Valedictory Address 2012
This address was delivered at a Farewell Morning Tea on Friday 15 June, 2012 in the School of History, Philosophy, Religion and Classics Tearoom (Forgan Smith E318) at the University of Queensland.
Thank you all for coming along, and for your good wishes for the next part of life’s adventure. I have had a great time at the University of Queensland (UQ), which is where I have spent more than half my academic life, which totals nearly 40 years.
This is perhaps a suitable moment to reflect on a life which has indeed been fortunate—in comparison with the life which Bert Facey characterized as “fortunate” my own has been not merely fortunate, but multiply blessed. 
I will reflect not only on my life at UQ, but also more expansively (in Douglas Adams’ memorable phrase) on “Life, the Universe and Everything”—what else would expect from a philosopher?
My former colleague the late Ian Hinckfuss gave a farewell address here about 15 years ago, in which he remarked that he had had the good fortune to have never had to shoot at anyone, or to be shot at by anyone. I am grateful that the same is true of me, though there was one occasion when a handgun was deliberately discharged in my direction—certainly one the most electrifying (and terrifying) experiences of my life. I got a bit closer to combat than Hinck, though, when my birthday was drawn in the conscription ballot for military service, way back in 1965. However I was found to be medically unfit for the army (there was no doubt about my lack of temperamental fitness)—and that was another fortunate episode in a fortunate life.
I have been privileged in lots of ways: temporally, geographically, educationally, and materially. (I could go on.) All of us are privileged to live at the present time. Were one to have to choose a time and a place to live from behind a Rawlsian veil of ignorance I do not think you could do much better than Australia in the second half of the 20th and the first half of the 21st centuries. Life one or two centuries (or millennia) earlier was a whole lot tougher. For most of us here and now, our needs for nutrition, shelter, education, employment, safety, health care and social support are pretty well provided for. Just think back to the quite recent past—to times of surgery without general anaesthetics, or dentistry without novocaine. The industrial world has delivered us not only from morbidity, pain, and premature death, but also from chronic (and often acute) resource scarcity. We are the lucky ones living in the Age of Profligacy. We probably belong to the luckiest generations that ever lived, and quite possibly the luckiest generations that ever will live. As George Monbiot has said, “we inhabit the brief historical interlude between ecological constraint and ecological catastrophe”. 
In a century or two, or maybe less, life may be a whole lot tougher once again. Our children and our grandchildren will see the return of scarcity. We, and much more they, will have to negotiate peak oil, peak phosphorus, peak fish, and maybe peak water and peak food—all of these as the global human population spikes upwards towards 10 billion. (A world with 7 billion humans and 700 gorillas—that is, where we outnumber the gorillas ten million to one—is a world out of balance.) There are good reasons to be apprehensive about tough times ahead, but most of us here have the very good fortune that we will probably be dead (almost certainly from natural causes) before it gets really serious. In the words of Hanrahan, the quintessential Irish pessimist from my favourite Australian bush poet, John O'Brien, "We'll all be rooned". 
We will probably have to confront some austerity in our lifetimes: the introduction of carbon-neutral agriculture and carbon-neutral industry will present significant (but probably manageable) challenges. Modern agriculture, as Al Bartlett has said, is “the use of land to convert petroleum into food”.  That mode of production becomes problematic when the oil runs out. But at least none of us here will have to face the problem of coping with tens of millions of climate refugees: that will be a problem for our great-grandchildren.
Life on earth of course is not threatened by anything we do—Gaia has suffered far more serious insults than any that humanity can inflict on her. (For more about Gaia see my Gaia Theory: Reflections on Life on Earth (2010).) What is threatened is not life, but human civilization—which is a shame, because civilization has enhanced human life profoundly, making us all privileged not just materially and socially, but also epistemically. The Enlightenment project of using reason to make sense of the world, and to locate us intelligibly and satisfyingly in the complex web of contingencies that constitute history, has been a lot of fun, and has greatly improved the human condition. The collapse of civilization would make the world a less agreeable and a less interesting place in many ways. 
The post-Enlightenment epoch is a period of epistemic privilege because we have gained knowledge of the nature and structure of the material world in depth and detail that is unique, astonishing and profoundly satisfying. We understand why the stars shine. We understand (as Bertrand Russell beautifully expressed it ) a little “of the Pythagorean power by which number holds sway above the flux”—that is, mathematical physics. We have a good idea of the size, mass, and age of the universe. We understand the chemical elements and their valence properties and the chemical bonds which determine the properties of material objects. We understand a lot about the structure and processes of life and living systems, and their origins, at many levels of biological organization. Moreover this vast range of empirical and cultural capital is pretty much instantly and continuously accessible through marvellous technologies which connect us to a pervasive (and mostly reliable) web of information. These words were composed on the keyboards of three different platforms in various places, stored somewhere in the digital cloud of the noösphere, and then downloaded onto this tablet. Magic—courtesy of Steve Jobs and other modern wizards!
The Enlightenment project of course is not complete. Lots of deep and challenging puzzles remain. Some will probably never be solved. There is plenty of work to be done, expanding knowledge and addressing the political and economic task of creating and securing a sustainable civilized future; a task about which I remain cautiously pessimistic. There is a division of intellectual labour in furthering the human adventure—as well as the empirical task of securing knowledge, there is the task of interrogating and transmitting the vision and the values which we will need to secure a vibrant and sustainable future. The humanities in general, and philosophy in particular, have a vital role to play in this task.
For many reasons this has been a good time to be around. Moving away from the universal to the personal, I am educationally fortunate to have been an undergraduate in the happy days when students had time for an education that was not blighted by a relentless barrage of assessment. Gen Y just does not know how student life was once, and perhaps ought to be, lived. I have been fortunate also to experience the bizarre—sometimes captivating, sometimes tedious—anachronism of Cambridge college life.
I have also been fortunate to have had a career—at four different universities—in which I have engaged in reflective rational engagement with interesting problems, and with interesting colleagues. (There is some overlap here: some of the colleagues have also been problems—present company is excluded of course.) And much of my academic career took place at a time when a collegial academic ethos prevailed, rather than the managerial model which has steadily and relentlessly impoverished the quality of academic life. (Yes, I am moving into the old fogey-period of life when one becomes grumpy and looks back fondly on a golden age, now gone forever. Even nostalgia is not what it used to be!)
It seems that in a lot of ways in my life, and in my career, I have hit the sweet spot. Now it is time for some generational change, and I am delighted that as I depart a process is in train to appoint a chair in philosophy at UQ. Over the last six years the University of Queensland has been the only Australian 'Group of Eight (Go8)' university to lack a chair in philosophy. To put it no more strongly, this has been a regrettable anomaly, and I am delighted that this anomaly is now being addressed and will soon be rectified. A search a couple of years ago revealed that the other seven Go8 universities had 28 philosophy professors between them; no doubt there have been appointments and retirements, but this number is probably fairly stable.
Well, I am now an official member of what my Cambridge PhD supervisor, Hugh Mellor, calls the Geriatric Philosophers' ("I thought he was dead") Club (GPC). (I am pleased to see several members of the UQ Branch of the GPC present here today.) And perhaps I am joining the GPC not a moment too soon. A week ago the Melbourne Grattan Institute think tank recommended raising the retirement age to 70, a suggestion immediately and enthusiastically embraced by Joe Hockey. Be alarmed. It is definitely time to make a move.
You will note from my demeanour, and my Peter Beattie watermelon smile, that I am not too distressed about taking a step in which, as Julia Gillard would say, I am moving forward. I enter retirement in good shape. I am about 15 kilos lighter than I was two years ago (I call it the "stay hungry" diet). My blood pressure, cholesterol, and calcium levels are all fine. And thanks to astute financial advice over the last five years my retirement income will be not dissimilar to my UQ after-tax salary. My financial adviser has repaid his not inconsiderable fees many times over. (Free financial advice is worth exactly what you pay for it. And on the subject of financial advice, I am sure that all your investments are now in cash; but you should transfer some of these cash investments back into equities when the market has fallen another 20%. That of course is free financial advice and should be treated accordingly.)
So, in conclusion, I wish you all the very best good fortune with the challenges ahead. I am (cautiously) confident that you will all have an opportunity to prosper and to flourish, though to do so in the future may be more of a challenge than it was in the past. Wear sunscreen (as Kurt Vonnegut famously never said), and read George Orwell's 'Politics and the English Language' at least once a year.
I look forward to keeping in touch. I will still be around enjoying reflective rational engagement with my academic colleagues, but liberated from the drudgery.
When you have had enough, and got enough, come and join me in the playground.
University of Queensland
 A Fortunate Life is the autobiography of Albert Facey, published by Penguin Books in 1981. It chronicles Facey's early life in Western Australia, his experiences during the Gallipoli campaign in World War I and his return to civilian life after the war.
 George Monbiot, Heat. (London: Penguin Books, 2007), p. xxi.
 John O'Brien, 'Said Hanrahan', in Around the Boree Log and Other Verses (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1921).
 Al Bartlett, 'Arithmetic, Population, and Energy'. VHS video. University of Colorado Regents, Boulder, CO, 1994.
 An interesting research topic I am exploring is: "What, if anything, would be regrettable about human extinction?"
 Bertrand Russell, The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell. London: Routledge, 1967, Prologue