HMS Prince of Wales (left rear) and HMS Repulse (right rear) under Japanese air attack 10 December 1941 as a destroyer desperately manoeuvres in foreground
It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.
~ W. Edwards Deming
A hundred years ago the most dominant nation on Earth was without question Great Britain.
A hundred years ago two American bicycle manufacturers, Orville and Wilbur Wright, had conducted the first powered flight, and this new and eccentric fad – a curiosity, really - was sweeping the world.
In October 1905, exactly a century after their great victory at the Battle of Trafalgar, the British made a momentous decision. At stupendous cost, they laid down the keel for a new ship: His Majesty’s Ship Dreadnought, displacing an unprecedented 18,000 tonnes, carrying ten 12 inch guns, and powered by the new steam turbine engines. She made all other naval fleets obsolete. Just a year and a day after her manufacture commenced, Dreadnought was launched - the first of many ships in the new Dreadnought class.
As the world was beginning to take to the air, Great Britain, in order to protect its international position, engaged in a massive race with Germany to build giant ships – the Dreadnoughts.
The Dreadnought class of ships were so vast that if Germany were to match them, she would have to widen the recently completed Kiel Canal (or, as it was then known, the Kaiser Wilhelm Canal). Britain laid down four of these ships a year, and then five, moving up in 1911 to the Orion class of super dreadnoughts. At the same time, Britain built numerous fast and heavily armed cruisers. Determined to protect her place as the ruler of the waves, and her prestige in the world, Britain did what had worked in the past – built more ships.
The cost of these ships beggars belief. It was by far the largest line item in the British budget, and soaked up about one tenth of the entire government expenditure in the decade leading up to the outbreak of the Great War. Indeed, the dreadnought arms race was a major contributor to the First World War.
Just a generation later, in August 1941, the Prime Minister of Britain, Winston Churchill, met Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the President of the United States, to sign the Atlantic Charter – ensuring American aid for the British war effort.
To do so Churchill chose to travel and meet with Roosevelt on Great Britain’s newest battleship, and one of the largest in the world: the Prince of Wales. At 44,000 tons this was more than twice the size of the largest Dreadnought and seemed invincible. Although the British had built an air force, their largest investment had continued to be in ships.
Shortly afterwards, the British sent the Prince of Wales along with the Repulse to the far east to overawe the Japanese, and to deter them from entering the war. The two ships rendezvoused in Colombo Harbour, in what was then Ceylon.
My father – a private soldier on his way to Singapore – stopped in Colombo harbour at the time, and on his way from the troop ship to the shore, passed close to the side of the Repulse, and could hardly believe a ship could be so huge. He said everyone was supremely confident in the safety of British interests at the sight of that ship – and of course the Prince of Wales was far larger and more modern.
When Japan entered the war (on 8th December Singapore time) Admiral Tom Phillips took the Prince of Wales and the Repulse north from Singapore hoping to disrupt Japanese landings on the Malayan Peninsula. He had no air cover, confident his ships were a match for any aircraft. All historical experience supported his judgment.
At 11 o’clock in the morning on 10th December – just 2 days after hostilities commenced - Japanese aircraft located the Prince of Wales and the Repulse and attacked with bombers and torpedo carrying aircraft. Within 2 hours of the first bombs dropping, the Prince of Wales slipped beneath the waves, taking with her hundreds of crew including Admiral Tom Phillips and Captain Leach.
The Repulse had already gone down 40 minutes earlier. They were the first capital ships ever sunk by aircraft in the open sea. My father was in Singapore when news came of the sinking. Morale plummeted immediately.
Six months later, in May 1942, the new super powers of the United States and Japan fought the Battle of the Coral Sea, in which for the first time in history the opposing ships in a naval battle never sighted each other, and never fired directly at each other, but fought entirely with their aircraft – sinking between them eight ships including two aircraft carriers.
In times of change, the temptation to hold on to old ways – to live in denial – is very strong. More than that, those who have become powerful through that old paradigm will fight to keep their privilege even if it is not good for the nation or the world as a whole.
The British were uncomfortable with air power and even automobiles, because it was ships and trains on which they had built their greatness.
Ever noticed how British aircraft – and the pilots’ uniforms which go with them – are so closely modelled on naval traditions, complete with the gold piping on the sleeves? The interior of early British aircraft copied ships, just as British cars were all too often upholstered like the interior of trains.
In all her pomp and power, Britain retained its fixation on the old ways she knew and which had made her great, and spent vast sums of money on technologies for ships which were already becoming out of date.
It was the loss of the Prince of Wales and Repulse in blue tropical waters off Malaya in 1941, and the loss of so many lives with them – as well as the inevitable loss of Singapore once those ships were gone – that showed Britain and the world that a new age had come – and had already passed Britain by.
A hundred years from now, the most powerful and prosperous nation on Earth will not be a nation which does things the way they’ve been done for the past hundred years.
After the First World War, the Treaty of Versailles shrank the German armed forces to 100,000 men, without tanks or aircraft. The Germans – reduced to field exercises with cardboard cut out tanks mounted on bicycles – rethought the theory of warfare from the ground up.
In 1940, they faced a numerically superior French army – augmented still further by the British Expeditionary Force. The Allies were well-armed, well-trained, well-supplied. They were perfectly prepared - to fight the last war. Instead of the endless trenches, they had the Maginot line. When the Germans attacked, the Allies rushed north to meet what they were sure was an updated version of the 1914 Schlieffen Plan attack through Belgium.
And fell straight into a trap.
The Germans had revolutionised armoured warfare. They took just hours to break through the Maginot line at Sedan, in the south.
And then – contrary to the Allies’ expectations – they did not stop to laboriously consolidate ground they had won, but in just ten days sliced straight through the Allied lines of communications, through battlefields where their fathers had fought and died for four years - all the way across France to the English Channel, dividing the French army in half and only narrowly preventing the British army from escape.
The very success of the Allies two decades earlier sowed the seeds for their dramatic defeat in 1940, and it took years of hard fighting for them to learn this new kind of war for themselves.
Past success can inhibit future innovation.
In the 1930s Tasmania harnessed hydro power in the State, and was able to achieve some real success by way of industrialisation of the island State.
The initial success made this the unquestioned model for future action. There were a couple of modest initial projects, and then more dams were built.
And yet more dams.
Finally, in spite of the declaration of a national park around Lake Pedder, in spite of its remoteness from areas of industry, in spite of the great cost of engineering works in so remote a location, and in spite of negligible power to be generated by a dam, it became known that this area, and the Gordon River, would be flooded.
Spurred by early benefits, the plan was to make Tasmania – so far from the major population centres of the world – the Ruhr of the south. As now seems obvious with hindsight, it was daft. Vast sums of public money were spent to build dams, in increasingly remote places and with less and less power generation.
With the plan to flood Lake Pedder, in which a priceless jewel was drowned to create a mere 27 megawatts of power (the difference from the scheme which would not flood the lake) it became clear that the dam building program was out of control, bankrupting Tasmania financially and destroying the very assets that made people love their State.
That dam went ahead, but massive opposition to the next project – the Franklin Dam – meant that in 1983 that dam was finally stopped, and with it, the power of the HEC in Tasmania.
Success can be a millstone around our necks. It can reinforce behaviour that worked in the past but will not work in the future. Sometimes our very success blinds us to the future we want.
History shows us again and again that it is very hard to prevail against comfort. And yet today, that is just what we need to do.
If you’d asked the British in 1905 whether there wasn’t a better way to spend all that money going into the dreadnought program, they would have said – “Look at the position our naval strength has given us. How can you suggest this is not the best thing for us to do?”
If you had said to them “Air power is the way of the future: instead of spending all this money on huge ships, why not become a world leader in aircraft?” they might have answered: “We’ll believe you when you can show one of these glorified box kites made of sticks and wire covered in doped linen can sink one of our ships.”
But when air power did do that, it was all too late.
In cases I have appeared in involving house fires, firemen have given evidence of an extraordinary phenomenon when some people are caught in a burning house. Frequently, when someone is deadlocked in their house and can’t get out, the fireman breaking in finds that person reacting to their impending doom in a strange way – by doing something very mundane and normal. So a woman caught in her burning house will take the broom and carefully sweep the kitchen floor.
Confronted by the unexpected, confronted by failure, too often our reaction is to try harder at the things that have worked before, rather than trying something different. All too often that means just digging a deeper hole for ourselves.
Edwards Deming took the Japanese industrial system – in ruins following the Second World War – and revived it into one of the most innovative production systems on Earth. One of the many useful things he said was: “It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.”
Right now, the planet is in meltdown. Financially, and environmentally.
Financially, we are looking for the confidence we have lost. We want more confidence in our markets. But in fact overconfidence – misplaced confidence – has got the markets where they are now.
By all means let us have confidence – but confidence not for its own sake, but built on a sure foundation. In order to have a sure foundation, some facts should be squarely faced.
There is no escaping the change which is coming at us now.
We have just had Arctic sea ice retreat to its historic minimum, and gushing methane from thawed tundra is bubbling up through the Arctic Sea.
According to the Bureau of Meteorology, Victoria’s average temperature is now 1 degree warmer than it was in 1950, and almost 2 degrees warmer than in 1900 – that’s equivalent to moving the whole State 400 kilometres closer to the equator. With each degree of temperature rise, we lose about 15% of stream flow.
Our climate is changing – and Victoria’s faster than the world average.
This is happening as a direct result of the burning of fossil fuels, and logging our forests which are vast carbon stores.
We have done comfortably from exporting coal, but that coal is now causing terrible changes in our world.
Our lifestyle is the envy of the world, but it is costing us the Earth.
A move to a carbon-neutral economy is inevitable, and we can either do it on our terms, or have it forced on us.
There are many statements that parade as wisdom in relation to this issue, but amount to no more than a desire to hang onto a past that is finished, such as these three:
“Coal will inevitably be our main source of power for decades to come”
As if we have no choice in the matter.
“Coal is too cheap to replace”
Just like asbestos?
Or this actual quote from John McCain during the 2008 presidential election campaign:
“Now, I believe — and you know, and you do, too — that we need to control emissions. But I’m not going to let our coal industry go bankrupt. I’m not going to tell — I’m not going to let coal workers lose their jobs. And I’m not going to let energy prices increase any more for our families.”
In other words – I’m not going to have any change, any uncomfortable reality. This is the modern equivalent of King Canute trying to hold back the tide.
And that's nothing compared with the current crop of Republican candidates.
Australia should now aim to be a global beacon for carbon-free living. Moves to hang onto the old ways, like giving the coal industry hundreds of millions of dollars for the smoke and mirrors of carbon capture, are just part of the old paradigm.
Hanging on to the past too strongly condemns us to becoming victims of the future and the change the future will bring. I do not suggest we forget the past or devalue our past. Being true to ourselves means remembering our past – who we are – while at the same time being open to change.
That rich openness to the world as it should be means being vulnerable and at times uncomfortable – both as people and organisations. But from that vulnerability springs the greatest creativity.
Confronted by the great challenges of our time, our approach to the future can achieve not merely change, but inner transformation – in a way that greatly enriches not just our future – but all our lives.
Happy new year.