It hit 42.2 degrees in Canberra during the month I was born in 1968, the year that Time magazine once referred to as “The Year that Changed the World”. I don’t think that had anything to do with me. Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, the space race and the Paris riots were a world away from the sparse suburbia of a fledgling city, as my Mum did the old sweaty heave-ho at the Royal Canberra Hospital.
Canberra hasn’t experienced a hotter day since, but few people were talking about global warming back then. If anything, the concern at the time was cooling. Average temperatures had fallen by about 0.2 degrees over the preceding 30 years, and many scientists believed the trend would continue.
In 1975, Newsweek ran a feature on the coming Ice Age. Fear of a cold climate seemed natural against the political climate of a Cold War, but never really grabbed hold. Perhaps it was eclipsed by the more immediate fear of a nuclear winter.
If 1968 symbolises a time of revolutionary historical shift, to me it also represents as good a year as any to mark the decline of a certain stoical forbearance - alive and well in my labouring mother - that still characterised Australia’s colonial and post-War ambition, and the corresponding rise of a Baby Boomer-led fantasy of endless possibility and Utopian ease. All dreams could be fulfilled, and all wrongs righted: Gough Whitlam was approaching his time, and despite Malcolm Fraser’s fleeting old-world reminder, by the time Bob Hawke swept into office, life was meant to be easy. And temperatures had started to rise again.
On my 21st birthday in 1989, it was a mild 24 degrees in Canberra, but average temperatures had risen since the mid-70s. Still there wasn’t much talk of global warming, outside scientific circles. But if 1968 had changed the world, 1989 positively rewired it. In many ways, the fall of the Berlin Wall was the symbolic end of the 20th century, more significant, if less spectacular, than 9-11, which itself can be traced back to the political readjustments of the great thaw, but that’s another story.
To many, the war had provided (cold) comfort against the unbearable lightness of freedom, as a prison can to the “institutionalised” criminal. But, suddenly, as walls came tumbling down, the possibility of “one world” seemed realisable, globalisation became the buzzword, and right on cue - in a way that would have delighted communications theorist, Raymond Williams - the new global media took off.
Australia hooked up to the Internet in the same year the Wall came down - introduced to the abbreviation “www”, which Douglas Adams noted, took three times longer to say than the words for which it stood. The new medium was taken up faster than any before it, and the global warming scare took off with it, becoming the hot issue of the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro three years later.
It was as if the fear that had been constrained in the Cold War standoff suddenly had to find a new object, and people could only look to the sky.
The medium is the message, and the massage, according to Marshall McLuhan, who also coined the term “Global Village”. To McLuhan, the medium itself has a greater transformative effect on society than its content. In the Internet, the first “global” issue found its perfect medium, and promptly spread like a virus.
“Bad news” travels fast, and now it travels faster and wider than ever before. The volume of information on the web is incomprehensible, yet today every Tom, Dick and me wants to post or blog their views to a potential readership of over one billion users, creating a sense of frantic worldwide chatter, like birds before a storm.
Global warming + global medium = global panic. For what it’s worth, a Google search of “global warming” currently returns about 64 million results. (“Elvis Presley” gets about 4 million.)
It’s a pleasant 29 degrees in Canberra as I write, but John Howard is feeling the heat. Global temperatures haven’t risen since his second year in office, but a lot of people are demanding that he blow the budget on addressing a speculative state of the globe in 50, 100, 200 years time, which would make him a very rare bird in history. I don’t think his heart is in it, but politics is a numbers game, and you can’t ignore the people. Which way does he go?
Forward to 2068, my birthday. With cancer eradicated and an artificial heart that runs better than my old one, I’m a sprightly 100-years-old, retired back to Canberra, and wandering through the National Museum, on the site where the Royal Canberra Hospital once stood. (I get a shiver up my spine as I pass the baby platypodes.) Outside, the temperature is 24? 33? 42? degrees, but inside it is cool. My great-great grandkids are playing with unimaginable technologies, when we come across a quaint exhibition in a back room about the global warming hysteria that swept the world in the early century, as people adjusted to a new geo-political climate and a new global media.
What are the issues of the day? What are our fears? Who knows which years will change the world again?
“It is the business of the future to be dangerous.” - A.N. Whitehead