We can no longer pretend that we’re separate from each other and from the natural world
‘What started to become clear thanks to the fires was rammed home by Covid-19. We are only as healthy as the least healthy among us’ Photograph: Blend Images/Dave and Les Jacobs/Getty Images
Everything is connected. It’s hard to imagine right now that, just weeks ago, the truism of ecological politics was treated as hippy nonsense by mainstream politics.
Announcing the statutory review of the commonwealth’s Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC) last October, the Morrison government pitched it as an opportunity to weaken the Howard era laws even further and make it easier still for environmentally destructive projects to be approved. And, regardless of clear statements from scientists and strong advocacy by campaign groups, it looked like it would get away with it because, back then, we were still living in the age of disconnection when the environment and the economy could be seen as separate things, in competition with each other.
But then the summer arrived, delivering one after the other two massive wake-up calls. In the age of consequences, with the climate crisis and a deadly pandemic bearing down on us, it’s impossible to pretend that we are separate from each other and from the natural world.
A pandemic, more than almost any other phenomenon, shows that all our lives are inextricably intertwined, for now and forever, whether we like it or not. It brings into sharp focus the impossibility of trying to keep economics, health, environment, education and social justice treated as separate questions with separate answers. It heightens awareness of our vital need, as social beings, to stay connected to each other as well as we possibly can while keeping our physical distance.
It shows how the “efficient”, on-demand world that capitalism has constructed is so incredibly fragile that a series of shocks can bring it to the point of collapse. And with the rules of neoliberal economics being broken by governments the world over, it demonstrates that massive policy interventions, shifting the entire structure of the global economy, are possible.
With the complete focus right now on Covid-19, it takes an effort to cast our minds back to this summer’s bushfires. They were, of course, far larger and fiercer than ever before, over a season that started when we were barely out of winter. Where previously bushfires had affected a small number of people, this season the smoke blanketing Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne, and the repeated evacuation of summer holiday spots, meant that most Australians were affected.
This heralded a shift in thinking that went deeper than personal impact. Perhaps due to the remarkably low loss of human life compared with the scale of the disaster, there was a tremendous focus on the more than a billion mammals, birds and reptiles killed. We mourned the thousands of koalas and the numerous species being pushed towards extinction if their habitats aren’t restored.
The true legacy of this summer could be a vital turning point in recognising that “the environment” isn’t something “over there”. The environment is the air we breathe and the water we drink; it’s the soil in which we grow our food; it’s the animals we identify with and the landscapes imprinted on our souls; the environment is us, all of us, together, integrally connected with everyone and everything else on this beautiful blue marble floating in space.
Damage the environment and we damage ourselves. And not just some of us – all of us together. Continue to think in our compartmentalised, linear fashion, and we’ll keep missing what’s coming, be it weeks of smoke, runs on toilet paper, or deadly pandemics.
What started to become clear thanks to the fires was rammed home by Covid-19. We are only as healthy as the least healthy among us. Everything we do relies on extraordinary networks of activity by people we’ve never met, crisscrossing the globe. And responding to a health crisis that was likely triggered in part by environmental destruction has world-changing impacts on the economy, on education, on social justice, on geopolitics.
The age of disconnection is over.
To bring us back to where we started, where does that leave the review of the EPBC Act?
We have an opportunity now to not just push for a new generation of environment laws, but to re-evaluate the whole deal, to cultivate a new political settlement based on ecological principles of living well together in harmony with the natural world, understanding our place as part of it as First Peoples did for millenniums, with an economy designed to serve people and planet.
As part of this, in the immediate term we need to advocate for vital improvements to the EPBC. It is extraordinary that the Howard legacy of deliberately excluding a project’s climate impacts from the triggers to require assessment still hasn’t been remedied. That must now be fixed, as must the fact that there is no mechanism for assessing the cumulative ecological impacts of various proposals. After this summer’s destruction of huge areas of remaining healthy ecosystems, we need to institute, in both legislation and the practice of assessment, a presumption of protection instead of a culture of managed destruction.
All this will, of course, be attacked as “green tape” and we have to be ready to actively defend it instead of changing the subject – and defend it on ecological grounds. Regulation is a vital part of the connective tissue which holds the body politic together. Removing it sees us fall apart. Covid-19 is, among other things, showing us the consequences of deregulating markets in health services, food supply and more.
Having that conversation in this way means we won’t just be advocating for marginal improvements, but will be working to change politics. We’ll be building into the political common sense the idea that corporations absolutely should be regulated to enforce environmental and social responsibilities, and that we can no longer consider shareholder profit to be their sole focus. That helps move our politics towards altering the DNA of corporations so they operate as part of the body politic rather than as cancer cells.
The flip side of this systemic shift is to institute legal rights for the natural world. If BHP has legal rights, why shouldn’t the Great Barrier Reef? Rights of nature is an increasingly mature legal field, instituted from New Zealand to Bolivia, India to parts of the US. We can and should at least insert them as a normative principle in the goals of the EPBC.
While we’re thinking at that level, a new ecological political settlement will need a rethink of federalism. Our system sees national and state governments cooperating to shut out community participation and scientific advice to facilitate destructive development. An effective regime based on a presumption of protection would see federal, state, territory and local governments enabling communities to collectively develop creative ideas at their local level, within the context of expert scientific advice, and coordinating those ideas at a regional and continental level.
If we shift environmental regulation from a process that is primarily responsive to demands of developers into a proactive, constructive, community-led system, we can see it morph from a defensive protection stance into one of active restoration, repair and regeneration. It can lead to the greening of cities and towns as we embrace the fact that habitats are not just “over there” but among us. It can create industrial jobs in coalmine rehabilitation. It can support regenerative agriculture, and cooperative sharing of scarce water. It can even open space for community-led conversations about relocation as the overheating world retreats from rising seas and inland desertification is inevitable.
Supporting and enabling communities to make decisions is also vital for rebuilding confidence in democracy, which has collapsed in recent years. The ongoing panic-buying response to Covid-19 suggests that the abject failure of government to provide leadership through the fires worsened this further. This is now an opportunity to rethink governance, reclaim agency for communities, build practices of trust and social cohesion, embedded in respect for expert advice.
Now it’s important to recognise that with this government we’re not going to get these kinds of changes. At best we might hold off the push to weaken the EPBC even further. But that shouldn’t stop us advocating for what we need. Quite the opposite.
Politics, like the natural world it operates within, is a system. It works in complex ways because all it is is the collected actions of humans, influenced by each other and by external impetuses such as the weather. Or viruses.
Over the past three months, a huge number of people made that conceptual leap. In recent weeks the crisis has become such that even mainstream politics finds it impossible to ignore.
At the same time, over this period numerous people decided to just get on with it, without waiting for government. In both bushfire response and the tremendous mutual aid response to Covid-19, millions of us are setting up local projects, or joining existing ones, that make life better, generate social cohesion, reduce our footprint, and cultivate an ethic of care – for ourselves, for each other, for the natural world we are part of.
If enough of us start doing this in our communities, and if enough submissions to the EPBC inquiry call for reforms that are embedded in ecological thinking, we will be putting a whole lot of small chocks under the lever. Each of those chocks is tiny. But together they can tip the balance.
All of a sudden, especially at a moment like this, change will come. SOURCE
• Tim Hollo is executive director of the Green Institute and visiting fellow at the Australian National University’s school of regulation and global government (RegNet)