Tom, Barbara, some chickens and their sports utility vehicles


If you want to live the good life in the twenty-first century, seek out one of the dozens of communities in the vastness of Australia where the sixties never went sour. This, the lifestyle gurus and student travel guides will tell you, is where ‘alternative’ lifestyles have evolved, supporting small economies based around flotation tanks, craft stores, and organic cafes. Think smoking incense, mud-encrusted organic vegetables, too much homemade jewellery and too many hanging crystals, and you’ve pretty much got it.

We are, of course, talking about Byron country. It’s full of towns funded by tourism that stay alive by offering expensive refuge to temporary escapees from the everyday life they disdain. Every State in Australia has them. They call themselves alternative communities, but they’re just alternative complacencies. Group delusion is an important part of the appeal. Without the sustaining, ‘alternative’ beliefs, the beads and henna are just jewellery and makeup.

These places don’t give Australia a foot in the new century, they use hemp to rope it to the old one.

Hippyuppies, it’s time to come clean. Take a cold shower. Living a truly good life is not about dropping out and waiting table in a co-operatively-run café on the coast that serves gluten-free muffins. The sea-change is just a me-change. Our world is at crunch time “ we face environmental disasters like global warming, salinity and the radical loss of biodiversity; the rampant spread of AIDS and other pandemics; and a collapse of the international system of law and order. Turning your back on all this “ and more “ is the worst, the least ethical, thing you can do.

Real ethics is about understanding the world we live in, what makes it click and turn, and why it is the way it is. Only by doing that can we take the kind of decisions that will really make a difference to our world, make it a better place to raise our children. Why else would ‘ethics’ and ‘values’ be such hot topics right now, at a time when the world feels like such a dangerous and repulsive place? Because when people feel threatened, they swim together or drown apart. Mafia boss Tony summed it up in The Sopranos as he smacked his smack-head cousin in the chops: ‘You think you’re in this alone?’ Tony’s value system may be a bit twisted, but you can’t deny he’s engaged.

As the twenty-first century progresses and gets even more threatening and frightening, expect the media to focus even harder on questions of ethics and values. Want to join a growth industry? Forget merchant banking, become a professional ethicist.

Real ethics – or moral philosophy, to give it the dull, academic title – is about considering our choices. Choices involve understanding. And understanding is a dynamic process, not a once-and-for-all decision to quit the rat race. Getting involved in the world around you, in the complexity of issues, the horrendous difficulty of being a viable human being in the twenty-first century, is the only way we will be able to forge real values for our selves, our families and our communities.

Forget the rhetoric about uniquely ‘Australian’ values like ‘mateship’ and ‘fair go’. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone in the world, Australian or not, who’d disagree with that anodyne garbage. What’s really important is figuring out where you stand on global warming and your sports utility vehicle (SUV). Are you making the world hotter every time you drive the kids to school in a tank? Where do you stand on the progress of science and the control of nanotechnology? Or how to make our system of democracy more “ well, democratic.

Once you’ve figured out where you stand, ask yourself one more question.

What are you going to do about it?

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.