Why Dick Smith Matters

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Words || Joel Karanikas

There are many reasons we should be talking about Dick Smith. For any true Australian he is an icon, a warm, nationally unifying, vigorously Aussie now 76-year-old entrepreneur whose many ventures – including founding Australian Geographic – embody the best possible qualities of patriotism, intelligence, and philanthropic service. 

Though it might sound futile, the memory of having Dick Smith branding stuck on food products in your fridge is instructive. If you remember, not too long ago Aldi, supported by low overseas labour costs, pushed Dick Smith Foods under, and the iconic entrepreneur waxed emotional over the victory of a corporate logo hatched in Germany.

His “OzEmite,” an alternative to the then foreign-owned Vegemite sold to us with false Australiana, seemed irrelevant after Vegemite was bought by Bega Cheese in 2017. There were those who dismissed him as a ‘one trick pony,’ blaming competitors and customers for his own failures even as Australian companies returned to the market, and yet their optimism didn’t age too well. In order to compete with foreign companies, Australian ones had to imitate them. This, Dick Smith said, leads to abandonment of product diversity, staff and the old Australian culture of profit sharing – the idea that once any “young Australian could begin their working lives stacking shelves.”

Yet despite being a multimillionaire, 1986 Australian of the Year, legendary aviator and popular choice for Australian President during the 1995 referendum debate, Dick Smith’s more recent political activism – centred around sustainability – has left him in a quite lonely corner. He seemed perhaps too important to attack directly, so the media and political class politely ignored him, after a rare and brief population debate in the Gillard years.

The tragedy of Dick Smith Foods is part of a familiar story known as globalisation. In the 1980s, “extreme capitalism,” as Dick Smith calls it, expanded over the world, fuelled by deregulation, debt, the rush for low prices and lower labor costs, and most importantly, the intensive plundering of the planet.

This could not have happened at a worse time, because at some point in the 1970s, humanity exceeded its share of natural capital. In other words, we reached ecological overshoot, as our demand for Earth’s assets, like forests and fisheries (called the ecological footprint), outstripped the supply that could be renewed in a year (called biocapacity). Since 2006, Global Overshoot Day has commemorated the bankruptcy of a civilisation that runs an ecological deficit of around 60% – we would need 1.75 Earths to sustainably meet our demands. Frighteningly, the overshoot calculation vastly underestimates our real damage on planet Earth, as it doesn’t even address the way in which we satisfy those incredible ecological demands, like degrading soil and overusing water.

This is why the neoliberal expansion of the 1980s was arguably the worst thing ever to occur. It was the decade of Ronald Reagan and Wall Street’s ‘Greed is good’ ethos. As environmental writer Bill McKibben says, because of Reagan’s worldview, “we repudiated the idea of limits altogether; we laughed at the idea that there are limits to growth.” 

It’s not like we weren’t warned either. The Limits to Growth report by the Club of Rome of 1972 found that at then current levels of growth, humanity would likely reach the limits of growth in the 2020s and therefore collapse within 100 years. It was not an obscure report; in fact it sold 30 million copies, inspired China’s one child policy, and led to energy conservation efforts in the US. 

This raises a profound question. Can humans – once given the magic of fossil fuel energy – resist the temptation to use up the Earth? Or are we too greedy? Was the 1980s a real-life Garden of Eden?

This is where Dick Smith comes in. His message of a stabilised population, growth in quality of life and a more sustainable, Australian-based industry is undoubtedly a popular, albeit rarely articulated, sentiment. But we might also ponder the fact that Dick Smith Foods went under ultimately because 99% of Australians chose cheaper, foreign brands. We aren’t doing much to stop small Australian businesses from collapsing, with retailers going down by one a month in 2019 due to foreign competition, while the dairy industry has shrunk and struggled as imported products dominate the shelves.

On the other hand, even those advocating ‘buy Australian’ probably don’t want to think about the impact of tariffs; for example, trade means our clothes are 14% cheaper.

This is why any return to the local and the small requires a rethinking of our whole economic system. To do this, we might, following Dick Smith, distinguish ‘growth’ from ‘capitalism.’ The religion of growth is not unique to capitalism, holding as much sway over 20th century communist regimes. Today’s socialists, too, seem to ignore the ecological perils of population and resource-use growth, believing that material abundance is the bedrock of a socialist society. “It’s the obvious but forbidden truth: on a finite and already swollen planet, we can’t expand indefinitely,” Dick Smith wrote in The Age in 2011.

The growth mania is a near-hermetic wall of silence; in 2010, Smith published the $1 million ‘Wilberforce Award’ for any young Australian who gained media attention for advocating against endless growth. The lucrative prize, destined for a modern ‘Gandhi,’ was never picked up. The media, with its hegemonic power over public discourse, hardly lets these heresies seep in.

Ultimately Dick Smith’s limits-to-growth message is about repudiating the greed driving our suicidal growth and caring about all life, human and otherwise. While he advocates lowering our immigration take, he also wants a larger and more humanitarian refugee settlement program. There’s a quality about Dick Smith that is admittedly old-fashioned yet undeniably anodyne. Not just his unique, iconic self-branding, but even more the desire to see Australia as a family again, a small, stable, diverse and cohesive community in which human quality of life and love of nature take hold and rebuff the empty consumerist promises of a planet-plundering growth-based capitalism. 

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