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Edition 45

Contents
Essay

Adaptation

EVERY YEAR, IN first semester, my husband teaches a tertiary course called ‘Biological Adaptation to Climate Change’ to third-year science students in Brisbane. Enrolments have roughly tripled in the time he’s been offering the program, and the students learn about things like the components of climate systems, historical climate change, and the evolutionary consequences of climate change. As part of their assessment, they create a website for the general public about one particular species’ known adaptation to a changing climate. They can choose from organisms including the wombat and Antarctic sphagnum moss – although the polar bear, the arctic fox and the wolverine are the most popular by far.

On the whole, they do a nice job with this assignment – their websites are quite elegant and their texts talk easily about redistribution and altered feeding patterns. They mention new inter-species breeding in the case of the polar bears. They flag changes in a species’ vulnerability or endangered status. They tend to choose strong and engaging images – photographs of their particular organism looking proud, looking resilient and hardy (well, not so much the moss). 

It was only after reading through many of these creatures’ stories that something simultaneously obvious and yet revelatory occurred to me: none of these organisms has any choice in the matter of their adaptation. They ‘adapt’ to a changing climate because they have to move further afield to seek their food, or to stay in the temperature zone that particularly suits their being. The body size of some animals has increased; the body size of others has decreased. The times in spring when some plants unfold their leaves or when their flowers bloom; the various phenologies of everything from herbaceous plants to insects and amphibians: these things are already changing. As three biologists from Imperial College, London, wrote in a paper called ‘Adaptation, Plasticity and Extinction in a Changing Climate’: ‘For ectotherms, such as insects and reptiles, thermal adaptation may occur not only through physiological traits governing energy metabolism, but also through behavioural and morphological traits involved in movement between shaded and sunny patches. For many bird species, adaptation to global warming involves adjusting their breeding date so that reproduction coincides with a peak in prey density.’

In The Sixth Extinction (Bloomsbury, 2014), Elizabeth Kolbert’s recent book on the mass extinction event currently underway on our planet – and its anthropogenic origins – she describes a long-running investigation of climate change and the distribution of trees in Peru. Across seventeen single-hectare plots – each with a distinct altitude, which gives it a distinct average annual temperature – Miles Silman, a forest ecologist, has been plotting trees’ responses to a changing climate over more than a decade. As the average annual temperature alters, the trees begin to ‘move’, their seeds finding potentially fertile ground further and further from their original habitat. 

‘At the very least,’ writes Kolbert, ‘Silman’s work suggests [that] global warming will restructure ecological communities. Different groups of trees will respond differently to warming, and so contemporary associations will break down. New ones will form. In this planet-wide restructuring, some species will thrive. Many plants may in fact benefit from high carbon dioxide levels, since it will be easier for them to obtain the carbon dioxide they need for photosynthesis. Others will fall behind and eventually drop out.’1

Kolbert’s account of her visit to this part of the world is lively and engaging, and the rich detail she gives of both Silman’s research and his trees reads like some surreal South American evocation of Shakespeare’s Birnam Wood, literally on the march to Dunsinane. Species by species (and in this biodiversity hot-spot, there are in excess of a thousand different species of tree, some from genera only just identified by Silman and his students), the trees are migrating. They are adapting. On average, they’re moving two and a half metres each year – on average. Some are hardly shifting at all, but others (the speedsters) are sprinting away by as much as thirty metres.

All of which is imperative, unwitting, unconscious – in the sense of being without consciousness (as trees tend to be) – rather than anything considered.

We are the only species that can monitor the impacts of climate change – on species other than ourselves, let alone on ourselves. We are the only species that can quantify and name these things, and climate change itself. We seem to be an effective species in terms of driving it. 

We are also the only species that can tell ourselves it isn’t happening.

Recently, this has been troubling me more and more. It’s probably to do with having a five-year-old son, and wondering about his future. It’s probably to do with the government Australia chose last year and its stance on this issue. It’s probably to do with the extreme mood that my rational and scientific husband plunges into every time he reads a new report on this area – from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the World Bank, CSIRO, and so on. 

What fascinates me, though, is our human capacity for resilience, for innovation – for adaptation, plain and simple. In my world of words, and my husband’s world of science, a capacity for adaptation, for lateral thinking, for ‘nimbleness’, as we call it, has become more and more imperative. We’re geared to consider new places to be in and new things to do, because we both inhabit working worlds with less and less security and dwindling opportunities for tenure. 

We exist in professional landscapes that didn’t exist fifteen years ago, that are still being altered and transformed today, and that are probably all but incomprehensible to our parents’ generation. And to that, we’ve had to adapt. 

We work to generate income, but we work for other reasons as well – we have work we relish, work we’re passionate about, work we feel privileged to be able to do. And if the ways we work are incomparably different to the ways our parents worked, this is not a change of our making but a response to a whole swathe of economic and structural changes, as well as our pursuit of our own interests and creativity. In part, it’s the next step in the long march of human occupations from hunter-gathering, through the first farms to the agricultural revolution and the industrial one and on to this crazily urbanised world that provides the landscape for most of our jobs now. It’s a form of adaptation.

So can we extrapolate this capacity to adapt into other parts of our lives and remind ourselves of how good we are at doing it? What happens if we start to appreciate this skill that we all have, a skill that could surely be deployed against some of the facets of our fragile and fracturing world?

THE ADHERENTS OF denial have always intrigued me. Being married to a biological scientist, I have watched him move – across roughly fifteen years – from a position of relative scientific scepticism to one of deepening gloom. Every February, as his students prepare for the course to begin, he prepares by skimming through the past twelve months’ primary literature in the area, an activity that plunges him into a depression that lasts several weeks. Every February, we have the same conversations about how we thought the world would have come a little further in the passage of the previous year. Every February, we have the same conversations about potential collapse, potential conflict, and the things that humans will do to other humans when they’re ‘up against the wall’, as he puts it. Every February, we wonder what the world itself might be like when our son is our age – right at mid-century, in 2050.

When we started going out, when we started talking about how the world worked and what its future might hold, when we started paying attention to the growing scientific consensus about the anthropogenic causes of a changing climate and the potentially cataclysmic extent of its outcomes – and became part of that consensus ourselves – I had a simple explanation for his frustration with the way the media reported on this story, as if it was split between those for and those against, and as if both sides were equal. ‘Journalism is supposed to represent both sides of a story,’ I said. ‘And science will rarely say there is absolute certainty of anything as a cause or an effect. That sounds like uncertainty to most people. It sounds like there’s an alternative view that needs to be put.’

I held firm (naively, optimistically) that as more and more of the natural world’s systems began to teeter and change – and sometimes fail – the media would present these stories, and everybody would come on board. Changes would be made. Ways of living would be altered. Old carbon-emitting technologies would go offline; lovely new green and sustainable technologies would come online. A cartoon by Joel Pett published in USA Today in December 2009 offset a whiteboard listing everything from energy independence and livable cities to green jobs, renewables and healthy children with someone asking, ‘What if it’s a big hoax and we create a better world for nothing?’ It seemed a complete no-brainer: the process would be managed, rationalism would prevail, and a new and sustainable future would come into being.

And here we are.

‘The trouble with you,’ as my husband says darkly, ‘is you’re too reasonable.’

But that’s only part of the problem. The trouble with me – and the trouble with him – is it’s our job to imagine things. It’s our job to make new things, and tell stories with and about them – sentences in my case; new hypotheses and technologies in his. We’re geared to close our eyes and see something other than what’s in front of us and we’re geared to try to find the way of realising that thing. It’s part of what we each like about what the other does: it’s nifty to have a job that lets you make something novel. We’re geared to deal quite intimately with the unknown. And I wonder if this is another reason it seems so mind-boggling to us that people baulk at considering a future that’s being quite clearly delineated – a world of more extremes, higher sea levels, less biodiversity, depleted oceans, and entirely altered security scenarios, food and otherwise. 

In my supermarket recently there’s been a shortage of eggs – never none, but sometimes few. ‘Unforeseen problems in the industry,’ according to a small sign (due to avian flu at a couple of farms). It’s not hard to imagine food security in terms of those signs, scarcity, appearing on more and more shelves. It’s not hard to imagine not quite so much first-world abundance. By 2050, Australia is expected to be a net importer of wheat – our yield will increase in the next decade or so, but its nutritional value will fall, thanks to rising carbon dioxide levels. According to a recent essay by Troy Sternberg published as part of The Arab Spring and Climate Change (Centre for Climate and Security, 2013), you could trace a fascinating line between drought in China and the resulting global wheat shortages right around the world to protest events in Egypt in the winter of 2010–2011 – not in terms of direct cause and effect, but by acknowledging that ‘the consequences of climate change are stressors that can ignite a volatile mix of underlying causes,’ as the introduction to this volume said. By May 2014, one of America’s leading government-funded military research organisations was linking escalating conflict in both Africa and the Middle East to food and water shortages, while projecting further major disruption as a result of rising sea levels and catastrophic weather events. ‘We are actively integrating climate considerations across the full spectrum of our activities to ensure a ready and resilient force,’ said one Pentagon spokesperson.

Close your eyes: it’s not that hard to imagine.

But humans have a funny relationship with the unknown. Some of us love it – particularly when it’s to do with religion. Some of us love it when it’s to do with sailing over a horizon with no idea what’s on the other side. (‘It’s only fully modern humans who start this thing of venturing out on the ocean where you don’t see land,’ the Swedish evolutionary geneticist Svante Pääbo told Elizabeth Kolbert. ‘Part of this is technology…but there is also, I like to think or say, some madness there.’)

Our migration from rural to urban settings; our mega-cities powered by fossil fuels; the divide in humanity between people who have grown healthier – and larger – in the richest societies while those with limited resources struggle to survive: all this feeds into our planet’s current state. (By the middle of this century, the number of people living in urban settings will have almost doubled from its 2009 tally of 3.4 billion to 6.46 billion – and it was only in 2005 that 6.46 billion people was the population of the entire world.) As Richard Donkin writes in his The History of Work (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), even the arrival of computers and the internet ‘is creating a watershed in the way we work as fundamental as that of the industrial revolution and the agrarian revolution 10,000 years ago’. But if the very nature of work has changed so dramatically, with both positive and negative consequences, the ability to respond to these changes has not been evenly distributed. As in every great transition there are winners – those who can better adapt, perhaps – and losers.

It was the physicist, Thomas Kuhn, who coined a phrase to describe our transition from an old set of approaches or underlying assumptions to a new one: he called it a ‘paradigm shift’. As one Observer journalist described it in marking the fiftieth anniversary of Kuhn’s work, this changed our perception of the movement of science from a ‘steady cumulative “progress” to discontinuities – a set of alternating “normal” and “revolutionary” phases in which communities of specialists in particular fields are plunged into periods of turmoil, uncertainty and angst.’

This makes fascinating reading against surveys on the different public perceptions of climate change and its science. In thinking about the ways our imaginations might begin to accommodate – or adapt to – such a nebulous and vast set of circumstance and information on the science of what’s changing, I found several that suggest that people make decisions based on almost anything other than science itself.

Two 2012 letters to the journal, Nature Climate Change, investigated the mechanics of people’s opinions and perceptions. The first underlined a conflict ‘between different segments of the public whose members are motivated to fit their interpretations of scientific evidence to their competing cultural philosophies’, as opposed to the more usually presumed conflict between scientists and the public. This suggested that simply telling better stories about the science of what’s happening isn’t going to have much impact on these people’s interpretations of what’s going on. The second sought to unpack peoples’ perceptions of how ‘common’ their own view on climate change actually was – whatever it may be. Intriguingly, people felt that their ‘own’ opinion was more common than other people would estimate it to be – while also ‘generally and grossly’ over-estimating doubt among the community at large that climate change was occurring at all. Most importantly, perhaps, this work supported other findings ‘that those with sceptical views towards climate change have less attitudinal certainty about their position…although privately most people think the climate is changing, people of “all” opinions overestimated the prevalence of those rejecting climate change.’ In the parlance of this research, this suggests that ‘pluralistic ignorance’ is in play – which means it’s a situation ‘in which most group members privately reject an opinion but assume incorrectly that most others accept it’. 

‘Media research suggests that the journalistic tradition of giving equal weight to both sides of a story and the influence of big-industry opinion, have led the community to overestimate the number of people who doubt climate change is occurring,’ this letter concluded, ‘and have undermined the scientific consensus surrounding climate change.’

IN 1989, WHEN I began a journalism degree at Charles Sturt University in Bathurst, the University of Queensland (UQ) had just created the country’s first chair in the discipline. Australian journalists had been advocating for their field to be elevated to ‘the status of a profession, with professional ethics and income levels’ since 1917, and they had seen the creation of university courses as a means to this end. It took until 1935 for the first Diploma in Journalism to come into being, with subjects including the history and law of journalism, reporting, proof-reading and paragraph writing – although a Diploma for Journalism had been offered by UQ throughout the 1920s. 

In 1989, there were two courses on offer in New South Wales – the one at CSU (which had only been a ‘U’ for about ten minutes, thanks to John Dawkins’ rearrangement of Australia’s forty-six colleges of advanced education into seventeen spanking new universities), and one at the University of Technology, Sydney (itself only a slightly earlier arrival as a fully fledged university). About thirty of us committed to the world of print media in our classrooms in Bathurst; the number at UTS was slightly more. This combined cohort would have delivered a few dozen graduates ripe and raring to enter Australia’s media workforce three years later, at the beginning of 1992.

I was one of the fortunate ones. Before I’d finished my degree I’d secured a cadetship with The Independent Monthly, a gorgeously-designed tabloid-format creature with long-form words inside it, Max Suich at the helm, and John Birmingham (the recent recipient of its Young Writer Award) sleeping on the office floor and pillaging its biscuits. One of the things the magazine prided itself on was its rates which, in 1992, constituted a generous dollar per word.

At a reunion of my graduating class some twenty years later, I discovered that some of my fellow print-media graduates had never worked in the print media – they’d peeled immediately into corporate communications or PR or other professional spaces altogether. As for the very few of us who still were trying to work in this diminishing field, we were now mainly freelance – and extremely lucky to be paid one dollar per word, if we ever were. We talked about conversations with editors who apologised for the fact that their word rates had to drop – to eighty cents, sixty-five cents, fifty cents per word. We talked about conversations with editors suggesting we might like to write something for free. ‘After all, it’s such splendid exposure.’ 

We couldn’t think of many professions where rates of pay had gone down – although the Seek Salary Survey across 2012–2013 would later note a 6 per cent decline in salaries across mining, resources and energy, even though mining jobs could ‘still command the highest pay packet’. ‘Only jobs in science and construction had a bigger fall, averaging a decline of 8 per cent each,’ The Australian reported.

But beyond our morphing invoices, the twenty-first century had rapidly remade the world of words in its own cyber-linked, split-second image with journalists also called upon to film their own footage and sub their own copy, to tweet and text their way towards the promised new audiences of social media in a way that made the old twenty-four-hour news cycle seem glacial and arcane – eyes peeled for a column to pitch, a course to teach, a next new way to spin income out of words.

At precisely which time, a personable eighteen-year-old I know was in the first weeks of his journalism course at UQ. In 2012, he was one of three-hundred and sixty* first-year students – in one of fourteen institutions offering an undergraduate journalism program.

‘Three-hundred and sixty?’ I remember saying to him. ‘You mean across all the arts’ enrolments at UQ?’

‘No, that’s just in journalism,’ he said. ‘We’re learning how to blog.’

His first year of journalistic training, and that twentieth anniversary of my graduation, was the year Australia’s two flagship print concerns, Fairfax and News Limited, announced almost three thousand redundancies. Between them, according to the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, they’d axed one in seven jobs. Most of the people I knew took hefty payouts and moved quite quickly into alternative employment: some at universities; some with corporations; some contracted to write books; some decided it was time to retire; some joined us in the burgeoning pool of freelancers. 

In the past ten years or so, whole new professions have sprung up, partly to help people adapt to changes such as these. There are recruitment consultants, career counselors, change management experts, organisational psychologists and life coaches. There are websites and books and seminars and online courses. Johns Hopkins University has its own two hundred-page ‘job transition guide’ to help its employees (or ex-employees) move from one job to another one (one section asks anyone transitioning to evaluate what they’re eating, how they’re sleeping, and whether or not they surround themselves with ‘positive, encouraging people’). Sometimes their language sounds like the language of a luxuriously-funded investment portfolio: diversify, rebrand, balance your risks and returns, and ‘take stock of your intrinsic assets.’ 

On bleak days, when the silence in my hotly fought-for room-of-one’s-own is a little too loud and the words that should be pouring forth from somewhere are a little too elusive, I torture myself with how limited a skill set I have. I talk to people about what they do. I make sentences. I make stories. If it’s a day for fiction, I make things up. What else might I possibly do?

Of course work – and who does what where – is always in flux. Celebrating fifty years of its Labour Force Survey in 2011, the Australian Bureau of Statistics reached back to long-gone 1960s workplaces, with their tea ladies and on-the-job smoking, their paucity of part-time or childcare options. Until 1966, women had to leave their commonwealth public service jobs when they got married. ‘In August 1966, nearly half of all employed people in Australia worked in production industries. Fast forward forty-five years and that proportion has halved.’ The most common occupations in 1966 included tradesmen, farmers and fishermen. The most common occupation a half-century later was designated ‘professionals’ – and they accounted for just over a fifth of all workers. As for the graph showing relative blue-collar to white-collar jobs, it suggested a felled X, with a ‘blue’ line diving down towards the horizontal axis while a ‘white’ one soared to the sky.

If the worst comes to the worst, I tell myself as I walk away from whichever unwritten piece has been taunting me and put the kettle on, I could always go and work on the trains. After all, it’s in my blood. 

I’VE ALWAYS BEEN intrigued by the progression and occasional heritability of professions: my mother-in-law can precisely delineate the social progress of her father’s family in northern England from an illiterate plate-layer in Northumberland who could only sign his name with an ‘X’, to a mechanical engineer two generations later who worked out of Ladbroke Grove, made a pile of money doing things for Lord Beaverbrook in WWI and designed one of Britain’s earliest cars, the eponymous ‘Storey’. In the next generation, her own father was a salesman with ‘an endless curiosity for science’. Returning from Changi after the war, his old employer, Pye, was obliged to rehire him – but sending him out to sell things seemed no longer so suitable, nor appealing. Pye had just bought a scientific instrument company, and they gave him the running of it. Off he went and so vastly improved the design of an infrared spectrophotometer that he was presented with a stunning sterling silver replica of the device when he retired and he was awarded an OBE. (These days, the silver sits in our garage, still bearing a little of its Brisbane flood-mud from 2011 – but it’s still a nice sort of artefact to have.) Even better, that same spectrophotometer designer was not only a scientific enthusiast, but also an amateur entomologist. And coincidence or not, it’s arthropods my scientific husband works with – mosquitoes, mainly, at a molecular or genetic level. This doesn’t make for as pretty a collection as the moths his maternal grandfather arranged in specimen drawers – ‘I play with colourless solutions’ is how he undersells his trade – but I like the nods between the two men’s enterprises.

Unless I do pack it in and go and work on the railways, there are fewer obvious correlations between the professions of my forbears and the work I try to do. My paternal grandparents had relatively static working lives – as a railwayman and a railway librarian – but my maternal grandparents were much more about adaptability. They ran a fast-food shop and they took in boarders. My grandfather, who I always imagined as having left Wales to evade this fate, found himself down the mines on the south coast of New South Wales instead. His lungs dusted, he was declared unfit for service in WWII and travelled all over NSW and Queensland in search of alternative work in the following years. My grandmother took on the post round and my grandmother took on secretarial work in solicitors’ offices and doctors’ surgeries and the secretary-ship of the Board of Managers of the local Presbyterian church. 

My grandmother could probably have taken on the world – in fact, her mother was famous in the family for chaining herself to fences as an early suffragette and brandishing her umbrella as she remonstrated with a young Winston Churchill. A feisty heritage indeed. 

But my grandmother was a wonderful letter-writer, I’m told, and the longer I hold to this friable profession of mine, the more often that heritage is invoked to explain its genesis. I do remember her old-fashioned handwriting covering pages of onion-skin airmail paper; I do remember the very thin board of laminated three-ply that she leaned on as she wrote. I suppose, these days, she’d blog.

What I remember more are the worlds she let me invent – in the house she shared with my grandfather, and in their garden and along the beach at Thirroul. When my parents travelled overseas in 1975, I stayed with my grandparents: they were renovating the western side of their house to bring their toilet inside at the time. As I remember it, all construction and plans for plumbing ceased and I was given the room that would ultimately house the loo to remake and remodel over and over – an over-sized cubby for my six weeks’ stay.

My parents were imaginative creatures too: I could tell you that my mum was an artist, and the fact that she was creative and imaginative would make narrative sense of where I ended up. And my dad was a mechanical engineer, who made up as many worlds and stories for me to play in as my mother. But my favorite story about my father at work was when he was driving from a job in Tennant Creek back to Alice Springs in 1986, when Halley’s Comet was nearby. He stopped the car in the middle of that long, straight road in the middle of the night and got out, looking for the flare of the comet’s tail. I can still remember the way he described the size of the sky, of the stars, of the whole universe – the size of it, the darkness, and the silence – laid out for no one but him. Overwhelmed, he got back in the car and drove on. 

He was keen for me to become an engineer for a while, but I think I’d have more likely wanted to be an astronaut on the basis of that story, or perhaps at least an astronomer. Except that, like many people emerging from a basic NSW public high-school education, I suspect, I had no idea what science really was, or how it worked, or that I would have found it fascinating. I pegged myself on the humanities side of the fence, and went off to the low-ranking profession of a journalist – regularly rated right down there with used car salesmen and real estate agents. My father muttered, underwhelmed, about ‘second-rate professions’. But it occurred to no one that it might be a dying one. 

AS THE LABOUR Force Survey makes explicit, there’s always been an ebb and flow to lines of work; they’ve always undergone change through advances in new technology, changes in society, changes in supply and demand and that fabled beast, the market. The advent of cheap and reliable alarm clocks must have finished off the callboys and knockers-up (those lads with fists and sticks who used to rouse sleepers – like train guards – to start their shifts on time). And the introduction of septic tanks and municipal sewage systems (and inside toilets) got rid of an historical line of toshers, gongfermors, and nightpan-men in one fell and sanitary swoop. 

When I thought about those jobs disappearing, I used to wonder if there was a group in charge of dreaming up new jobs for these displaced employees? And I imagined a kind of Employment HQ – a plexiglass dome, like the place where the world’s somnolence is tallied in Dr Seuss’s Sleep Book. I imagined a system of windows that showed different occupations starting and stopping in different places, and a bunch of people busily brainstorming Potential Occupations for the workers whose particular forms of employment were grinding to a halt. Perhaps this was where the idea of chartered accountants had been born, I thought – as opposed to those I imagined as ‘uncharted’, like vast and mysterious oceans. Perhaps this was where the spark for those suddenly rapacious human resources departments had come from, or all the jobs and industries associated with that similarly rapacious inter-web thing that arrived in the nineties and changed everything for everyone. Perhaps this was the true genesis of Australia’s 1971 decision to legislate the new profession of dental hygienists into being. And perhaps this was where the current hunger for ‘change management specialists’ began, whose irresistible-sounding jobs required them to ‘transition individuals, teams and organisations to a desired future state’. 

Couldn’t we all do with one of those?

‘You know they make $125 an hour?’ a friend whispered to me on the phone the other day. ‘I’ve done this sort of thing in every job I’ve ever held, but without the piece of paper, the qualification, I can’t even apply for this stuff…’

A ‘desired future state’: that would be one in which there was enough food and water for everyone in the world. That would be one in which the global ecosystems weren’t in a state of collapse. That would be the one where we managed to cap the amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere at 450ppm – never mind the pipedream of winding it back to 350ppm that NASA climate scientist James Hansen says is as high as we should go. (We passed 350ppm in 1987 – just four years after the phrase ‘climate change’ had come into use. We passed 400ppm in May 2013. The chair of the International Risk Governance Council has predicted we’ll reach 700ppm by the end of this century.) That would maybe even be the one in which writers, and scientists, could realise their fantasies of funding and/or employment. 

Anyone who knows a scientist knows about their ongoing quests for funding, grants and any other reliable source of ‘soft money’ – the pot of money available for funding has increased, but the success rate for grant applications has fallen, and roughly half of all researchers report themselves as not confident they can secure research grants.

But as well as this, researchers are particularly beset by what the ACTU refers to rather gently as ‘insecure jobs’: according to recent statistics from the National Tertiary Education Union, more than four-fifths of research-only academics are employed on limited-term contracts, and nearly a third of all Australian university staff are in a similar situation. Between 1990 and 2005, the number of casuals among university academic staff more than doubled to almost a quarter – the majority of whom ‘seem to resent their position as a disposable section of the workforce’.

A 2011 report on The Australian Academic Profession in Transition spells it out in terms of people’s lives: ‘…the prevalence of casual and short-term contracts has, to some extent, undermined the sustainability of the profession. Job insecurity limits people’s capacity to manage their personal finances, make important life plans and to engage properly with their professions.’

The European University Institute puts it rather blandly: ‘Australian universities do not offer tenure track positions any longer,’ creating what some researchers have termed ‘the post-doctoral treadmill, a long series of short term contracts that do not guarantee professional advancement or lead to substantive appointments’.

This creates an inversion of what any industry might hold as a reasonable career progression. If you’re employed on a three-, four- or five-year contract, then every few years you essentially reapply for your own job. And while you do that with three, four or five years more experience, you also do it being three, four or five years more expensive. You might also, possibly, be busier with the extra stuff your external life has brought along in the meantime – like partners or children; things that might slow your productivity a smidgen, make you leave work at 6 pm, instead of eight or nine, make you not want to work each weekend. At which point, another academic interested in the job – the younger, hungrier one with a less busy life, a cheaper price tag and a more up-to-the-minute knowledge of the latest cutting-edge approaches – might look highly attractive to your institution. This, for many middle-career researchers, is a real, niggling fear.

But short-term contracts also pose problems for younger researchers: if the increase in such positions continues, suggested one 2009 paper on the subject, ‘it is likely that many young researchers will be discouraged from following an academic career’ – an issue it cited as especially critical in relation to science. 

Australia graduates seven thousand PhD students each year, and only one in eight of these actually secures a research job at the end of the process. One line of argument says this means too many PhDs are being graduated; another says that a doctorate also confers skills in project management, analysis and communication that can open up other areas of employment. At last year’s annual Hawke Lecture at the University of South Australia, the Australian Nobel Laureate Elizabeth Blackburn put it into this perspective: when you’ve completed your PhD, she said, ‘you’ve learned resilience and how to deal with failure, because that’s what happens with cutting-edge research. You have to motivate yourself, because your path is not structured. And management consultants love people like this, because they’re so well able to deal with certain things.’ 

So they’re business skills, life skills, in a sense, as much as the ‘trade ticket’ my husband refers to – which is surely a positive and versatile way of looking at so many graduates. It also sounds like they might have just the toolkit to become those change managers the rest of us so desperately need – and earn more than any research scientist, or writer, would ever dream of earning.

And for all that I’d like my ‘desired future state’ to embrace and celebrate that magical notion of tenure and security. I’d also like it to be one in which climate science was not treated like some optional, kooky belief system but was rather recognised as the best means we have of unraveling and quantifying our world, its present, and its future – and the fine and dedicated work of a whole bunch of scientists who really do know what they’re doing. How very strange that a group of people who ‘understand the science’, as Australian Conservation Foundation President Ian Lowe put it recently, should be labeled ‘as warmists, as if we were members of an obscure religious sect.’ In a recent speech, Australia’s chief scientist, Ian Chubb, commented on people who felt they don’t need to ‘kowtow to experts’ on the subject of climate change. (The ‘people’ in question were some journalists.) ‘I would be pretty sure that when their car breaks down none of them would take it to the fishmonger to get it fixed,’ Chubb said, ‘or even to get an opinion.’

It’s one thing for people to struggle to understand the information presented to them by the language and methodologies of science, let alone accepting or reacting to it. But how much harder to be the people who are undertaking this work, dealing day by day with this deluge of data and analysis – even without the suspicions and antagonisms that tracts of the world’s population seem to bear towards them. Elizabeth Kolbert tells the story of a researcher whose work led to the identification of the causes of the hole in the ozone layer, back in the 1980s. How’s it going, his wife asked him one evening. To which he replied: ‘The work’s going well, but it looks like it might be the end of the world.’

THE CONCEPT OF humans’ innate adaptability – particularly in the first-world context of the myriad demands and requirements of modern life – came to me a few years ago as I considered a half-built piece of IKEA furniture, a fairly incomprehensible sheet of instructions, an allen key, and a sense of mounting frustration. How had it come to pass, I wondered, that this was a world where people were required not only to finance the purchase of their furniture (reasonably enough), but also to be able to transport and construct it as well? Would a professional in their thirties (this was some time ago) three decades before have been expected to do such a thing – or would they have popped into Walton’s in Wollongong, indicated the item of their choice, and watched a competent and helpful salesperson organise for its purchase, delivery and installation? Was the expectation of all this DIY – albeit with a borrowed car and a deceptively flimsy metallic right angle (a ‘hex’ key as some call it, aptly) – some great triumph for feminism and self-sufficiency? Or was it, rather, some indication that a great number of those sales and delivery and installation people had been outsourced, at best, or retired, at worst, and that we were all now expected to fend for ourselves? 

I am now my own banker, my own check-out chick, my own airline check-in operator. I am my own travel agent, my own globally connected merchant, my own cook, bottlewasher and laundress. The goods I consume are frequently constructed in far away factories and shipped around the world for me to buy, yet they just as frequently cost a fraction of what they would if they were produced locally. Countless television programs exist to convince me that I can easily renovate a bathroom and make a complicated and exotic dessert and plant a productive vegetable garden – and I can do this while my maintaining the workload that is the lot of the majority of mothers these days (65 per cent of Australian mothers held full- or part-time employment in 2011, representing a 10 per cent increase over the previous decade) and managing to have the occasional erudite and interactive conversation with my husband. Not to mention my son.

Self-sufficiency is an attribute that crops up in many discussions of the resources we will need to survive under the changed climate of our world – self-sufficiency, resilience, resourcefulness, and a funny hairpin back to a community that has to think locally, as well as globally. To read Bill McKibben’s 2010 Eaarth (Black Inc., 2010) was to realise, not just the likelihood of a drastically changed domestic world – in my lifetime, let alone my son’s – it was to realise how few of the survival skills I actually had in hand for the task of navigating its space. I may have grown up watching Richard Briers and Felicity Kendall in The Good Life, but I hadn’t realised it might represent my own future in terms of providing food for my family. Perhaps those lifestyle shows that talk about triple-digging and when to sow will prove humanity’s salvation as much as a global seedbank on the far-off Arctic island of Svalbard. As McKibben wrote, ‘Most of us don’t know how to do very much – in your standard collapse scenario, it’s nice to know how to grow wheat.’

I’m not sure I can see much of a role for novelists in this probably not very brave new world, although storytellers are always useful beasts. But I can’t see how you could do without scientists. As Ian Lowe has also said, ‘Scientific knowledge is not just critical to understanding the problems we face; it is crucial to solving them. Even accepting the limitations of scientific knowledge and the human failings of individual scientists, science still gives us our best chance of a desirable future – just as it has given us a much more desirable present.’ 

I PLAY THIS game with our son when we’re talking sometimes: what would you like to be when you grow up? 

‘Run me through some options,’ he says and I rattle across the professions attached to some of the people he knows – teachers, musicians, architects, dentists, lawyers, scientists, sparkies, nurses. ‘I’d like to be a writer,’ he says mostly, ‘because you get to talk to people and you get to tell stories.’

I think he just says that to be polite. In any case, I’m not sure I’d let him – what with those hundreds of journalism students facing probable unemployment when they emerge from their courses, not to mention the stunning shrinkage of everything to do with books, from publishers’ advances and book sales figures to the number of bookshops still standing. In the wake of the 2014 budget, we’ll have to start saving if he’s planning to go tertiary. My husband’s eight years of education – from a bachelor to doctorate – were free, and he rates it as one of the high points of his life that he got to shake Gough Whitlam’s hand and thank him for that. Without Gough, he says, he would never have gone to university. I emerged from an honours degree with around $7,000 in HECS debt and the righteous outrage of having enrolled in the first post-Gough cohort that had to pay. If our son wanted to be a doctor, say, post-budget estimates suggest his fees would have more than quadrupled, from $24,000 to $120,000 and beyond. 

No, he is destined to be a merchant banker or a sparky, if we’ve got anything to do with it. Or maybe a plumber.

At five, we can make a joke of this. At five, he can want to be an astronaut or a firefighter – or even, if he insists, a writer.  He can want to be anything at all.

‘And science?’ someone asked us. ‘What if he wanted to go into science?’

Well, then there’s everything from publish-or-perish to working hours to Australia’s lack of secure, long-term jobs; from the low success rate of grant applications to the cut-throat competition for the contracts that are available. We’d probably invoke our parental right to try to change his mind – like my dad’s gently-put objections when I enrolled in journalism.

‘He may not thank you for that,’ they said, and it’s true: he’s a curious kid who wants to discover and understand the world. And maybe he could do either of our jobs beyond the wildest dreams we’ve ever had for ourselves, let alone for him. His working landscape will be just so different again.

In 2050, when Hux is my age now, and I am almost eighty, science tells us that the world will be hotter and wilder; wetter when it’s wet and drier when its dry. The G8 will supposedly have halved its greenhouse emissions and the world’s population will have reached 9.6 billion, having increased almost fourfold over a single century. The coastlines will have changed, and the oceans will be very different to how they are now. Temperatures will have risen by 2 to 3 degrees Celsius, delivering between four and five times as many extreme bushfire days to south-eastern Australia and reducing the area of Australia suitable for producing wine by half. There are even predictions that whole bands of the earth, running through dozens of degrees of latitude, will be virtually uninhabitable – it will be too hot and too humid for people to cool their body temperature naturally through perspiring, my husband explains. ‘They’ll literally cook.’ And whichever Australian city you live in, you’ll already have experienced ‘change earlier than the global average’ – in Sydney in 2038, in Brisbane and Perth in 2042, and in Melbourne and Canberra in 2045.

By 2050, according to one astronomer, air pollution will have made all astronomy undertaken from earth impossible. But Beijing can already give you a sense of this: huge screens broadcast an image of the sun rising, since no one can see it through the fug.

To be honest, we might be better off advocating that our son does take up firefighting, or that he makes an early investment in those paper masks that cautious people wear when there’s a flu going round. 

But it’s actually the areas of money and welfare that look set to grow in terms of employment. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics lists thirty-five occupations projected to undergo more than 30 per cent growth in the next decade, these include audiologists, marriage and family therapists, and genetic counselors. At the top of the list of the fastest growing occupations are ‘personal care aides’ and ‘home-help aides’, representing almost a million new jobs, but there will also be jobs for more than two hundred thousand extra auditors, accountants and personal financial advisers. 

‘Go into accounting or healthcare or social assistance,’ Jeff Borland, a labour markets expert from the University of Melbourne suggested in a February 2014 interview. ‘I think it’s a no-brainer that to maintain the current standard of service, there’ll continue to be job growth in healthcare and social assistance.’ 

Presuming, of course, that we wish to maintain ‘the current standard of service’.

THE HISTORY OF humanity is rich with alternative worlds we’ve imagined for ourselves – utopias, dystopias, and everything in between. Whether they involve other planets, other times, other more local places or a leap into whole other universes, Thomas Suddendorf argues that our skill in imagining and envisaging such things is a vital part of what makes us human – winningly, he calls it an ability for ‘mental time travel’. In The Gap: The Science of What Separates Us from Other Animals (Basic Books, 2013), Suddendorf writes: ‘Mental time travel unlocked a new realm of possibilities for our species. We can hatch plans and make decisions that drastically increase our chances of future survival and reproduction. By foreseeing events we can seize opportunities that lie ahead and take steps to avoid approaching disaster. We can imagine the consequences of what we are going to do before we do it – and berate others for not doing the same. We can also mentally revisit past events, reflect on them, and draw new conclusions…mental time travel radically increases our opportunities to be prepared.’

In addition to which, he argues, our capacity for language gives us the means of transmitting these memories and projections to other people. Our capacity for what he calls ‘mind reading’ gives us the ability to imagine the memories and potentials of other people too.

I’m probably simplifying Suddendorf’s thesis, but I think of these three interlinking strands as representing imagination, narrative and empathy. And if I had to pick any three human qualities that gave me hope about our ability to adapt – or our likelihood to have a promising and sustainable future – I’d make this my triumvirate. What each speaks of, however, is a capacity for both recall and malleability, for learning lessons and trying alternatives, for a graph-line of experience that turns skywards – onward and upward – rather than bogging down somewhere in inertia and impossibility.

We’ve always been good at imagining apocalyptic futures. There was George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Nevil Shute’s On the Beach. When I was in high school in the ’80s the scenarios we were asked to imagine were mostly post-nuclear, the curriculum terrifying our over-active imaginations with films like The Day After (1983) and books like Robert C. O’Brien’s Z for Zachariah (1974). 

Now, the scenario is environmental, and we react to reports of vast ice storms and pressure cells in comparison to the 2004 film The Day After Tomorrow. Perhaps by translating these real-world scenarios into homologues of something from Hollywood, we seek to trick ourselves into thinking that they’re just staged fabrications too. After all, some of the scariest fictional spaces I’ve visited have been those just over the cusp of my own horizon: the not-quite-now of a city like the one in Richard Powers’ Generosity (Picador, 2010) was unsettling enough when I read about it two years ago, but its power was amplified exponentially when I recalled it alongside news reports of last winter’s ‘polar vortex’ as it visited North America. It was as if Powers had foretold what was coming. And didn’t those big storm cells look spookily like the made-up ones that Ian Holm gazed at while playing a Scottish scientist freezing to death in The Day After Tomorrow?

In another letter published by Nature Climate Change in 2012, a team of researchers led by the Center for Climate Change Information at George Mason University in the US went hunting for intersections between personal experience and belief in the reality of global warming. Did observable and experienced climate impacts create educative opportunities, they wondered, or did ‘prior belief certainty shape people’s perceptions…through a process of motivated reasoning’? 

What they found was the occurrence of both processes – and, perhaps more intriguingly, ‘that motivated reasoning occurs primarily among people who are already highly engaged in the issue, whereas experiential learning occurs primarily among people who are less engaged in the issue’. This, they noted, was ‘particularly important given that approximately 75 per cent of American adults currently have low levels of engagement.’

So bring on the ferocity of climate change – or, as George Monbiot argues this whole mess of inexorable processes should now be described, ‘climate breakdown’. 

ONE OF THE unexpected advantages of motherhood, I’ve discovered, is all the stuff you get to learn about dinosaurs – their species’ names, their different eras of existence, their weight, their speed, even the size of their feet. As Elizabeth Kolbert has noted, ‘Extinction may be the first scientific idea that kids have to grapple with,’ and that’s certainly true in our house. We have jigsaws, card games, furry dinosaurs, wooden dinosaurs, plastic dinosaurs, dinosaur sticker books, outgrown dino slippers that somehow can’t be handed on and an entire shelf of dino-related literature. What happened to the dinosaurs, you can ask Hux, and he’ll tell you that a big asteroid crashed into Earth and they all died. 

All species tend ultimately to extinction, and it’s true we’ve helped an awful lot along their way – from other earlier hominids to giant auks, Tasmanian tigers and an appalling number of frog species. And even if we manage to adapt to the new extremities and uncertainties of our world, its climate, and all its natural systems, we’re still headed that way ourselves. One of the most elegant descriptions in Kolbert’s elegant book is also one of the hardest to grapple with: ‘A hundred million years from now,’ she writes, ‘all that we consider to be the great works of man – the sculptures and the libraries, the monuments and the museums, the cities and the factories – will be compressed into a layer of sediment not much thicker than a cigarette paper.’ 

That’s some unknown. 

I spend part of my professional life – the novelistic part of it, rather than the journalistic one – making things up. I sit here, with a keyboard or a pen, and I invent things: people, places, scenarios, lives, loves and deaths. I imagine how things might be. I try out different components, different catalysts, different endings (trust me, I do). I put characters into terrible predicaments and I sometimes even put them to death. It’s a funny way to make a living, but it’s a great nod to the power of options and creativity. And we can’t have enough reminders of those.

As for extinction, I know I’m part of a professional species that’s almost there itself: I’m endangered, vulnerable, on whatever red list you like. One Canadian careers website spells it out bluntly. Right at the bottom of the Workopolis list of ‘Ten jobs that won’t exist in ten years’: Print journalist.

I’ll report back from the other side of that extinction.

For all the other labels that I live with – being a mother, being a human, being a left-leaning bleeding-heart atheist, being a person who tries to make sense of the world through its stories, being what I take to mean ‘being Australian’, being beset with a reckless imagination – I hope I’m not quite as close to the back door yet. And I do want to make one more rallying cry for us all to rise up and do that thing we all do – adapt. 

Adapt.

We deal with changing circumstances every day; we deal with people coming and going; we deal with things rearranged, things rescheduled, things ending and beginning. Sometimes we deal with them better than others, but we know how to make a transition.

It feels a bit ironic to mention it, but this government has been particularly keen to remind us all of this in the context of our working and professional lives. When Joe Hockey recently asked the nation to think about working until we were seventy instead of sixty-five, my husband and I laughed. We have a mortgage that reaches into our seventies – unless we win a lottery in the meantime. And we both work in worlds where people notoriously keep working, salaried or not. Writers (unless they’re Philip Roth) tend to retire when they die: the other week I read a piece by the ninety-three year old Roger Angell in The New Yorker. ‘My work,’ he wrote, ‘I’m still working, or sort of. Reading. The collapsing, grossly insistent world. Stuff I get excited about or depressed about all the time.’

It’s hardly better on the scientific side of the fence: even if you can convince a scientist to retire, you can rarely convince them to stop their research. Some of the busiest researchers I’ve ever met include a ‘retired’ botanist (still showing up for work daily at a state Botanic Gardens; still classifying new species and publishing new papers), a ‘retired’ weevil expert (his downstairs rumpus room full of Australian specimens he was trying to classify ahead of his own demise), and a ‘retired’ mosquito biologist (who had transferred his entire working life from a lab to a roller-doored shed in his backyard). I’ve always wanted someone to quantify for me the total output of these ‘honorary’ and ‘adjunct’ academics, and how much they contribute to Australia’s fabled ‘knowledge economy’. They do it, of course, for free.

I wanted to finish this essay with some uplifting idea, some clarion call, and that got me thinking about Joe Hockey’s enthusiasm for a workforce that’s willing to embrace change. (This was before I wished I could stop thinking about Joe Hockey altogether, what with the apparent brutality of the budget, and the slightly disturbing revelation that he’d danced to ‘Best Day of My Life’ just before delivering it.) So I started to trawl his speeches for some rousing words that might be repurposed to this end – it’s probably not ethical, but I was desperate to have some positive words to offer up. And I was delighted to find some. 

It is, perhaps, the worst kind of appropriation (and way beyond cherry-picking) to borrow sentiments from statements that deal with things like workplace laws or the future of the South Australian tourism industry and adapt them for my own narrative ends. But how much more possible would the future feel if we ever heard them uttered in this way? 

I’d feel better if I heard someone talking to me and my fellow Australians about the importance of ‘the tools they need to adapt and grow’, and have something in mind beyond industrial relations. I’d feel better if I heard someone say, simply, ‘as you well know, it is a question of being flexible enough to adapt to change’ – and they were talking about the future of the world.

* This is a combined total of students commencing a range bachelors of journalism and communication.

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From Griffith Review Edition 45: The Way We Work © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review