MILES LITTLE. The decency of the commons

Jan 22, 2020

Bushfires have devastated this country, yet have allowed us to see the best of human motives and actions. They have also exposed us to disappointments, further loss of trust in governance and a sense of insecurity.

The current fires, Australia-wide, have prompted huge responses of commentary and emotion and practical help. As a nation, we have been appalled by their scope, by the losses of people, wildlife, stock, property, heritage and environment. And we have felt profound gratitude and deep respect for those who have fought the fires on our general behalf. In the hidden background, we have heard about arsonists and looters who have taken advantage of drought and tragedy, as if to remind us that human nature consists in crooked timber. We have seen resilience and overwhelming grief. We have seen public figures behaving well and badly. We have seen communities destroyed and communities banding together in mutual support. We have seen generosity and meanness. We have listened to and resented political point-scoring. But above all, what unites the nation has been the decency of the commons, there for all to see in the media.

The unity will probably not endure beyond the emergency. In-fighting, wrangling, anger and disappointment are so often the legacies of tragedy. Some of the loss may never be made good, and changing times and climates will make it hard to plan ahead, to achieve what everyone wants – that this should never happen again. It scarcely matters what the causes may be. Climate change is a part of our lives, whether it be anthropogenic or ‘natural’. The world has created for itself a ‘wicked problem’, with its increasing populations and their demands for food, shelter, power, transport, travel, health – the constituents of human survival, security and flourishing. Pragmatically, we look to the world for its resources, so that we can convert them into the consumables that maintain our species. By doing so we use those resources and we pollute the environment that produces them. The plastic macroislands at one extreme and the microplastic contaminants in wildlife remind us that what we take for granted as ordinary parts of our lives mean that other species on which we depend are threatened and reduced. Air pollution and sea pollution are just as real as gross domestic products and balanced budgets. Indeed, they constitute debts against the future, problems we have created, but will leave to our successors to fix (if they can).

No one wants doom and gloom. Conservationists and their opponents may recognize some common ground, but capitalist liberal democracies are by nature conservative and defensive of what works in the interests of those in power. A government minister brings a lump of coal into a national parliament and jokes about its harmless nature. He goes on to become a prime minister. Meanwhile, the multiple pollutants that are the by-products of our present way of life continue to accumulate, and in some parts of the world constitute ongoing threats to health. They may be contributing to climate change. In a larger sense, that is relevant, but by no means the only cause for us to be alert. We live in a world of diminishing returns, and, to mix clichés, we are fouling our own nests. If there were no threat of climate change, there would still be powerful reasons to rethink the ways in which we generate our power, travel to visit one another or to enjoy ourselves, raise and harvest our food, dispose of our waste and pass responsibility down the line to the generations that follow.

The contrast between the decency of the commons and the indifference of privilege could not be more stark – although indifference is, of course, quite the wrong word. It is not indifference but vested interest. Our selfishness is not justified by any a priori claims to privilege. The Australian fires remind us of two things. First, Nature still exists, red in tooth and claw, and we have not mastered its more extreme behaviors, its earthquakes, tornadoes, volcanoes, its wildfires, its epidemics. Second, tragedy elicits a commonality of decency that reminds us vividly (if briefly) of the long evolution of human community, the necessity for pluralism and respect for individuals and their groupings in order to preserve the species with all its multiple heritages. It is heartening to see that there is still good in humanity, but deeply disheartening that it can only emerge in the face of suffering, threat and loss.

Miles Little is a retired professor of surgery who started a bioethics centre at the University of Sydney.

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