A Hawksbill sea turtle swimming in Lady Elliot Island, Australia. Photograph: Getty Images
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A sea change

I took the wild Australian coast for granted, then I had to learn to fight.

In the 20 years since I first published my memoir Land’s Edge, I’ve stayed close to the water, living and working where desert meets sea in my native Western Australia. The littoral, that peculiar zone of overlap and influx, sustains my spirit and fuels my work. I’m still pulled between the sensual assault of the outdoors and the sedentary life of reflection. To go a day or two without seeing, feeling and smelling the ocean wouldbe as disorientating as being without a book or an hour’s privacy.

When I wrote that modest coastal memoir, I was the father of young children, eager to introduce them to the freedom and the privilege of a life at the water’s edge at the bottom of the world. It was what I knew and took for granted as a boy. Like me, my kids inherited a clean, living ocean. They enjoyed a simple, small-town existence on a wild coastline and I tried to make plain to them what a privilege that was, because it is a luxury to be able to wander free and barefoot on an empty beach, to swim with a sea lion, snorkel in a coral lagoon and catch dinner at the end of an ordinary school day. Those children are adults now. One is a parent.

This summer, I took my granddaughter into the sea for the first time. Her whole body shuddered with the strangeness of it, the surge and light and noise, the spill across her delicate skin. What a thrill it is for a sun-damaged old beachcomber to pass on such a life as a birthright. Yet only a fool could suggest that this little girl’s coastal inheritance is secure.

Sadly the world’s oceans are in peril. Ninety per cent of pelagic fishes and sharks are gone. Human beings are eating themselves out of house and home, consuming as if there was no tomorrow and not even our remote stretch of coast is immune.

Hunting and gathering are in my blood but I’ve lived to witness a diminution in the seas around me; I’ve had to boat and swim further and longer to find fish. In the 1990s, I swam across local reefs without abalone, visited submarine pinnacles without snapper, walked beaches festooned with plastic.

Australian waters had begun to feel the effects of shark-finning, drift nets, oil spills and the voracious incursions of the oil and gas industries. The emerging scientific consensus was that, globally, too many species of fish were either fully exploited or being catastrophically overexploited. You didn’t need to be any sort of boffin to know that something was wrong in our seas; every time you wore a mask and fins, the evidence was there in front of your face – more and more of less and less. It was futile blaming faceless strangers. We were all taking too much. It was time for me to act as if there was a tomorrow, as if my actions bore consequences, so I changed my ways, looking more and taking less.

Yet the fragile coast was in more trouble than the restraint of a single middle-aged man could remedy. The oceanic dead zones of Europe and Asia, the plastic gyres of the Pacific, began to haunt me. Unless whole cultures changed, these horrors would be universal; this would be our legacy. This is how I became an activist. To the battle-scarred Birkenstockers of the environmentalist movement, I was a redneck. After all, everything I knew about the sea I had learned with a spear in my hand. The actual rednecks who were my neighbours thought I’d lost my mind. If to change your mind is to lose it, perhaps they were right.

A decade after I first swam with whale sharks at Ningaloo, developers were lobbying to build a marina resort there. Australia’s longest fringing coral reef, it hugs the shore along the red desert for 200 miles. You can swim with a manta ray as a kangaroo cools its heels at the water’s edge a few yards away. There is no place in the world quite like it. Sustainable ecotourism was just finding its feet in the region, thanks to the regular presence of the enormous, gentle whale sharks. From the world over, visitors were coming to Ningaloo, not to take but to look. Dredging and blasting this habitat would have been a disaster but the resort’s backers saw golf courses in the desert, speedboats, cocktails by the pool, a sort of Costa del Sol where whale sharks were an optional extra.

As hard as it is to believe now, their plan had great support in parliament and many boosters in the media. Western Australia is a frontier state, riding boom after boom. Development is regarded as virtuous, almost messianic. To express any reservation about unfettered “pro - gress” is to declare oneself a heathen, a citizen of insufficient revolutionary zeal. With the government and media in thrall to big business, the odds of halting or even modifying a proposal such as the one at Ningaloo were remote.

Those of us who fought the defining struggle to save Ningaloo Reef didn’t expect to win but those ranges and corals were too precious to surrender without a struggle. Naively, I assumed my role would be discreet – as a supporter behind the scenes – but I was wrong.

In middle age, a privacy freak with no experience of either advocacy or politics, I was compelled to acquire a thick skin and a fresh suite of skills. I write novels for a living. In all my working life, I hadn’t collaborated with a soul; I’d never been part of a team or shared an office. I’d never submitted to any sort of discipline but my own, yet here I was, all of a sudden, pressed into service as the most visible member of a motley team made up of citizens of every age and class and political view. With little more than raw passion and a fax machine, we were trying to stop a juggernaut. Every week, there were more of us. We told our story the best we could and in time the campaign gained momentum. Once the reef caught people’s imagination, the tide turned.

For two years, I more or less gave up being a writer. I wrote only press releases, begging letters, strategic notes. I helped plan actions and stunts, met politicians and scientists, made speeches at town halls and too often found myself in front of TV cameras. I took film stars swimming with manta rays, tried to introduce the local rich to the novelty of philanthropy and posed like a prat for hundreds of photos. I made many friends and a few significant enemies.

I resented the lost time, the lazy journalists, the somnolent MPs, the silly theatre of it all, but I think of that period as a late-life education in civics. What it taught me was not always uplifting. To gain any sort of media attention, a social or environmental issue requires a circus, a celebrity or an act of violence.

We tried only the first two. And, yes, money does talk. However, once you get direct access to ordinary citizens, you discover that the victory of selfish consumerism is not yet complete. Despite the numbness and nihilism in our culture, there is still an instinct for justice and proportion, self-restraint and an abiding sense of the common good. I’m no utopian but I found that, deep down, human beings love the world that sustains them. Given honest information and a bit of respect, they will act to defend it, even for the sake of unborn strangers.

Somehow, we prevailed. In saving the reef, we rewrote the laws for coastal development. In 2011, Ningaloo was added to the World Heritage register.

Since the campaign, I have tried to return to the reclusive life I enjoyed before, but one contest seems to lead to another and I find myself enmeshed as a reluctant advocate for the marine environment. It’s a grind at times but it’s heartening to be part of a genuine sea change. This year, Australia is poised to declare a chain of marine sanctuaries from the Southern Ocean to the Coral Sea. The initiative has its detractors and scaremongers in parliament and the press but the idea has broad public support. The mood has shifted; folks have moved on.

Now and then, it’s worth being reminded of just how far a culture can shift within a generation. I think of a hole I once swam in near the Montebello Islands, to the north of Ningaloo. It’s a crater, about 1,000 feet across, left by a British atomic bomb in 1952. A strange place for a snorkel, I admit it. Not much to see down there but glassy sand and weird, white worms. Only a few years before I was born, it seemed necessary to blow islands from the sea and irradiate entire ecosystems. Apparently, the future depended on it. Today, those islands are registered sanctuaries for dugongs, whales and rare marsupials; its birds and corals are protected by law.

The shift of mindset required to achieve this was immense and sobering. It seems odd to say that a swim in a once-radioactive hole can be restorative, but when change feels too slow and the losses mount up week by week, I recall that eerie hole and how far we’ve come since it was gouged into the sea.

Tim Winton’s most recent work is the play “Signs of Life” which premiered in 2012

This article first appeared in the 07 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, 2013: the year the cuts finally bite

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No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain