When Tim Whiffen and I were invited to be the moderators for the Clean Recovery Forum <everi.events/event/12492234-a/clean-recovery-forum> in Adelaide on 28 January (2021) the significance of the three major themes to be discussed at the event immediately resonated with us: Climate change, systemic unemployment, and rising inequality. If Australia, and the rest of the world, do not take immediate, comprehensive action to remedy these three interconnected crises, then the quality of the lives we live and the environments we live in will rapidly deteriorate.
As I reflected on how we might get societies and governments to take immediate, concurrent action to address these three crises, my mind kept finding its way to Jonathan Haidt’s argument about how common threats can make common political ground
Today, in contrast, a majority of citizens and politicians can agree that climate change poses some sort of threat, but a majority of politicians have not agreed on exactly what level of threat climate change poses and precisely what they are willing to do to counter the threat. In relation to systemic unemployment and rising inequality, it is unclear whether a majority of citizens and politicians recognise the threat, and comprehensive solutions have not garnered immediate majority support. Unlike during the Great Depression and World War II, when collective action was underpinned by receptiveness to reasoned scientific argument and a willingness to transcend ideological divisions, too much recent political debate has been characterised by self-interest, anti-science, alternative facts, and rigid adherence to reductionist ideology. At precisely the time when we need to recognise and act on common threats, too many people have coalesced around evermore polarising and paralysing beliefs.
There is a mass of credible evidence concerning why climate change, systemic unemployment, and rising inequality are crises, and there are comprehensive and cohesive arguments that lay out what action we should take right now. Thanks to the IPCC <www.ipcc.ch/> we have clear analysis of a mass of scientific research on climate change. Thanks to Pavlina R. Tcherneva we have a comprehensive case for a Job Guarantee
Ironically, as Haidt predicted, it took an immediate, common threat to overcome some of the polarisation and paralysis: COVID-19. Once it became evident that COVID-19 was an existential threat, social goods started to trump self-interest, science became our guide, alternative facts became a danger to all of us, and reductionist ideology was quietly suspended in favour of reasoned policy. Protecting lives and livelihoods meant that unemployment and inequality had to be taken seriously and treated as inter-dependent issues, and we have all now experienced the environment differently as we have lived and worked from home in lock-down. As a common threat, COVID-19 has provided a common context through which other issues and aspects of life can be related and understood: working from home reduced the risk of us infecting each other, showed us that the economy can work differently, and showed us that we don’t need to waste precious time and energy going to meetings that we can attend virtually from wherever we are. A global epidemic is a very frightening thing, and it is sad that it took COVID-19 for people to realise that they can live cleaner, quieter lives from home.
As obvious as it is that the Great Depression and World War II changed how people live their lives, it is not yet obvious that we have decided to hang on to what we have learned while living under the shadow of COVID-19. Immediate existential threats can certainly motivate Humans to be creative and courageous to overcome the current threat, but the price we pay for behaving in this reactive way is too high.
We need a better way to motivate productive political debate and action, which can be based on a constant common context rather than on an occasional almost overwhelming threat.
After nearly six weeks of thinking about what this constant common context could be, I have reached a conclusion that is, unfortunately, only a place to start. We need to define a Social Contract for today that sets out when political action has to be taken, before problems become crises.
Within the Western tradition we have two readily available historical conceptions of a Social Contract: Leviathan <www.audible.com.au/pd/Leviathan-Audiobook/B00FO2U8TW?qid=1611456846 &sr=1-1&ref=a_search_c3_lProduct_1_1&pf_rd_p=771c6463-05d7-4981-9b47-920dc34 a70f1&pf_rd_r=B77QB4HGFRSNJVRZ0TDB> by Thomas Hobbes and The Social Contract <www.audible.com.au/pd/The-Social-Contract-Audiobook/B00U1QR1UA?qid= 1611457020&sr=1-1&ref=a_search_c3_lProduct_1_1&pf_rd_p=771c6463-05d7-4981-9b 47-920dc34a70f1&pf_rd_r=29NE9KQNHJAG3MY57F0F> by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. While Rousseau idealises the state of nature and Hobbes makes it sound like the worst place you could ever be, the two of them together provide a good set of reasons for how and why people live within large, complex societies. A Social Contract could provide people with a clear explanation of what freedoms they are expected to surrender in favour of particular sorts of safety. It could outline what rights and obligations citizens have to each other and the society, as well as outlining what obligations the state has to its citizens, and what it can require from them. A clearly defined Social Contract could provide the motivation for productive political debate and action.
At present citizens have little power when they say that politicians should take action right now, and politicians have no clear reason to stop debating whether to act in favour of deciding what action to take. My hope is that under a Social Contract defined for today we could stipulate when action has to be taken, replacing the propensity for political polarisation and paralysis with an impetus for constructive action.
If the quality of our lives and the environments we live in were defined in a Social Contract, then politicians would be judged by what they do about climate change, systemic unemployment, and rising inequality, and not just on how they speak about them. It is clear that Humans can do amazing things when they have little choice, so my hope is that a Social Contract would replace the choice to take action with a requirement to choose what action to take.
I do not know how much time and effort it would take to research and develop a Social Contract, or how willing a society would be to implement a practical social guarantee, but I know that if I had the resources I would like to devote my time to such a project. Talking should lead to consequential action, before we run out of time.
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