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22 April 2020

The coronavirus pandemic has proved that the community can embrace essential change. How we rise to meet future risks will depend not just on government policy and corporate activity, but also on the actions of billions of individuals in their daily lives, John Hewson writes.

The coronavirus pandemic should be seen as a dress rehearsal for what awaits us if we continue to ignore the laws of science, the physical world, and the demands of several catastrophic threats such as climate change.

Just as Australia was disturbingly unprepared for the recent bush fires and drought, even though they had recurred many times in our history, the globe was unprepared for the coronavirus, even though there had been many warnings of the risk, over many years.

Unfortunately, governments and policy authorities seem incapable of accepting scientific and other evidence, and fail to listen to clear warnings and predictions. They are also generally unwilling to think longer-term, and strategically, to plan for how to avoid and manage a series of catastrophic risks that are mounting and threaten our living standards and lifestyle – and, in the end, human survival.

Since the mid-twentieth century, humans have increasingly, although largely unintentionally, threatened significant harm to themselves, and to the planet – prioritising economic and population growth but largely ignoring its social, political and environmental consequences. These include exhaustion of scarce resources, climate change, waste, disease, and diminished resilience. This has been compounded by poor, short-sighted, governance that has disadvantaged some countries and generations and fostered wasteful military and economic competition.

More on this: Podcast: Hope and life after COVID-19 – the economy with John Hewson

But who would have thought that in the space of just six to eight weeks the world could change so dramatically. In response to COVID-19, people, business and politicians have accepted a dramatic change in the norm that would have been unthinkable previously. We aren’t flying, we are mostly not commuting to work – we are even growing vegetables and baking bread. We are agreeing to adopt social distancing and stay-at-home behaviours – admittedly that are imposed on us – to the benefit of the broader community, even though they most likely inhibit our individual selves.

Our political leaders are throwing ideology to the wind – and coming up with policies and fixes that put people before politics.

This is an inspiring indication that the global community can embrace essential change.

The risks emerging are now varied, global, complex, and catastrophic. The solutions need to be national, globally collaborative, and multi-disciplinary. It is most important to recognise the risks, their magnitude, urgency and connection, and to seize the opportunities that will flow by successfully addressing them.

The recently established Commission for the Human Future has identified ten key catastrophic risks: an emerging crisis in natural resources; collapse of ecosystems; excessive population growth; global warming; global pollution; food and water insecurity; nuclear war; pandemics; new technologies; and failures in global governance to understand these risks and to be proactive in response, and how we can meet them, are outlined in our new report released today.

While these threats are grim, and the world is totally unprepared, there is real hope for effective responses.

More on this: Building a resilient and sustainable future

Clearly, each nation will want to address these risks in their own circumstances. But, as these risks don’t recognise national boundaries countries must also work collaboratively, to change behaviours and practices in adapting new circumstances and in recognising and exploiting new opportunities. In developing policy solutions it is imperative that they be based on science and accepted evidence. This essential process should see the development of a ‘new science’ – the science of human survival and wellbeing.

Given the systemic failure of governments around the world to anticipate and address these great risks, and a consequent decline in public trust and disdain for truth, transparency and accountability in politics and some media, we feel there is an urgent need for sweeping political reform, including new ways to confront corruption by vested interests and the influence they exert over governments.

However, the Commission especially recognises that solutions to these great risks depend not just on government policy and corporate activity, but also on the actions of billions of individuals in their daily lives.

Much of our present behaviour, what we do and how we do it, has to change if civilisation is to survive and prosper. This means that many existing systems and practices that we take for granted – our economic system, our food system, our energy system, our transport system, our production and waste systems, our governance systems, our community life, and our relationship with the Earth’s natural systems – must all undergo searching examination and reform.

The Commission’s goal is to share leading thought and ideas from across the world about what society as a whole can do to build a better, safer, future – and how we can each play our part to limit and overcome these risks.

We must empower everyone, young and old, female and male, poor or affluent to build this safe, sustainable human future.

COVID-19, and the health/medical, economic, and other responses it has engendered occurred faster, and much more substantively, that anyone had imagined. Most would never have envisaged the restraints enforced on personal freedoms and movements to contain the infection, nor the extent it would be required to crash economies or to cushion these responses. But the world has mostly accepted and is adjusting to, these needs.

To learn from this experience we all must all become proactive, rather than just reactive, anticipating and preparing to address the global risks, and start to develop the policy responses that will maximise the benefits of the opportunities that will flow as a result.

The only limit on our thinking should be the extent of our global imagination.

Read the Commission’s new report on how humanity can meet rising global risks for its survival, ‘Surviving and Thriving in the 21st Century’, at www.humansforsurvival.org/

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