June 26, 2008 | Ronda Jambe

Back in the Harness – with Clathrates

Another stint in the good ol’ public service. But my mind is elsewhere. On clathrates, to be quite precise.
And I sure hope I am not the first one to mention this to you, because you’ll be hearing a lot more about them, and it is not good news. But there is some good news, on the humble scale of our revered public sector.
For the past year I’ve been cheekily dodging questions about my work status. ‘I’m not retired, I’m just deinstitutionalised’ is my line. Sometimes I just say the reason they call it REtirement is because you are tired again. No rest for the wicked, etc, just keep moving, and the busi-ness shall set you free.
But it was time for a change of pace, and a certain pride welled up after missing out on a temp job. Surely I am not totally unemployable? Having spent more years in post-secondary education than in K-12, with more degrees than a thermometer, surely it must be possible to get paid for something?
But as my HR expert friend has often pointed out, the skills shortage is with the employers, not the employees.
When a temporary job popped up, ironically at a higher base salary than I ever got when fully employed, I gave it a go. So this week I have found myself back in the trenches, plodding to work everyday, the very model of a modern public servant.
Lo and behold, nothing has changed, not really, not ever. Except maybe that the staff has gotten younger, both junior and the higher ups. Or is that a deception of my perspective, like the way men seem to have become more polite and don’t make such amusing fools of themselves fawning for my favours any more…but I drift.
There is some confusion, at least in my mind, about exactly what I am meant to do. And there is some uncertainty about how the whole task fits together. But never mind, I jump right in and try to add value where ever I can. Everyone is kind and friendly, and just when I think that being away from home all day might lead to a trimming of the waist, the counters are laid with a lavish morning tea.
By day four I am starting to relax a bit, appreciating the chats with the interesting younger staff. They all seem to have hobbies, backgrounds that are quite different to mine. One is keen to talk about Barcelona, which bowled me over last year. Another has been a television producer, and knows a lot about film making.
And then there are the old colleagues, who have either remained or returned, and we share a few catch-ups about where various others have gone. It is collegial, and there is an air of professionalism and confidence. This particular department is certainly up-beat, part of the future, part of an Australia that isn’t ashamed of itself.
The report I am assisting with (Commonwealth codes of conduct strictly prohibit any discussion about it outside the workplace, and I am truly grateful to be in a country that values integrity) will hopefully be useful, after the dust has settled and the structure and content become clearer. Its rhetoric will reflect a mature nation, and will go beyond arguments about welfare vs market forces, while striving to improve social access and equity. Working with these competent, knowledgable people, I am able to believe that. I don’t think the money spent on their salaries, or my brief contract, will be wasted. I hope not.
But at night, bleary after staring at a screen all day in an over-heated, artificially lit building, I am confronted again by the distant whisper that is steadily turning to a roar. Yesterday’s Canberra Times cover talked about the oceans dying, and the dead zones with no oxygen that are growing. The SMH and Australian didn’t even mention it in their inner pages. I’m reading Fred Pearce’s The Last Generation, which is mostly about climate change. He is a leading science journalist, well known to readers of New Scientist.
Which bring us circuitously back to clathrates. This is methane frozen under the sea, and there are gazillions of it, all starting to let this powerful greenhouse gas bubble up into the air.
Because I’ve studied complex systems, Pearce’s points ring true. Climate, he tells us, quoting from leading scientists in the global warming field, is more likely to make abrupt changes than gradual ones. It is an angry beast, one scientist says, and we are poking it with sticks. The front of the book catalogs some of these. And, like Tim Flannery’s Weather Makers, I am reading this 2 years after its publication. Some of his warning have now become sad truths, like events at the poles and tropical fires. And the release, gradual so far, but potentially explosive, of clathrates.
This week I’ve been going to the gym at 7 am, part of this new schedule, which is thankfully only going to last a month. But there is no frost, not even in late June. And there is certainly no rain. The overnight temperatures are higher, the daytime temperatures fairly mild. I tell a young fellow who moved here from Melbourne that Canberra used to be much prettier. He says Victoria is much dryer than in his childhood.
It feels kind of comforting to plod along in a job again, to walk to Manuka at lunchtime along with lots of other quietly dressed and well-mannered civil servants. I am reminded of the many years I spent in the Parliamentary Triangle, feeling reasonably good about being part of the Government, a good cog.
But the unease won’t go away, complacency always escapes me. I want to embrace the fine young people, warn them, help them run away to another planet, work with them to avert the disasters I keep reading about, the messes that lie ahead that even good bureaucracies won’t be able to fix. Don’t they realise carbon trading isn’t enought? Again I’m glad to not be young, I’ve had a wonderful natural world for most of my life. But instead we chat over morning tea, and we get to know each other a bit. Soon enough, I’ll be gone.

Posted by Ronda Jambe at 7:01 pm | Comments Off on Back in the Harness – with Clathrates |
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