2020: Apocalypse now (or next year)

Jan 7, 2021

2020 was an unambiguously bad year. Unfortunately it won’t be the last. Will political rhetoric eventually have to change to acknowledge this?

Few would argue that 2020 was a year like no other. Or it was if you were lucky enough to live in one of the wealthy outposts of  ‘developed’ capitalism, at least. True, capitalism is—and always has been—characterised by increasingly visible disparities of wealth and opportunity. But as Karl Marx would have been the first to concede, there’s never been a system quite like it for generating desirable stuff. Even for members of the precariat living in Australia, things could have been a lot worse.

Just how much worse was brought home to us in potentially painful detail courtesy of a ubiquitous, fragmented and unreliable media infrastructure. Despite a plethora of information sources, however, it was increasingly possible to either tune-out altogether, or tune-in to an outlet that reflected and consolidated pre-existing beliefs. But even the most insular and self-absorbed knew something was up in 2020, if only because their suddenly cherished personal freedoms were being constrained.

Elsewhere in the world, things were already grim and getting grimmer. However, I shall not try the reader’s patience by rehearsing the deeply depressing statistics about the numbers of refugees, displaced persons, political prisoners and growing numbers of climate refugees. Oh, and then there are the millions of lives lost to ‘normal’ diseases, which still ravage the most impoverished parts of the world.

Such figures are easily accessible, often credible and ought to be fairly well known by now. The fact that they often aren’t is testimony to varieties of indifference, despair and parochialism. What is the point of fretting about something over which you have absolutely no influence, after all?

While this may be an entirely understandable sentiment on the part of a single mother struggling to feed and entertain—let alone educate—offspring in the middle of an epidemic, it’s not a good look for governments that are by world standards awash with money, state capacity and resources. And yet, the United States and Australia, for example, have shown little inclination to exercise the sort of ‘special responsibilities’ the Morrison government have suddenly discovered.

The sub-text, and one of the principal audiences for Morrison’s sudden enthusiasm for international relations theory, of course, was the People’s Republic of China. To be fair, the PRC has been doing everything it can to fit the stereotype of an aggressive rising power, destabilising a region that was formerly a relatively benign outpost of the American imperium. Under such circumstances, Australia’s grand strategic thinkers can focus on vital long-term geopolitical issues and the comparative merits of military hardware, rather than pesky, irresolvable problems, like climate change.

I shall refrain from repeating the equally credible and sobering predictions from climate scientists about the immediacy that the threat climate change poses for even the wealthiest countries in the world.Anyone who follows a site like this doesn’t need to be told.

And that’s part of the problem: we’re all preaching to the converted, no matter how tendentious or ill-informed our sermons may be. Meanwhile, it’s hard even for the most authoritative and expert of voices to get the attention of policymakers or the general public

This is another of the great lessons of 2020: not only is global collective action to address common problems seemingly as difficult and elusive as ever, but all too often it’s not even possible to deal with the local variety. Australia is an atypically and astoundingly fortunate outlier in this regard. Being an island a long way from everywhere else turns out to be a good thing—even if our strategic elites don’t seem to see it that way. History has dealt the Morrison government a good hand; we’re still the (comparatively) lucky country.

And yet the unambiguous reality is that our security, and even our mental health, is ultimately and inextricably bound up with the fate of others less—much, much less—fortunate than ourselves. True, the epidemic of anxiety that is currently consuming young people may have more to do with blighted career prospects and inflated real estate prices than concern about the fate of Rohingya refugees. But if young people have little confidence about their immediate prospects or the future of the planet, it’s not a ringing endorsement of public policy at either the global or the local level.

If, as is all too likely, next year is punctuated with more ‘100 year climate events’, the continuing decimation of the natural environment, humanitarian catastrophes of one sort or another, and rising geopolitical tensions, even Mr Morrison’s indomitable optimism and faith may be sorely tested. How many unambiguously bad years will it take before talking about the ANZAC spirit, pulling together, mateship and all the rest of it starts to sound like unsupportable self-serving nonsense and jarringly at odds with our own lived realities?

Sure, we might rather be in Australia to witness ‘the end of civilisation as we know it’ than anywhere else, but the view won’t be too attractive from here either.

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