Waking from the dream

Fire in the heavens, and fire along the hills,
and fire made solid in the flinty stone,
thick-mass'd or scatter'd pebble, fire that fills
the breathless hour that lives in fire alone ...

– Christopher Brennan, Poems 1913


IT'S BEEN A bad couple of decades for dreamers. So many collective dreams shattered into ugly shards. The devastation was democratic. Almost 
every political and social constituency suffered the agonies of disillusion. The mass dream of home ownership has been broken apart by property markets left wild and directionless by policy neglect.  The Baby Boomer surge in housing wealth is a feast of the elders, leaving the following generations to the wolves of insecurity and penury.  The neo-liberal dream of the boundless economy (‘Go for Growth') is drowning in frightful waves of ecological feedback and, even worse, popular doubt. In Australia, the rise of neo-liberalism and the collapse of the previously settled order moved Paul Kelly to declare the ‘end of certainty' in 1992. Not exactly the end of history, but not far off. The compact that had restrained class conflict in the twentieth century was a system that emphasised political certainty over ambiguity and contest, at the cost of flexibility. The deliberate dismantling of this by successive federal governments from the 1970s unleashed market forces on previously shielded areas in the public sector and domestic life. Market settings were the new ‘fundamentals' upon which economic and social endeavour was to be based.

But that was then and this is now. Decades after its rise to ascendancy, neo-liberalism is revealing its inadequacy. The relentlessly rationalising and simplifying logic of the market is increasingly at odds with the great plurality of values and lifestyles that replaced social conformism: the drive to laissez faire fundamentals has passed cultural change, going in the other direction. Economists and political simplifiers sense growing irrelevance in public conversations enriched and complicated by social change. They have less to say about the new social concerns: collapsing eco-systems and environmental degradation; cultural enrichment and tension; new wealth and work-life balance; religious decline and spiritual yearning; probity in politics; morality in public life; the cult of pleasure; the epidemic of sadness, and so forth.

None of this can be dismissed as peripheral or less important than the bottom line. The age of the individual is being quietly supplanted by a re-emerging collectivism.

If dreams project our hopes (and fears), does this fracturing endanger hope? If so, who can carry on? As our feudal forebears knew, ‘without hope our hearts would break', but Australians have not put much faith in hope since nineteenth century settlers considered it ‘vanity'. Perhaps they were right, and the audacity of hope that has inspired Barack Obama's campaign is just rhetorical delusion. As Kafka observed in another era of fallen dreams: ‘Oh yes, there is hope – infinite hope. But not for us.'

I suspect that what we witness and feel as a collective turmoil of disillusion is the reawakening of arguments thought resolved, not the wholesale annihilation of dreams. It may be the age-old struggle between individual and collective ambitions, between us and Nature. It is sharpened by the constant intrusion of new ‘realities' – climate change, water shortages, petrol price inflation, overcrowding, unaffordable housing to name a few – but remains nonetheless a long-run contest of some surprisingly old propositions.

Homes for (war) heroes, later homes for all, but now new shortages and stresses have produced the growth in Australia of homelessness and a growing inter-generational divide in housing chances. Not everyone thought the dream of mass home ownership was sensible, but for years it worked for many people, with a large dollop of public investment in the infrastructure and regulations that made it possible. An old debate is re-emerging. In 1983, Jim Kemeny described the relentless pursuit of home ownership as The Great Australian Nightmare, an ideological delusion that locked us into house price inflation and limited real housing choice. Kemeny might have had a point, and he wasn't the first to make it. In many countries, there has long been deep scepticism about the value and the practicality of universal home ownership. Some dreamed of mass social housing, with money diverted away from the real estate and home finance industries into social projects. The new calls for a revival of social housing for the increasing numbers of Australians unable to mount the mortgage treadmill, draw on this tradition. They do so in new ways, recognising that some of the national wealth diverted into the private realm during the boom will have to be lured back to social housing through tax incentives that guarantee returns to investors in new public and community stock.

An economy of growth and endless expanding abundance eventually reaches its limits, and now the entire material system is threatened with natural default. An old contest is re-emerging between ‘Promethean' and ‘bounded' views of Nature. In 1883, Frederick Engels warned: ‘Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over Nature. For each such victory Nature takes its revenge on us.' Climate change, you'd have to say, is a pretty spectacular form of revenge. The old criticism of economic growth which neo-liberals declared heresy seems to have the angels on its side.

So it's not the end of history, the death notice for thought signed by the ‘neo-cons', but the rude intrusion of unruly Nature into contests that seemed to be closing off. Just as one dream seems to have vanquished its competitors, and history seems poised to hang up its hat, these new intrusions reinstate a new contest of ideas. Both Labor and the Coalition appear shocked and awed by the calamities pressing down on dreams of peace and security: global terrorism, climate change, housing affordability, water shortages and sclerotic cities. As Steve Dovers from the Australian National University put it recently, after two centuries we still seem to be struggling to settle Australia. We haven't resolved the first vexing questions presented to us by a unique continent – the original owners, the fragile land, the scarce resources, the capricious climate, remoteness and the insecurities this generates. These first challenges to the settlement project just keep coming back, some of them in ever more frightening forms.

Inevitably, some dreams fall away. Not even rude Nature can reawaken them: a bunyip aristocracy for Australia; a green interior watered by dammed and redirected rivers; a nation of hardy bush folk rejecting the ruinous urbanism of the old world. The noisy nineteenth century argument between the city and the bush gave way in the twentieth century to a quieter kind of compromise – a continued fascination with the bush myth in cinema and literature and a long sleepy disavowal of our deeply urban nature.


AUSTRALIANS ARE IN two minds Many of us celebrate the economic boom that has generated new levels of prosperity, and pushed unemployment and want to the margins of consciousness. And yet growing numbers of Australians are increasingly disturbed by two comets that seem to be streaking across and spoiling the bright skies of prosperity – climate change and oil scarcity. One fiery trail reports a climate cooked and despoiled by human greed. The other marks the disappearing trail of a vital resource, the energy that propelled us to greatness, and yet ultimately became our downfall. Both entwine menacingly above us: one glowering with rising strength, the other fading and failing away.

The heavens aroused and inflamed are an awful force. Their anger shakes the groundwork of everyday life: the jobs, the holidays, the hobbies that fill our days. The very earth upon which we stand seems to be moving under our feet; things – solid things – around us seem to be swaying. The wonderful climate – the envy of the world – seems to be turning on us. Terra Australis is becoming Terror Australis, a blast furnace of drought, heat and capricious tempests. The nation is gripped by concern about scarcity. Not of good domestic help, Chilean wine or smart European ovens. It's water, the fundamental means of existence, that we are running out of. In April 2007, then Prime Minister John Howard intoned gravely that the nation's food bowl, the Murray-Darling Basin, might soon fail. There was talk of the need to import food. Even in cities, traditionally immune to drought, years of prolonged water shortage showed in the greying, lifeless gardens of suburbia, where there lurked a quiet, deepening gloom about the deaths of things once cherished and nurtured.

Meanwhile oil, the lifeblood of our economy and everyday lives, seems to be slipping away. It's harder, more expensive, to keep a grip on lifestyles based on cheap petrol and unrestrained mobility. ‘Pain at the pump' is another little unfolding agony in everyday life. Daily we hear more about ‘peak oil': a looming moment when the world's oil reserves will start to decline. The idea has been about for a while, but has been dismissed by governments and industry as the baseless rantings of survivalists, doomsayers and eccentric dons. Not so anymore. Both the Australian Senate and the United States Auditor-General have recently warned that the peak is real and imminent. No matter when it occurs, explosive global demand and geopolitical instability mean that the golden age of oil abundance is behind us. Chevron admits that ‘the age of easy oil is over'. In January 2008, Shell chief executive Jeroen van der Veer predicted a global fuel crisis in just seven years.

Since the first fire in a cave, access to energy has defined human existence. We learned to be pretty careful conservers of the stocks we had. But Promethean modernity put an end to that quaint practice: more fossil fuels could always be found, and technology could transform them. Peak oil is shattering the perpetual motion dream of the carbon economy. For most of us, the oil default is sudden, unexpected and deeply inconvenient.  The busy free-ranging lives celebrated – indeed mandated – by neo-liberalism are threatened. Aspiration is turning to desperation.  In early 2007, a survey of more than five thousand Australian families identified rising petrol prices as the main source of financial concern.

Sometimes passing through and surviving one (modest) crisis engenders not a sharpened wariness but its opposite, a heightened sense of invulnerability. So it seems with the 1970s oil shocks, which by the 1990s had passed comfortably into memories, adding evidence to the theory that market societies were indeed the ‘end of history', our highest and most invulnerable social form. This explains why the unexpected return of oil scarcity seems so deeply unsettling, cracking open a cemented faith in our invincibility. All the more unnerving is the mounting evidence that coal, our other great – if these days unseen – energy source, is fuelling climate change. Most of us are guiltily aware that Australia is a global ‘filthy man', stoking the global carbon economy with cheap, dirty coal. Dashed inconvenient that exporting it doesn't distance us from the problem, or ultimately from blame.

These shocks and shifts are disturbing, with rising electrical force, the pol­itical climate of Australia. And now, somehow, politics – that unpredictable hand of change – has passed the microphone to the climate change warriors, and the news is grim. Not surprising, then, is evidence of a deeper sense of unease in the social consciousness; the substrate of politics. A new social sensibility is evident, rising awareness of our exposure to sudden, even wild, changes in the basic forces that industrial capitalism had considered vanquished, pacified and shackled to the wheel of progress.

This is where the two minds situation kicks in, problematically for most of us. It is why our heads hurt. We are intimately aware of, and buoyed along by, the economic wave that has carried most (but not all) of us to material prosperity: the jobs, the toys and the travel opportunities. We know at the personal scale how to manipulate our own role in the larger miracle economy for personal gain. But most of us have no immediate connection to the big forces at play in environmental change, and thus little sense of how to comprehend and intervene in these processes. The consequences of the environmental and resource crises are manifesting in our daily lives: rocketing petrol bills, dead lawns, tedious water restrictions, and heat – damned unseasonable, wearing heat. But the same sense of autonomy and power that many of us feel at work isn't available in these increasingly pressing circumstances. The feeling of frustrated disconnection, of impotency in the face of threat, seems to well and grow.

IN THIS MOST urban of nations, it is not surprising that cities, and our urban way of life, have been the subject of increasingly critical commentary. For the past few decades, environmental criticism of urban growth patterns has formed the nucleus of a small but growing public debate about the cities. This criticism has correctly implicated cities in the sustainability crisis. It's all very well to wring our hands about the scarifying effects of mining and farming, but it is cities with their voracious consumption habits that create the need for resource extraction in the first place. And yes, it's in cities where the world – and especially Australia – must confront and account for the problem of environmental bankruptcy.

When the Howard government in 1990 extracted a sweet deal from the Kyoto Treaty that it did not sign, by having reductions in land clearing included in the calculations of net carbon emissions, the states were left with the political dirty work of reining it in. Farmers were unhappy. They had some cause for complaint with the cities and the ‘growth machine economy' that drives them these days. As the Climate Institute pointed out in 2006: ‘Australia's farmers have been responsible for virtually the entire share of the nation's greenhouse reductions ... Over the same period, emissions from energy and transport have and continue to skyrocket. For example, total energy sector emissions are projected to be 45 per cent above 1990 levels by 2010.'

Let's not pretend that this scenario sanctifies the farming sector, much of which continues to ignore or defy the sustainability threat, but it's clear that the urban economic system has been left largely off the hook of climate change response. ‘Urban greens' are regularly criticised for pushing the sustainability burden on to farmers. And yet the sustainability critique of cities in Australia has gained traction in certain policy domains – such as urban planning – and exerts an increasing influence on public debates. A number of critical ‘truths' have been established, notably – and to date most powerfully – the proposition that Australia's traditionally ‘sprawling' model of urban development must be supplanted by a new approach based upon compaction and higher density living.

There are problems with the politics and debates that have driven this urban criticism. First, it hasn't produced much effective change to the deeply unsustainable nature of the Australian urban system. Second, it has been informed by a ludicrously elitist view of the Australian urban experience that has constructed suburbs and suburbanisation as the root of the sustainability crisis. This view, strongly entrenched in green, and increasingly mainstream, urban criticism flies in the face of mounting scientific evidence which points to the consumptive neo-liberal lifestyle not the nature of one's dwelling as the root of our environmental woes.

The image of mindless suburban consumption is misleading. New Australian research supported by the Australian Conservation Foundation shows that rich, inner-urban areas consume more of Nature than does suburbia. There is plenty of evidence that suburban Australians are much less sanguine about their lifestyles and increasingly worried about how their homes and neighbourhoods will cope with water shortages, congestion and wild weather. The remarkable fall in Brisbane's per capita water consumption in recent years is a largely unheralded achievement of suburban households.

The green (sub)urban critique is also a polarising view that has marginalised the majority of Australians, who live in suburbs, from urban environmental discussion. As the Australian urban scholar Aidan Davison observes, suburban Australia has been relatively immune to, and uncaring about, the elitist critique, not even willing to upbraid its lovechild for its betrayal – remember, environmentalism was originally a suburban movement. Of more concern is the increasing policy reach of the anti-suburban agenda, and its implications for equity and sustainability. If the suburbs are unfairly held to be responsible for climate change and resource scarcity, a great injustice is possible. Suburbia may be ‘punished' for its environmental ‘misbehaviour' and denied the public investment that it desperately needs to meet the new vulnerability threats, especially rising oil prices. This is a deeply unfair prospect – letting the inner cities off the hook, when arguably they contribute the lion's share of urban environmental stress, and denying suburbs the investment they need, especially in public transport, after decades of major public spending on inner city infrastructure.

There are other, more technical, problems with the green urban critique that need to be acknowledged. First, even if packing everyone in closer together through urban consolidation significantly reduces energy consumption (and it probably doesn't), the time scales involved are well beyond those needed to address climate change. The scientific consensus is that we must radically reduce greenhouse emissions within the next decade. Cities are hard to reshape. The ‘built environment' is a heavy, fixed thing that is slow and expensive to change. The ‘fire in the heavens' won't be doused in time by the decades it would take to push (yes, push) most urban Australians into higher density living. More urgent responses are needed, including – most inconveniently – an immediate reduction in energy use by those already in high-density environments.

THE IDEA THAT Australia is in two minds about the economic party and its uninvited guests is really a suburban conception. Most of us live in suburbs, in cities, towns or sea– and tree-change areas, and it's here that pollsters are registering the sudden seismic shift in sentiment that redefined politics in 2007, the upsurge of concern (and anger) about climate change. From this perspective, our urban environmental debates and responses seem appallingly inadequate. By blaming and marginalising the suburbs, they worsen the inability of many Australians to connect the environmental crisis with their everyday lives. It's in the nature of things that people tend to dismiss criticisms that seem both unsympathetic to and ignorant about the basic life choices they have exercised. The anti-suburban critique produces not lengthening queues for confessionals but a widening disconnection between the suburban consciousness and organised environmental debate and action. This impoverishes both sides of the urban equation and explains much of the malaise of urban politics in Australia today. Mark Latham had it (half) right when he spoke of a political culture rent by divisions between inner city ‘insiders' and suburban ‘outsiders'. His initial mistake – a position recanted in his infamous diaries – was to pour scorn on the insiders and beatify the suburban outsiders.

This is the rub. The entire urban body is implicated in the sustainability crisis; all elements are part of the problem, if not equally to blame. The misguided and self-defeating anti-suburbanism which characterises much of the environmental critique is mirrored in the equally harebrained arguments of certain self-appointed defenders of suburbia. Suburbia may not be the consumptive bogey imagined by green critique, but it is nonetheless deeply implicated in the sustainability crisis that our cities have helped to engender. And, as with ‘inner city living', the idea and the reality of suburbia represent a moving historical feast. Contemporary suburban lifestyles are vastly less sustainable than their predecessors. There is a truth to the ‘McMansion' critique, although the revulsion from sections of the green design fraternity seems motivated more by aesthetic complaint than environmental criticism. The compelling view is that, while suburbs may not be the authors of doom, they are not immune from environmental (and social) critique. The suburbs – like everywhere – have to change if we are to meet and defeat the crisis and become resilient.

The suburbs aren't dormitories, but increasingly rich employment, retail and recreation worlds. So the response to environmental threat must change complex suburban lifestyles, and the diverse environments in which they occur, to reduce their environmental and resource claims on non-urban Australia. The idea of a much more ‘environmentally contained' suburbia seems obvious. The environmental renovation must occur both in our established (especially ageing) suburbs and in any new areas we develop.

There are new reasons why we cannot continue with suburbanisation as we have in the past. Most of our extensive metropolitan regions no longer have the ‘green fields' that previously hosted suburban development. The city edges are pushing out now into ‘brown field' lands, well beyond the coast and its well-watered temperate climes. New suburban development in these peri-urban areas will be difficult, expensive, and in many areas simply not worth it. The edges are now pushing up against urban water catchments and regions that provide critical ‘environmental services' to city populations (recreation, scenic amenity, biodiversity, and so on). The suburban model may not be the author of our troubles, but it is nonetheless running out of steam in most of our metropolitan regions. And while there's still some – indeed considerable – land banked and appropriate for future suburban expansion, there is a clear environmental case for breaking with the recent mega-home development model. Providing sustainable and secure shelter for all should be the ideal. There was a long time when suburban expansion was the best means to do this for the many, if not all. This is simply no longer the case. There remains limited potential for further suburban growth around our major cities, but it must be done differently, with sustainability and security overriding objects.

The fire in the heavens looms over us all. We urbanites ignited it and have stoked its flames for nearly two centuries. It is the cities, therefore – and yes, the world's rich ‘developed' cities – which bear principal responsibility for the conflagration that threatens. Australia is a nation of cities that bears a special duty to address climate change and the related problem of depleted resources – especially oil and water. The cities need to swiftly and massively reduce their ecological footprints and remove their heels from the throat of Nature. This does not mean consuming the same amount, just more cleverly and more efficiently, as some experts claim. The time has run out for technological fixes and market adjustments that will somehow preserve the growth machine economy. The best science tells us that we have very few years in which to make radical adjustments to our ecological demands if we are to prevent the worst possible effects of climate change and resource depletion. The great urban commentator Hugh Stretton likens the sustainability crisis to a time of war. Here the only path to salvation lies in a swift, centrally coordinated response to a massive threat, including resource rationing and the outlawing of some forms of consumption. Cities will have to be rationed and learn in time to ration themselves.

The wealthiest urbanites carry a heavy obligation that they seem as yet unwilling to acknowledge, let alone act upon, to massively reduce material consumption. Some of them reside in the middle and outer suburbs, but many do not. Our urban environmental debates have obscured the fact that it is the brute and wholesale consumption of goods and services, not just petrol, gas or electricity, that has denuded and inflamed Nature. In this sense, cities have been the stages for an epic consumption carnival, where the richly costumed burghers have played the biggest part in the drama that followed. And there have, of course, been many ‘spectres at the feast' – the losers in the great global economic game.

None of this is as simple as it sounds because those with the highest consumption also have the most to lose. Power is inevitably at play in situations where a whole social form – a city – is threatened collectively by its own behaviour, but especially by the actions of some. This is why strong, centrally coordinated action is required to ensure both that urban consumption is rapidly reined in, and that this occurs in the fairest and most efficient way possible.

It is time to move beyond the ‘urban good, suburban bad' (or vice versa) polarity that has created a wounding, enervating gulf in Australia's urban debates. It is an abyss of miscomprehension and conflict that has consumed our energy and prevented reaching a much-needed consensus on how to meet the sustainability threat. The main alternative argument offered here is that sketched above: that the doorway to sustainability is closing rapidly and the only valid pathway through it, in the time we have left, involves a radical and immediate cut in resource use across the urban spectrum, but most especially by high-consumption groups. If households consume less, especially wasteful and harmful commodities, then industry and business will have to adjust, hopefully putting more effort into the production of durable, high-quality goods and services.

As Hugh Stretton points out, the ‘wartime' character of the times we are entering necessitates strong emphasis on the values of social solidarity and fairness. In short, we'll have to pull together to get through this. It's the old story: if parts of the herd make a break for themselves, we'll all be picked off – including the bolters. This requires a clear sense of common purpose, and transparent fairness in the allocation of burdens and tasks that will arise in the struggle to win through the sustainability threat. Our urban debates to date have not been founded in a realistic or fair appreciation of who and what is contributing most to environmental overload. The suburban blame game is the biggest instance of this failing.

But what of social solidarity: the sense of common purpose and resolve that we'll need? This, of course, won't occur unless we develop the equitable view of the problem that I'm urging and create a new dream. The ‘urban-suburban' polarity is a pointless obstacle and needs to be replaced by a cohesive view of urban environmental responsibility. But beyond this we'll require social structures that nurture and maintain social solidarity. We already possess this in the public realm, the civic community that transcends divisions based on class, gender, ethnicity and the like. Sadly, we've let this vital life-force of democracy sink to a low ebb, especially in our cities where most of these movements first found support, at the very time when it will be most needed to ensure that the sustainability threat is addressed on democratic not autocratic terms.

There are voices of despair, or at least resignation, which claim that the fight is over before it begins in earnest. Global warming cannot be contained, finite resources cannot be substituted – the smoking ruin scenario is inevitable, they say. That spirit denies the hope that is essential to the best of the human condition. It assumes that those who set fire to the heavens cannot undo their handiwork and rebuild a relationship with Nature on respectful, sustainable terms. On the contrary, as with all great human problems, the answer lies in changing human behaviour, not relying on the feverous search for technological fixes (including urban compaction). This simple premise is for many – especially the captains of the neo-liberal growth machine – inconvenient and unlovely. We have to consume less – much less – and very quickly, if we are to avoid the immolation that threatens. The cities might be the source of the problem, but they're also where its solution is to be found.

AUSTRALIA'S NEW SOCIAL pluralism has been most obvious in the cities, but is seeping steadily into rural and regional Australia, as struggling communities open their hearts and homes to refugees, greenies and sea– and tree-changers. The cities, where most of us have long lived, were expanded and transformed by post-war immigration and gave birth to social movements including environmentalism. They were also home to the debris of neo-liberal economics – a reserve army of redundant labour cashiered on the disability support pension, homeless people living in absolute poverty and mouldering worlds of exclusion in peri-urban backblocks and ageing middle-ring suburbs.

Much was made of Howard's age as a cause of his defeat. I'm not convinced. Yes, he looked like Captain Mainwaring in the Mersey Hospital rescue and Janette, as Mungo caddishly points out, does remind one of Hyacinth from Keeping up Appearances. But I don't think age was central. It was surely how out of touch, to use that clichéd but necessary term, Howard's agenda was to a pluralised society increasingly united by concern about climate change.

The debate about market globalisation is reopening, and with it the debates about the cities which lie at its heart. The prophets promised a world economy of growth and endless expanding abundance, provided we stuck ruthlessly to the market fundamentals. And world leaders have hardly disappointed them in recent decades; the ‘Washington consensus' was the starting point of national politics in countless nations. Growth rates were ramped up, restrictions and doubts swept aside, fields and forests opened to plunder.

Now the entire material system seems threatened with natural default. An old contest is on display. In the red corner are those certain that human ingenuity will prevail over all natural obstacles; in the green corner, those convinced we must proceed with doubt and care. German sociologist Ulrich Beck reminds us that the move from magical to modern thought was based on two guiding values: reason and doubt. In dubito ergo sum, to complete Descartes. Beck describes how the rise of Prometheanism in early industrial capitalism corrupted the Enlightenment project, producing ‘excessive rationalisation' in society and politics. We know it today in the fragile dreams that yearn for hope but which deny its vital twin, doubt. The great migration of humanity from rural to urban settings that was once regarded as the harbinger of development and democracy is increasingly coupled with global ecological collapse. From the destruction of habitats for urban development to the insatiable need for materials for urban living and the shattered connection between production and consumption, the shift to cities is happening without restraint. It is certainly not being managed in the interests of an increasingly intemperate Nature. In less than a century, we have become an urban species, Homo urbanis. From Nature's perspective, Homo diabolos might be more apposite. More than half of humanity now lives in large urban settings. In Australia, just about everyone does.

This has happened very quickly: a century ago, only two hundred and fifty million people, 15 per cent of the world's (much smaller) population, lived in cities. This dimension of modernisation is hard to explain as ‘development'. More than one billion people now live in miserable, informal settings, massive squatter camps and barrios ringing developing cities, ageing, worsening and intractable to improvement. By the middle of this century, two-thirds of the world's population will live in cities; nineteen of these cities will have more than twenty million inhabitants. The prominent US urban scholar Mike Davis, the author of Planet of Slums (Verso, 2007), argues that much contemporary urban growth is taking us ‘back to Dickens'. Architects and aesthetes fear that the global economy is producing a world of suburbs. Davis shows that slums are proliferating much more quickly and with far more hideous consequences. Many of these festering settlements will be the first lines of defence, or defeat, as global warming makes sea levels rise. The prospect of Nature in control of a game of slum clearance is too horrible to contemplate. But we must.

Closer to home, the remarkable growth of South-East Queensland exemplifies the storm of urbanisation that is remaking us as an urban species. Older residents recall the now-discarded saying that Brisbane was Australia's largest country town. It was the biggest town in a state long dominated by a sturdy and populous rural sector. From the 1960s, the Gold Coast started to look at least superficially urban, with its towers, glitz and Oz schlock, but no one thought it much more than an urban illusion, a stage set for tourism. Despite its brash boosterism, the Bjelke-Petersen government was never going to usher the state out of its long twilight of sepia-tinged conservatism and murky sleaze. The corruption racket was called ‘the joke' – probably a fair metaphor for the whole Porpoise Spit-style politics that held the state back for so long.

The ending of the joke coincided with – perhaps even unleashed – the boom in the state's south-east corner which has grown furiously for the past two decades – between fifty-five thousand and eighty thousand people each year since 1986. South-East Queensland is now a wonderfully complex regional hybrid, linking Brisbane with the cities of Ipswich, Logan, and the Gold and Sunshine Coasts. Current population growth, largely from interstate, runs at nearly a thousand new arrivals a week. By 2026 there could be as many as four and a half million residents in the region, which may overtake Melbourne as the nation's second largest metropolis. But ending the joke, and the lifting of the gloom, exposed underlying problems that threatened to make the growth unmanageable, including institutional and development cultures resistant to sound urban planning; prolonged inaction on resource pressures, especially water; and decrepit infrastructure. That the growth surge has not ended in outright chaos testifies to the success of reformers in dealing with these traditional political infirmities, especially the antipathy for planning and the preference for white shoe development.

But the region went to the brink of default: its water supply has nearly run out in the last few years, whilst the prospect of transport gridlock was probably delayed, at least for a while, by the introduction of a highly effective integrated ticketing in its public transport system. Many threats remain: housing stress, road congestion, air pollution and rising greenhouse emissions. In the face of continuing growth, they look very worrying. But there is improved resilience in the South-East Queensland governance system, nourished by a new belief in planning at the local and state levels and by a new maturity and commitment to the sustainability ideal in much of its development industry. Further development of these new strengths will need to occur if the region is to retain its liveability and improve its sustainability.

THE HOUSING AFFORDABILITY squeeze that preoccupies public discussion in South-East Queensland these days is symptomatic of a growing failure of our cities to adequately house their inhabitants. Once celebrated as our greatest strength, our housing system looks a little deranged these days. Freewheeling growth has generated an affordability crisis in Australian cities, locking out the young and exposing many borrowers to potentially catastrophic debt. We've lost our cherished status as the nation with the highest levels of home ownership to places we thought were laggards: Britain and Ireland. In the postwar decades, the home ownership level peaked at around 70 per cent, but has been declining in recent years. First home owners have left or been forced from the market in droves. An increasingly mobile, consumption-driven Gen Y, or at least parts of it, can't see the point of a mortgage. Hugh Mackay reports that, amongst young adults, there is ‘genuine confusion about whether homeownership is a good investment or not'.

Now about one-third of Australian households own their homes and a further third are buying. More than three million households will be paying rent within a decade – a significant proportion of the nation, which will no longer be able to proudly describe itself as a home-owning democracy. The rapidly growing rental community inhabits an increasingly costly and stressed market; a growing number of people live in ill-suited, poor-quality and/or overly expensive housing. At the same time, average dwelling sizes in the home owner sector and, interestingly, in the upper end of the rental market have been rising rapidly. The average floor area of new houses has grown by over 40 per cent in the past two decades.

While homes for the wealthy continue to bulge outwards, many Australians have been pushed out of housing altogether. There's disagreement on exactly how many homeless people there are in Australia now, but all of the numbers are shocking. In 2006 the Commonwealth's Supported Accommodation Assistance Program (SAAP) services supported over one hundred and sixty thousand people, many of them children. About fourteen thousand people sleep rough each night, and rising mortgage default in suburbia is adding to that number. In South-East Queensland, there have been several reports of groups of homeless people, including families, camping in parks and showgrounds. In January 2008, The Australian reported overflowing urban hostels and shelters. In Newcastle, homeless people were living in ‘wretched circumstances', forced to camp in backyards and parks.

The national housing ‘system' – if it can be called that – is misallocating housing resources at an increasingly dysfunctional scale. We're heading in the direction of ‘feast or famine' without much apparent will to change course. Perhaps this is because the ideal of universal private homeownership has lost its enchantment as markets fail to deliver. The national homelessness inquiry and the new funding promised by the Rudd Government in 2008 may signal hope. It's the opportunity to widen the lens and rethink how we house ourselves as a nation. Achieving housing security, not ownership, for all should be our guiding premise. The market will never deliver universal ownership, and if we remain mesmerised by this ideal we will condemn in any period significant numbers of Australians to insecure and inappropriate housing or to outright homelessness. The public housing sector needs revitalisation, but we also need to generate new mainstream housing options that will provide pleasant and secure accommodation for those not able or willing to take the long mortgage road. Communal shared housing, for example, might better suit the fluid lifestyles of the young and provide better security and affordability than private tenancy. This broader rethink is invited as we deal with the scandalous homelessness emergency.

ANOTHER OLD ARGUMENT continues. Elites have long squabbled about the imperfections of the working class and what ought to be done about their flaws. As the middle classes expanded and the wealthy lost their early monopoly on suburbia and conspicuous consumption, elite criticism extended to petty bourgeois tastes. The war on the poor had its nasty phases. The British Poor Law of 1834 and its forensic coding of the ‘deserving' and ‘undeserving' poor come to mind. Later in the same century, economic liberals devised a penal form of philanthropy, ‘scientific charity', to break the bad habits of the lower orders. Think work for the dole on bread and water, and throw in a slapping for shirkers. Their real argument was with the soft-headed liberals who thought charity was a Christian duty, not a tool of class discipline.

I spent many months of my doctoral studies in the Victorian State Library's La Trobe Collection reading the forty-one minute books that recorded the work of the Melbourne Ladies' Benevolent Society in the second half of the nineteenth century. The well-intentioned ladies of the society ‘visited' poor working-class families in the first suburbs of Melbourne – Fitzroy, Carlton, Collingwood – dispensing advice and subsistence rations. I read and transcribed innumerable entries in the minutes, looking for evidence about the daily life of poor disabled people. One entry struck me for its colour and unintended humour. After months of getting to know the ‘ladies' and their indispositions, I felt I could almost hear the ‘tut-tuts' which must have attended the following alarming account: ‘Miss Kernot reported that on visiting [X] she found bread and butter on the table, the baby screaming, and the mother reading a penny dreadful.' Not dirt poor, but badly behaved – bumptiously so. As colonial social history shows, the first suburban proletariat in the Australian colonies constantly distressed elites and officialdom with their nonchalant intemperance. The Victorian holy trinity – thrift, temperance and obedience – had little appeal to the ‘lower orders', who were fond of sport, gambling, boozing and generally having a good time.

Fear of the ‘penny dreadful' tastes of ordinary folks seems to fuel angst today about another suburban working-class tribe, the ‘Aspirationals' and their attachment to reality TV and the emblematic ‘McMansion'. Legions of the well off and well trained have decried its awfulness. Historian Mark Peel writes: ‘It's interesting that an American word – McMansions – coined to describe the sprawling palaces of the super rich, has, in this country, been turned against ordinary four-bedroom houses. It's also interesting that most newspaper photos of new estates use a telephoto lens that presses the houses up against each other, emphasising their bulk and closeness.'

It is largely about behaviour and dress sense. But note also the existence of a contrary position in a shouting match about Aspirationals. This supposedly anti-elitist view sanctifies them as a sturdy modern peasantry whose instincts, unblemished by intellect or art, are beyond reproach. To demonise or beatify: both perspectives are calculating views of working-class people. Both perceive them as pieces in a culture war, not real people with prosaic strengths and weaknesses. Their support by the early Mark Latham – continued in the online Australian journal, The New City ( – blithely overlooked the financial entrapments and social pitfalls that face working-class improvers in the neo-liberal economy. These include the risks of penury and exclusion as debts mount and suburban Aspirationals are left adrift in areas with little fallback to quality public services, particularly public transport. It also neglected how the Howard government's clever targeting of subsidies to those living in these suburbs outflanked even pragmatic Laborism. Latham later shifted from his ‘Mark-1' enthusiasm to a much more critical view of working-class ambition in the new economy.

BACK IN 2002, Mark-1 and I debated this at an Evatt Foundation breakfast. The small group of hardy souls who attended saw us circling each other, never really attacking. I think we liked each other too much for that. I certainly regarded him as one of the few Australian politicians courageous enough to try to place urban issues on the public agenda despite chronic official indifference (of which more soon). For this alone, we need him back in public life.

At the breakfast, we agreed the suburbs were central to the Australian experience. But we diverged on the social virtues of new suburban forms, especially the master-planned estate. At the time, we both lived with our families in such estates in south-western Sydney. Our experiences nudged us to different conclusions about the bootstrapping ambitions of our neighbours. Mark-1's image of working-class improvers heroically providing for themselves and their offspring on a suburban frontier was not one I shared. It seemed to me that much of the largesse they were enjoying – proximity to new motorways and regional parks, new ‘affordable' private schools – was publicly subsidised or provided, although this was rendered invisible in the marketing and the public debate. To my mind, there was a danger that ‘Aspirational fervour' was creating an image of a class fragment that didn't really exist. They were no more independent of the state than the rest of us, and quite inclined to take what they could get from the communal tin (ditto the developers who expected the infrastructure subsidies and happily took the windfall gains).

Opposition to public largesse defined Latham's politics. He stepped bravely on to the tracks in an attempt to halt the federal gravy train (the only public transport used by politicians). Yet in the debate about suburbia I felt that he overlooked the huge federal subsidies propping up the new fringe estates: private education, child-care and health were subsidised, and the choice to use them was regarded as evidence of moral virtue. Developers may pay one-off state levies, but the federal subsidy flow continued and grew as Howard's middle-class welfare embraced those who aspired to upward mobility but needed, even if they did not want to acknowledge, a hand up. The institutions of respectable middle-class life were extended to many new outer suburban communities. In 2004, Prime Minister Howard crowed: ‘Under this government about three non-government schools which charge on average less than $2,000 in fees have been established ... you are talking here about schools for the battlers who want a bit of choice ... I have been to many of them and they are on the outskirts of the cities of this country.'

As the confessional introductory essay to Latham's Diaries (MUP, 2006) reveals, ‘Mark-2' came to regret his uncritical enthusiasm for his neighbours, who he came to see as self-absorbed and materialistic. The feeling was mutual: they were not inclined to vote for him. The subsection entitled ‘The Sick Society' is intensely revealing of personal ideological disappointment. A true believer in the improving power of reformed capitalism finds the system up to its old tricks again. Latham finds himself regretting ‘the commercialisation of public services and the grotesque expansion of market forces into social relationships'. (He had been an advocate of Public – Private Partnerships.) Furthermore, ‘questions of status and self-esteem are now determined by the accumulation of material goods, not the maintenance of mateship ... The politics of "me", the individual, replaces the politics of "we", the community.' The ladder of opportunity took the Aspirationals to Harvey Norman, not enlightenment. McMansion land is now an artefact of ‘the sorry state of advanced capitalism: the ruling culture encourages people to reach for four wheel drives, double storey homes, reality television and gossip magazines to find meaning and satisfaction in their lives'. He reinstates a word the neo-libs wished banished: capitalism. Now it's simply another ‘ism' that disappoints: ‘I wanted working people to enjoy a better standard of living, but had assumed as they climbed the economic ladder, they would still care about the community in which they lived ... especially the poor and disadvantaged. This was my misjudgement ... they ... left their old, working-class neighbourhoods behind and embraced the new values of consumerism.' Another old argument re-enters: the progressive ‘embourgoisment' of the working classes and the loss of social solidarity – leading to, amongst other things, ‘angst towards the disadvantaged'.

The plurality of contemporary suburban life deserves stronger recognition in public culture. Suburbia is a much more complex landscape than it was. This was richly explained in Mark Peel's account of life in outer suburban Melbourne, ‘The inside story of life on the outer', published in The Age in 2007. It should be compulsory reading for those who would still dismiss suburbia (usually from afar) as monocultural or anachronistic. As a gay couple, Peel and his partner failed to find the prejudice of which friends had warned them. ‘In our experience, people weren't unwelcome because of an identity or culture, but if and when they proved angry, vexatious and careless neighbours.' His neighbours included ‘Koreans, Filipinos, Greeks, Indians, English, Dutch, Samoans and New Zealanders ... mixing as neighbours, partners and friends'.

Some diversity is not to be celebrated, though. The growing socio-economic polarities within our cities represent an unwelcome trend. Analysing deprivation in the eight capital cities using 2006 census data, Griffith University's Scott Baum exposes what he terms the ‘suburban scars' that mark decades of economic restructuring. More than 10 per cent were considered highly deprived ‘poverty traps' where multiple disadvantages – poor neighbours, poor services, dispiriting environs, isolation – combined to lock inhabitants into long-term poverty. At the other end of the deprivation scale, Baum finds a wealthy mirror image: just over 10 per cent of suburbs containing high concentrations of wealth in established older areas of affluence and in the newer bastions of gentrified privilege in the inner cities. Within suburbia, the same polarities were revealed. Gated republics celebrating order, similarity and privilege are juxtaposed with the dystopian sinkholes studded with tattoo parlours, payday lenders, sex shops, takeaways and two-dollar bargain bins. The suburban love affair continues but in much more complex ways, and masks pockets of disenchantment and entrapment.

URBAN SCHOLARS IN Australia have long had to endure an odd and debilitating cultural schizophrenia that has robbed the field of recognition and confidence. The running joke is that we hold meetings in public phone booths. The same has gone for the urban professions, especially the long invisible profession of urban planning. Griffith University's Lesley Johnson relates the experience of George Clarke, a leading Sydney post-war planner, who in 1959 was asked by a member of the New South Wales Parliament, ‘urban ... what's that word mean?' We must assume that eventually he got it. After much lethargy, the states eventually rolled out plans and policies that helped to prevent the worst forms of North American sprawl, notwithstanding many – often monumental – failures of will along the way.

State and municipal corruption was – indeed, it remains – an endemic threat to the integrity of land development processes, as Geoffrey Atherden's Grass Roots whimsically reminded us.

The recent corruption inquiry in Wollongong showed that in real life it was much more venal and frequently bizarre. The tawdry Illawarra tale had it all: money changing hands secretly; a planner sleeping with developers; harassment and intimidation; underworld heavies and dodgy politicians. Many richly coloured identities seemed straight out of The Sopranos. All of this conjured by the urban development game. Amazingly, none of them seemed to think they'd be caught. The Sydney Morning Herald used just three words to summarise the affair: ‘Dirty, sexy, money'. When I think of coastal development in Australia, I'm mindful of proverbial wisdom, ‘quos Deus vult perdere prius dementat' (whom God wishes to destroy he first makes mad). So much of our coastal municipal politics is ‘organised madness'.

In contrast to urbanised countries in Europe, Australian city governance and policy structures are relatively under-developed. Yet transport, housing affordability and community renewal increasingly preoccupy political agendas. The urban refuseniks have, however, dominated in national politics. The moment of national maturity marked by the Whitlam Government's urban and regional development program in the early 1970s starkly contrasts with the decades of efforts to prevent the development of any national urban policy agenda. Prime Minister John Howard refused to acknowledge, let alone adopt, an urban agenda, despite friendly urging from business lobbies, including the Property Council and the Urban Development Institute. The development industry opposed dismantling the Hawke/Keating governments' Better Cities program, itself a shadow of the Whitlam urban agenda. The perception that Howard ran a business-friendly government has interesting flaws – property and urban development have always required a regulatory framework.

The long reign of national political refusal contrasts with the quiet enthusiasm of Australians for urban life. Australians have from earliest times embraced cities and suburbs. The English journalist R.E.N. Twopenny wrote Town Life in Australia in 1883, and reported that ‘the Australian townsman' had ‘inherited so thoroughly' the English love of suburban living. Overseas observers report our urban passion, but Australians have relentlessly refused to discuss, let alone celebrate, our urban love affair in public culture. Anti-urbanism is a heart murmur with which the nation was born. Geographer Clive Forster quotes the New South Wales Government Statistician, T.A. Coghlan, who in 1897 lamented ‘the abnormal aggregation of the population into their capital cities', viewing this as ‘a most unfortunate element in the progress of the colonies'. He was doubtless motivated by a fear that Australia would reproduce the toxic cities of Victorian industrialism. We didn't. There were problems with slums and disease, but they were nothing like the urban pestilence left behind in Europe. The opening of suburban opportunity to the masses in the early twentieth century helps to explain the good health and high living standards enjoyed by Australians. In 1905, the influential American city planning advocate Frederick Howe wrote: ‘The great cities of Australia are spread out into the suburbs in a splendid way. For miles about are broad roads with small houses, gardens, and an opportunity for touch with the freer, sweeter life which the country offers.'

THE DENIAL OF our innate urbanism, and the pleasure and productivity that we have derived from our cities, is a national trait worth abandoning. This collective daydream means that we risk neglecting problems until they become too intrusive and threatening to ignore, and by then difficult, expensive or impossible to repair. Our cities and suburbs have harboured a set of social and ecological stresses that are approaching critical levels. The ‘Human Settlements' section of the 2006 State of the Environment Report makes grim reading. Between 1998 and 2004, Australian energy use per capita grew by 4 per cent at time when we should be making radical cuts to individual greenhouse emissions. There's no sign of improvement: ‘Primary energy consumption is forecast to increase by 48 per cent ... by the year 2019 ... It is significantly above the expected rate of population increase, and it is driven by the continued growth in per capita consumption and economic growth.' The mass urban embrace of air conditioning, as well as raising overall electricty consumption, is shifting peak demand to summer, driving the expansion of water-guzzling power generation systems.

The mounting water deficits are well known: less nationally understood is just how close South-East Queensland has come to outright default in recent years. Politicians looked genuinely scared as they announced ever tougher restrictions on water use. The rains returned in early 2008, but climate change reminds us that urban water crisis is now a permanent spectre facing our cities. The other big urban pressure cooker is the stampede on to our long-neglected public transport systems as petrol prices surge. Every city has registered large jumps in the number of people trying to use public transport. This has mildly tempered the malign neglect of public transport in some cities. In Brisbane, municipal politics now centres around which political party can build new buses quickly enough to meet surging demand for services – though the spending remains dwarfed by the vast sums being thrown at new road tunnels and bridges. By contrast, in Sydney they're still dumping half-hearted plans to build new rail lines.

If not stopped, the long slide to a more divided society will surely end in tears. We cannot allow further social polarisation without expecting some serious communal trouble. Still, some fairies continue to make joyful song at the bottom of the garden, bless them. Sea-change and tree-change inspire rousing songs of liberation, celebrating the mass release of the citizenry from urban confinement. This is an intoxicating but deeply misleading vision of Australia as it enters the third millennium.

There is no mass urban entrapment. Australia's long marriage to city living continues. None of the deeper paradoxes of suburban life register in the contemporary argy bargy about Aspirationals and McMansions. These new urban arguments making their way into the public domain, as caricatured as they are, may yet signal the breaking down of urban silence in popular culture. I sense that public interest in, and discussion of, urban affairs have never been stronger. After prolonged neglect, the various media are increasingly willing to put urban issues on centre stage. Key metro papers have dedicated urban affairs reporters. The Sydney Morning Herald and Brisbane's Courier-Mail have campaigned for stronger metropolitan planning and governance, drawing and generating considerable public interest.

During the 1990s, the Herald increased its interest in urban issues, and campaigned with rising vigour for improved planning and management of Sydney. It was rightly critical of the Carr government, targeting its failures to invest in public transport and develop a sound metropolitan plan for Sydney, as well as various policy fiascos, including the nationally notorious Cross-City Tunnel.

Anne Davies' excoriating 2006 Herald essay, ‘The great Carr crash' summarised the troubled urban legacy of Carr's decade-long rule. In a later interview with pre-political Maxine McKew, Carr brushed the criticism aside as ‘barking mad', bragging of a sixty-one billion dollar investment in capital works. And what of Sydney's crumbling and occasionally lethal public transport system? The resort to public-private partnerships and user tolls for roads? The crumbling public realm of western Sydney? The Olympics were a bright exception to a record of malign urban neglect. They showcased what was possible with strong planning and quality public infrastructure. Pretty much everything worked, was on time and stayed in place. Everyone noted the contrast with the shambolic free-enterprise Atlanta games in 1996. For some reason, the same government that staged them failed to apply the lessons of this brilliantly successful experiment to its mainstream urban management responsibilities.

New South Wales had talented planning professionals, including at the highest levels, but let them languish without much interest or support. Many drifted away from the public service or were moved on. In his last days, Carr finally got work underway to prepare a metropolitan plan for Sydney, a much-lamented hole in the state's urban policy fabric. For a time, it looked as if the state might finally show some policy resolve and move to tighten the governance of Sydney at least. A good plan for Sydney emerged, but so did new hostility to planning in the Cabinet. By March 2008, the Herald reported a survey which found that ‘One in five Sydneysiders are so sick of traffic and the high cost of living they are considering moving to another city'.

Many look to the new Rudd Government with hope. It went into the 2007 election without a comprehensive urban agenda. But there have been encouraging early signals that it recognises the importance of an urban response to the environmental and social threats facing Australia. The Prime Minister's 2020 Summit identified ten key topics for discussion and cities made the list –  just.

One thing that must be urged on the new government is urban resolve. A merely advisory or voluntary urban approach will not effect the deep changes needed to our cities to make them sustainable and secure. The job cannot be left to the states: they lack the resources and the powers needed to transform and make safe the national settlement system. And several are too mired in deeply impious planning systems to lend honest help to the cause of policy strengthening. A lesson to learn from the states' struggles to confront urban problems in the last decade is that resolute action is almost always welcomed by the public and accepted by industry. ‘Institutional shocks' seem the only way of cutting through accumulated confusion and inertia. The occasionally inspired New South Wales government rapidly transformed the state's residential building sector via its 2004 BASIX regulatory initiative, which overnight managed to kill off some of the most wasteful new home products. Initially apprehensive, the industry adjusted and moved on. Similarly, green improvements to the national building code are forcing universal changes to construction practices, but not quickly enough. The Queensland Government's dramatic intervention in South-East Queensland's growth through its highly directive 2005 blueprint plan was welcomed by the public and by the development industry. In February 2008, SBS Insight in a program on ‘City Limits', featured an A.V. Jennings executive urging the federal government to introduce tougher sustainability standards in the development sector to clarify the regulatory framework so that developers could get on with their business. The only explanation for continued lack of resolve on urban issues must be the entrenched grip of neo-liberalism on the major political parties and the bureaucracy. The public and major sections of industry do not share this view.

IN 2007, MY centre at Griffith, the Urban Research Program, participated in an ‘Our Future, Your Say' campaign led by the Courier-Mail, and also involving Channel 9 Brisbane and The Brisbane Institute. The series repeated a 2003 campaign by the Courier-Mail that helped stimulate public support for a new approach to managing growth in traditionally freewheeling South-East Queensland. A series of well-attended public forums complemented the newspaper's ongoing coverage of urban issues during the middle and latter months of 2007. The forums drew influential speakers, including Peter Garrett, Malcolm Turnbull, Brisbane Lord Mayor Campbell Newman, Queensland Transport Minister Paul Lucas, and Anna Bligh. The planning and infrastructure improvements of the recent years received re-endorsement, but the government was urged to rethink its unblushing zeal for growth and to intensify its efforts to deal with congestion and over-development. A marvellously vivid, intensely thoughtful youth forum urged closer attention to the needs of the generations which will inherit the South-East Queensland estate from the Baby Boomers.

Bligh's leadership succession confirmed and extended Queensland's new enthusiasm for urban policy. The new Premier announced that tackling urban congestion would be a key priority for her government, and established a state urban land development agency. The Deputy Premier, Paul Lucas, was given the planning and infrastructure portfolio, underlining its strong cabinet status. The national planning community now looks to South-East Queensland and Perth for inspiration. From Sydney, planner Pat Fensham remarks: ‘New South Wales planners can only dream of the situation in Queensland ...' This was not the way Sydney spoke about any aspect of Queensland when I was a Brisbane schoolboy in the late 1970s.

The growth paradox is likely to be the biggest challenge facing South-East Queensland planning. It takes two quite vexing dimensions. The big spend underway on infrastructure is trying to address perilous deficits, especially in water and transport. Much of it, especially the massive new tunnels, tollways and bridges, will worsen greenhouse emissions. But should we let the place grind to a halt or dry up? How can we turn around the super-tankers of car dependency and resource profligacy? The second paradox is political. There is rising pressure from longer-term residents for a growth cap. But how do you put up the ‘full' sign in a democracy like Australia? These questions will surely vex the next rethink of the regional plan, due soon.

The City of Sydney has exercised urban leadership where the state of New South Wales arguably has not. In 2007 it began a process to articulate a new strategic vision, ‘Sustainable Sydney 2030', that included eagerly attended public forums and talks. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to discuss the future of their city in a context of widely shared anxiety about declining liveability and sustainability. It was interesting to see how wide the interest in urban futures has now become.  In my experience, public planning forums in the past were largely perfunctory, sometimes disagreeable, gatherings of specialist professionals and residents seeking wider theatres for local grievances.  The Sydney forums couldn't have been more different.  One event I attended included Cate Blanchett, who spoke about the need for Sydney to avoid the type of wholesale sanitising development that drives artists away. Yet the evidence is showing that Sydney is falling behind the rest of Australia as people in artistic and cultural jobs abandon the state. Civic discussion of urban issues has flourished in Melbourne, thanks at least in part to the long advocacy of one of Australia's most influential urbanists, Paul Mees. A series of public Future Melbourne forums drew large numbers in 2006 and 2007. The Age continues regularly to make space for critical discussion of urban issues. A recent example was a splendidly disconcerting essay on ‘Monstrous Melbourne' by RMIT academic Paul James that questioned the environmental plausibility of the city's much honked ‘liveability' claims. I'm less aware of the state of public discussion of urban issues in the other major cities. It's worth noting, however, the strong support that Perth residents have shown for their state government's urban initiatives in rail network improvement, metropolitan planning, urban renewal and innovative urban design. The recent Perth ‘Network City' plan emerged from a strikingly honest attempt to engage public opinion. The South Australian Thinkers in Residence program has brought influential urban scholars to Australia. Closer to my own patch, in 2006 the Gold Coast City Council became the first Australian government of any kind to fund a chair in urban policy and planning with a mission to generate public interest in and awareness of urban policy issues. So what? Perhaps you have to be an urban academic or professional to appreciate the extent of this cultural shift. Such public attention to urban issues was completely unimaginable just a decade ago. In this part of the world, Homo urbanis may be waking from its Arcadian dream. Paul James comments on our new urban self-awareness: ‘The strange thing about this pronouncement is that it shocks us. Like climate change, it is part of a process that has been happening for decades. It is as if we have been woken after a generation of sleepwalking.' Sleepwalking – a nice metaphor for our long dozy urban denial now ended by ecological and social tremors.

BEYOND THE MEDIA, and the formal realms of civic debate, I sense rising public interest in the state of our cities and neighbourhoods. It may reflect a growing sense that we cannot continue to take our urban home worlds for granted. The world's largest national assemblage of landlords now looks nervously to the state of the urban property markets, and critically to the urban institutions that govern them. The urban denizens of the world's driest continent now comprehend, in the face of prolonged drought and climate change, their tenuous dependence on vulnerable water systems. And the space allocated in popular culture for suburban recognition and exploration seems to be opening out into a much more authentic and lively scope. It wasn't my cup of tea, but Neighbours was an important cultural circuit breaker. It simply ignored the very idea that one could be critical of suburban life.

We now have an appreciable tradition of film and television that has explored the suburban experience in a variety of ways, and with contrasting emotions, ranging from empathy and interest to horror. The mass appeal of films like The Castle can only be fully explained by their sympathy with our suburban experience, with all its prosaic miseries and joys. Still, most suburban citizens conduct lives that are ‘too uneventful' to be recorded in other social conversations, such as media commentary and often, regrettably, scholarly analysis. And yet it is within the domains of the ‘ordinary', the Fountain Lakes of our metropolitan regions that the future of our cities is being shaped.

A big shift is underway in these urban life-worlds that is of far more consequence to the future of our cities, and therefore the nation, than the sandrush currently afflicting the coast. The first three decades after World War II were marked by convulsive growth in cities, but also by a remarkable degree of social stability rooted in an absence of major class faultlines. There was almost none of the precipitous block-by-block social division that blights American cities. Class differences were there, but they were painted in broad brush-strokes across the Australian urban landscape. There were separate regions inhabited by the rich, by workers, and a broad middle class – but also many areas where mixing occurred. I recall from my childhood in the far North Shore of Sydney in the early 1970s suburbs that were socially mixed to the point of bedlam. This was the Pittwater region, including places like Mona Vale, Bayview, Church Point, Newport, Avalon and, at its tip, Palm Beach, all gloriously arrayed around the far northern beaches and Broken Bay. Today it's a millionaires' paradise, visited by Hollywood stars and favoured by the local elites, and the Sydney Morning Herald, reports ‘Peter Weir prefers the familiarity of Palm Beach to the glitz of Hollywood'. He ‘is just like any other well-to-do local'. Not that there is any other type of local.

When I lived there in the 1970s, it was rather different, home to a strange mixture of oddsters, inheritors, artists, ferals, improvers, losers, the crassly bourgeois and the very bloody comfortable. Pittwater High, my school for a time, exposed me to a near-complete spectrum of Australian life, an amazingly eclectic mix of social types that seemed to cohabit. Only farmers and miners were missing. I regard the experience as a gift to my socialisation. You heard the occasional bad word about ‘Westies' coming to ‘our' beaches (‘surfboards bolted to roof racks ... haw, haw'), but they were a species my friends and I knew nothing about. I wasn't even sure where they came from. As I recall, their usual detractors were the scraggy kids of local battlers who wagged school and hung around beaches and milk bars all day. Today, the Pittwater region is transformed by decades of volcanic pressure in property markets and socio-economic change. Most of the oddsters and battlers have left, some cashed up on inflated property values, replaced by increasingly homogenous bastions of conspicuous wealth and good taste.

Places like Pittwater in the decades after World War II were machines for social integration. I've no doubt they contributed to our lethargic but real commitment to tolerance. In these contexts, unless you were a committed hermit you not only saw ‘other' people, you were bound to share your everyday life with them, in schools, shops, sporting teams, at church, in parks, at beaches. I was centre halfback for the Pittwater Tigers, a motley crew of Aussie Rules outsiders who took it up to the nobs from French's Forest, and other better provided for teams. We were usually whipped, but battled on, relishing our hard-bitten, loser-but-watch-out mindset. A cog in the machine for mixing.

As the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, put it recently, social intolerance is largely a failure of imagination; it thrives when we are unable to imagine our contrary communities. I remember Pittwater as a place that greatly stimulated my imagination: poor kids who taught me bushcraft, how to sail a boat (or plank) and how to build a bike from old parts; wealthy family friends who showed that money was no barrier to a life defined by generosity and simplicity, and with none of the anxious desire to impress and control that seems so great a part of contemporary affluence; the middle-class people, like my parents, who had chanced upon this wonderland by luck or inheritance, and lived humbly and very happily with their good fortune. Only now, at my age, and in a very different and changing Australia, do I realise how good and instructive these times were for me.

THINGS BEGAN TO change rapidly from the 1970s, which saw the shift towards more restless and divided class landscapes in our cities. In places like Pittwater, prolonged class cleansing has generated new communities where wealth is openly celebrated, not to say demanded. My own ‘windshield survey' of Pittwater a few years ago amazed me. How could such a lazy and messy place become so self-consciously pure and tidy in twenty years? Science confirms the assessment. Urban scholarship shows us that our cities are now much more socio-economically divided. And we see it, sense it, in the rise of gated communities, the growth of a private security apparatus, the occasional eruption of communal unrest, even riots (Macquarie Fields, Redfern, Cronulla, Palm Island). More of us are reconceiving home as a secure lifestyle package. More of us are falling backwards into poverty sinkholes. It's all a bit unsettling. The spectres at the feast may not dampen wealthy appetites, but they add apprehension to taste.

The principal solvent for previously settled bonds of social position and regional landscape has been the program of structural adjustment that has been carried with bipartisan fervour across the political horizon for nearly three decades by successive national governments. For many, the social price of the miracle economy has been high. The rising economic tide didn't lift all boats and left many castaways behind. Thought banished by growth, ‘absolute' poverty returned to our cities as small congregations of ageing winos were joined by homeless legions: lost youths, mentally ill and broken families. About half of them are under twenty-four, most have mental health issues. These Australians never had it so bad. It is yet another old problem reinstating itself on the public agenda.

The new Prime Minister Kevin Rudd identified soaring homelessness and social exclusion amongst the legacies of his predecessor as he assumed office. But the threat of penury is much broader than this. Many were left high and dry by Howard, including Aspirationals: cheered into unsustainable debt, lured by private consumption subsidies that the state cannot continue to maintain, and enticed or driven into risky new working conditions. Rudd must be aware of the electoral lift he received from the mortgage-stressed outer suburbs of our major cities, especially Sydney. Throughout 2007, the shadows of negative equity and mortgage default were lengthening in Howard's most prized electoral trophies. Jackie Kelly saw it coming and fled the field (even if she forgot to tell hubby to do the same). Can Labor free itself from the bilateral consensus on property boosterism? Will Rudd abandon the boom-burb politics that cheered the Aspirationals over the debt cliff? How long will the ludicrous and unsustainable subsidies to private health and education be maintained?

NOT THAT THE states should escape censure. They've had in their hands many tools and resources that could have been used to stem the tide of social stress. What did they fail to do? Humane gambling policies, better funded social and public housing, public transport improvements in poor areas, property and betterment levies to tax windfall gains and fund social improvements, investment in urban public realms, doors sealed to the snake oil merchants of public-private partnerships.

In many quarters, it remains heresy to speak of ill or threat. An ideological hallmark of neo-liberalism was to quickly and roughly declaim any critic of social conditions as ‘negative', ‘miserable' or just ‘not focused on the positives'. It's a head plate that many social scientists have been ordered to wear and was especially effective in cowing the universities, and the entire endeavour of social science. Scholars reporting the increasingly obvious trend towards social polarisation got the ‘negative hand wringers' tag, or were charged with political conspiracy – as were climate scientists during Howard's aggressive reign of scepticism.

My book Australian Heartlands (Allen & Unwin, 2006) aroused the happy police. It argued that all was not well in suburban Australia, and I predicted that the Aspirationals would be left high and dry as the ‘miracle economy' receded and the debt dunes swept over them. A Courier-Mail reviewer dismissed the book as ‘gloomy and dysfunctional' and suggested that I ‘get out a bit more'. The weekend supplement in the same issue ran a cover feature on homelessness. It was emblazoned ‘Welcome to the Smart State, where 26,000 people are homeless; where any low-to-middle income family is three, maybe four, bad turns from the gutter'. It was a stunning and disturbing story from a gifted young reporter, Trent Dalton, recalling the Victorian slum journalism of London's Henry Mayhew and Melbourne's incomparable John Stanley James, pseudonym ‘The Vagabond'. I read Dalton's account of his journey amongst the urban homeless with mixed feelings, exhilarated by its insights into our wholesale vulnerability to personal collapse, disheartened by the palpable sense that this was Victorian London, Melbourne, whatever ... on historical replay.

Many of the insights, and much of the animus in Australian Heartlands were drawn from years sitting in trains criss-crossing Sydney, observing the increasingly fragmented social geography outside – the sinkholes, the gated cantons, the cheap consolidation, the aching neglect of the public domain. I shared my journeys with vomiting smackheads, prowling dealers, the howling mentally ill, the out of it and the scared. I travelled without valuables, and looked straight ahead. Like many of the residents of western Sydney, I relied on a public transport system that could charitably be described as utterly miserable. Nothing ran on time, everything was begrudged, apart from the inexplicable tolerance of the frontline staff. They'd been thrown to the wolves but remained mostly brave and gracious.

AS I TYPE these words, years later, anger flares as I recall one awful year when I was a complete captive of this shambolic train system. We were a one-car family and there was – in theory – a train service connecting my home and workplace so I was determined to use it. The journey linked my workplace at the Urban Frontiers Program in Macarthur, on Sydney's south-western edge, and our flat in Parramatta, a shabby, noise box knocked up during the 1990s. It was around the time of the Olympics in 2000. Transport for the Games worked wonderfully; good organisation helped by lots of residents leaving town or not driving. Meanwhile, the rest of us made do with rail and bus systems that got worse, not better. In the months after the flame and the tourists left town, I realised with increasing despair that the well-oiled machinery of the Games was for show, not intended for normal domestic service.

It's all coming back, the countless episodes of delayed or cancelled trains. The worst times were the winter return journeys when the darkness added chilled austerity to the whole tedious, confusing experience. As the time to leave work approached, the dread would build as I thought about what lay ahead: windswept East German-like platforms; the garbled who-the-fuck-knows announcements; the interminable waiting for a train that should have come; skulking hoods in the dark; the fearful station staff holed up in their prefab bunkers; the wafting smell of piss and vomit; the few sad others, usually migrants, braving this mindless trauma. Fellow travellers avoided eye contact, though sometimes I'd catch a fleeting stare. They were clearly wondering what the honky was doing here. Meanwhile, my thought balloon: ‘Will I get home tonight? Will I see my son before he goes to sleep?'

The point is not my year of urban frustration, or its continuing occasional emotional reverberations. It's that most of those lost souls who joined me on those Kafkaesque misadventures are probably still there, condemned to ride the ghost trains of western Sydney, too poor to have a car. I escaped a landscape of urban neglect, which included the miserably built flat near the seedy centre of Parramatta. (I'm glad to hear that local leadership has helped to renew its public realm in recent years.) We traded the leaky cubby house for a home in a new estate near my Macarthur campus, right in the heart of Aspirational country. It was an interesting transition, from a place where no one spoke to you to a place where neighbours took a keen, occasionally intrusive, interest in what you did, how you kept yourself. There was a vaguely present sense of norms assumed and policed. I related this to a newspaper journalist interviewing me after the publication ofAustralian Heartlands. Incredulity was the response: not here in Australia – that Truman Show stuff only happens in America. Against my wishes, she sent a photographer to the estate we'd lived in for some images. A few days later, she emailed that when the photographer got out of his car and took photos, local residents rang the police. She wondered whether I'd had a point.

There was another, related Americanisation underway in the region's social geography. This was the emergence of poor places of which people – even the working class – were fearful, and which they wanted to avoid. The new suburban order was partly motivated and defined by a desire to get away from public housing estates and their residents. Some years later, an executive with a major master-planning developer remarked to me that a successful renewal of the area's public housing estates would clearly harm his business. With the demise of Latham, and now Howard, we don't much hear about Aspirationalism anymore. At the peak of the rhetoric, it was championed as a policy triumph, a new route up the ladder of opportunity, blazed by economic reform. Gabrielle Gwyther's doctoral study helped us to understand that it was also a cultural frame created by massive and unforgivable governance failure, the undermining of public housing that began in the 1970s and that remains a policy pestilence to this day.

My boss at the time, the urban geographer Bill Randolph, and I would drive through public housing estates. In some, you knew you had to keep the wheels rolling. Don't stop; not a good idea. It felt like my student days in Los Angeles. I had returned from the United States in the early 1990s to what I thought was the primordial peace of suburban Australia. It was the shattering of my own dream of an Australia that would forever avoid the pit of urban division. We were still a long way from what I experienced in Los Angeles and, on later visits, Detroit. But had a tipping point been reached in the suburbs? Once the decline to a segregated, fearful world had begun, how could it possibly be arrested, let alone reversed? The sorry record of the long fight back against desegregation in US cities isn't very encouraging.

THERE ARE A few pattern books we can look to in describing the history of human affairs, including political economy, or the eternal struggles between the winners, the won-over and the losers. My idea of dreaming and rousing works with this pattern especially, the rude rousing sometimes catalysing a major shift in political economic direction and in the distribution of power. The Great Depression aroused mass anger in Western nations and forced a new dispensation on the capitalist political order that we knew as the Welfare State. The ecological collapse now threatening the global economic system may force another political economic realignment and redistribution of power. Many scenarios are possible, some of them ghastly – including the eco-apocalypses imagined in Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road or the 2006 film Children of Men. Eco-autocracies may emerge in times of breakdown and chaos. Let's hope not. There's still time for a democratic transition to sustainability and security, but it's running out. From outer space, the denial and inaction of the Howard years must have looked like lunacy.

So where does this bring us now? I think the West is experiencing a moment of rude rousing from many dreams. In Australia, it's as if the whole dormitory has woken simultaneously, angry Nature shattering the windows with sudden force. What happened to the warm narcosis of the miracle economy? How did the dream of freedom morph into a schlock-buster about global warming and oil vulnerability? Who brought this horror upon us? As consensus strengthens on the threat posed by global warming, the tendency to blame and punish also strengthens, as John Howard found out. For some time, a swathe of the urban commentariat in Australia has been blaming the people who punished Howard's inaction on climate change. They have a seductively neat answer to the question of culpability: suburbia. Suburbia is the consumptive beast whose appetite has ruined us all.

A widely shared, if not unanimous, assumption in scholarly and policy circles is that suburbs are at once the source and the worst reflection of the sustainability crisis. The view has resonated with increasing strength in some domains of popular culture – and perhaps more strongly in elite cultural circuits. The geographer Clive Forster recalls comment from a national radio documentary in the early 1990s: ‘Australian cities have reached a mid life crisis. Two hundred years after European invasion and the beginnings of urban development in this country, we are looking down at the sprawling belly of our cities and exclaiming, "Oh my God, how did that happen?" We are full of regret for our gluttonous consumption of space and now we are questioning the ideology on which our lifestyle has been based.'

Imported US totems, such as ‘sprawl', ‘smart growth' and ‘new urbanism', have signed the landscape of Australian urban scholarship and debate. Although sprawl is defined as unplanned low-density urban development, the term has tended to blanket the suburban form, well planned or otherwise. Sprawl's totemic power is signified by the deathly potency granted it in scholarship and commentary, especially in the United States. Joel Hirschhorn's 2005 book reports that Sprawl Kills (Sterling & Ross) and annihilates comprehensively by also stealing ‘your time, health and money'. Australian architectural critic Elizabeth Farrelly provides forensic detail: ‘the traffic jams and the water shortages, the poisonous air and the childhood asthma, the obesity, the neuroses, the depression'. Most Australians in suburbia remain unaware of, or untroubled by, the sprawl bogey.

The continuing stand-off between a mainstream of intellectual critique and a mainstream of everyday life is concerning. The critical position on suburbia assumed by much urban commentary has poor scientific foundations. At best, the suburban critique may reflect a serious over-estimation of the influence of urban form on sustainability. In particular, the faith of many analyses in residential density as a simple lever that can be used to manipulate urban sustainability appears to be misplaced. New Australian scientific analysis points to the consumptive lifestyle, not the nature of one's dwelling, as the root of environmental woes. The 2007 urban consumption analyses produced for the Australian Conservation Foundation by the Centre for Integrated Sustainability Analysis at the University of Sydney turn conventional eco-criticism of suburbia on its head. The Main Findings report concludes: 'despite the lower environmental impacts associated with less car use, inner city households outstrip the rest of Australia in every other category of consumption. Even in the area of housing, the opportunities for relatively efficient, compact living appear to be overwhelmed by the energy and water demands of modern urban living, such as air conditioning, spa baths, down-lighting and luxury electronics and appliances, as well as by a higher proportion of individuals living alone or in small households. In each state and territory, the centre of the capital city is the area with the highest environmental impacts, followed by the inner suburban areas.'

The point is that total household energy consumption, and therefore greenhouse emissions, are made of both direct and indirect components. The former is the energy used to maintain everyday lives – petrol, gas and electricity – and the latter is the energy embodied in goods and services consumed by households. While most, if not all, of the focus of urban commentary and policy is on direct energy use, in reality, ‘direct household and person use accounts for only 30 per cent of our total greenhouse gas pollution, 23 per cent of our total water use, and just 10 per cent of our total eco-footprint'.

So the energy use most influenced by the size of our house and its location only accounts for a small share of greenhouse emissions. Free-ranging consumption of goods and services produced well outside our life-worlds are causing the problem. Shoving everyone into high-rises won't solve it. In fact, if every Australian household switched to renewable energy and stopped driving their cars tomorrow, total household emissions would decline by only about 18 per cent. It is our consumption appetites that are the real problem, and the biggest guts are not in suburbs.

THE 'SUBURBAN GOTHIC' tale has produced its equally melodramatic counter-narrative, The Great Australian Dream Swindle. This tale of planning noir bemoans a stolen generation of home ownership dreams. A cinema-scoped fable of hopeful newlyweds in wagons turned back from suburban frontiers by unfeeling black-robed bureaucrats. The black robes have halted the natural order of suburban things by slowing the tide of brick veneer. Those who weave the tale – the Great Australian Dreamers – wish to safeguard the long slumber of suburban conventional wisdom. Here, social intelligence is reduced to the pragmatic axiom: what has (appeared) to work, will always work, and therefore must be always right. Not the attitude, I suggest, of a society that will survive the threat of ecological collapse.

Neither set of protagonists, Goths or Dreamers, comprehends the sustainability threats facing urban, including suburban, Australia. Global warming and oil vulnerability can't be ignored, and neither can they be solved through simple manipulations of urban form like densification. I think both debating positions are hopelessly utopian and, if I may, contrived: one reducing Nature to a one-way street where physical form determines human behaviour; the other dismissing Nature as a frontier land for infinite exploitation. Both testify to the power of arguments based on distorted views of Nature to lead us astray and to produce, in the face of threat, collective dreaming and inaction.

It may appear that I'm down on collective dreams entirely. I'm not, only the ones that imagine us liberated from, or in simple command of, Nature – and therefore history. When in power, these dreams tend to produce the kind of collective narcolepsy from which Mackay thinks we are waking now. I've no objections to social dreams that avoid this error (‘lights on hills', etc.), and much enthusiasm for those who imagine humanity restored to Nature, as with Martin Luther King's vision of a species freed from the absurdity of racism.

An underlying proposition in this essay is that supernatural dreams may exercise great power to shape, even control, collective consciousness and purpose for a time, but inevitably are swept aside by Nature itself. The imaginings that stand the test of time are, logically, those that do not refuse history or Nature – ideas like human solidarity, natural dependency, the possibility of failure and the frailty of endeavour. Both left and right marched in the twentieth century away from Nature, each succumbing to Prometheanism and a hubris that claimed the power to stop history. I believe it's why both imaginations now are shattering in the face of a Nature that will no longer be scorned.

ANY ALTERNATIVE IMAGINING of the urban takes Nature as a starting and ending point for human experience, including urban life – not something from which we can free ourselves or attain mastery over. Nature can't be exploited beyond or protected behind an urban growth boundary; it shapes (not determines) and makes possible the entire urban experience, including life in the gilded towers of apartment land. The ACF analysis reminds us just how potent a natural force our inner cities are, and of their natural dependency. It signposts a way through the debating polarities that together have been blocking movement to a naturalised, historically fluid conception of the suburbs. This sees them as shifting landscapes of social and environmental possibilities; neither dystopias nor utopias, but fluid human life worlds whose physical qualities inform but do not determine their sustainability. The view declines the lure of historicism: the fixing of suburbia in time as a landscape with a preset natural disposition that cannot be changed.

One simple way to falsify this view, if you live in suburbia, is to talk to an elderly neighbour who has lived in their home for a long time. Discussions like this reveal to me an historical suburbia that was immensely more sustainable than the model we have now, based much more on modest consumption, mutual help and local provision. And these suburban places were vastly less consumptive than the inner cities of today. The historical scholarship of Patrick Mullins and Patrick Troy recalls a suburban form that could provide for much of its own needs.

Climate change and energy insecurity are real and present threats to the stability and sustainability of human society. The imminence, scale and speed of both threats appear to overwhelm the principal mitigation strategies on offer. Through the months of writing this essay, I've witnessed the scientific consensus consistently pegging back the horizon for action to prevent grave climate harm. It now seems that we have ten years or less to make massive cuts to carbon emissions to avoid ecological default. Jim Hansen, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies and senior Bush Administration climate modeller, writes: ‘We have to stabilise emissions of carbon dioxide within a decade ... [or] many things could become unstoppable ... we cannot wait for new technologies like capturing emissions from burning coal. We have to act with what we have.'

Technological fixes and market adjustments both have vulnerabilities and timeframes that appear to make them unviable. Some schemes – notably the switch to renewal energy – are nonetheless necessary to long-term security and sustainability. Others fail on both these counts – especially the deathly lures of nuclear energy and bio-fuels. The project of urban consolidation – at least that premised on its ability to cut energy consumption – is another dead end. The ACF work exposes both the false hope of physical determinism and the culpability of elite consumption. Even if its conclusions were flawed (other scientific evidence backs this up), there's another reason why compaction isn't a means of escape from climate peril: there's simply no time. Urban environments are a highly fixed form of capital, and they take a surprisingly long time to reconfigure in the scale imagined by some consolidationists – usually generations. None of this is a message that deeply pleases me. As an urban scholar, I'd love to think that simple improvement to city planning and design could stave off the environmental crisis. It can't. The only feasible strategy to meet the threat appears to be a massive and sudden decrease in consumption and a rationing of key resources, especially water, oil and energy. British environmental commentator George Monbiot agrees, recently offering that the looming world recession may in fact be the pathway out of peril if it forces down consumption in rich economies.

We face a time of threat akin to global war: the peril is grave but not insurmountable. And yet the West's energies and resources have been poured into the fight against a much more spectral threat: terrorism. Sir John Houghton, former head of the British Meteorological Bureau and senior member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, observes that climate change kills more people than terrorism and poses at least as great a threat to human security as ‘chemical, nuclear or biological weapons, or indeed international terrorism'.

IN 1970, HUGH Stretton, Australia's first great urbanist, wrote and self– published an urban best-seller, Ideas for Australian Cities. The book disdained the anti-suburbanism of elites and offered a much more intelligent assessment of suburbia's strengths, weaknesses and possibilities. His most recent book, Australia Fair (UNSW Press, 2005), addresses the environmental menace and concludes, as I do, that some form of resource rationing will be forced upon us. Reflecting on the great rationing exercises that saw us through World War II and its reconstruction phase, Stretton believes that their success can be repeated: ‘But it is likely to depend, now as then, on three achievements which look unlikely as this is written. We must believe the dangers are real and deadly. We must hope to survive them by radical action, self-restraint and sacrifice. And we must attract the necessary solidarity by a serious reduction of our inequalities.'

Restraint, sacrifice, solidarity: these are words that would shatter the dream of neo-liberal Prometheanism. Generating large consumption cuts is surely the province of the nation state. By electing the Rudd Government, Australians authorised a serious project. So the task of reining in consumption is now theoretically possible. The Garnaut Climate Change Review will outline the prospects in 2008. We may be entering a more sophisticated phase of Prometheanism, hinged on the belief that resource use can be decoupled from economic expansion. I very much doubt it, but at least we have the prospect of a national climate response based on a serious reckoning of the threat.

The terrible scales of natural disruption facing the cities contrast starkly with the fragile institutional systems and meagre resources dedicated to urban resilience. In one sense, planning is the urban Maginot Line, its capacities already sidelined by the global environmental menace. The ACF analysis indicates the moderate influence that urban form – the main object of planning effort – has on energy use and greenhouse emissions. Urban form, however, has a much more potent bearing on household use of, and dependency on, the direct forms of energy – notably oil – that are likely soon to be in scarce supply.

In the fight against global warming, I see planning's prime contribution as urban adaptation in search of climate-resilient cities. This means the creation of urban environments that will withstand the vagaries of a harmed climate and rising resource shortages. Good planning and design can reduce the vulnerability of cities to shortages in key resources – notably water, coal and oil. An immediate and wholesale improvement to public transport in the suburbs is the first planning improvement we should make in our quest for climate resilience. Other insights and possibilities will emerge as we free ourselves from a suburban debate polarised between censure and celebration.

When we reinstate history to urban discussion, we recover the alternative suburban futures discarded by both the Goths and the Dreamers. Outright proscription and simple prescription give way to consideration of new possibilities based on old insights – in this case, perhaps, a suburbia that recovers the values of modesty, solidarity and locality but in new ways. At present, as Patrick Troy, eminent Australian urbanist, points out, the cult of suburban censure is blocking thought on alternative possibilities for suburbia, including the prospect that it may be the landscape best suited to safe adaptation in a warming climate. Its space and greenery offer immediate resources for on-site collection and disposal of water, generation of energy and production of food. Suburbia's adaptive potential has been understated or ignored by commentary and policy. Others are pointing this out to us – renowned international ecologist Herbert Giardet recently told the International Solar Cities Congress in Adelaide: ‘The suburb is perfect for low-energy ... Low density is good for wind and solar power because there's more space to generate locally.'

Suburban scorn weakens more than our ability to think of a way out of the looming crisis. It threatens solidarity by demonising the social mainstream. Aidan Davison argues that anti-suburbanism engenders disenchantment and withdrawal by the (sub)urban civil society that originally gave birth to environmentalism. The wall of hostility raised by suburban critique is hindering the generation of a societal response to global warming and oil depletion. It fails Stretton's tests by unfairly apportioning blame and by undermining the conditions for solidarity.

The suburbs will be the main theatres in the defensive war against global warming, and need to be engaged and treated fairly in the debates and actions that will address climate change and energy insecurity. The first great task of urban adaptation must be a green suburban renovation.

A critical view is invited of the urban environments created by what Clive Hamilton has termed the ‘growth fetish' economy of recent neo-liberalism. These landscapes include the walled estates of civic refusal that pepper our cities, the more environmentally egregious mega-homes, and the vertical sprawl produced by wild, market-driven consolidation. The narcissism of communal gating can't be allowed to continue if we are to rebuild the solidarity needed to confront the stresses ahead. Equally, we must restore material capacity and civic confidence in our suburban exclusion zones.

Maintaining equity, and therefore solidarity, will be critical to the success of mitigation and adaptation strategies. Urban science and policy should ponder how equity is to be maintained in the face of threat, disturbance and displacement. As Steve Biddulph put it recently, ‘we co-operate or die'. Yet co-operation will not thrive without a fair distribution of burden and effort. It is, as Mark Peel states, time to ‘talk of shared sacrifices led by those with most to give'. The ACF consumption maps show us where they live.

A prescient letter to the editor in the Courier-Mail in late 2007 captured the essence of the problem. The letter laments the role of elites in climate debates, including the ‘knowledgeable' and the ‘rich and famous', observing their continued ability to ‘fly their private, corporate or government-funded jets' while the ‘numerous' rest ‘are warned that if the worst does materialise it will be our fault if we do not immediately turn off our air conditioners, use smaller cars, burn less fuel and save all the rainwater we can muster'. Moreover, ‘no rationing is mentioned to bring equitable sharing of the load. So the haves can still outspend the have-nots.'

I doubt the author had read the ACF's report, which is still yet to resonate popularly. But I think the letter's sentiment anticipates a divisive politics that may well emerge when the broader community begins to comprehend that it is the gilded coin, not the dreadful penny, that most bankrupts our climate. While a small part of me cheers the justice of the claim, the outbreak of suburban complaint mostly fills me with dread. We cannot afford yet another obstacle to the task of preparing for what lies ahead. There is an immediate need to promote, and if necessary prescribe, a culture of moderation amongst elites. This will include restraints on the most conspicuously damaging forms of consumption, including air travel and the import of bulky and weighty luxuries.

The latest human Promethean dream may be shattering, but its political and moral legacies will not easily be overcome. Most of our leadership cannot think outside the narrow frame of neo-liberalism. The universities have lost, or had removed, much of their capacity to craft alternative thinking. We are in a situation of serious ethical and intellectual deprivation at a time of peril. It's been a long time since we had faith in the kind of concerted public endeavour that will be needed to bring us to safety. The values of social justice and social solidarity seem quaintly archaic, while the concepts of restraint and modesty seem barmy. These values and ambitions will have to be restored to public life and to institutional purpose if we wish to find a common passage through the coming storm. To begin this restoration, we must rouse ourselves from the Promethean dream and reawaken our most basic human obligations – to each other, to those to come, and to the ecology that will nurture – or at least endure – us all. Without these commitments, society might survive but democracy may not. At worst, Nature may simply decide to go on without us. In an age of ambiguity, we can be sure of one thing: Homo urbanis will meet its destiny in the city.

Selected for Best Australian Political Writing 2009

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