The following is the text of a very short talk I gave in my ‘green issues’ slot on local community radio in March 2020 on the lessons of the Covid-19 crisis and the chance to build a better society. Please feel free to recycle in your area
The Covid-19 crisis continues to dominate the news. The costs … the death toll… threatened livelihoods… the general dislocation… are painfully clear. But I want to put the current crisis in a wider context.
Let’s look at the really bad news first. Whatever the costs of the current health crisis, they pale into insignificance when set against the dangers of climate breakdown. Yet that’s not the only danger. There are all the other ecological threats we face, not least the loss of food-producing soils and growing water shortages.
Covid-19 will not create an uninhabitable Earth. Unchecked ecological meltdown will.
We have already seen the portents. They can be seen in deadly heat waves, vast forest fires, huge floods, violent hurricanes and other extreme weather events. Rising temperatures and rising sea levels will force the movement of people on a scale never seen before. And that will only be the start.
Meanwhile, there is the likelihood of future and worse pandemics. So, let’s put the current crisis into context and pay attention to those far worse dangers.
There is actually one more danger. The danger is that governments will try to come out of the current crisis by launching a drive for growth, growth of all kinds, growth at any cost. They will desperately try to get back to normality.
Yet it is precisely that normality that created the conditions for Covid-19 and other pandemics in the first place. It is that very business-as-usual that is depleting the Earth’s resources. It is business-as-usual that is shredding the Earth’s life-support systems. It will make vast tracts of the Earth unhabitable for people and many other species.
The Covid-19 crisis has its roots not just in the so-called ‘wet markets’ of China. The roots stretch across in the whole food production system, not least the factory farming of pigs, poultry and other livestock. Human destruction of the world’s rainforests also fuels the spread of new infectious diseases. The risks are of course amplified by the scale of unregulated world trade… by population movements… by urban overcrowding… and by the sheer size of our population.
The lessons are clear. Bailouts and so forth should not be used to revive an economy that has been undermining the very conditions for healthy, civilised living. That economy’s lack of resilience and vulnerability to disruption have become painfully clear. In particular, long-distance transport and just-in-time deliveries have been shown to highly insecure.
For something better, we need to face those realities rather than naively think that we can go on as before. We actually have a real opportunity to create a better, fairer and more resilient society. It may be our last chance… time is running out. But nonetheless it is still a real chance.
We can see the evidence all around us at the moment. As the level of economic activity has slowed down so too has the level of greenhouse gas emissions and air pollutants. The air is suddenly cleaner. There is less noise pollution too. Wildlife seems to be thriving.
At the same time, we have witnessed far greater community spirit. There has been lots of local action in which people are trying to help their neighbours. We have seen how quickly buildings can be put to better uses such as health care. We have seen how factory production can be used to produce different kinds of products such as ventilators. We have seen how important is the precautionary principle… no more reckless gambling with the future!
We need to build on those gains.
We need to use grants, subsidies and other support to build another kind of economy. We should be using public policy. Including bailouts, in a programme of economic conversion. The American Defence Production Act of 1950, for example, steered the country’s factories to greater armaments production. But the same thing could be done with regards to more socially useful and sustainable goods and services.
Critical will be a new food production system, with far emphasis on local and regional supply. That includes a revival of allotments and other forms of urban food production. Just in the last few days, a new report from the University of Sheffield has shown the enormous scope there is. We can debate such specifics.
But, in general, it is now clear that we need to change how we live, what we eat, how we get about and how often we travel, what we wear, how we use our buildings and so much more.
Covid-19 is indeed a crisis but it is also an opportunity to mend bad ways.