In her new book, Elizabeth Farrelly offers a warning: little by little, our politics is being debased and our environment degraded. The tipping point is close. Can the home we love survive?
Sydney faces a choice. Early in 2019, for reasons I’ll never fathom, New South Wales re-elected the most destructive of neoliberal governments for a further four-year term: another four years of park-shaving, tree-lopping, fossil-fuel-polluting, sweetness-destroying exploitation. Another four years of role-playing ‘liberalism’ while actually centralising power and handing it to corporate and developer mates.
Already people are moving out. People are finding that other, smaller and less aggressive regional towns are actually rather nice. If Sydney is not very careful, a further four years implementing this arrogant presumption that the rich can continue making the place nastier, barer, harder and more asphalted will come back to bite. Sydney has always been so glamorous, so sexy, that people put up with anything just to be here. But, as its charm diminishes, that will change. People will vote with their feet. I thought perhaps we were already seeing this shift when, through 2019, property prices in the surrounding towns like Newcastle and Wollongong, Mudgee and Wagga Wagga, Orange and even Cowra kept growing even as Sydney’s crashed.
But then came the fires. My phone weather app acquired a new category. Not cloud or rain or sun. Smoke. For weeks the city air was grey. In the country it was thick and brown and acrid for well over a month. A fire season of unprecedented duration and ferocity across much of Australia destroyed towns, burned farms and killed or displaced some three billion animals, generating a full year’s worth of carbon emissions and the most devastating threatened species habitat loss in recorded history.
Then, within moments, a virus was enabled by just such habitat loss to jump the species barrier and send the world into a tailspin. So who can tell how our living patterns might change? Indeed, who can tell whether Australia will even be habitable in a future that right now feels borderline apocalyptic? Even so, it makes sense to start applying just a little more long-term wisdom.
Of Sydney’s two distinct city-making traditions — one about speed and sprawl, the other about people and place — it is the first that still drives (and I use the term advisedly) both state and federal governments. For them, with their predominately private school-educated, suburban-domiciled white male ministers, the city centre is just a cash cow to be milked, exploited and driven through. This is unacceptable. Our city is our home and our planet is our home and this dumb thinking is destroying both.
In Sydney, it plays out like the Seven Deadly Sins of urban planning. The Seven Deadly Sins are: sloth, wrath, gluttony, lust, avarice, envy and pride. Let’s consider each in turn. Sloth, or laziness, drives our government’s refusal to put the necessary effort into properly defining contractual relationship, as in the new Sydney light rail, where ‘undue haste’ meant the needless loss of mature trees and archaeological heritage. We see it too in the stadium redevelopments, and the Powerhouse move, where contracts were let before a business case was even developed, much less published or approved.
In public housing, and in planning generally, such laziness gives far too much control of public amenity to developers, concerned only with private gain. But there’s a more generalised and covert form of sloth, too, in our hell-bent determination to do everything in the easiest possible way. It impels our ubiquitous Australian devotion to what philosopher J.S. Mill called ‘the unearned increment’ — in exploitative mining, agricultural practice and speculative development. It’s also what makes us drive to the shops, or the movies, when with a little effort we could walk. It makes us deploy polluting and noisy leaf-blowers when with a little effort we could sweep. It makes us prioritise our comfort today over our survival tomorrow.
Gluttony is evident everywhere. Gluttony, as defined in the medieval texts, is not just over-eating but dwelling too much in earthly thoughts. We see it in the government’s flogging of our public institutions and assets, and in their pandering to the fossil lobby, but also in our cultural disdain for heritage, where a failure to rise above the mundane, to recognise the critical importance of narrative in our shared lives, has allowed the wanton and repeated destruction of listed heritage. In Parramatta, but also in the ghastly, ultra-shiny proposals for the massive Sydney Bays Precinct, the rich storeyed nature of our city is repeatedly trashed by planning tsars with little imagination and less courage.
Wrath is anger, and it demonstrates throughout our culture in impatience with and violence against that which cannot be directly measured and exploited: the feminine, the beautiful, the old and the natural. The urge to dominance, as epitomised by Australia’s angry white male culture, is fuelled by a desire for revenge on these steadfastly unquantifiable values. Every tree-destruction and motorway project is fuelled by this anger but perhaps its ultimate built instance is WestConnex, controversial from the start for its fossil-fuel belching stupidity, it stomps blindly through our streets and houses, our neighbourhoods and parklands, furthering only speed, efficiency and planetary catastrophe.
Lust drives the habitual prostitution of our public lands and buildings to private corporations. Consider, for example, Barangaroo, pimping out hectares of the last remaining public inner-city waterfront for private profit, or Crown Casino, or the Bays Precinct or the Powerhouse, scandalously destroying a venerable institution so land can be privately redeveloped.
Avarice, or worship of mammon, is of course the market’s sole and guiding principle. No longer a sin, avarice has been rebadged as a virtue. Greed is good. Here we have all examples of active government corruption but also market-mindedness, driving the disgraceful sell-offs of Sydney’s treasured and irreplaceable sandstone buildings for a quick buck, and impelling government to demolish perfectly good and largely under-utilised public assets such as the Allianz stadium for a newer, bigger version that consciously prioritises private commercial interests.
Also in this category, of course, is our own reinvention under market ideology as insatiable bundles of desire. Consume, consume, consume. This governs our behaviours from the endless acquisition of cheap goods to the obesity epidemic to our ongoing suburban sprawl. Get everything you can; eat, grab, gobble. And perhaps, in the short-term, it is good for the economy but, as is now evident, it’s excruciatingly bad for the planet.
Envy may sound like an improbable sin in city planning, but it’s there all right. There’s the misplaced kneejerk reaction of the political classes when anyone points out the injustice of governments giving ear to corporate lobbyists while ignoring the populace. Activists and politicians who argue for housing justice, or that wealthy suburbs like Woollahra, Hunters Hill or Ku-ring-gai should not be specially protected from medium-density development, are accused of stoking the politics of envy. But there’s envy, too, on the part of governments, institutions and universities that self-conceive as corporations. If they’re not ruthlessly profit-focused, they seem to think, they’re not doing it properly. This makes governments almost ashamed of any impulses they might have towards fairness, beauty or decency.
Pride is in some ways our overweening sin. Pride, as an expression of our sad, solipsistic conviction that we as human animals are here to dominate the earth and everything in it, enables us without conscience to destroy century-old trees to save a few contractual weeks and pretend that six-inch seedlings are some sort of substitute.
Neoliberalism, as noted earlier, relies on cultivating us as desire-driven consumers rather than duty-focused citizens. But in the end it can only rebound, allowing us to pretend that the oceans, the forests and the air itself can be polluted again and again and will respond with limitless forgiveness. So we build motorways, knowing that they drive sprawl, destroy farmland and warm the planet. We strive constantly to get more than we deserve and take more than we give. Swollen by this hubris, we act as though our economy is our creation, rather than an entity wholly dependent on ecology.
I’m conscious that any sort of idealism sounds ludicrous in the context of Australian politics. That’s because ours is a country increasingly run by dunderheads and bovver boys. The self- censorship that results is a form of intimidation. It means loving Sydney sometimes feels like an abusive relationship, where your hopes are constantly dashed, but, somehow, your love is such that you keep coming back for more.
A glance at other countries, though, shows that idealism is possible. People everywhere are making genuine strides towards more enlightened cities — which is why the world was so aghast at the Australian government’s complacency towards our 2020 fires. “You have the second highest carbon emissions on earth and you are burying your head in the sand,” said meteorologist Laura Tobin on Britain’s ITV in January 2020. “Australia shows us the road to hell,” headlined the New York Times.
International planners, urbanists and city lovers feel the same about how we treat our lovely cities; shocked by our governments’ naked cronyism and at the complacency that lets them get away with it. Now, as climate protests fill the streets it is impossible not to feel that Sydney — like the country, like the world is at something of a crossroads. We can choose business as usual, notwithstanding all the signs that this is a path to disaster. Or we can shift our thinking, just a little, onto a path of greater empathy, modesty and beauty.
An extract from Killing Sydney by Elizabeth Farrelly (Pan Macmillan Australia). Dr Farrelly holds a PhD in Urbanism from the University of Sydney and is a former associate professor at the University School of Urbanism.