How do you write an end-of-year piece about a year like 2020? The usual year-in-review shtick of finding some unifying theme isn’t particularly useful when applied to a year in which history sped up dramatically, in which we not merely went through the looking glass but were propelled at a rate of knots.
Viruses and bacteria shape human history, and always have. The Spanish flu was merely an echo of early, more lethal and more transformative pandemics — the Black Death wiping out half of Europe in the 14th century and ending feudalism, or diseases exterminating Indigenous populations as imperial Europe reached out to the rest of the world.
Our tendency to cluster together with our animals, and to trade with anyone we can find, makes us perfect logistics providers for germs. Neoliberal capitalism — with global supply chains, insatiable exploitation of natural resources, precarious work, massive international travel and, in many countries, inadequately funded healthcare — is the perfect vehicle for bacteria and viruses to spread in ways previous generations never had to fear.
325,000 dead Americans are grim testimony to the fact that, while COVID-19 isn’t some unique product of neoliberalism, it was crucial to the destructive success of the virus.
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The temporary abandonment of core concepts of neoliberal policy in turn provided much of the successful response to the virus. Borders were closed, and commerce was shut down, to the continuing rage of business. Governments intervened to prop up businesses and maintain wages for workers.
Truly colossal deficits, far beyond anything previously dreamt of, were rung up by governments with only the odd peep from ratings agencies or fiscal diehards. 20% of GDP in the UK. 10% of GDP here. 7% in Germany. 15% in the US. Central banks accelerated quantitative easing, drove down the cost of borrowing and shifted away from inflation targeting toward unemployment targeting. Each one a bitter pill for neoliberals.
But the setback was only temporary in Australia, with the government using the pandemic as an excuse to push for industrial relations deregulation and wage cuts and make work more precarious, roll back banking regulation forced on it by the Hayne royal commission, and attack industry super funds. Even the government’s Keynesian stimulus had a neoliberal twist, with most of the spending or tax cuts directed to corporations and the wealthy, in the hope that it would trickle down to the rest of the community.
Most of all, even as the coal industry shuttered mines and laid off workers, the pandemic became an excuse for propping up fossil fuel companies and permitting them to write the government’s “gas-led recovery” policy.
If the virus thrives under neoliberalism, so too does climate change. In the status that neoliberal policymaking gives to corporations — with economic policy essentially based on the needs of companies and their shareholders, and the political process based on giving them the opportunity to dictate policy via donations and influence-peddling — we’ve created a high-powered resistance mechanism to climate action.
That’s particularly the case in economies like the US and Australia, where fossil fuel industries are large and wield significant power. There’s a reason why the conservative government of Boris Johnson is aggressively pursuing climate action while the conservative government of Scott Morrison is a climate criminal: Johnson does not rely heavily on fossil fuel company donations.
In Australia, so pervasive is the stranglehold that fossil fuel companies have on policymaking that a number of resource company executives or lobbyists work for the prime minister, in addition to fossil fuel executives being invited in to draft energy policy.
That’s why, in a year that commenced with much of the east coast on fire, 75 people perishing in bushfires and over 400 more from inhaling the thick smoke that choked our cities, the government’s sole climate “action” has been to claim it won’t cheat on achieving its laughably inadequate 2030 emissions abatement target, and to spruik more fossil fuel investment and the myth of carbon capture and storage.
Even so, with Trump gone, Australia is now left without noteworthy allies in the coterie of climate criminals — with the oil-fuelled murderers of Saudi Arabia, and the lunatic Bolsonaro government in Brazil. And not merely have other countries abandoned us, even investors are leaving us behind.
The shift in business sentiment — especially in the financial industry — against fossil fuels has been driven by pressure from large, powerful investors, including some of the world’s richest investment funds, like BlackRock and, here in Australia, large super funds.
By refusing to have an energy policy that takes the laws of physics seriously, Australia has outsourced much of its energy policy to investors increasingly wary of anything to do with fossil fuel assets, both from a financial and a reputational point of view.
The government’s response to increasing investor hostility to fossil fuels — to call a parliamentary inquiry, to threaten to withdraw deposit guarantees for banks, and to attack the superannuation system — would have resembled a toddler tantrum except for the very real potential for it to both inflict significant damage on Australia’s financial system, and to further deter investment in renewable energy, at a time when the government professes itself eager to lift investment.
The other factor that makes Australia structurally incapable of addressing climate action was well addressed by Malcolm Turnbull recently, when he excoriated News Corp for its relentless climate denialism.
In response, the company’s pre-eminent commentator, Paul Kelly, declared that the company’s role was to support the Coalition, making it official that Australia’s largest media company was the media wing of the ruling party — for which it has received tens of millions of dollars in taxpayer money, far in excess of the miserable few million it has paid in tax in the last five years.
This acknowledgement enables us to understand what the major Australia media really are: two government-aligned broadcasters and newspaper owners in News Corp and Seven; a Liberal-connected media company in Nine that owns The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age but also far-right radio outlet 2GB and right-wing business mouthpiece the AFR; foreign-owned Ten; an underfunded ABC that has been cowed into submission apart from John Lyons’ Current Affairs area; and several deeply financially troubled regional media groups increasingly dependent on government support.
Australia’s media companies will, inevitably, continue to become more dependent on government, as they have throughout 2020. That does not bode well for a media sector playing its self-proclaimed role of watchdog on the powerful. But like working from home, the shift to online retailing and the world of low inflation, the pandemic might have merely brought the future to us more quickly than it otherwise would have.
And it wasn’t just the pandemic. The conflagration with which 2020 began was also the future. A cool, wet summer will put those memories to bed for a time, but the planet is cooking and Australia refuses to do anything about it. Vaccines will kill off COVID, but there’s no inoculating against the greed and stupidity that drives climate denialism in our corrupted political system and media.
Last summer will come again, hotter, drier, even angrier. And it will keep coming. Our children will know all about it.