The author's daughter holds up a rainbow painting through the window of her home.

If this is an existential crisis, then why am I so hopeful?

If this is an existential crisis, then why am I so hopeful?

The author's daughter holds up a rainbow painting through the window of her home.

We’ve entered a new reality. It’s not great, but it has something going for it: we don’t know how this one ends. Yet.

A year ago, I wrote a story that a lot of people read. No-one wants to say something ‘went viral’ anymore.

The story was called How do we go on? In it, I interviewed scientists who all said, reassuringly, that we civilians can still have a positive impact on the world, even in the face of climate change.

People—from all over—got in touch with me to say the story made them feel better. One woman wrote that she walked around with a print-out of it tucked into her bag, as a balm to soothe her climate anxiety. Someone from Mexico, living in a fog of air pollution, said it was the fuel she needed to continue fighting for change. “I want to go on,” she wrote. “I want to erode the system.”

I am looking at that story again now. It starts with an anecdote about our house being uncomfortably hot during a sweltering summer we’d just endured in Canberra.

Ha ha! A hot summer!

“Oh baby,” I sing to myself, my one-year-ago self, as I read. I’ve aged so much since then, I feel like she might have been a literal baby. “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”

The entrance to the National Arboretum blanketed in thick smoke, with a sign reading 'National Arboretum closed'.t

Image: Swimming Wombat Photographics

At some time during the subsequent summer­—you know the one, the summer—my colleague texted me. We weren’t at work at the time, because it was too smoky to go outside. Inside it was only marginally better.

“Story idea for you, while you’re stuck at home,” he wrote. “You should do a sequel to ‘How do we go on?’”

I wrote back.

“Spoiler: We did not go on.”

Canberra had the hottest December on record, then the hottest January, and then the hottest February. One day it was 44 degrees at 4pm. Australia caught fire, and everything turned the wrong colour. On New Year’s Day, Canberra recorded the worst air quality in the world, 26 times hazardous levels. Happy New Year. After burning for 40 days, the Namadgi fire destroyed almost 90 percent of the national park.

My daughter came home from her first week of kindergarten with a survey from ACT Health. One of the questions asked us to tally the total number of days she had spent in Canberra over the summer. It took me a second to work out why they were asking. They wanted to find out what it did to her. What I did in my school holidays: I’m data in a study now.

What a joke to think anyone could make an impact on this world. My story now read like quaint commentary from another era. I wanted to apologise to everyone who had ever read it. There was no time left to make any changes; the dominoes had already fallen.

It wasn’t the hypothetical future which scared me anymore. It was the sky above my head; it was what was already in my daughter’s lungs. I told my colleague I couldn’t write a story that people would want to read. People like hopeful endings.

But then there was a pandemic.

Playground equipment in a Canberra park with a sign reading 'public space closed'.

“I mean, the summer was awful. Absolutely shocking. It was just devastating,” Dr Arnagretta Hunter says, over Zoom. She’s a Canberra cardiologist and Clinical Senior Lecturer at the ANU Medical School.

“Our community is exhausted. I see it in the patients I look after. They're emotionally distressed and have been through extraordinary trauma.

“At times, I’ve found myself struggling too. I don't know about you, but I'm very much over bad news.”

Dr Hunter has been named the inaugural Human Futures Fellow by the ANU College of Health and Medicine. She is working with the Commission for the Human Future, which sounds like something from The Hunger Games, but is actually an ANU initiative which brings together researchers and thinkers to promote ways we can prevent human extinction.

The Commission, chaired by John Hewson, has identified a list of ten, interconnected, threats to human existence. Global warming is on the list, as is pandemic disease. Being a Human Futures Fellow does not sound like a good role for someone who is sick of bad news.

But Dr Hunter says she actually feels more optimistic now than she did in January.

A portrait of Dr Arnagretta Hunter amongst a leafy setting.

Dr Arnagretta Hunter

Dr Hunter is a physician, with many elderly patients, and a mother, with children now stuck at home. She is, obviously, deeply distressed by the effects of COVID-19 on our community. But unlike in summer, when she felt completely helpless—like this was all our summers to come, like this was the beginning of the end of the world—she feels like there’s a way out of this.

“The pandemic gives us the impetus to step up and take some responsibility,” she says. “In it, we can see clues about how the future can be, particularly in our work and economic relationships, and in our relationship with the natural world.”

“As we emerge from economic destitution, and health crises that we've never imagined before, we've got an opportunity to craft the core elements of our civil society that we want to see going forward.

“To really change our future… That's an opportunity not just of a lifetime, but of many, many generations.”

I can’t help but feel like this is running before we can walk; talking about some grand, reimagined future when we can’t even picture what June looks like. And Dr Hunter agrees that it’s impossible to comprehend what the toll of COVID-19 will be on Australian society, especially on the most disadvantaged, who will almost certainly be the worst affected.

But, she says, the pandemic has given us at least one concrete, observable truth: we can change, and fast.

“The things which we previously regarded as near-to-impossible to do, can actually be achieved overnight. We’ve seen that now.”

Governments can change directions, and we can all change our entrenched behaviour. Dr Hunter says every year she promised herself this would be the year she wouldn’t fly, and yet never managed to achieve it. It was always a bit too hard, a bit too inconvenient. And now look. The excuses slip away.

The experience of COVID-19, she says, has reframed the relevance of existential threat. It’s no longer about a risk to our children’s lives, or our future grandchildren’s, it’s our own. Doing something about it, now, is necessary and urgent.

“Coronavirus pushed us off the cliff, and now we have to work out how to land safely.”

Dr Hunter says she doesn’t know exactly what that means, how we should land. The Commission for the Human Future doesn’t offer a prescriptive set of solutions, but themes which can move us forward: faith in science; intelligent political leadership; overcoming short-termism in our politics and our thinking.

“We want to foster discussions not just with politicians and with policymakers, but everywhere,” Dr Hunter says. “At the kitchen table level, at the local community level, to get people thinking creatively and imaginatively about change.”

“If people all over the country are talking about representation in democracy, and actually getting their local Members of Parliament actively involved, then we create environments where communities are talking about what is in front of them, and how they want it to be in five, ten or 50 years’ time.

“And if people are planning for the future, then they will change the politics.”

Girl holding rainbow painting

The author's daughter, at home

In our current circumstances, it’s natural to crave a return to normality. But just because it was normal, doesn’t mean it was all good. Some of it was good. But also, a lot of it was on fire.

It was not going to have a happy ending. We were living in “a doomsday machine we [had] built for ourselves”, writes the novelist Arundhati Roy in a recent op-ed. “Nothing,” she continues, “could be worse than a return to normality.”

What if we stopped talking about going back to how things were, and started talking about how we can end up somewhere better? We know now that change is possible, we just have to put this knowledge to work, “to engage with our future deliberately” as Dr Hunter says.

“I think if we go back to business-as-usual, and if we don't engage in the public discourse that's required around change, and how we want society to be, then we will end up worse than before coronavirus.

“This is a unique moment. We have a window of opportunity to do some deep reflection about how we want to recreate society. Where can we do better? How can we do better?

“We don't have a long time. We need to be working on this now. We have to believe in the power of the human condition to change.

“And now we know that it can.”

The Commission for the Human Future has released a discussion paper and call-to-action on global catastrophic risks. You can read it here.

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