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Australia’s Covid-19 response shows we can confront major crises. Threats to our planet should be next

Carl Sagan – one of my heroes and a scientist with a gift for communicating complex ideas in accessible ways – wrote back in 1994: “If we continue to accumulate only power and not wisdom, we will surely destroy ourselves … If we become even slightly more violent, shortsighted, ignorant, and selfish than we are now, almost certainly we will have no future.”

Clearly I don’t know what he would write if he were alive today. But he could hardly say that in the intervening 26 years we have become even slightly less violent, shortsighted, ignorant and selfish; I suspect that he would be dismayed at how much worse we have become; and how much more power has been accumulated without wisdom.

He would probably wonder how we have let it happen. How we can have sat by and watched politics turned into a game played by rules politicians write and then rewrite to suit their own ends. How we can have allowed our political leaders to replace any concept of strategy with transactions – short-term exchanges to get them through to the next election. How we have seen some of them simply change their labels while hoping that “the punters” won’t see that the contents are still the same – and be right.

He would see how we have risked the future of all living systems on our one single planet because we haven’t demanded better. Yes, there has been the occasional but apparently aberrant attempt at vision, but generally we have had to choose our leaders from among a group who think the next election is more important than the next decade or the next half century. Who focus on a way station and not a goal.

In my view, the answer is that we don’t demand enough. When we don’t expect our leaders to be visionary and strategic, they aren’t. When our expectations are low, they are met. When we aren’t persuaded by them to aim high we don’t, and so we drift along in the expectation “she’ll be right” – because most often it has been.

Surely the pandemic should give us pause for thought. It’s clear that she won’t be right unless we embrace evidence and reason instead of the standard political game that is so enjoyed by the players and too often of little real value to those same punters, their children and their grandchildren.

The first response to Covid-19 in Australia showed what we could do as a community. We looked to leadership and expected them to listen to experts. They did; we saw it and we heard it – “based on advice” became the standard (and appropriate) introduction to something more often than not discomforting. We responded as a community: we were encouraged to lift our sights, we did and we got it under control, together. We saw ideological nonsense and prejudice put aside for the most part – and we saw what we could accomplish when it was. Even selfishness was put aside, until recently – and the comparison is stark.

We had a dress rehearsal for what we face and, tough as it was and is, we must learn from it.

We can learn that communities of individuals will act cohesively when the stakes are high. We can learn that communities will respond to real leadership. We can learn that sometimes hard decisions have to be made when the evidence available is less than perfect, because we saw that waiting for certainty is not an option. We can learn to face down the bombastic commentary from those whose life is spent with both eyes fixed on the rear-vision mirror.

Covid-19 is not the only problem that confronts our planet. There are other threats that are captured in the report Surviving and Thriving in the 21st Century, prepared by the Commission for the Human Future. There are 10 threats listed, including mass extinction of species largely due to climate change and loss of habitat.

We humans are the species that can do something about it. We are the ones who can demand that our governments, our communities and our companies work together to plan a sustainable future – with an economy shaped to fit the aspirations of an advanced and caring community. And we can demand that policies are implemented to get us to our goal. The evidence may not always be perfect – but doing nothing is not an option. That we have learnt.

It is clear: we have to change if we are to sustain life on the planet in the long term, and quality of life in the short to medium term – the span of our children and grandchildren. We have shown we will change when the message is clear, the stakes are high and the leadership leads.

Sagan published a book in 1997: The Pale Blue Dot: a Vision of the Human Future in Space. In it he described images of Earth from a spacecraft more than 6bn km away – the image took up 0.12 pixel. He wrote about how the “history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam … in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves … this distant image of our tiny world … underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

Yes. It’s true. We are all in this together.

  • Prof Ian Chubb was Australia’s chief scientist from 2011 until 2016

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