With the climate crisis and coronavirus bearing down on us, the age of disconnection is over

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)

Don’t forget: disasters and crises bring out the best in people

Disasters and crises bring out the best in us. This simple fact is confirmed by more solid evidence than almost any other scientific insight, but we often forget. Now more than ever, in the middle of a pandemic, it’s crucial to remember this.

Sure, our news feeds are flooded with cynical stories and comments. A report on armed men stealing rolls of toilet paper in or a passing comment about the Australian women who got into a fistfight in a In moments like these, it’s tempting to conclude that most people are selfish and egotistical.

But nothing could be further from the truth. For every antisocial jerk out there, there are thousands of doctors, cleaners and nurses working around the clock on our behalf. For every panicky hoarder shoving entire supermarket shelves into their cart, there are 10,000 people doing their best to prevent the virus from spreading further. In actual fact, we’re now seeing reports from China and Italy about how the crisis is bringing people closer together.

“We’ve learned how to accept help from others,” writes a woman living in Wuhan. Millions of Chinese people are encouraging each other to stand strong, using the Cantonese expression “jiayou” (“don’t give up”). YouTube videos show people in Wuhan singing from the windows of their homes, joined by numerous neighbours nearby, their voices rising in chorus and echoing amongst the soaring towers of In Siena and Naples, both on complete lockdown, people are singing together 

Children in Italy are writing “andrà tutto bene” (“everything will be all right”) on streets and walls, while countless neighbours are On Thursday, an Italian journalist told the Guardian about what he had witnessed with his own eyes: “After a moment of panic in the population, there is now a new solidarity. In my community the drugstores bring groceries to people’s homes, and there is a group of volunteers that A tour guide from Venice notes: “It’s human to be scared, but I don’t see panicking, nor acts of selfishness.”

The words “andrà tutto bene” – everything will be all right – were first used by a few mothers from the province of Puglia, who posted the slogan on Facebook. From there, it spread across the country, going viral almost as fast as the pandemic. The coronavirus isn’t the only contagion – kindness, hope and charity are spreading too.

Disaster causes a surge in solidarity 

The surge in solidarity that we’re seeing will come as no surprise to most sociologists. The current situation has obvious similarities to the human response to natural disasters, which has been researched extensively for decades.

News reports following a natural disaster are almost always dominated by stories of looting and violence, but in many cases such stories turn out to be unfounded speculations based on rumour. Since 1963, the University of Delaware’s Disaster Research Center has conducted nearly 700 field studies on floods and earthquakes, and on-site research reveals the same results every time: the vast majority of people stay calm and help each other. “Whatever the extent of the looting,” one sociologist notes, “it always pales in significance to the widespread altruism that leads to free and massive giving and 

Yes, panic can happen, and some people may start hoarding. But a British social psychologist notes that “we’re much more likely to see prosocial behaviours across multiple types of disasters and That truth echoes back across the ages. According to an eyewitness account, when the Titanic went down, there was When the Twin Towers burned on 11 September 2001, thousands of people patiently trudged down all those flights of stairs.

“And people would actually [say]: ‘No, no, you first’,” one of the survivors reminisced later. “I couldn’t believe it, that at this point people would actually say, ‘No, no, please take my place.’ 

Overhauling our assumptions of human nature

Believing these eyewitness accounts can be difficult, but that’s due mostly because of the cynical portrayal of human nature that’s taken centre stage in recent decades. For years and years, the worst aspects of humanity have dominated the discourse. “The point is, ladies and gentleman,” said Gordon Gekko, the main character “that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. […] Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.”

Year after year, politicians have drafted huge piles of legislation on the assumption that most people are not good. And we know the consequences of that policy: inequality, loneliness and mistrust.

Despite all that, something extraordinary has happened in the last 20 years. Scientists all over the world, working in many different fields, have adopted a more hopeful view of human nature. “Too many economists and politicians model society on the constant struggle that they believe reigns supreme in nature, but that belief is based solely on projection,” writes prominent Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal. “Our assumptions about human nature are in dire need of a complete overhaul.”

Distancing ourselves to embrace each other more warmly

Nothing is certain, but this crisis may well help us in that process. We may see a dawning awareness of dependencecommunity and solidarity. “I don’t know what you’re seeing,” a Dutch psychiatrist and mother tweeted, “but I’m seeing people wanting to help all over the place. By following official recommendations, or something practical like 

My German book editor told me about a note that had been posted in an 

“Dear neighbours. If you’re over 65 and your immune system is weak, I’d like to help you. Since I’m not in the risk group, I can help you in the coming weeks by doing chores or running errands. If you need help, leave a message by the door with your phone number. Together, we can make it through anything. You’re not alone!”

As a species of animal that evolved to make connections and work together, it feels strange to suppress our desire for contact. People enjoy touching each other, and find joy in seeing each other in person – but now we have to keep our physical distance.

Still, I believe we can grow closer in the end, finding each other in this crisis. As Giuseppe Conte, the Italian prime minister, said this week: 

When Jane Philpott and Jody Wilson-Raybould decided to go Independent, a Toronto activist was urging them on

“Like every major party, the irony is the NDP spends two months making this list just to make sure they don’t pull a Liberal on election day — but the Liberals and Conservatives are being pulled anyways with their own lists — and it all ends up being layers and layers of slapstick comedy. And I think the whole thing is a scam. There’s no benefit to this model; it’s an industry, and people make a lot of money on it.”

Dave Meslin says independence from the party system is one of the best ways to disrupt the toxic polarization that now passes for political discourse in Canada.

Meslin’s new book, Teardown: Rebuilding Democracy From The Ground Up, has just crept into the Star’s bestseller list.

As Meslin explains it, the goal is to win Independent seats in Ottawa and prove to Canadians something that is already happening elsewhere — the emergence of independent blocs, or “non-party parties,” in places like the Republic of Ireland.

“I’m not in Ottawa. I don’t travel in those circles. Most of my work on democratic reform has been local in nature and yes, it sometimes involves couch-surfing because there’s no money to waste on hotels,” Meslin said with a laugh.

“But the important thing here is to look beyond Canada and you see this wave all across the western world where traditional parties are being challenged. Yes, some of the winning challengers tend to be vacuous ideologues, whether it’s a comedian in Ukraine or Donald Trump in America.

“But there are other places where people who aren’t ideologues or reality-show stars (are) challenging the major parties. We’re seeing in some countries groups being formed that are non-party parties — Ireland is one example, but there are others — that are sharing in power as loose federation of independent legislators. And rather than being committed to a specific platform or allegiance to a leader, they are committed to a certain type of process — and that process is collaboration, evidence-based deliberative dialogue and no party whip telling them what to say or how to vote.

“In my view, the timing has never been better to make that happen in Canada. We are so ready for something new because so much trust has collapsed. Our major parties have proven themselves so centralized and so incapable of allowing even their own voices to be heard.”

Independence from the party system, Meslin argues, is one of the best ways to disrupt the toxic polarization that now passes for political discourse in Canada.

“All that hostility turns people away because at this point, most MPs don’t have a voice or any role at all, really. Their job is to show up and hit the button they are told to hit. And if someone on your side stands up and says something, you cheer, and if someone on the other side stands up, you jeer.

“It’s so sad — it’s such a mockery of what we’re capable of as a species. Because we know that humans can easily be drawn into divisive fights — it’s in our blood, we thrive on it — but under the right conditions humans can also be incredibly good listeners, they can have empathy, they can be humble, they can compromise. MORE