved peoples. Reckless environmental depredation and the spread of global terrorism now threaten the established way of human life, challenging mankind to find ways and means to ensure a liveable world for coming generations.

International response to these challenges has led to the emergence of the concept of sustainability, an idea that first originated with the efforts of various green groups to sustain the threatened global environment, and then subsequently grew to encompass broader life issues. In recent years sustainability has become an umbrella term that incorporates a broad and holistic approach, includes all disciplines, and involves international politics and governance. Sustainability aims to protect and sustain the earth and its inhabitants, their cultures, traditions and values, through actions in numerous areas of human life and endeavour.

It aims to ensure that future generations lead free, equal, healthy and purposeful lives. The concept, in its present form, incorporates economic, political and cultural actions not just for ensuring the continuance of stable environments but also for preventing degradation and regression across a broad spectrum of human activity. This essay aims to delve into the issue of sustainability, its relevance in the sociological context, and the utility of its policies in addressing long standing issues in Australian life.

The eminent American sociologist C Wright Mills in his treatise “The Sociological Imagination” (1959) argued that the sociological imagination of a society is formed by three distinct components, namely (a) the history of how a society arises and how it is transforming over time, (b) the biography or the nature of people who inhabit a particular society, and (c) social structure, which represents the way in which the various institutional orders in a society operate, especially the roles played by those that are dominant.

Study of these factors for particular societies empowers both participants and observers to obtain much broader perspectives and to understand the various motivators and demotivators that shape society. Sociological imagination allows people to look beyond their current and local environment, their existences and their personalities, and gauge wider social structures. It enables them to locate the reasons behind present day issues, which while appearing to be critical today, are actually no more than the result of the relationship and effect of history, biography, and social structure.

Australia has been inhabited for more than 40,000 years by indigenous tribes, who very probably came over from South East Asia through ridges or short sea crossings, and were the ancestors of today’s Indigenous Australians. The isolation of these aboriginal communities from mainstream Asian population appears to have prevented them from evolving much beyond their original hunter gatherer status, making them easy pushovers for the hardened British settlers who came in during the course of the 19th century.

These tribals were pushed out of their natural habitat, hunted down by the white newcomers, and decimated in large numbers by infectious diseases, their fate resembling that of the bronze skinned people who lived in the Americas before the arrival of the Europeans. It is important to understand that modern day Australia is founded on the comparatively recent subjugation of primitive dark skinned native inhabitants by white invaders. Whereas the white conquest of the Americas took place in the 16th century the occupation of Australia occurred much later.

The very contemporaneousness of the settlement process was possibly causal in the entrenchment of a long lasting abhorrence in the whites for coloured people, which in turn led to the establishment and perpetuation of what is still a predominantly white society. Whilst Australian policymakers and administrators came to understand the need for more people in a scarcely populated land, successive governments remained determined to restrict immigration only to whites.

The English, the Germans, the Italians, even the East Europeans were welcome to migrate, to work, and to assimilate. The Chinese, the Malays, and other non whites were not. They were allowed to enter and work in menial positions, and as domestic help, but were never accepted to be equal. Legislation in the form of the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 ensured that Australia kept its doors closed to non white cultures for many decades.

Launched by Labour in 1945, post war immigration was seen as both necessary to build the population and as a positive economic stimulus … Both sides of politics promised they would maintain the White Australia Policy, claiming most migrants would be British. White Australia continued to be a racist dreaming of national identity … By 1951, almost half a million migrants had arrived, 38 per cent from Eastern Europe … and 36 per cent from Britain and Ireland.

In the following 10 years, another 800,000 arrived, 33 per cent from southern Europe … 29 per cent from England and Ireland, and 24 per cent from northern Europe. (Murphy, Ch 36, Eds. Beliharz and Hogan, 2006) This strange and anachronistic attitude in a society that was otherwise progressively becoming modern in the western sense persisted for years after the Second World War and finally started unravelling only in the seventies with the enactment of anti-discrimination laws.

These plainly racist attitudes explain the reasons behind the comparative insularity of Australian culture and the overwhelmingly dominant impact of English and American cultures on the evolution of Australian society. Whilst prejudice and colour bias kept all but British influence out of Australian white society during the first half of the 1900s, it was finally the compulsions of the Second World War that led Australians to interact with other nations, and initiated the country’s integration with the global community.

Even though Australia entered the war at the behest of the British crown (with Australians fighting along side allied troops in Europe), the realities of imminent danger sunk in only after the Japanese entered the war in 1941, cut across swathes of British Asia, imprisoned thousands of allied troops, and emerged as a real threat to the Australian mainland.

The besieged nation turned to the United States for protection and went on to forge a close alliance with the country. This association, which began in 1941 gained momentum after the war. The emergence of communist China in 1949 pushed Australians into fresh military alliances with the United States, leading in turn to significant enhancement in cultural and social exchange between the two countries. (Kirkby, Ch 35, Eds. Beliharz and Hogan, 2006)

The next few decades were to be periods of great economic advancement, marked by the gradual integration of Australia with mainstream global life, its emergence as a significant economic power, the phasing out of the White Australia Policy, efforts to integrate Indigenous Australians into the country’s mainstream, the consolidation of democratic institutions, extensive social reform, the emergence of neo liberalism, breakdown of the family, emancipation of women, and the flowering of immense cultural vitality and sporting prowess.

The young took to music with enormous enthusiasm, as well as to sports, drugs and freer living. There seemed to be music everywhere, in schools, in pubs, in garages, in cars. Brisbane led with bands like the Purple Hearts, Adelaide with the Masters Apprentices, though Melbourne became the centre where musicians met, formed bands like the Wild Cherries and Chain, and worked an intensive set of clubs (Beliharz, Ch 37, Eds. Beliharz and Hogan, 2006)

Consensual premarital relationships, shedding of taboos regarding sex, and the growing emergence of women in working life led to the erosion of the concept of family and significant increase in the number of unmarried couples and single parents. In personal life, the idea of marriage as a lifelong commitment ‘for better or worse’ was supplanted by the notion that relationships were a commitment subject to ongoing negotiation. Non-marital cohabitation, or ‘living together’—rather risque even in the 1970s—became the absolute norm, and many came to see couples who did not do so before marriage as rather unusual.

Even as Australia absorbed the broad social changes that were impacting American life in the sixties and seventies, it kept its unique identity intact, distinguished by its adaptive usage of the English language, intense experimentation with music and dance, and a tremendous passion for competitive sport. The popularity of Australian Rules football, (a spectacular, fast and enormously audience friendly sport, marked by spectators running onto the field during half time to kick the ball around), continued to grow during the twentieth century.

The centrality of the game in the public imagery is reflected in the fact that the Prime Minister had to ensure that the schedule for the 2004 election did not collide with any of the ‘footy’ finals. ” (Papastergiadis, Ch 64, Eds. Beliharz and Hogan, 2006) During this period the country also saw the emergence of magnificent cities like Canberra, Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne, vibrant with cultural exchange and metropolitan atmosphere, oddities in a country where 80 % of the people live in suburbs, and the economy is mainly focussed on agriculture and other commodities.

In economics, the country chose to adopt the British/ American system of free markets, shunning communism with a hatred that was reminiscent of Winston Churchill and pre war America. The economic boom of the post war years, the strides the country made in agricultural production, its plentiful natural resources, and its small population base, miniscule even by western standards, ensured that Australians were able to achieve a per capita GDP (on a purchasing power basis) higher than the richest nations of Europe.

Economic prosperity enabled the country to initiate an array of micro economic reforms and engage in neo liberal economic policies, even as it engaged in wide ranging environmental action, cleaned up it seas and rivers, and planted forestation on an appropriately large scale. While being British or being white was necessary in the past for social identification, this was replaced with the need to be Australian and the development of national solidarity. (Moran, Ch 82, Eds. Beliharz and Hogan, 2006)

Despite the economic affluence, enlargement of thought, and evolution of democratic institutions, the country still needs to come to terms with its aboriginal community, now reduced to a mere 3 % of its population, as well as with other societal divisions. Black riots that broke out in Sydney in 2004 over the death of TJ, an aboriginal youth, caused by police action, underline the simmering tension between the two communities, which exist despite efforts to integrate them into mainstream society. Social divisions of race and gender have proven to be more persistent than previously imagined.

More recently it has been argued that the divisions of race and gender do not simply originate from within a particular class-consciousness, but are mobilised by cultural ideas that both precede and exist alongside their affiliation to a specific social class (Papastergiadis, Ch 64, Eds. Beliharz and Hogan, 2006) Australian society has evolved over two hundred years to become what it is today, neo liberal, economically successful, democratic, liberal in thought and action, sports loving culturally unique, and deeply concerned about environmental issues.

It has brilliantly planned mega cities, as well as extensive farming communities. Much of this has been possible because of the hard work of the original settlers and their descendants, the abundant natural resources of the country, long periods of uninterrupted development, freedom from internal strife, diseases or natural calamities, and a small easily governable population base. Despite its various achievements the country suffers from internal divisions of race and gender, which threaten the egalitarian basis of its social structure. The coming years are going to be ones of enormous challenge in every area of human life.

Economic challenges will come from the newly emergent economies of India and China, both of which are growing at rates much faster than that of Australia. The ability of terrorists to strike in the unlikeliest of places remains very real, as does the possibility of their acquiring nuclear or biological weapons. The seemingly cascading effects of global warming threaten to extinguish human life. Social challenges are expected to increase; they will increasingly pertain to social, economic and political divisions. Australian society, very clearly, is under threat. All of these challenges will need to be met with sustainable policies.

Whilst some issues that threaten sustainability, (like water supplies, marine life, the use of pesticides, environmental pollution, and deforestation), can be controlled internally, many other factors may be impossible to tackle at the national level and could require international cooperation. Australia will need to assume international leadership to push the concept of sustainability in economic, environmental and social activity, especially among nations that are still developing and are unable to take required measures because of underdeveloped governance systems, inadequate institutions and scarce physical and financial resources.

Policy makers will have to address their minds and efforts to the matter of class and race divisions and strive to ensure sustainable policies that aim to grant new liberties to the socially excluded and the out groups, and facilitate their inclusion, without hurting members of the dominant groups. Most issues that concern Australia apply to many other countries as well. The policies to address them have become not just sustainable in approach but also global in applicability. Their spread will increase further with the progressive crumbling of national boundaries.