Is Germaine Greer the best polemicist writing today? She is often wrong and sometimes mad, but nobody uses written English as a weapon to provoke fresh thought better than she does. Her polemics are so sharp you expect your fingers to bleed as you (reluctantly) put her books down.
In Whitefella Jump Up she argues that Australians should admit that something has gone terribly wrong with her native country. Alcoholism is an epidemic and the land is being destroyed, all because white Australians are stricken with a subconscious guilt. All Australians sense "in their bones" that "something has been wrong from the beginning of [18th-century British colonial] settlement and it has yet to be put right... We know this country is not ours."
There is, she argues, "only one way to escape from this impasse, that is, to turn back to the point where you went wrong, sit down on the ground and think about it." The fundamental error was the rejection of an Aboriginal lifestyle - a life both democratic and in harmony with Australia's environment. Australia's founding fathers should have assimilated themselves into this idyllic black Aboriginal life, rather than trying to impose their way of living - a way that has taken just 200 years to trash Australia's fragile ecology. To minds steeped in the racist idea that the Aboriginals are primitive beasts, her vision takes some mental adjustment; like a magic-eye picture, you have to let your gaze fall out of focus, seeing the shape made by black blocks rather than white spaces.
Greer shows how the Aborigines tried at every stage to offer prescient warnings about the ecological damage the white settlers were inflicting. The response of the whites? Genocide. Yet "blackfellas are not and never were the problem," she explains. "They were the solution, if only whitefellas had been able to see it."
Yet her solution to the mess whitefellas have made seems eccentric. She rejects the liberal programs - growing reconciliation and the granting of land to Aborigines - as too petty. Instead, she insists, Australia must now declare itself an "Aboriginal republic" and all Australians must seek to adopt a "hunter-gatherer lifestyle". In a country governed by the racist John Howard - whose armed forces have fired at approaching refugee ships and is, incredibly, now reversing even the limited gains made by Aborigines in the past three decades - this seems like science fiction.
Greer is vague about what this newfound Aboriginality - in the regrettably unlikely event that white Australians would even contemplate it - might involve. She denies that it would require Australians to pull down their houses and head for the bush; but she bats down any questions about real, practical proposals into the future, hinting that she is speaking metaphorically.
Her praise for the Aboriginal life borders at times - ecology aside - on superstitious veneration. She denies the charge of mysticism in her conclusion, yet she earlier presents Aboriginality as a remedy for "whitefella spiritual desolation". She says that on her long visits to Aboriginal communities, she could feel all around her "a new kind of consciousness in which self was subordinate to awelye, the interrelationship of everything, skin, earth, language". If this isn't mystical, what is?
The best riposte to this was unwittingly written by the great film critic Pauline Kael in 1979. Commenting on the depiction of Aborigines in the film The Last Wave, she wrote: "A few generations ago, whites saw the victims of white civilisation in terms of sexuality and savagery; now the victims are seen in terms of magic, dreamspeak, nobility, intuition, harmony with nature... In neither case are they granted what is their plain due: simple equality."
It is always tempting to try to unpick the Western political tradition and revert to a mystical past - one that Greer admits has been lost even to most Aborigines. But how could a hunter-gatherer lifestyle feed the 20 million-strong population of Australia? How could it be made compatible with urban life? Could Sydney - one of the great cosmopolitan cities of the world - really be disinvented in the name of progress? It seems especially odd that Greer does not discuss the implications for her sex of reverting to a lifestyle in which women have often been abused.
Yet her book raises necessary questions beyond the Australian debate: she extends her vision of battle between Western destruction of ecosystems and Aboriginal preservation of them to a global scale. Greer argues that "the interests of hunter-gatherer minorities have to be reflected in international policy because they are fundamental to any notion of sustainable development."
This is a debate that cannot be ignored. Should those of us who are concerned about the destruction of the global environment be looking within the Western tradition for cleaner technologies and greater scientific progress, or should we try looking outside the Western tradition, to ways of life that predate modernity and science? Many readers will disagree with Greer on this - and everything else in this book - but it requires a hermetically sealed mind to defy her final injunction: "Sit on the ground with me. Think."