Stories from our new year: 2016
Stories from our new year: 2018

Stories from our new year: 2017

Chris Overland
Chris Overland - "I entered world that was utterly different"


2 January 2017 - The shock of the new (Chris Overland)

On New Year's Day, I sit before my computer contemplating the fact that it is now some 48 years since I first set foot in Papua New Guinea. It seems a very long time ago that I first walked down the stairs from an Ansett Airlines Boeing 727 and made my way across the shimmering tarmac towards a somewhat dilapidated terminal building at Jackson's Field.

In doing so, I entered a world that was utterly different to anything I had experienced before, in which I would do, hear and see things that were beyond my wildest imaginings. It was as if I had been suddenly transported to a place and time that was not quite of this world.

As I subsequently discovered, I had indeed been catapulted back in time in more ways than one, not least because I was amongst peoples who were the living embodiment of humanity's (mostly) distant past. Because, like most Australians of my age, I was a naive, semi-educated idiot, I naturally failed to truly grasp the full significance of what had occurred until long afterwards.

At the time, I only recall marvelling at the differentness of PNG and, to my shame, feeling a bit superior because I represented "civilisation". Oh, the folly and arrogance of youth! I had only the dimmest insight into what was happening to the people of PNG, who were in the middle of a veritable maelstrom of change and disruption, as their ancient cultures and traditions crashed head long into ideas, knowledge and technologies that were, for them, little short of magical.

Now, I am amazed by the intelligence, resilience, fortitude and adaptability with which the Papua New Guinean people embraced the changes imposed upon them. Their collective decision to go with the changes rather than blindly oppose them are what made it possible for a mere handful of kiaps to exert control over the country.

We ex-kiaps do, I think, fancy ourselves as a special breed and there is some truth in that idea. There has seldom been a stranger collection of adventurers, misfits and restless souls to end up effectively running a country. However, no amount of arduous and, sometimes, truly courageous patrol work could or should have allowed a few hundred of us to govern the lives of millions of people.

I think that the truth is that the people of Papua New Guinea decided to endure us because they judged the actual and potential advantages to be worth the annoyance involved. This is the only way that I can explain how a 19 year old from Murray Bridge could get away with sometimes behaving like a feudal lordling in medieval England without wearing an axe behind the ear.

That said, because we were mostly Australians, we carried with us an instinctive tendency towards egalitarianism. I think that this gave rise to unique form of colonialism that was at once patronising and condescending, yet mostly motivated by genuine concern for Papua New Guineans.

Basically, most kiaps believed that the country had a vibrant future if and when its full potential could be realised. I thought then as I think now, that had PNG been a state of Australia, it would now be the richest state, not to mention the most beautiful by far.

I think that it is very telling that, at no stage, did I or any kiap I knew, consider that Australia "owned" Papua New Guinea. We always knew that we were merely there for the time being, not forever. And so it proved.

Now, 48 years later, it is not just Papua New Guineans who find themselves enmeshed in a veritable maelstrom of change. The whole world seems to struggling to find a new way of being in the face of an onslaught of ideas and technologies that really are magical in some respects, but carry with them profound implications for the future.

If 2016 is any guide, we are not doing very well in adapting to this new world order, with some of us preferring to retreat into a facsimile of an idealised past that never actually existed. As a consequence, some very old and very bad ideas like ethno-centric ultra-nationalism are, like some sort of zombies, clawing their way out the graves into which my parent's generation thought they had consigned them.

Our increasingly complex world is now dominated by the relentless advance of technology, coupled with the huge and disruptive socio-economic changes that are the logical consequence of the triumph of neo-liberal capitalism and globalisation.

Basically, a great deal of wealth has been transferred from the developed world to places like China, India and South East Asia, mostly at the expense of the least knowledgeable and skilled workers in places like the USA, Europe and Australia.

Huge numbers of people in the developing world have been lifted out of poverty by this shift in resources, but it has come at a cost to many others, who have seen their jobs disappear overseas and property markets grotesquely inflated by overseas investors anxious to park their money beyond the reach of their own, much more authoritarian governments.

Our political class seems unable or unwilling to develop policies that can ameliorate the worst effects of this process whilst still allowing necessary socio-economic change to occur in a semi-controlled manner.

Not surprisingly, many increasingly angry and disillusioned people are turning to those who offer clear, simple and entirely wrong solutions to these problems. Donald Trump has demonstrated the power such ideas can exert when the circumstances are right.

Perhaps we should collectively take a leaf out of Papua New Guinea's book and embrace the changes even if we don't much like them and not, whether literally or metaphorically, try to destroy the harbingers of that change.

Like PNG, we can decide to accept those changes that seem to make sense and adapt or jettison those that don't. This seems to me to be a plausible strategy and one that is broadly consistent with human history so far.

Sure, none of this means that we will have a trouble free ride into a distinctly uncertain future, but at least it confers a degree of control over the entire process and may allow us to avoid the worst possible outcomes that necessarily accompany resisting the irresistible.

Right now, I think that the jury is still out on whether humanity, collectively, is smart enough to make the same decision as those Papua New Guineans who so long ago decided to absorb, not fight, the shock of the new.

While the best hopes and expectations of those people have not yet been realised, I think that the wisdom of that collective decision is clearly evident. PNG is an imperfect state but its great potential may yet be realised.  It is merely a question of grasping it.

The same can be said for all of us.

Footnote: The title to this piece is borrowed from ‘The Shock of the New' by Robert Hughes. He was talking about art, not economics, but the title seemed apt - CO


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