Published 08 April 2020
It is truly amazing how quickly our worlds can change – and just as astonishing that, in Australia, we have experienced two such globally significant events in just the last few months. Both the bushfires and the COVID-19 pandemic are shocking and unprecedented, with just as shocking and unprecedented impacts on our everyday lives. And yet, the most surprising thing is how surprising they seem, because both events were fully predicted.
Climate scientists and infectious disease specialists have been warning us about these events for decades. Models were built, and plans for mitigation, adaptation, and emergency response were developed. But there has been a clear disconnect between that expertise, the very real social and cultural impacts of their predictions, and the policymaking and governance required to mitigate and respond. In both areas, dire potential realities were ignored, denied, and/or underfunded.
As Arundhati Roy has recently written about the virus, “The tragedy is immediate, real, epic and unfolding before our eyes. But it isn’t new. It is the wreckage of a train that has been careening down the track for years”. The work of SEI mirrors that metaphor. We consistently address these trains, the careening, and the tracks that lead to these tragedies. The Institute was founded on the very premise of exploring the reality of environmental conditions and experiences, and the disconnect between environmental impacts and the social, cultural, and political filters between knowledge and action. With the events over the past few months, our work has become more relevant, more crucial, more necessary and more urgent than ever before.
There are many overlaps between this viral outbreak and SEI’s work on the environmental crisis. For example, one of our constant focusses has been on the inequities of environmental impacts, and the reality that such pre-existing inequalities and vulnerabilities make people more susceptible to climate change – for example, in the way that heatwaves only kill those that cannot afford air conditioning. COVID-19 is all-too-clearly demonstrating the impact of inequity. In the US, virus deaths are disproportionately impacting African-American communities – the same communities consistently harmed by environmental injustice. Similarly, as Roy’s article on India illustrated, we will see that pattern repeated on a global scale, as the virus expands in countries with even less of a capacity to care for the infected.
There is also a parallel with the focus on debates about individual vs governmental responsibilities, while clearly, these issues demand a rethinking of entire systems – the energy system on the one hand, and social support systems on the other. The virus is demonstrating one thing that disaster, resilience, and adaptation researchers have long pointed out – the crucial value of social engagement and mutual aid in responding to such events. And it illustrates what environmental humanities scholars have addressed – the significance of loss and of changes that undermine cultural understandings and practice.
Finally, while many have been writing about the impacts the fires and virus will have on how we reconstruct the social contract and the economy in the coming years, it is crucial that we also re-write the relationship between human and nonhuman, social and ecological systems. Both crises exist at this intersection – again, a place where the work of SEI researchers sit. At the same time, we must also remain vigilant against those that will take advantage of the current crises and push more devastation – by approving new environmentally damaging projects such as coal mining under the Sydney water catchment, and suspending enforcement of environmental laws as the US has done.
What we are doing:
At the end of last year, the Sydney Environment Institute had begun planning a set of events focussing on climate impacts and public policy. And then the fires hit, and we planned additional set of events specifically focused on fire, community impacts, and recovery. And then the virus hit, and all of SEI’s events – the very engaged, social, and public gatherings of academics, NGOs, social and cultural leaders, policymakers, and community members – were shelved. Our most important approach, our main methodology, for now, has been locked down.
Our phenomenal researchers are all working tirelessly across a range of disciplines to help shed light on these issues from all angles and to bring justice to the forefront of planning for the future. Our internal SEI team, led by Deputy Director Michelle St Anne, is working to develop and communicate this work across a variety of new platforms. We have started a longform article series to introduce a range of scholars and topics, and soon to come will be an opinion series exploring the relationship between environment and virus, and a short video/vlog series that we will encourage teachers to use in their virtual classrooms. We are also working to make all of our existing content easier to access, with an update of our website. Our full range of multidisciplinary projects continue, in various forms which will be communicated over the coming months.
From all of us at SEI, take care, stay safe, stay home – and stay connected. We can rebuild this devastated world.