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