Stepping up to build a thriving Tasmania

Meeting future challenges by focusing on what works, not on what is broken.

Melbourne’s pandemic surge is a clear sign that COVID-19 will be with us for a long time, continuing to damage us physically, mentally and economically. If ever our community needed a boost, now is the time.

When I first heard about Thriving Tasmania, a proposal to get Tasmanians together online for a couple of hours to talk about our strengths, I feared it might turn out to be just another talkfest, offering participants a short-term confidence boost before leaving them more discouraged than ever. But pondering the idea of a recovery persuaded me that this was worth a go.

We are now in a full-blown global revolution. There is no more talk of bouncing back to the lives we had. The virus will stalk us for years, maybe decades, and the world it leaves behind will be very different from the old.

That being so, we have to start thinking about a new kind of reality. Well before COVID-19 Jessica Robbins, noting that climate and other environmental changes were undermining dominant paradigms about how we live our lives, sought a new approach to dealing with change.

That led her to get together with others seeking to know what Tasmania needs to do to remain a viable, vibrant, connected community in this new, changed world. They adopted a technique called appreciative inquiry, which focuses on what is working rather than what is broken.

The initial Tasmanian Way forum last September sought to open up discussion about developing a state-wide circular economy by reshaping food and waste systems, aiming to put Tasmania ahead of the world in implementing the United Nations 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.

Since then, Australia’s horrific summer of bushfires and a global pandemic have given us plenty more to think about, while also serving to focus the mind. We no longer need to get our heads around something out there in the far distant future, or dwell overmuch on the world we will leave to our children and grandchildren. We’re living in it, now.

The fires and the pandemic, far from moving us away from those earlier questions about food and waste, have underlined their enduring relevance in the critical task of building Tasmanian systems capable of anticipating and adjusting to forces of change.

These are big, tough objectives. Mapping a course to get us there requires numbers of people, not solitary heroes. The pandemic prompted Robbins and others to bring as many Tasmanians together as current online video technology will allow – quite a lot as it turns out – to start the ball rolling.

I’ve observed over the years that while there are always exceptions, women in general are more alert to what goes on between people than men are, with more intuitive awareness and understanding. It’s telling that Thriving Tasmania is run by a team of young, smart, energetic women.

Robbins has teamed up with her Tasmanian Way colleague Rikki Mawad, who has a legal background; psychology and wellbeing specialist Anna Tayler; Geogia Currant, a business facilitator with expertise in hospitality and tourism; and Katy Cooper, founder of a business called DisruptiveCo and an evangelist for her island state.

There was a man among the Thriving Tasmania facilitators. Dewayne Everettsmith started proceedings with the most compelling statement I’ve yet heard as to why us descendants of more recent arrivals should listen hard when Indigenous Tasmanians speak about living sustainably on this island.

While facilitators did all the talking in plenary sessions, breakout discussions allowed participants to talk in small groups before putting their thoughts into writing. Ideas canvassed in last week’s event and an earlier one in late June will form the basis of a report.

The ideas about our collective future emerging from Thriving Tasmania – ideas that I aim to draw on for this column – will not end there. There is a sense among participants in these two forums that the series of crises which brought us to this point mark the early stages of something big and transformative for this island.

Communities of any size function on the basis that they will be around for some time, so it’s natural to strive for security and stability. Yet today’s multiple agents of disruption are a reminder that permanence and certainty are an illusion, that we are not masters of the universe and must learn to live with the forces of change now upon us.

Our community will find strength in accepting this and rebuilding lives and the economy in a sustaining, sustainable direction. That must become the Tasmanian way.

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Deadly links between environment, climate and contagion

Struggling to control one pandemic, we face a prospect of many more

An exchange in US Senate hearings last week spoke volumes about the state of that country. A highly agitated senator, Rand Paul, accused immunologist Anthony Fauci of dictating to political leaders. A measured Fauci responded that he was only there to advise.

As a physician, Paul knows you can’t control a pandemic without rules of behaviour; as a libertarian he despises such rules. That tension was almost palpable in his aggression toward Fauci.

Where politicians like Paul have felt free to ignore signals from nature, ignoring the pandemic is looking like a political death sentence. Now there is a new element in the mix: governments being called on to treat environment damage and contagion as a single package, where a warming, degraded world is a path to more pandemics.

People spotted the connection between infectious disease and climate a long time ago. Aristocrats in ancient Rome, for instance, moved to homes in the hills to avoid the summer’s malaria. Now, with general warming causing weather to become more extreme, what was a manageable seasonal threat is becoming something less predictable, and therefore more dangerous.

Science has now identified a possibility of ancient viruses being resurrected by a warming world. In 2015, when the US and China were still being polite to each other, a team of scientists from the two countries went to Tibet to obtain samples of glacial ice over 15,000 years old. Microscopic analysis of the ice cores revealed 33 ancient virus groups, 28 of which scientists had never seen before.

In a peer-reviewed paper published last January, the team warned that melting of these ancient glaciers could be releasing pathogens completely new to science.

Changing average temperatures, humidity levels, the condition of vegetation and large-scale animal migration all result in changed patterns of the distribution of insects and other life forms that spread and transmit disease. Study of how land clearing is linked to infectious disease has found numerous cases of displaced native species carrying deadly pathogens to domestic animals and humans.

Hendra virus has killed numerous horses and several people in Australia. It began after large numbers of fruit bats, which harbour the virus, moved to more settled areas when their native habitat was destroyed in land clearing in Queensland in the 1990s.

Outbreaks of the related nipah virus from 1998 in Malaysia, Bangladesh and India were traced back to forest clearing in Indonesia displacing flying foxes, which then infected pigs and, through them, people. The disease kills more than half of its human victims.

Clearing of the species-rich Amazon rainforest has massive public health implications. Recent studies have found that a steady rise in cases of malaria in the region since the 1960s corresponds closely with forest clearing, which provides ideal breeding conditions for malarial mosquitos.

The World Health Organisation has many times warned that climate change and environmental damage on top of other large-scale economic, demographic and social shifts, including overcrowding and pollution, will rapidly make us more susceptible to respiratory infections.

Ten years ago, responding to an Ebola viral epidemic in tropical Africa, Barak Obama set up a program to detect and study viruses passing from wild species to humans before they break out and infect millions. By late last year it had found nearly a thousand different viruses. But the Trump administration wanted its funding for something else, and terminated it.

Blaming China for the damage COVID-19 has done to his country, Donald Trump is missing the target by 180 degrees. The virus originated in China, but its spread in the US, especially since restrictions were lifted in May, is entirely a home-grown affair.

With the novel coronavirus proving a difficult adversary for all governments, multiple new pathogens attacking humanity on multiple fronts is beyond imagining. That is apart from all the other impacts of an overheating planet.

Now, voters whose eyes have been opened by the pandemic are seeing once-impregnable careers in freefall as the fantasyland of right-wing populism – sheltered, gated and fact-free – is destroyed by forces of nature. We can only hope that an informed and enlightened administration will emerge from the wreckage of the old.

But there will be no time to cheer. Rebuilding a pandemic early-warning system, getting global emissions down and restoring environmental health call for unprecedented cooperation between peoples and nations. Right now that looks farther away than ever.

All is not lost – stopping the clearing of forested lands would eliminate much of the disease threat. But above all we need to start behaving as if our planet is something truly precious. Because it really is.

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Universities are for thinking – clearly, freely and hard

The educational challenge of our age is to develop our individual and collective ability to think.

What are universities for?

This is not an idle question, especially when you consider the cost of using them – high enough to put some students into penury for the rest of their working lives. That high price suggests our country puts a high value on what universities do.

In earlier times we took a different tack. Governments under Gough Whitlam, Malcolm Fraser and Bob Hawke said that universities were indeed valuable – so valuable that the nation should spread the burden and ensure their services were available free of charge to users.

Then in 1989 fees were reintroduced – this time without the benefit of the old Commonwealth scholarship scheme, but with the “sweetener” that students could defer paying the debt (initially just $1800; now vastly more) until they earned enough to do so through the tax system.

Ever since that fateful year, with varying levels of success, governments have repeatedly tried the conjuring trick of appearing to be right behind universities while grabbing as much money as possible from students for the “privilege” of tertiary education.

Now we are seeing another bid to limit university funding, presented by education minister Dan Tehan and employment minister Michaelia Cash as a necessary remedy for economic woes.

“Job-ready graduates to power economic recovery” was the benign heading on the media release by Tehan and Cash 11 days ago, but it was enough to spark a furore. “They’re destroying our universities” was the response from GetUp.

GetUp is over-dramatic. The Morrison government’s determination to see students pay more for arts, law and economics study and less for science, maths and various vocational and technology degrees is just one more step in hundreds of changes to tertiary education funding over decades, and universities will survive.

But nor should we swallow the line that this will help universities to be more “job-ready” by churning out graduates who fit the careers that employers demand, or that universities’ main role is to prepare people for employment. If true, that would be a sad reflection on universities today.

A lifetime ago I was a part-time arts student, the field at the centre of this latest controversy. My degree may have helped land me a job, but far more important was what it did for how I think and see the world. I realised that whatever I knew, there was far more I didn’t know.

Most of all, it taught me that education is a process, not a product, and its greatest gift is not factual knowledge but the quest for knowledge. Not truth itself, but the search for it. Not answers, but questions.

In the face of incompetence and failure in these most troubling of times, people demand answers that they can easily comprehend, that will be simple and straightforward. But as with all profoundly difficult situations, there are no such answers.

Consider the history of this land, which has traditionally defined itself in terms dictated by early colonial overlords, that Australian history began with the first effective occupation by Europeans from the late 18th century. But that interpretation of our past is under challenge as never before.

Steadily growing evidence of a strong culture of indigenous land occupation and stewardship have seen growing numbers of academic historians open up the prospect of an integrated pre- and post-colonial history extending back tens of thousands of years. This nation needs to know this.

Consider climate scientists, who have always warned of the uncertainty around distant-future projections, such that some of them might happen much sooner. Now they’re happening around us. Or the medical scientists who have guided government policy during the COVID-19 pandemic. They know a lot, but their most important attribute is that they know they have much still to learn.

The rest of us must be like that. We must learn from climate change and pandemic disease that we don’t know the full consequences of what is happening, and that to counter it we need to be able to think clearly, freely and hard.

Speaking in tones of authority and assurance as if they know the future, leaders say certainty is important and desirable. But we are already learning that certainty of mind is a road to ruin. How many shocks will it take to make them understand that?

Universities can provide job skills and knowledge, but their real value to employers – to all of us – is turning out incisive, critical minds that can see possibilities and pitfalls that others miss. As we understood half a century ago but seem to have forgotten, the nation’s duty is to safeguard that by opening universities to all.

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