At 80, I’m just a bit older than Meanjin.
Born into the British Empire, we both started out in Brisbane where, in December 1940, journalist Clem Christesen AM OBE published the first Meanjin Papers. Days later (3 January 1941) the 6th Division of the 2nd AIF, which, like the 1st Australian Imperial Force of 1914–18, had been training in Palestine, engaged with Italian forces at Bardia, the first occasion where our ground troops were seriously committed in World War II. I’d arrived in the preceding October, the month in which the Battle of Britain ended. Some 35 Australian pilots (ten died) flew in that conflict over Will Shakespeare’s ‘sceptered isle’—this fortress built by nature for itself against infection and the hand of war—that my Essex-born, Brisbane-resident maternal grandparents, Bert and Emma Byford, still referred to as ‘home’.
My generation, and Meanjin, grew up with the massive disruption and tragedy of war and its aftermath, the grieving families and sometimes damaged men who returned. Perhaps reflecting the consciousness of interdependence that came from the experience of the economic depression of the 1930s, and then serving in the citizen armies of 1939–45. We saw the rise of the United Nations and the beginnings of a more inclusive and fairer world view. Of particular relevance to Australia, the British Empire transitioned to the British Commonwealth: will that survive the next 80 years? Any forum that has nation-states in a peaceful contact and discussion is worth preserving.
Much has changed for the better, though, unfortunately, some of the post–World War II initiatives that saw greater equity and a dedication to the general good have been massively eroded. But it is true that citizens across the planet (at least for those who live in more politically stable nations) are living longer and have never enjoyed better health. Older people like me are, of course, massively threatened by COVID-19, but we have to acknowledge that we’ve had a great run of it.
Maybe those of us of advancing years who come out of this okay could start to think a lot more in terms of intergenerational equity in everything from housing costs to the increasing threat of climate change. That could be as much in our interests as theirs. The one thing that is absolutely certain over the next 80 years is that our children, grandchildren and their children will progressively take over. It is also clear that the younger generations are linked across the planet and that they will become ever more sophisticated in using that interconnectivity to drive essential change and activism. The mantra of ‘think globally, act locally’ is great but if the underlying realities for complex life systems like us are not to be infinitely worse 80 years from now, we must also see the rapid roll-out of effective global action on many fronts.
One strategy that could be explored is to establish a body of enforceable, international law dealing with ‘Climate Crimes against Humanity’ and ‘Ecocide’, including pollution and degradation of the oceans, with no statutes of limitation and the power to confiscate inherited wealth that has come from such actions. The aim would be to deter rather than to punish, so we should not wait until the worst crimes have been committed. Otherwise, the Nuremberg War Crimes trials provide a model as they went after politicians and media figures, though the industrialists got off far too lightly.
Will the enormous economic and social stress that has resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic lead us again (as happened after 1945) to think in terms of shared fates, both within nation-states and across the planet? Can the human family come together to tackle the massive problems that face us? We are in uncharted territory. While we can learn from history, massive technological change and the fact that the human population has at least tripled since 1945 mean that, while we face unprecedented challenges, we have unique opportunities. The past is indeed prologue, but we cannot be wedded to it.
Words matter because they condition thinking. One imperative is to move beyond polarising (and generally poorly understood) categorisations—communist v. fascist, left v. right, conservative v. liberal—and develop pragmatic solutions based in evidence. People throw these terms around without a real understanding of what they mean, and no knowledge whatsoever of the social and historical context that led to the emergence of the movements they reflect. An apt summary I heard recently is this: ‘Working with nineteenth-century institutions and twentieth-century ideas to solve twenty-first-century problems is a recipe for certain failure.’
Still, as a starting point for the next 80 years, there are some words and phrases that suggest ways forward. One is the concept of ‘sustainability’. We can’t continue simply to extract, degrade and pollute. Then there’s the idea of a ‘circular economy’. Can we move to a model where all manufactured products are designed so that they can be recycled or repurposed? We need greening, not green-washing, renewal not depletion, and above all truth not bullshit.
One of the best things that could happen over the next 80 years is if we could in some way change our education system so that we all learn to view the world via the prism of probability and relative risk. That would, of course, disrupt those industries and movements that profit by distracting the broader public from real problems by focusing on outrage about the rare exception, the singular event. Nothing in life is without risk, but just about all Australians do think in terms of relative risk when they willingly don a seatbelt in a car. How do we extend that type of approach across the board?
A question that increasingly bugs me is: why is it that, with the power of even current technology to massively diminish human drudgery, so many are working less securely, with longer hours, for smaller reward? Part of the answer has to be that the way many new technologies are being deployed ensures wealth generation for the few rather than improved lives for the many. COVID-19 has recently shown us the enormous economic cost that results from placing people in a situation where even if they are sick they must go to work. This can, and should, change. It’s just a matter of collective will and considering the real costs of different actions.
Would moving to a Universal Basic Income (UBI) cost more than the plethora of support mechanisms, tax breaks and so forth that are currently out there? Might a UBI unleash the creativity that is often untapped but is, I believe, inherent in many of us? Apart from advances in high tech, innovation in entertainment, design, crafts and so forth can work to powerfully diminish the dehumanisation that results from meaningless jobs and to help build both personal and community resilience. We need to keep our Arts faculties, art schools and trade schools strong, and ensure they are broadly accessible, both in person and online, for lifelong learning.
Can we evolve towards political and economic strategies that emphasise inclusion and support rather than exploitation and cruelty? How much of public money that we pay out for policing, crime, incarceration and delayed emergency healthcare would be saved by, for example, getting the homeless off the streets into modest, publicly supported accommodation where they can be helped rather than ignored and disdained? Has anyone done those budgets and if not, why not? Look at all actions through the prism of public liability versus private profit and think how often private ‘rationalisations’ become public liabilities. That can’t continue. People and organisations must pay their fair share if we are to have a decent and sustainable society.
Having to abandon planned travel and other commitments because of COVID-19, I’m finding more time for exercise and other basic human pursuits. Most who are in any way more publically involved are living much of their public life as a face and voice viewed via Zoom, Skype, Google Chat or some other online format that can be local, global or both. This works pretty well and is causing many to ask whether we need to waste enormous amounts of time flying back and forth across the planet.
In fact, the pandemic has simply hastened transitions in personal connection, information exchange, marketing, sales and work arrangements that were already well underway. Maybe some of this will go back to ‘as before’, but my bet is that a lot of those changes are permanent. So, one great thing that could happen over the next 80 years is that we all spend less time in cars and on planes, more time with family and friends, and that people will move back to live in ‘walking or biking communities’, whether they be suburbs or smaller towns.
It would be great too if more Australians could experience the bush and the outback, and learn to value this extraordinary and unique country. Real action on climate change and environmental sustainability will have to come from the conviction of the majority that the health and wellbeing of our natural ecosystems are major priorities for them. We have much to learn here from our Indigenous fellow citizens, but we can all play a part.
One great way through whatever you have left of the next 80 years is to become a recreational ‘citizen scientist’, using your binoculars, camera, mobile phone, measuring tape or whatever to record and send real numbers and informative images to organisations such as Birdlife Australia, the Australian Wildlife Conservancy or any of the plethora of volunteer bodies that work with professionals to monitor the health of everything from inland waterways to bushland and beaches. Recreation is about a lot more than just sitting around or watching other people do things.
Being 12 to 18 hours ahead opens opportunities for Australian professionals to pursue opportunities online that fill gaps while Northern Hemisphere colleagues sleep. Of course, there are also risks for highly trained white-collar professionals who may, like their blue-collar cousins, find a lot of their work ‘outsourced’ to cheap-labour countries. If Australia is to compete globally in that type of marketplace, the obvious message is that we have to be smart in the ways we train people, both to have high levels of expertise and to be flexible and creative in how they operate.
Universities are a good place to start with this, and they’ve been on a steep learning curve for some time now. As institutions, universities have changed massively in their basic nature over the past 80 years, and there can be no doubt that they will evolve even more over the next 80. This country has a great tradition of distance learning and, if we’re smart, we’ll drive a lot down that road to provide great content to people in suburbs, small towns and across the planet.
Molecular science continues to drive major advances in, for example, cancer therapy. Part of this may well involve genetic engineering so that, after appropriate safety and ethics reviews, some of us become GMOs, genetically modified organisms. What if we had a puffer, a gene-therapy nasal spray that engineered the cells in our nose and mouth to be resistant to COVID-19? It’s still early days, but gene-therapy modifications of bone marrow stem cells may be the solution to many haematological malignancies. Those of us with replacement hips, or perhaps a cochlear implant are already partly bionic. We will undoubtedly see the massively enhanced adoption of advanced electronic and materials science–based strategies, perhaps with an added gene-therapy component, to help those with visual defects, spinal cord injuries and so forth.
Also, if we want to improve food availability and general health for the billion or so humans who don’t get enough to eat each day, plus the further billion who suffer micronutrient deficiency, we need to think rationally about the use of GM technologies in agriculture. For example, researchers working in publicly funded, not-for-profit institutions have developed foods with targeted GM insertion to deliver micronutrients. But the roll-out of products like ‘golden’ rice and bananas (incorporating β-carotene) and GM cassava (modified to increase iron and zinc availability) has been effectively blocked by some Europe-based green organisations that are opposed to all GM technology because they regard this as ‘the thin edge of the wedge’. These organisations have even stopped the import of products from the poorer countries that use any GM approaches designed to help local people. Apart from having no basis in science, that just looks like classical post-colonialism.
While everyone would, for instance, like to see chickens released from battery cages and living under free-range conditions, when that is done wild birds infect them with avian influenza viruses. As I write this in September 2020, we are seeing whole flocks in Victoria being wiped out (test and slaughter) because of such incursions. Hundreds of millions of chickens have been killed worldwide, both directly by lethal H5N1 influenza strains and by regulatory authorities. Chickens that are engineered to resist avian influenza have already been produced. There’s no obvious scientific reason why eating GM chickens should be unsafe and setting up trials to test that should be straightforward. What we would gain here is the possibility of better lives for chickens and for us, avoiding the massive loss of high-value protein resulting from both periodic ‘bird flu’ outbreaks and the possibility of a new pandemic virus ‘jumping’ into us.
A primary goal for the next 80 years must be to protect democracy in those countries where it survives and is central to governance and the health of society. Have some citizens in the democracies lost sight of the fact that if we embrace the freedom that this system of governance optimally enshrines, we must also accept the linked requirement for taking personal responsibility? Part of that is to be informed, to be involved and to vote. We do not want to find ourselves living in the world so clearly described by early twentieth-century writers such as Franz Kafka and George Orwell.
The best hope for the democracies over next 80 years is that citizens and politicians will re-engage with the message of Abe Lincoln’s 1863 Gettysburg Address. Given on site just over four months after the end of that horrific American Civil War battle, Lincoln ended with: ‘that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth’. One of the great benefits we’ve gained over the first decades of this century is the power to go online and immediately pull up the 272 words of Lincoln’s great message. And courtesy of Project Gutenberg, we can download a free copy of Orwell’s 1984 or Kafka’s The Trial and read them for ourselves.
As people work more from home or in smaller communities, central-district office blocks that are excess to requirements might be retrofitted to provide urban living spaces. Avoiding the necessity of commuting to large cities can only diminish pollution by having the cars that we value for recreational use sitting at home where they can charge from solar during the day. There is already a lot of evidence that solar and wind generation, perhaps with backup from the electricity grid and/or local hydrogen-fired plants, could fulfil Australia’s energy needs.
Energy efficiency and climate resilience need to be at the centre of any proposed construction project, whether that’s a family house or a tower block. An excellent principle to follow is to consider that every building surface should have an energy-conservation and/or energy-generation function. There are already exciting technologies out there, such as solar films, paints and roofing tiles. Over the next 80 years, we need to make the practicable use of such approaches the norm, not the exception. In addition, building with modern stressed-wood products both locks up carbon and avoids the massive carbon emissions associated with concrete. And where concrete is used, we need to switch to low-emission variants that can, for example, be made by incorporating a percentage of appropriately recycled plastic waste.
It’s clear that solar and battery technologies will continue to improve. Yet we have barely begun to exploit the energy-generation potential of tides and waves. There are already wave-walls that are designed with a dual purpose of generating energy and protecting safe harbours and coastlines. And given the fact that it may already be too late to avoid progressive sea-level rise that will rapidly ramp up, it would make sense to have a lot of the ‘weight’ in any such structure as sea water that can be pumped out so that the ‘wall’ can be moved back and relocated as needed. In fact, why not mandate that all future construction and supportive infrastructure in vulnerable coastal areas should be demountable and movable?
Can we enhance the utility of wind power by developing turbofan generators that cut in at high wind speeds when the ‘big blades’ have to be shut down? Have you ever watched the turbofan on a Rolls Royce or a Pratt & Whitney jet engine on a parked Boeing 747 turn slowly in a light breeze? There should be many good local jobs for people whose skills lie more at the artisan end when it comes to building and maintaining home-based renewables technology, along with wind and solar farms and carbon-neutral methane generators fuelled by organic waste. What about constructing small ‘wind ships’ powered by sail and electric motors with turbofan, hydrogen or biodiesel generation?
The COVID-19 pandemic is showing us both the strengths and the limitations of sophisticated technologies. Release of the genetic sequence of the virus in January 2020 allowed vaccine innovators with well-developed ‘platforms’ to simply slot in the gene encoding the virus spike protein and establish very quickly that their ‘product’ was both safe and effective. It was also a straightforward matter to give the vaccine to a few people (a phase-one trial) to show that they make good antibody responses and do not show untoward side effects. If that was all that was required, we could already (September 2020) be vaccinating people, but the problem is that it takes both time and substantial infrastructure to test how effectively a vaccine will work to protect people against a virus that is being transmitted within the community.
Maybe we will learn how to truncate this process from the COVID-19 experience, but there will still be a lag-phase in the face of any future pandemic. That could become an enormous challenge if, instead of enduring the disruption and death caused by a virus that likely kills less than 1 per cent of the people it infects, we were facing a rapidly spreading pathogen that, as for the original SARS-CoV-1 of 2002–03, is lethal for 10 per cent of those who contract the disease. In both cases we are talking only about mortality rather than morbidity and possible long-term compromise for the health of survivors.
One protective strategy would be to go ahead and develop ‘designer’ drugs (small molecules) for all the classes of virus that potentially threaten us. We already have class-specific antivirals that work for all the HIV/AIDS and influenza viruses (although the flu drugs have to be given very early in the infection) as therapeutics (for treatment) and as prophylactics (for prevention). It would make a lot of sense to develop several such drugs for each of the coronaviruses, the filoviruses, the henipaviruses, the paramyxoviruses, noroviruses, flaviviruses, alphaviruses and so forth. Those names won’t mean much to most people, but we already have representatives of such infections that regularly cause severe, or mild, disease in us, which would allow researchers to test the efficacy of chemical candidates that could be held in reserve and manufactured rapidly for emergency human use. The dollar cost of doing this, which would likely need to be covered by public and philanthropic funds, would be minimal when we compare it with the massive economic loss of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Relating back to the disastrous Spanish flu of 1918–19, is the COVID-19 experience a 100-year event? I fear not. As we contemplate the next 80 years, we should assume that we may be facing similar challenges at regular intervals and organise our society accordingly. The common, major risk factors that can be at play here include hunger, forest clearance for commercial gain and the extraordinary ramping up of rapid international air travel. Over the past four decades we have, apart from COVID-19, experienced one still-continuing pandemic and several near misses: the original severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) of 2002 (which burnt out and disappeared) and the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) of 2012, which is still circulating at a low level.
The continuing pandemic is, of course, HIV/AIDS. First coming to Western consciousness in 1981, AIDS is caused by several different, but closely related, virus infections of non-human primates (our distant relatives) that ‘jump’ into us. As it is transmitted sexually we could, once the blood supply was secured, avoid catching this disease by changing our behaviour. The fact that this virus is still being spread by sexual contact tells us how hard that is to do. And, of course, when it comes to COVID-19 and SARS-CoV-2, we can’t decide not to breathe!
Since 1945 we have also seen a massive spread of mosquito-borne alphavirus and flavivirus infections from Africa and Southern Asia to, especially, the Americas. These viruses multiply in the mosquito ‘vectors’ and in us, with some also having wildlife maintaining hosts. Clearly, such infections are limited to the ‘mosquito belt’ but, as global warming accelerates, they will inevitably move farther north and south, and up into cooler mountain and plateau regions. Among these pathogens are now familiar names such as dengue, Chikungunya, West Nile and Zika. How did these viruses spread over such large distances? Either it was due to ‘stowaway’ infected mosquitoes on planes, or a consequence of local mosquitoes feeding off viremic (virus in blood) people after they landed and headed off from some international airport.
With regard to mosquito-borne diseases (malaria is another) much current research is focused on the release of genetically-modified or Wolbachia-infected (a bacterium) mosquitoes that are viable and reproduce but don’t support the growth of the pathogen. That’s another reason why we need to move on from the mindless blanket banning of GMO technology. Why is it safer to use large amounts of pesticides and insecticides rather than to modify organisms? We don’t want to kill large numbers of insects. Apart from pollinating, insects are an essential food source for birds, bats and reptiles. Strategies should be tested for safety, but we are missing out on technologies that have the potential to promote human wellbeing over the next 80 years.
So, unless the COVID-19 experience both changes the way we travel and reduces our negative impact on natural environments, can we have any real expectation that we will not see further pandemics throughout the next 80 years? We may look back on the COVID-19 experience as a relatively benign trial run. That’s why we need careful forensic analysis of every aspect of this pandemic so that we are better prepared in the future. I doubt a pandemic could wipe us out as a species over the next 80 years, though limited nuclear war and the consequent nuclear winter would do that. But a little virus that comes out of nowhere could, as now, cause massive damage if we fail to learn and do not commit resources towards being better prepared.
The best that anyone can do is to help build a sustainable future. If you can’t find it in yourself to contribute, at least get out of the way. But think about it: what better legacy could any of us leave? There’s no mystery about what needs to happen over the next 80 years. We’re already running more than 20 to 40 years late. What matters is action. Whether or not Edmund Burke (1729–1797) said it first, or said it at all, ‘the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men and women to do nothing’.
Peter Doherty, having shared the 1996 Nobel Prize for Medicine, then being Australian of the Year, has continued with research on infection and immunity while involving himself in public science communication.