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A letter to my great-grandparents

Originally written on March 22, 2015

Dear William and Theresa

We’ve never met, but please bear with me. I’m Scott, one of your many great-great-grandchildren.

I am writing to you from the year 2015. I have a lot to tell you, but first of all, I want to thank you both for your efforts to emigrate to Australia, and to work hard to make a better life for your children and their descendants. Theresa, your diary from 1860 has survived through until now, and from my vantage point, it makes for fascinating reading.

In your day, it took about 10 days to travel to Melbourne, and you sent your wool clip down the river to Adelaide because there were no railways as yet. In 2015, the journey to Melbourne takes under a day – and while we still have railways, we have personal transport we call cars. These cars run on petroleum, and are able to travel at speeds of over 100 miles per hour.

Of course, this means that horses are no longer very important in most places. They are still around, but are mostly ridden for recreation, as in this day and age it is expensive to keep one. By the same token, the river steamers exist for recreation, but first the railways, and then a variation on the cars I mentioned (called trucks) now carry most of the freight in Australia.

New South Wales and the other British colonies united into one nation called Australia in 1901. It took a lot of negotiation and compromise to get there, but in the long run has proven to be a good idea in general terms. We now have both a Federal Parliament, State Parliaments, and what in your day were roads boards are now local governments.

As you might imagine, a lot of other stuff has changed too. Theresa, you mentioned in your diary that some Aboriginal people came to your house (an idea I'd contest) one day and threatened your family. Well, it could be said that threat is over. Sadly, due to the never-ending greed of British and other European settlers, many of these people – and especially their traditional way of life – have suffered immensely. They had their lands taken away from them, and many more died of disease and malnutrition. In recent decades, a lot of effort has gone into trying to improve their lot in life, but after so much damage was done, it is going to take a long period of time to heal.

In part as a result of this, we are no longer able to ask the Aboriginal people about things we would now like answers to, especially when it comes to the natural environment. We suffer increasing amounts of wild weather events, and less predictable weather makes it very hard for grazing and other agricultural pursuits to continue developing. In drought years, many people lose their properties. We have cut down the majority of our forests, and have lost a lot of topsoil and fertility as a result. Even worse, we have discovered that in doing so, that the water table under the land has risen, but it has carried salt up with it, which has poisoned thousands of square miles of land. And when we have bushfires, they burn with increasing strength and intensity.

The trouble was that it took many decades for the impacts of this to become obvious, and even when it was noticed, there were some who ignored it. Human nature has not changed much – it’s easier to blame someone or something else than to admit we were wrong, and to take corrective action.

On the plus side, now that the problem has been recognized, people are working hard together to turn things around. There are still people who want to hold to the old ways – often in government – but there has been a lot of pressure applied by recent generations to save what is left of the original bush. Farmers like yourselves (including your great-grandson Simon) are involved in planting trees in large numbers, and in recording what they observe about changes to the landscape, and the way that plants, animals and weather interact with each other.

I mentioned that people lost their properties a few sentences ago, but in 2015, there is much more support for people who have fallen on bad times. Whether this is a good thing or not is subject to ongoing debate, but over the years a consensus has formed in Australia that the country overall does better if we work together to try to provide equal opportunity to everyone. This does not mean that everyone benefits equally, and there is still a gap between wealth and poor.

William, I can well imagine that this news does not suit you at all. The idea of the Palmers, who are well below you in social status, being able to rise according to their own efforts, and getting a seat at the table, may be repugnant to you. You may also be wondering how such a state of events came about.

I think it stems from a few things. Firstly, you are no doubt aware of the republican ideals that the United States of America talks a lot about in your day. Well, by my time, the United Kingdom still exists, but the British Empire is more or less finished. The United States is now far and away the dominant world power, and its rise has led to the spread of its democratic ideals far and wide. On balance, I think that is a good thing for the world.

Theresa’s diary mentions that you have lost staff to the goldfields. You both make a living out of selling beef to the miners, and no doubt Gideon has told you all about the diggings. You may also have heard about the Eureka Stockade in Ballarat, where the miners stood up against Governor Hotham’s forces. Well, the economic boom which that created turned Melbourne into one of the richest cities in the entire world – but once again greed took over.

The bust that followed the boom was horrifically bad – banks collapsed in their dozens, and there was ongoing industrial action. people starved to death, and died from epidemics of typhoid, tuberculosis and even bubonic plague in the poorer parts of Melbourne and Sydney. . After a lot of struggle and violence, over time, wages and conditions improved for the working class.

And then, in the 20th century, all the different variations of capitalism and democracy faced two huge challenges that united them. The first came from something called fascism, which combined a strong central government with a belief in the idea that only certain races of people deserved to be free to live life as they wished to.  This belief suggested that all other people should be subservient to that idea, and to know their place. 

This may appeal to you, as after all, white people are genetically superior, right? Well, that’s not a popular point of view in my day (nor with me personally). The subject has been studied, and no conclusive proof of any difference in intelligence has been found between different races of human being after other variables were accounted for.

And in any case, in practice what it meant was, at best, that the laws of the land were broken in favour of the “right” people getting what they wanted. At worst, it led to children spying upon their parents, secret police everywhere, and executions without trial.

The democracies faced a bitter battle to overcome the fascist powers, and both the working and employing classes realised that they needed to put their differences aside to defeat the common enemy. It took, in the words of a famous politician of that time “blood, sweat and tears”.

The next big challenge came from the opposite end of the political scale – the idea that the workers should own everything, called communism. In practice, it meant that the government owned everything. Virtually all private property was confiscated, and all attempts to improve one’s lot in life were banned. As a result, nobody put much effort into everything, and the government stepped in with force and secret police again, in order to meet “production targets”. This time around, there were no major war, but there could well have been.

So, while things are not perfect, the nation that New South Wales became a part of (Australia) has become a far more meritocratic place. My mother’s side of the family in 2015 are of Irish Catholic origin – they landed just a few years after you did, fleeing the potato famines in Ireland. They had a very difficult life for over a century – and it was only the gradual changes in Australian society that made things better for them. My grandfather studied at night school after working all day, in order to become an engineer. In doing so, he contributed to a brighter future for his children, and to his community.

While this may be anathema to you both, from my perspective in 2015, it was the only viable solution in the long run. But rather than labour the point, please find attached a poem by someone who became rather famous in Australia for expressing this point of view. I hope you will think upon it, and I look forward to hearing your views. (http://www.poetrylibrary.edu.au/poets/lawson-henry/the-fire-at-ross-s-farm-0002036)

All of this turbulence has led to really big changes in society. Theresa, you may be delighted to know that women in my day have a lot more freedom, at least in Australia and other democratic nations. Women can vote freely, they can live by themselves, they choose who (or even if) they wish to marry. Also, in recent years, women have been encouraged to gain further education – and they have taken to it in increasing numbers. They also tend to do better at it than men – there have been more female University graduates overall than men for at least the past 20 years in Australia. You’ll be pleased to hear too that women’s clothing is far more comfortable in 2015 – there is no longer any need to wear a corset, or a bonnet, or many of the other things required in society in 1860.

Also, many adult women work outside the home now. Part of this is because social expectations have changed so much since 1860 – and technology has allowed the shift. We have labour saving machines which take a lot of the time and effort out of everyday housework, from cooking to washing clothes. Ironically, though, while this takes less time, the cost of housing has gone through the roof (pardon the pun), and often means that women do “double duty” i.e. they work full-time hours outside the home , and then need to come home and do housework. This is something society in 2015 still struggles with.

Not all of the changes have been good. Many men no longer bother with being gentlemanly – indeed, some claim it is a lost art – and others suggest that women have brought it upon themselves with pushing for equality. I’m not one of these people, but it can be confusing for both men and women in 2015 to work out what is appropriate behaviour, as the rules seem to be in constant flux. As always, showing patience and adapting one’s behaviour to a given context is the way to go. I also think that showing some level of manners and courtesy is important for both men and women.

Religion is also not the centre of life as it used to be. I’m not sure why this is so, but I guess when people started to question the validity of how they were ruled, and the overall structure of power and influence in society, they questioned many other things, too. Sadly, this leaves many people without much concept of moral guidance, and they display greed, avarice, and sloth on a daily basis.

Another big change has been in relation to people of other races. While Australia used to be “British to its bootstraps”, that view has faded for several reasons. The catalyst for the change was that Great Britain was in imminent danger of being invaded during one of those wars I mentioned. It turned out that it could not defend itself and its entire Empire simultaneously, which meant that Australia itself came under attack. As a result of this catastrophe, the nation asked the United States for assistance, which came to help in the nick of time.

As a result of this, many American ideals are no longer seen as “ridiculous” or “strange”, but have instead been accepted by many Australians. All of those wars meant that people who otherwise had had nothing to do with each other previously had to find a way to communicate, and to unite to defeat the enemy. In practical terms, this meant that white Australians fought side-by-side with Aboriginal and Chinese soldiers. Over time, one of the consequences of this was a realization that we are all human, and while we have different customs and languages, ultimately we have a lot in common.

In fact, I have married a Japanese woman. Mention of Mrs. Ryoma reminds me that I should hasten to add that the eternal issues between men and women have not gone away. The two genders are still having trouble understanding each other, and this topic is now widely discussed in various circles. Adding in both cultural differences and language gaps makes things even more challenging, but with love and patience we find a way to understand each other.

In 2015, there are over 140 different nationalities living in Australia, and for the most part, people get along well. There are laws banning discrimination on the basis of race, religion, gender, age and so on. And given that the United Kingdom now trades mostly with other European countries, so too does Australia mostly trade with Asian ones. In fact, Australians often take holidays in Asia, while thousands of Asian young people come to study at our universities.  

Another thing is that democracy has spread to many of these countries, making more peaceful relations a lot easier. There is still corruption and malfeasance, but for the most part, Asia is making steady progress on all fronts of human endeavour. The nations doing best economically are those which had high levels of social trust even before contact with Western ideals – and these include Taiwan (Formosa), Japan, and Korea (its southern half – the north is still communist, still starving its people, and still belligerent).

These countries tend to have lower costs than Western nations, so a lot of the world’s manufacturing is done there. Many Western countries struggle with this idea, but it is part of what allows Australia to export food and education in such large amounts. It has several effects – the cost of many goods, from clothing to transport, are much cheaper relative to wages than they used to be. But it also means that there is much more competition for investment in new industries.

The cost of education is much higher as a result of this – given that the Western countries no longer rely on their citizens’ muscles as much, they need to rely on their brains instead. In 1860, only a small percentage of people in Australia completed high school, and only a handful went to University. Now, most people complete high school, and 25%of the population hold University degrees – including me!

Research into many fields has expanded exponentially, leading to huge advances in most fields. The most promising one has been health. In your day, life expectancy in New South Wales was around 50 for both males and females; in 2015, people can expect to live (on average) to 84 for females, and 80 years of age for men. And the treatments for many medical conditions have improved radically too – the majority of infectious diseases are no longer deadly killers. A campaign to ensure that children are immunized against these diseases has been ongoing for decades, and has been the main contributor to much lower levels of infant mortality. There is a recent push by some people against this campaign though: they claim that they should be allowed to treat their own children as they wish, and that governments have no right to interfere in people’s lives to this extent.

I am somewhat sympathetic to the broader idea in a general sense, but not on this topic, as the health outcomes speak for themselves. But politics continues in this day and age, and is depressingly polarised. Politicians themselves continue to be held in low regard. To be fair to them, though, maybe part of the problem is that they are dealing with the law of diminishing returns. In your day, the challenges were around trying to develop industries, and to build infrastructure that would make life easier. Now, to a greater degree, those tasks are done, and governments are trying to deal with problems that stem from human stupidity.

An example is that the diseases which kill most Australians now are heart disease and cancer. Both have genetic tendencies to them, which means that some people are more susceptible, but in fact, most of the problem stems from people’s daily habits. Food is much cheaper than it used to be, especially more unhealthy food full of sugar and salt. Many people no longer work in physical occupations, and our labour-saving machines also obviate the need to exert ourselves. As a result, many people do not get enough exercise. Those who do, ironically, often pay large amounts to other people to make them exercise enough – health and fitness is a big industry in cities across the world in 2015.

Theresa, you are correct about nagging William not to smoke – research done between your time and mine has proven conclusively that smoking tobacco leads directly to lung and other cancers, and heart disease. Sadly, many women took up smoking in the 20th century to assert their right to equality with men – and the sad result has been that they have now been dying in equal numbers to men from these diseases.

I think that’s about enough. If you are able to, please write back. I enclose a modern pen
with this letter, it should last for many months, and it is much faster and easier than writing with a quill and inkwell.

Yours with respect,

Ryoma.

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