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As we breathe together

By Dr Karin Geiselhart, climate change presenter and member of South Coast Health and Sustainability Alliance (Shasa)

We can collectively let out a sigh of relief: the virus so far has been less deadly here than elsewhere. Dodged a bullet, sort of.

After the summer of heartbreaking, ongoing drought, followed by the horrible vast bushfires, the months of fear and breathing smoky air...and now another long emergency of corona virus.

We’re pulling together, showing how strong and caring we are as a community. The heroes among us too many to count. The people who really keep the place going with their decency and service across the board.

We’ve done well enough so far in Australia. Yet in our bones we know worse may come. The future is now less certain than we could have imagined. During the Spanish flu the world was not so interconnected. But the corona virus has shown the pervasive fragility of a globalised economy: food, equipment, energy, education, travel, all a surprisingly delicate house of cards.

We can read the Seneca effect in these cards: growth is slow but collapse comes quickly. It is vital that we realise we are not passive players in the changes unfolding in our world. We know what we don’t want.

A two stage awareness emerges: First how fully interdependent we all are, many threads connecting us to our fellow humans. Second we are just as vulnerable. There but for fortune...and the bloody bells are tolling.

I feel like I’m living in a science fiction movie and not expecting a Hollywood ending. One of many finding the psychological impacts are affecting me, and I’m one of the lucky ones.

We look in disbelief as the US food system teeters with dysfunction due to monopolised supply chains. Food dumped while people go hungry. Militias of every conviction, armed, angry and deluded. Workers with no medical insurance and little choice but to take the risk and work while sick. Homelessness, a particularly big problem in California, makes control of the viral spread especially difficult. Our major cities face that problem also.

Systems theory applies: watch out for any measure that is going exponential, either up or down. Like the corona infection curve, we have to bend down the indicators of increasing social inequality that make us all more vulnerable.

But here’s the catch: we have to do this while adjusting to the demands that climate change will add to a diminishing national income. Are we capable of more than dependency on a handful of key markets or sectors? What other options does a smart, sunny country have for export income? Is building more apartment towers really a good idea? How many people can we provide with what level of good governance and world class services? Are we dumb enough to sacrifice the arts sector while tightening the screws of income insecurity?

Countries that were not long ago considered stable and prosperous are experiencing life threatening shortages of everything they thought could be achieved for their citizens: food, housing, jobs, education, health care: Lebanon, Venezuela, South Africa and more..

The second viral wave in efficient modern Singapore revealed containment is only as good as the weakest link. A growing gap between rich and poor impoverishes our very capacity to feel compassion. Poorly paid workers in cramped accommodation weaken the whole community’s resilience.

From that very awareness of how entwined we all are comes the sense that we have to somehow pull together in the direction that will lessen the growing collection of risks we face. This awareness comes uninvited but long overdue. The lessons cannot be unlearned.

In many parts of Australia, including the south coast of New South Wales, where I live, the recent unfolding has been a series of one-two punches. Like so many others, my heart has been heavy, a mental toll that is part fear and part grieving. I grieve for plants, for animals, for all who suffer as the world moves ever closer to a tipping point where we could totally lose control over the life systems we depend on.

As a long term climate watcher, I know that the mainstream media continues to downplay the gathering clouds of rapid, severe and unstoppable climate change.

During the fires and the smoke, I thought it was a message that the very air we breathe united us, but not in a happy way. Rich and poor, city and country, we were all affected. It’s the atmosphere, stupid, not the economy as Bill Clinton famously stated.

And many are saying similar things. It is too late to stop the full brunt of the impacts, or even predict them with any certainty. In the 1990s we were told by reputable scientists that sea level rise in the 21st century would be almost all due to thermal expansion and that Greenland and Antarctica were very stable icesheets. One after another, these comforting projections have been proven way off the mark. It seems the world is racing to double the warming gases.

For even some of us to adapt and minimise the impacts we have to question the mantra of endless growth. It is clear this tenet that underpins the global economic model is not tenable. The emperor has no clothes.

How does a sane person respond to the reality of beached whales taken to sites for toxic waste, polar bears cannibalising their young, or Bolsonaro effectively committing Amazon genocide in the name of economic growth? I’m tired of crying at these news items, and some friends have just stopped paying attention.

The other Amazon, the powerful global shop, has workers striking because the conditions put them at risk. That one is easy to respond to. I don’t have to shop Amazon. The workers might realise they hold even more power if they unite.

The biggest learning from the recent past is that we have to learn, adapt, focus on the bigger picture, recognise that the clutter of consumerism has a dark side and we can change it.

We can tap into the power of shared values, of people coming together to achieve change, to reject the received wisdom of more, always more.

The Italian ‘conspirare’, literally to ‘breathe together’ is how I express this awakening. The precious composition and flow of our common nutrient, the air we breathe, was brought home powerfully while the smoke kept us gasping indoors for weeks on end.

Our fellow humans are endlessly inventive and adaptable. But our species, indeed all species, are in uncharted territory. Unlike fires and drought this pandemic is out of our living experience.