Covid a dress rehearsal for worse to come

Just as the bushfire crisis was a flaw-exposing dress rehearsal that helped Australia deal with the Covid-19 crisis, the Covid-19 crisis should itself be a dress rehearsal for possibly worse things to come. And the most recent report of the Commission for the Human Future suggests that we would do well to prepare for them.

Indeed, the report suggests we need more than the traditional Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to illustrate the threats, which can be summarised as follows:

  • Decline of natural resources, especially water 
  • Collapse of ecosystems and mass extinctions
  • Population growth and demand beyond the Earth’s carrying capacity 
  • Global warming, sea-level rise and changes in the climate
  • Pollution of all life by chemicals 
  • Famine
  • Nuclear arms and other weapons of mass destruction 
  • Pandemics of new and untreatable disease 
  • Powerful, uncontrolled new technologies 
  • National and global failure to understand and act on these risks. 

The report says that, until Covid-19 shook humanity and government, optimism abounded for several decades whereas people calling for fairness, equity or warning of limits to growth and risks were ignored or suppressed. The commission is an Australian organisation, headed by former Opposition Leader John Hewson.

Critically the 10 threats it identifies are inter-twined. So, they require a complete change in thinking. Over-population, though, is the linking issue.

For example, pandemic diseases, like Covid-19, arise in the first place as a consequence of over-crowding, destruction of forests and the wild world, increased trade in wild animals, farming practices, international transport and dense urban living conditions.

Of course, when a pandemic hits it hits hard and immediately, so people and governments move quickly. People are at death’s door. Given the choice between money or your life, people choose life.

The other threats seem less immediate, so many governments and people ignore or deny them. The lesson from Covid-19 must be that ignorance and denial put us in peril. Most nations were woefully unprepared for Covid-19, but the response could be quickly ramped up. With things like climate change, chemical pollution and water and food security, however, by the time the damage seriously manifests itself systems already in place will have put things beyond repair, irrespective of what immediate action people and governments take.

Put simply, if the world goes back to business as usual when (or if) the Covid-19 crisis ends, humanity will return to an apocalyptic trajectory. We should think and act on this soon, while the memory of Covid-19 is fresh enough to keep us alert to the perilous fragility of humankind.

I have long thought that one of the single most significant forces against changing the way we do things is the ever-increasing power and influence of for-profit corporations.

For-profit corporations can do a lot of good. They can raise capital. They can separate capital and management so entrepreneurial endeavours benefit from the talent of people who do not have the capital.

But corrosion sets in when the pursuit of profit suborns everything else – as it almost invariably does without well-enforced legal and regulatory structures to prevent and correct the sort of malfeasance we saw with the banking royal commission and any number of other inquiries into corporate behaviour.

William Dalrymple, in his excellent book The Anarchy, details the genesis of corporate excess in the appalling conduct of the East India Company in the 18 th century. Not much has changed.

Corporations can run rings around governments. In the past few decades they have become so big and multinational that they can manipulate or at least influence elections in democracies through advertising directly to voters, secretly lobbying politicians and swaying political parties to their will though donations. In autocracies they get the same result through bribes. Their aim is not the general welfare of society but increased profits for themselves, especially though lower taxation and regulation.

They extract whatever resources they can from the planet at the cheapest or zero price, without a thought beyond the next quarterly profit-and-loss figures.

The Covid-19 crisis has put their political activity into hibernation for now. Political leaders, in Australia and many other countries, by-and-large, have been able to act without the poisonous influence of big corporations. But they will be back. 

Now is the time to prune their influence. We should ban all political donations by for-profit corporations. We should require every MP to log and publish details of every meeting with every lobbyist.

There could be a quid pro quo here. Many have suggested a return to what they see as the halcyon days of government ownership in areas like banking, telecommunications, railways, airlines, airports, electricity and water. 

But they forget the inefficiencies of government-ownership that can be pruned out with the profit motive and the separation of management and capital. However, we should never again allow ourselves to be fooled that industries can self-regulate or be trusted to do the right thing when the profit motive is so powerful.

There is no substitute for tough, independent, regular spot auditing to ensure compliance with environmental, health, safety and other requirements.

So, by all means keep the government out of industry participation and allow capitalism and markets freedom up to a point. That point being industry staying out of using its money to buy influence in politics and for industry to accept a return to effective regulation.

Without reining in the for-profit corporations, the very worthy aim of meeting the threats identified by the Commission for the Human Future will be almost impossible.

Crispin Hull

This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 25 April 2020.

4 thoughts on “Covid a dress rehearsal for worse to come”

  1. Yes, but what about global human overpopulation? What can be done about the root cause of problems – covid, environmental degradation etc – that are merely symptomatic of the root cause? How do ‘we’ address this issue?

  2. Sadly, I can’t see these ten dot points getting a run post-COVID, least of all point three. It’s so stressful, to have to think about environmental collapse.

    So much easier, to wrap oneself in the instant cleansing virtue of Net Zero 2050. As Thunberg, Turnbull, Albanese, and Garnaut, all agree.

  3. Spot on.

    Our PM says that he is ready for fresh thinking with new eyes, but can we really have fresh thinking about taxes and regulations so long as we have corporations and lobby groups opaquely financing elections – the modern liberal democratic form of corruption? Of course not! It has been suggested (by Jessica Irvine, a fellow economic journalist) that there was new thinking by the Henry Committee some ten years ago. I think they come up with some good ideas that were shelved, but I’m not sure that the thinking was all that novel insofar as they didn’t look at progressive capital taxes (a la Piketty) or rejigging our monetary system away from cash (to kill tax avoidance) or progressive GST (annual returns based on consumption minus savings instead of at the cash till.
    We will not have any new thinking so long as we have a corrupt system of liberal democracy that is skewed towards the wealth and money accumulated in the past instead of need and desire felt in the present. So, good on you for making that a focus of so much of the weekly newsletters that I look forward to every Saturday morning with my coffee when I wake up. (Nice surprise to get one of Friday)

  4. Thank you for your article Crispin. I have been pondering over the issue of for-profit organisations and the our tax system for some time. Contrary to what Thatcher said I believe that a person cannot get rich in isolation from community and that wealth created belongs to all of the community. As far as the tax system is concerned I believe that the system should only raise revenue from the people of society to use for the benefit of the people (community) only. I agree with you about lobbying and believe that organisations are not people and therefore should have no say in Gov’t. In line with this thinking organisations should not be taxed and should be banned from social discourse. As for raising revenue (from the people only) disbursement of organisational profit should be taxed at disbursement. This means organisations either disperse or use the money for growth which benefits society. As for overseas companies money retained but leaving Australia should be taxed at an appropriate rate to be decided. The tax system should also be altered so that there is no exemptions to the tax rate for both people and overseas organisations. Organisations be banned from using pre distribution of profits to provide anybody with goods and services free or at reduced rates. (fringe benefits) EG: company cars are to be used for company business only; really heavy penalties to apply.
    This is only an initial start as many rules will need to be put in place including all money transfers to be through a heavily regulated central banking system. All business, including ‘tradies’ must go through the banking system to stop the black economy. Hopefully it will lead to a very simple tax system.
    This may be a hard sell,
    Kind regards……Lawry

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