Professor Janet McCalman Opens Our New Podcast Series
We are excited to announce the launch of the SHAPS Podcast Series, with this inaugural episode, presented by Professor Janet McCalman, Redmond Barry Distinguished Professor in the Melbourne School of Population Health, and introduced by Professor Margaret Cameron, Head of SHAPS.
Since 2015, our annual themed public lecture series has been a flagship event on the SHAPS calendar. This year, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, our public lectures are moving online. Presenters on this year’s theme, ‘Disaster and Change’, will share ideas, insights and approaches from History, Philosophy, Archaeology, and Cultural Conservation, applying these to the current crisis.
Disaster & Change is hosted on Anchor and can be accessed through your favourite podcast player or through the embedded link below. Produced by the SHAPS Forum team with original soundtrack by Henry Reese.
More articles and episodes from the Disaster & Change series can be found on the Forum website.
Episode 1 In the Midst of Death there is Life: Recovery from the Apocalypse
Professor Janet McCalman
Press play to listen or head to your favourite podcast player. You can also read along with the transcript that follows.
Covid-19 and the climate emergency are both consequences of our profligacy as a species. They are not causally related, but they are manifestations of the same environmental crisis where our footprint on the biosphere threatens life as we have come to know it. Much of the harm of this disaster stems from the inadequacy of institutions and the gross inequality, not only around the world but within the richest nations. However, humanity has faced extreme disaster before and we can gain confidence from our capacity to recover. Within living memory, the recovery from the catastrophic destruction of the Second World War offers us a model and a way forward. All that stands between us and disaster is good government, and post-war reconstruction, above all in Australia, was good government. The future is in our own hands if we can engage with the politics, assert democratic values, and work together.
We are living through the greatest disruption of the post-war era; what is likely to be the defining historical period of our lives. And the disrupter is a piece of RNA surrounded by fat, a virus that human beings have never before encountered. A virus that ticks all the boxes for disaster: it is novel, it is highly contagious, it is transmitted by asymptomatic carriers; it attacks the critical interface between the lungs and the heart, suffocating the victim; it targets two important but different demographics: older people with existing co-morbidities, especially respiratory illness or diabetes; and younger healthy people who can develop the cytokine storm that killed so many in the last great pandemic, the so-called ‘Spanish’ Influenza of 1918–1919. Here, the young person’s immune system goes into overdrive which can lead to organ failure. Overall, however, it attacks and kills people whose immune systems have been undermined since birth by inequality, malnutrition, stress and unfairness.
We have entered a very dark tunnel and the light of day, while it may be twelve months ahead in Australia, is more likely not to be seen for three years in the poor world. Even with a vaccine, there will be new waves of differing virulence, with new deaths and lockdowns. As we make comparisons with the Spanish Flu pandemic, we need to remember that much of its effect on the world is still unknown and unknowable: estimates of the death toll range from 50 to more than 100 million. We also need to remind certain political leaders that the so-called Spanish Influenza erupted first in America among the thousands of cornstalks, or young rural men, camped with their horses as the American forces were amassed to enter the war.
Yet in many ways, what has befallen humankind is more akin to the outbreak of total war than a contagious disease. As with war, lives, plans, loves, businesses, careers, indeed a whole economy, are put on hold. We are suddenly no longer in charge of our own lives and destinies. All our vulnerabilities are exposed, ones that normally are papered over by the pace of everyday life and the rapid exchanges of the cash economy and the credit card. At the mercy of this tiny virus, we suddenly have no protection other than the state: the very same state that has been reviled, undermined, ridiculed and weakened by boosters and braggards over the past half century. The boosters and braggards are still with us, but even they have been caught out by a force of nature.
We need to understand the nature of the challenge facing us. We were confronted, hurt and terrified by the bushfire disaster over this past summer. The climate emergency was upon us more viscerally than ever before. Sydney lost its summer to choking smoke; the glorious forests of the Great Dividing Range and eastern seaboard burnt with a ferocity never witnessed before. Lives were lost, as were homes, businesses, communities, and a billion native animals and creatures. The koalas screaming in agony horrified the entire world. This was not just another natural disaster – this was our global future burning before our eyes. And then came this virus. And it has shut down the world by shutting down the public and especially the irregular economies that daily feed and service most of the people of the planet. We should understand the virus as an ecological disaster, just like the climate emergency. They are not causally related. Rather they are expressions of the same profound overburdening of the planet by anthropogenic excess.
As historians we can see this in the past where a combination of hypertrophy by parasitic elites, rampant inequality and desperate populations pushing against ecological boundaries, created a perfect storm. All that was needed is a trigger, a disruption such as Mongol hordes galloping at a hundred miles a day across Central Asia, stirring up the underground rodents and then transporting Yersinia pestis – the plague bacillus – east and west. And the Mongols were rampaging because they had been running out of space for their herds. We don’t know yet why the world warmed for the Medieval Warm Period, but its effects were to expand the human population in Eurasia while shattering Amerindian societies in the Americas, particularly in what is now California. It was a period of economic and cultural growth in Europe – the expansion of urban life, the founding of universities, the building of great cathedrals, the accumulation of wealth for those able to trade, but at severe environmental cost as forests were consumed for building and fuel. Likewise, our recent viral enemies – HIV/AIDS, Ebola, SARS, MERS and now COVID-19 – crossed to new human hosts when people, desperate for new land or creatures to kill for food, trespassed into wilderness areas with species that had never before interacted with humans.
If we go back to the fourteenth century, when the plague bacillus reached Caffa on the Black Sea in time for the fleeing Genoese invaders to take it back to Italy, the potential human hosts in Europe had been weakened by climatic disturbances and therefore damaged harvests, and by famine. The human material was malnourished, ill-sheltered and exposed – exhausted by the relentless exactions of a greedy elite. In Europe the arable land was running out and peasants were pushing into new landscapes with poor returns. A third of the European population was to perish in the Black Death, and Christian Europe took on a new blackness, an obsession with sin, a conviction that the pestilence was Divine punishment. Plague now became an integral part of human society. It would return regularly as soon as a new generation of susceptibles was large enough to host it. At the other end of the Eurasian landmass, China was shattered by the Mongol invasion and there, war, famine and plague cut the Chinese population by half. As the Reverend Thomas Malthus later argued: human population, when unchecked by premature death, grows geometrically, that is, exponentially, while the natural world of resources in food can grow only arithmetically. Equilibrium was possible only with the practice of sexual restraint (without the assistance of preventive technologies) or with what he called positive checks: high infant mortality, war, famine and disease. Death for many was necessary to make life possible and comfortable for the few, and in the midst of life there was always death, above all for the very young. Old age was rare; death was for the young.
This time we have already seen that the COVID-19 is selective about whom it kills. Certainly, it kills communities who, for religious reasons, reject social distancing and quarantine. And it kills those who are in their last days. But in New York and Louisiana it is killing poor blacks and Hispanics and, in the United Kingdom, black, Asian and minority ethnic groups, especially those who comprise 40 per cent of the medical workforce. When it finally finds its way to the great slum cities of the world in South Asia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Mexico, Brazil, Lagos, Nairobi, Cairo, and then onto the smaller, marginal societies struggling with drought, famine and other disease, let alone the 70 million displaced persons and refugees around the world, then it will find its greatest human fuel. It hones in on both individual and social vulnerability; it finds every fault line in society; it lays bare the inequities of mean and inadequate welfare nets (if they exist at all); the perilousness of casual, gig labour in even the richest nations; the helplessness of the uninsured, the un-unionised, the illegally immigrant. It lays bare all the shortcomings of investment in medical facilities and medical human capital. It exposes the fragility of even advanced economies like ours which have outsourced essential services and manufacturing to overseas suppliers or to a private market that is so competitive for price that it exploits its workers and short-changes its clients – such as has happened with our NDIS [National Disability Insurance Scheme]. Thankfully we have human adaptability and ingenuity on our side and vastly more capable human capital than ever before, so that hundreds of small and medium businesses are retooling and making medical equipment and protective gear.
There is a lesson in this too. The social geographer James C. Scott has been one of the principal champions of irregular economies and local enterprise in poor countries. He has shown how vital that sector is to providing food and services in cities, towns and villages all over the world. One danger that lies ahead is that huge service corporations that can house their operations in safe buildings, remotely administer their stock and its distribution, and run it all from their home computer while looking out over the Pacific Ocean, that they will emerge from this crisis even more dominant than they are now. Do we want Amazon to sell us everything? Do we want Walmart as our economic model? Or do we want to see local shopkeepers recover their businesses and return? Do we want to encourage individual creativity and initiative? Do we want to be served by a talking human being rather than a machine? Huge corporations are resilient in a global crisis like this, but they are massive and slow to innovate and crushing to their employees and customers. They are not good for people. In their flash American way, they are just as oppressive as the old state-run enterprises of the Soviet Union.
Malthus may have been mathematically correct, but he was morally wrong. And his baleful influence was invoked in the Irish Famine of the 1840s to stall and deny adequate famine relief while the wealthy continued to export animals and grain; it contributed to the indifference of the British Raj to the terrible Indian famines of the 1870s and 1890s, triggered by El Niño events but exacerbated by colonial policy and colonial depredations on Indian social infrastructures. It lurked in the unconscious of Winston Churchill during the 1943 Bengal Famine, where his only interest seemed to be whether Gandhi had died yet. Neither has this died with the British Empire. Extreme environmentalists both left and right have flirted with drastic global depopulation to save the planet by sacrificing the people (never themselves, of course); and in this current pandemic crisis, the three countries that have toyed with the concept of allowing natural herd immunity to emerge have recent eugenicist records – the United Kingdom until the 1940s, the Netherlands until the 1960s and Sweden until the late 1970s. Only Sweden has actually taken this bridge too far, and their death rate from COVID-19 is 50 times ours in Australia.
Economic historians now use the term ‘Malthusian trap’ to characterise the long history of humanity before the industrial revolution, when the world was entirely dependent on current photosynthesis for its energy – what is known as the organic economy of wood, crops, animal and human muscle. What Malthus did not anticipate was the fossil energy revolution, where carbon stored from deep time could replace that grown in living time in forests and fields. Human societies could now become dramatically more productive with energy that short-circuited nature. And now we are suffering the consequences of contaminating the atmosphere with the detritus of the deep past.
On the other hand, Malthus would not have approved of the eagerness of so many to limit their families not just by abstinence, but by termination of pregnancy and contraceptive technologies. However, while the world has largely curbed its fertility since World War Two, in many places to below replacement levels, what we did not realise was that in the humane desire to preserve life with new biomedical knowledge, cohorts of babies and children would now survive to adulthood, and in turn, reproduce. This has been the source of the world’s population almost trebling in my lifetime. Fertility rates are falling everywhere except amongst the poorest of the world for whom another baby is the only investment they can make in their survival and care in old age. Perhaps this baby will survive and become a provider. As the great Jack Caldwell first observed, development in poor countries depends on women and girls becoming literate and on the existence of institutions that protect rights to food, shelter, health care and education. But the demographic genie is out of the bottle: those young people of the developing world have to start their own families, and even if they decide to have smaller families, they will still swell the global population to nine or more billion before it can level off.
We still produce enough food for so many people, but as we all know, it’s the distribution – the politics and the economics – that are the problem. And it is the inequality of the world, both in rich, medium and poor nations, that creates ecological pressure points of land and water shortage that can unleash viral and bacteriological monsters, as well as war, extremism, intolerance and oppression. COVID-19 has become a great accelerator of the global ecological crisis we have created. All that will stand between us and disaster is good government. Yet with good government, we can live within our means, feed the world, care for the sick, educate all children, house all people, and nourish our social and cultural lives. Above all, with good government we can take control of our future rather than permit great powers, dictators and corporations to profit from our helplessness and hopelessness.
Therefore, it is important now to focus on what has to be done, rather than just on what may go horribly wrong. It is vital that we all retain faith in our capacity to survive as individuals, families, communities, nations and as a species. And that in surviving, we serve our fellow species and each other on the planet better than we have been doing for too long a time.
Many young people feel deeply pessimistic about the future. They have little confidence that organised society can face profound threats, survive them and rebuild. But the world has done so, even within living memory, with the astonishing recovery in Europe and Asia after World War Two. In 1945 Europe lay in ruins. Eighty-five million people had perished, most of them civilians, deliberately murdered by industrial slaughter or burned alive in their torched villages or firebombed cities or intentionally starved to death. Sixty million people were displaced and took to the roads and to find somewhere safe. Polish Jews, who went home to find if anyone had survived, were attacked and murdered. The total of lost or orphaned children has never been tallied. The 1944–45 winter had been terrible, crops had not been planted and there was no food. Only the Russians seemed to know how to distribute food and rebuild civil society: the other Allies either had no resources or no experience, and in June 1945 in the American zone the daily ration for ‘normal civilians’ was 860 calories a day, a third of their rations during the war.
Private life and civil society had been destroyed by oppression, torture, cruelty and hunger. Scarcely any civilian who survived occupation by the Nazis ended the war with a clear conscience. People had to kill, steal, lie, dob in neighbours, fail to help when asked, fail to fight when needed. Violence was the currency of civic life. And at the end, people had nothing: dispossessed of any property or capital they may have accumulated. They amounted to millions upon millions of destitute people. A friend’s mother who spent the war in Trieste once admitted that there was no human depravity that she had not witnessed.
Not only had the physical world been consumed by fire, but so also had institutions, communities, reputations. Proud national cultures had been trashed. Yet out of the carnage, modern Europe and the Soviet Union rebuilt their cities and homes and their civil societies. If the European Union has severe problems now, it still has been a miracle. Its leading states all have strong welfare systems, reasonable political stability and have experienced a dramatic improvement in housing, health and standards of living in the past three quarters of a century.
At the end of this crisis, things will be very bad for those with weak, corrupt and incompetent governments. For those with good governments, there will still be a lot to do to start again and critical moral decisions will need to be made as to whether to rebuild positively or inflict austerity to recover the losses of capital. But the deaths will be proportionately fewer than in World War Two, the buildings won’t be smashed, nor the sewers, water and gas pipes shattered. Physically the world will still be there, the hospitals and schools ready to open for normal business. Farms will still be producing food except where severe weather has destroyed crops. The shock and grief will be simply awful, and as I said in the opening of this talk, it could well be the defining historical moment in our lives for us all.
The immediate danger for a developed economy like ours is that an awful lot of people will be suddenly poor, as they were in 1945. The path to be taken is a political choice, not an inescapable route dictated by one branch of economic theory. We have prospered since the GFC by shifting the load of debt on to people’s credit cards and mortgages, but we have not repaired our economies and social institutions. It has not been the government with the problematic debts, but the people. Only middle-class and rich retirees have any financial resilience, and even they have seen their superannuation returns fall. Younger people, even on high incomes, are generally major debtors, paying off mortgages, the most affluent committed to school fees. Many across the board will find themselves after the pandemic with no savings and even bigger debts, perhaps having lost their house through defaulting on their mortgage or mortgages if they have been indulging in negative gearing. Their credit cards will be maxed out, they will owe older family members large amounts and the chance of returning to earning a secure income that could enable them to recover will not happen overnight. The economy will not flip back to normal; it will not be a V-curve dip and recovery; it will be a U-curve at best and an L-curve at worst. Hence, while government is stepping up to keep people and property and business owners afloat through the crisis, just as with the war, they cannot afford to switch off the tap as soon as the virus retreats. Again, we need to look at the past for guidance.
Our first question is: how did the Allies pay for the war after the collective impoverishment of the Great Depression? J.M. Keynes’ 1940 book How to Pay for the War outlined a program of rationing, war bonds and currency creation that produced the funds without generating inflation. But the minute the war ended, 42 per cent of the British workforce was made redundant. Even more important, then, is how did the Allies pay for the peace without a return to misery and chaos after World War One? Yes, rationing and austerity continued, but governments did not stop spending. The new Labour government in the United Kingdom passed legislation mandating full employment; the existing Labor government in Australia in May 1945 – just as the Nazis surrendered and before the war ended with Japan – issued its famous White Paper, written by H.C. Coombs. Its title was simply ‘Full Employment in Australia’. We pre-empted the British, but we were of like minds.
Australia, by comparison, got off lightly from the Second World War. But Australia also had arguably the best government in its history and one of the best in the world under prime ministers Curtin and Chifley. They believed in the social contract that government was there to serve the people and their needs; that our Commonwealth was formed for the common good. They were great internationalists. They prosecuted the war, but they also committed from 1943 to building a better Australia for peace. Chifley was recognised internationally as an outstanding treasurer. Their post-war reconstruction scheme, in just four years of war and four years of peace, established a welfare state and addressed historic injustices to Indigenous people who came under Commonwealth laws. They legislated to mandate full employment after the war despite the demobilization of the military and of war industries: in other words, a jobs guarantee – and it worked. They reformed the economy from the factory to the farm: General Holden Motors was nursed into production and this time soldier settlements were better planned and more successful. They built infrastructure like the Snowy Mountains Scheme. They trained hundreds of thousands of previously unskilled workers to be skilled workers. They opened Australia to non-British migration, changing us forever. They lost office before they could implement Professor Sam Wadham’s massive Rural Reconstruction Scheme. But they also believed that the future depended on education and research, establishing our first research university, the ANU, to be a Princeton in the Pacific. They inaugurated Commonwealth Scholarships and research funding. Our first PhDs began to graduate, and our academic gaze turned away from Oxbridge towards our Asian neighbours for the first time. They invested properly in CSIRO. They failed to do more about banking, but they did establish the Commonwealth Bank and take ownership of Qantas. Another term of office may have delivered a National Health Service. We had to wait almost another forty years for Medicare, but the four years after the war set up modern Australia.
This story is important to retell because it gives us hope – and a model. We need National Reconstruction again: to transition to renewable energy, to restore fairness and security to our economy, to rebuild our rural and regional sectors that are beset by poverty, environmental stress and long-time marginalisation. Climate change imperils our food security as it does our natural environment and wildlife. If we are to reconstruct Australia as a sustainable economy and society, then perhaps 60 per cent of that effort needs to be in the bush.
The pandemic has added a new layer to this need for national reconstruction. It has exposed our welfare net for the mean system it is. It has laid bare the dangers of insecure work, de-unionisation and workplace deregulation. It has revealed the fragility of our economic structure, its fatal lack of complexity – thank goodness for 3D printing which can suddenly start manufacturing respirators and other medical equipment. We cannot afford to be caught short like this again, with little capacity to refine oil, to make pharmaceuticals, and produce facemasks, Personal Protective Equipment and essential technologies.
National reconstruction requires political will and political will needs a measure of bipartisan support to be effective. This was easy in the war, but in peace we can also look to another Australian achievement: The Accord struck between unions and employers under the leadership of the Hawke government.
The architect of that Accord, Professor John Langmore of the Melbourne School of Government, in 1983 was the MHR [Member of the House of Representatives] for Fraser in the ACT. He later became a trenchant critic of the Accord under Keating when it was betrayed and triggered unemployment and recession, but he believes that the basic mechanism of the Hawke Accord can still be a model. It would require a Summit as before, after consultation and planning. It could be led by First Nations people with a mission to heal the land, starting with Constitutional Recognition and the Uluru Statement from the Heart. This time its participants would be drawn from across the spectrum: farmers, business big and small, unions, universities and research, state and local government, the health and welfare sectors, culture and the arts.
In the 1940s the Curtin government recruited the best minds Australia had to offer, led by Dr H.C. Coombs; in 1983 the Hawke government likewise drew on economic and scientific expertise outside the public service and its own advisors. Universities have played a vital role in changing course for this country in times of crisis and will do so again, just as their researchers, along with the CSIRO, are leading the fight against COVID-19.
The Accord itself could be a commitment to the guiding principles of the United Nations Sustainability Goals that connect social and economic justice to environmental justice. This Accord would be a commitment to principles of practice that would open doors to funding, tax incentives, advice and collaboration between sectors to build a new sustainable economy, turn Australia into the renewable energy powerhouse that Ross Garnaut envisages, and reinstate renewable-powered industry in cities and in the regions.
There would be no compulsion for businesses to sign on, but if they chose to be outside the tent, then they would not receive any benefits and opportunities. Likewise, government’s role is not to take the lead on every issue – it can’t, because it doesn’t have expertise to match that already in the community. Rather, it is to ensure that law and order prevail, that there is no corruption or favouritism. We have forgotten the power of the law to bring about social as well as judicial justice.
We are in danger of two things if the corporations alone take the lead on climate policy: that the funds will disproportionately swell the pockets of big companies, and that the poor and the bush will be ignored, along with all smaller players.
No nation can truly flourish if its hinterland is degraded and unproductive. Global warming threatens our food security and, as we have seen this summer, our forests and native wildlife. National Reconstruction needs not merely to be bipartisan at the top – it must offer genuine participation in decision making in schemes to transition to new industries and farming technologies. We may need to start growing some crops under cover in highly controlled environments with careful water use and no pesticides. If the Netherlands can become the world’s second-largest food exporter after the United States, then we too, with much more land, in a more environmentally sensitive way than the Dutch find possible, can build a hi-tech food exporting industry that could over time replace coal.
To do all this, we need partnerships between the private sector, government, universities, farmers, workers/employees, and in finance, such as industry super funds. If employers are to receive funding and research support from the public sector and its institutions, then as their part of the Accord they must commit to providing secure jobs, vocational opportunities with apprenticeships, and abide by OHS regulations. This is already happening in Victoria. They must be prepared to negotiate improving wages and support more generous welfare provision. Above all they need to endorse a government-funded Jobs Guarantee to get people back into the workforce with dignity and security: that is, real jobs with award wages, not work for the dole.
We hope that the pandemic will bring an end to the distrust of science and learning that neoliberalism has spread like poison through the rich world. It will be time to forgive student debt, perhaps, abolish fees, increase Austudy and fund research infrastructure in universities, alongside restoring the CSIRO and providing more job security for researchers. Our universities could then return to being servants of the public rather than reluctant semi-private corporations. As the Labor government knew in the 1940s, the future will be paved with education.
All this is fiscally possible if we accept that as we now have sovereignty over our currency, we cannot go broke as a nation and that investment in people and infrastructure pays long-term dividends. Artificially balancing the budget quickly via austerity only leads to further impoverishment; investing in people and their enterprises, to get on with it, restores prosperity.
Is this socialism? I’m not sure that question matters any more. Business is part of society too, and this cannot be done without their expertise, their creativity and their resources. The private sector will be crucial to recovery and the Accord is asking them to be good corporate citizens in return. It is certainly social democratic in that it puts people at the centre of the economy and the polity. It may need to include, over time, some collectivist practices such as the cooperatives that Australian farmers have long used to collect the capital to invest in technologies for sugar crushing and dairy produce. This time the technologies could be for intensive, hi-tech farming that is sustainable with climate change.
Our farmers are losing money. There is no profit at the farm gate and no surplus for employing labour at fair wages. At the same time our population is suffering an epidemic of obesity and diabetes while finding fresh, nutritious food too expensive. One in five Australians, in this land of plenty, has been going hungry every week. We may have to contemplate subsidising farmers to provide a nutritional floor for the nation as some developing countries have done successfully. This would be radical but necessary.
But what is possible with the new Accord is not a series of precise prescriptions for economic reform, but rather a narrative that can capture the trust and enthusiasm of an electorate that is disenchanted with politics and politicians.
People want our leaders to ‘come together’ and put aside personality conflicts and focus-group-driven ideas. Australia has a narrative of past successes at bringing the nation together, drawing on the capacities of the people and finding a new path forward. We have seen in the past few weeks Sally McManus of the ACTU with Greg Combet work with the Morrison government to protect workers as well as businesses. A ‘Green New Deal’ is an American idea; the United Kingdom wants a ‘green industrial revolution’; but we in Australia know how to strike accords, establish principles of practice, build institutionalised fairness and bring the people together. We need to Reconstruct Australia, as we have before.
No-one – no politician, no scientist, no economist, no bureaucrat, no business leader, no pundit and no political party – has all the answers. But collectively we do, provided we can devolve consultation and much decision-making to the communities and regions directly affected. That will build resilience and it will draw on the experience and knowledge of those who are experts in their own worlds. The great power of the human mind is that it can work with other minds: our greatest strength lies in each other.
Professor Janet McCalman AC, FAHA, FASSA is a Redmond Barry Distinguished Professor in the Melbourne School of Population Health where she teaches and researches historical population health. For many years she taught the University Breadth subject, ‘An Ecological History of Humanity’, but as a historian she is best known for her social histories of Melbourne life: Struggletown: Public and Private Life in Richmond 1900–1965, Journeyings: A Biography of a Middle Class Generation 1920–1990, and Sex and Suffering: Women’s Health and a Women’s Hospital 1856–1996.
The Disaster & Change podcast team consists of Julie Fedor, Nicole Davis, and Henry Reese, with expert guest speakers for each episode. The series is curated by the SHAPS Engagement committee and generously supported by SHAPS.