Out of control with a smidgen of humility

We do so much better when we acknowledge we aren’t in control

By David Salt

The wealthier a country or an individual household, the less concerned they were toward the seriousness of climate change. So concluded French and Australian researchers reviewing survey data from 10,000 households in 11 OECD countries. They hypothesized that richer households (and countries) are less concerned about climate change because wealth provides a buffer against some of the related risks. This leads people in wealthier countries and households to perceive a greater sense of control over climate change impacts, which in turn results in lower levels of concern.

Pretty disturbing, huh?

And yet it’s quite in keeping with Australia’s laggardly response to the growing spectre of climate change. Coral reefs can bleach and biodiversity can collapse but, as a developed nation, we continue to elect conservative governments that turn their back on climate change using misleading arguments about the cost of climate action on the economy (misleading and dishonest because it never factors in the cost of not acting – but that would involve listening to the science!). Whereas our poorer Pacific neighbours are very concerned about climate change and begging for us to do more yet we happily ignore them and their concerns.

And yet, in recent years the threat (and reality) of not being in control has brought out the best in many Australians (just not so much in our national government).

A Black Summer

Australians have considerable experience with bushfires but the fire season of 2019/20 – our Black Summer – was of a scale without precedent. The forest ecosystems along our eastern seaboard all went up in flames, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.

Prior to this fiery catastrophe, an eminent group of retired emergency workers pleaded with the government to take heed of the climate science, predicting a catastrophic fire season was just around the corner; but they were ignored.

“Don’t tell us what to do,” our national government effectively said. “We’re in control, we’ve got it covered.” Of course, as events were to show, they didn’t.

There was enormous loss of property and life; although given the intensity and scale of the conflagration mercifully few people perished when compared to earlier wildfires (173 people died in Victoria’s Black Saturday fire of 2009 as compared to 34 throughout the much bigger Black Summer period).

Indeed, it was the tragedy of the 2009 Black Saturday event that changed our national mindset to how we approach big wildfires. The hard truth of these fires is that they can’t be managed and when they occur the priority has to be saving life and getting out.

To my mind, the brutal savagery of the Black Summer was a wakeup call to our national identity. We’re not actually in control, and we should set our priorities accordingly.

The silver lining

We were still licking our wounds from the fires when a new uncontrollable menace began rolling around the world at the beginning of 2020 in the form of a novel corona virus, slaying the sick and aged in its wake.

Overseas, every populist leader who downplayed the threat of CoVid 19 in order to keep their economies chugging along (think Trump, Johnson, Bolsonaro and Duterte) invited mass death into their populations with legacies still to be reckoned. A sense of superiority and control mixed with a fair degree of libertarian dismissal about the fate of others proved to be a fertile pasture for an incredibly infectious and highly lethal disease.

Back here we watched unfolding events with an uncharacteristic humility and respect for science. We had just been defeated by an environmental disturbance that had scorched the nation, and we demanded our leaders to do more than pay lip service to the science of epidemiology. We also acknowledged that we were all in this together, as we had done during the Black Summer, and that everyone needed to do their part.

Combine this with our island status and a modular federal constitution that enabled state governments to block internal movement, and Australia was the poster child of the pandemic. We eliminated the virus on our shores and the government dropped its ideological control and spent up big to keep the economic home-fires going.

However, in a globalised world, no country is an island, even if it occupies one. In Australia we saw multiple breaches of our quarantine defences as people returned from overseas. Victoria’s second wave was a massive wakeup call that this virus needed to be taken seriously and, again, as a nation we observed the rules (even when it meant constraining our personal liberties), trusted the judgements of our science experts and we prevailed. This thing was bigger than any individual regardless of their wealth, so we pulled together and responded well to the scientific evidence.

Victoria has now undergone two more lockdowns (we’re currently in the fourth). It is telling the nation again and again, we are not in control. And our response has been good.

Contrast that with India’s crippling outbreak when their leaders decided they had beaten the bug and declared business as usual prematurely. India, an emerging superpower, has been hobbled; it will likely never be the same again.

Giving up control

Giving up control is never easy, be it as a government with a strong ideological focus or individuals with a strong belief in their own wealth and personal freedoms. However, sometimes circumstances in the form of massive disturbances make giving up control not only possible but the desirable thing to do. Most recently we’ve seen it in the Black Summer and the pandemic, but examples of giving up control go back to the beginning of civilisation.

Researchers from Germany Italy have just published an analysis of studies on Mesopotamian civilisations that demonstrates that severe droughts actually led to society’s elites giving up control in order that their societies might cope better during these environmental crises. They showed that severe drought actually stimulated greater levels of cooperation between political elites and non-elites, and led to the development of important institutional processes that can still be seen in our societies today.

Incurable optimists (and most politicians) will often say every crisis is an opportunity. Australia, with its highly variable climate, seems to slip from environmental crisis to crisis. Maybe to really make the most of these events we need a smidgen of humility, an acknowledgement that we are not in control. If we could achieve this, then maybe we’d learn, adapt and prosper in the face of an increasingly uncertain future.

We’ve shown we do well when we pull together, when the chips are down. Let’s hope our recent experiences with fire and contagion will enable us to sustain that humility long into the future.

Image by Terri Sharp from Pixabay

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