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When normal returns, what do we want it to be?



Our daily lives have been thoroughly disrupted by COVID-19 and it has been easy to get caught up in anxiety-driven scrolling through the constantly updating coronavirus news feed: the daily climb of infections and death; the growing chain of collapsed businesses and surge in unemployment rates; and the ever evolving details of health directives and social distancing guidelines. It all gets pretty overwhelming.

A field of bleached coral (Getty images/Brett Monroe Garner)

But even during this period of disruption (and, indeed, even because of it) it is so important that we pay attention to the bigger picture. So much of what we do now will lay the groundwork for the kind of future we are able to build at end of this crisis. Moreover, this crisis is shining a bright light on the cracks in our current systems and it is tempting to settle for a quick fix, rather than doing the work of rebuilding our fragile systems from the ground up.

So, while we should welcome the socially progressive measures being adopted in response to this crisis — the doubling of Newstart, the introduction of the ‘Jobkeeper payment’, and the announcements of free childcare and a moratorium on evictions (details to come) — we should also remain critical.

Despite claims to the contrary, it should be abundantly clear that none these policies herald the beginning of a socialist utopia in Australia. Not only are they time bound (and unjustifiably discriminatory in their application), they have been introduced to protect capital, not equality. And if you needed any more evidence of this overarching agenda (and wanted to bring this column subtly back to the environment), just take a look at the environmentally destructive policies that are also being progressed under the cover of this crisis.

In NSW, for example, the state government recently approved an extension of longwall coalmining under the Woronora reservoir, which supplies drinking water to parts of southern Sydney and the northern Illawarra. The decision was made without debate due to the suspension of Parliament, despite widespread community concern and the documented risks such mining poses to water quality.

Similarly, the Victorian State Government quietly lifted its moratorium on drilling for onshore conventional gas reserves, in a time when moving away from greenhouse gas production should be an urgent priority. Meanwhile, the Great Barrier Reef is going through its third mass bleaching event in five years, and the Commonwealth and Queensland governments remain wedded to coal mining.


'It is so very hard right now to pay attention to anything beyond isolation orders and the COVID-19 graphs and projected curves, but it is so important that we remain engaged in the larger political project.'


Naomi Klein calls these kinds of policies ‘disaster capitalism’, because they represent such an established (almost cliché) pattern of capitalists exploiting the cover of disasters to introduce (or entrench) extractive policies without sufficient scrutiny. What this analysis highlights is the importance of remaining alert to similar manoeuvres as this crisis develops and continues to distract us.

Another significant moment will come when we start to turn a corner and the focus shifts to recovery. The pressing need for economic recovery is likely to be used to justify the further deferral of climate action, which could result in a whole range of new (climate related) crises like the one we endured this past summer.

All of us would suffer if we let this happen, but it would affect younger generations the most. And this raises significant issues of intergenerational equity.

As a society, we have asked the younger generations to shoulder a significant burden to help protect the community — especially the more vulnerable older generations — from the threat of COVID-19. The health directives have shut down many industries that employ younger people. School closures will leave an indelible mark on our children’s education and social development. Even the enforcement is likely to target younger people. And we expect their cooperation because we live in a community, and we are all responsible for taking care of each other.

It is immoral for us not to take a similar approach to climate change — a threat from which young people are particularly vulnerable, but which older generations are disproportionately responsible for creating and exacerbating.

It is so very hard right now to pay attention to anything beyond isolation orders and the COVID-19 graphs and projected curves, but it is so important that we remain engaged in the larger political project.

As Arundhati Roy points out, this pandemic represents a rupture in the fabric of our societies, and is likely to act as a portal between one world and the next. We will have to be very careful about where this portal takes us. If we want to step through into a better world, we need to be crystal clear about what that looks like and deeply committed to the values we will use to guide us.



Cristy ClarkDr Cristy Clark is a human rights specialist. Her work focuses on the intersection of human rights, neoliberalism, activism and the environment, and particularly on the human right to water.

Main image: A field of bleached coral (Getty images/Brett Monroe Garner)

Topic tags: Cristy Clark, COVID-19, disaster capitalism, auspol, environment



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Existing comments

A thought provoking article Cristy and hard on commodity mining. Qld University have developed a direct fuel cell which converts any grade of coal to energy without the need for combustion. It's not the fossil fuels that are the problem, it's the way they are processed. The Government should focus on replacing the old coal fired generators with large scale DFCs which only have a 2% emission of CO2. Its a plant replacement exercise involving a lot of capital. Also the CO2 can be stored in underground salt chambers. The diversion of the Northern rivers to link with the Darling is a scheme that could be implemented, though with a high initial capital cost of approximately $9 bn. When you consider the massive amount of fresh water flowing to the ocean every wet season, it would make sense to build a concrete channel from the Burdekin, Ross, Palmer basins to run papallel with the Mitchell Highway to drought proof the Darling and Murray systems. The LNP propose it though with a different slant. The Burdekin alone carries three times the volume of the Murray. The other resource under utilised is the Great artesian basin and further research needs to be undertaken on cloud seeding.

Francis Armstrong | 09 April 2020  

Singapore would have been hobbled if it had stayed within Malaysia. It would have exchanged the liberty of improvisation for an understandable feeling of security that comes from becoming a province of a physically larger world geopolitical unit. After all, as the reasoning might have gone, how can a territory be a ‘nation’ when it cannot produce its own water? ‘India’ as a unitary geopolitical unit was the mechanism by which Great Britain could leave the subcontinent in a tidy manner. In reality, ‘India’ was always a collection of independent polities run as such by the Raj but artificially compacted into a national unit to make the leaving easier. Some territories, like Ceylon and the Maldives, were graced by nature to look separate from the mainland because of the water boundary, while Burmese and Bhutanese looked ethnically different enough to be given their own nationhoods. The rest were jammed together because of contiguous land boundaries and because they more or less looked like each other, hardly the Catholic concept of subsidiarity in action. India is Standard Oil and Bell before the antitrust break-ups, too singularly big to be efficient. Its long coastline could surely have accommodated a Singapore or two.

roy chen yee | 09 April 2020  

Dear Cristy Human contribution to the moderate global warming and climate change is minor. We can with innovate technologies adapt to the challenges that Nature presents to us. Let us not be deluded to think what we humans can change the climate back to some earlier condition or even that we changed it in the first place. Nature does that!

Gerard Tonks | 10 April 2020  

Cristy there are many very worthwhile thoughts in this article. but also some that need untangling to get realistic hopes for a good future. For example, do not confuse aid or "bail-outs" for capital with some sort of ideology in favour of capital and against working citizens. In our system, without viable capitalist organisations, there are no jobs at all for citizens. That is an entirely different matter from making sure that capital does not exploit labour, and we do need that. I agree that there is a great risk in this country of a post-pandemic push to grow the economy at the expense of climate change being pushed into the back seat. But as a retired engineer with many water-oriented projects- and many papers and exhortations to my profession to adopt ethical planning decisions plus keeping environment at the forefront, I regret to opine that all of the suggestions by Francis Armstrong ne to be re-thought, lest even greater environmental damage ensue. No concrete channels to replace sections of rivers please, for example, and storage of carbon underground has serious limitations; don't touch the Great Artesian basin except for very localised and small applications.

Dennis | 10 April 2020  

Cristy, thank you for this brilliant article! I found your links between intergenerational justice issues, COVID-19 and climate change compelling. You have put out an important challenge that we need to actively help birth a more just and habitable world as we move through this "portal". I shared your piece on the ARRCC Facebook page. In case you haven't heard about ARRCC, we are the Australian Religious Response to Climate Change. See arrcc.org.au

Thea Ormerod | 13 April 2020  

Dear Cristy, thank you for your insightful article which shows that those who govern us continue to put profit above people. This brings to mind a podcast I listened to recently where Dr Brad Evans speaks of a much-needed politics of love and compassion. Politics ought to begin with our genuine concern for loved ones, for friends, for those most vulnerable and voiceless in our society, and for the fragility of our planet. Politics ought to be about protecting our common humanity, and not be reduced to the protection of some nations over others. Moreover, a politics of love and compassion cannot underestimate the role we each play in ensuring we become agents for change in our own daily lives. So I guess for me personally, COVID-19 is a time for quiet introspection, reflection and imagination. It is a time for re-envisioning a new normal that is less self-serving and hedonistic in its approach, and that upholds the intrinsic dignity of all life, especially the poor and voiceless in our global community.

Patrizia Puglia | 20 April 2020  

Dennis the resurrection of the Bradfield scheme is part of the re election platform of the LNP. Concrete channels to replace sections of rivers. Why not? The Romans built aqueducts in France. Holland is full of concrete channels. Snowy one diverts water from the Snowy River to the Murrmbidgee and Snowy 2 plans to double that. As for the Great Artesian Basin :Why havent we got full time Federally funded drilling rigs bringing this Great artesian basin subterranean water up to alleviate the drought? My suggestion about trapping the wet season flood waters from the Ross, Burdekin, Palmer systems to channel to the Darling parallel to the Mitchell Hway 2134km , then consider this: https://web.archive.org/web/20100923113138/http://www.derm.qld.gov.au/factsheets/pdf/water/w68.pdf https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Artesian_Basin 64,900,000,000,000,000 LITRES IN BASIN VOLUME OF H20 - Great Artesian Basin of Australia 2,000,000,000 2 Billion Litres Per Day * 365 Days = 730 Billion Litres Per Year * 100 Years = 73,000,000,000,000 Approximately used to date leaving without any *add backs Rough calculation. 64,900,000,000,000,000 -73,000,000,000,000 64,827,000,000,000,000 Litres Remains in the basin at this time. The cost comparison to drill a typical bore and then pipe it plus put a pump on it : Water Bore Drilling Cost per mt for completed 125mm diameter bore using best quality Australian made bore casing with a lifetime guarantee is $150 per mt, plus GST. The largest diameter casing allowed to be used for stock and domestic water bore drilling in Victoria is 125mm. We only use top quality Australian made (Certified) bore casing. Many drillers do “cheap” work using imported casing….. we offer a No Water No Charge gurantee to our clients and a lifetime guarantee on the bore casing. A Water Bore is an investment that will, if constructed properly, be still producing clean reliable water for generations into the future. Our cost includes all grouting seals packers gravel packing end caps drilling bore casing bore development, basically a completed bore with a written report, all ready for pump installation. (Centre State Drilling advert). Average depth of bore 500 metres therefore cost to drill and line bore eg $75,000 plus pump say $7500 equals $82,500 per bore a lot cheaper than 9 billion to build the channel (Burdekin to Darling) or 23 billion to pipe the 2134km (Burdekin to Darling) channel. January 23, 2018 in Uncategorized *Initially I had no idea how to calculate this but the figures are avaialable. The next question is whether the Government has any appetite to do anything constructiveabout water since my tree planting idea using drones seems to have been ignored as well. Back to the drought that perenially besieges this Arid country. Why given the above, if my calculations are even correct are there such extreme drought’s and no availability of water whatsoever in different parts of both New South Wales and Queensland as we see now every day on the news is the possibly better question in this instance? And why do we permit Cubbie to have an allowance of 560,000 megalitres for $3700 per annum? That water allowance should be nationalised even if Macquarie Leasing owns 49% of the station. Isnt it time to seriously consider our National objectives and priorities?

Francis Armstrong | 20 April 2020  

Cristy thank you for this article Coronavirus has certainly made us think of ways in which we can survive without the things to which we have become reliant on and place more emphasis on learning more about our planet and what we should do to love our planet and each other

maryellen flynn | 25 July 2020  

Cristy, I completely agree with you. What politicians and business people are willfully and criminally doing is exploiting the planet's resources for their own gain, stuff the rest of humanity . COVID-19 is a massive wake up call to change our ways before it is too late. There will be no 'Snap back" that is for sure. Francis what you are suggesting is that so we can continue to live at an unsustainable level we have to wreck the environment even more with consequences that beggars belief. Rivers are an essential and living part of our environment as is the ancient Great Artesian Basin. The water in there is maybe thousands of years old. It is a very limited resource. It supplies much needed water to many country towns and properties in our arid interior. Bradfield made the suggestion to divert coastal rivers inland over a century ago. The economic and environmental cost of such a project makes it unsustainable so it, with the exception of the Snowy Scheme, never got off the ground. We are custodians of the Earth .We need to leave it in a fit state for future generations . Gavin O'Brien (FRMetS)

Gavin O'Brien | 25 July 2020  

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