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The Pandemic and the Planetary Crisis

The Pandemic and the Planetary Crisis

By guest contributor John Barry

The pandemic has cancelled the future…but that’s ok. It was a pretty shit one anyhow. Crises are events where ‘all bets are off’ and the ‘rules of the game’ can be up for renegotiation and rewriting, where there are openings for new ideas, practices and possibilities. Crises are also lessons in new ways of thinking and acting…. And responding to them requires stories, narratives to help us understand them, explain their causes and assess solutions and coping strategies. Now there are a variety of narratives or ‘structures of feeling’, as the Marxist cultural critic, Raymond Williams put it, competing for our attention. These range from comforting ones of a ‘swift return to normality’, the ‘master narrative’ or commonsense encompassing how most people and elites think.

During ‘normal’ times, out of all the possible ways to organise society, there is only a limited range of ideas considered acceptable for mainstream political discussion. The pandemic has forced that ‘realm of the possible’ wide open. In a short space of time, we’ve seen political and economic ideas discussed and in places implemented that had previously been rejected as ‘utopian’, ‘unrealistic’ or ‘too radical’, opening up possibilities for ‘building back better’ and nor returning to normal. Normal was the problem. Normal was ecocidal growth and capital accumulation. Normal was food banks increasing, precarious jobs, welfare state retrenchment and deepening inequality. Why would we want to ‘return to normal’?

Let’s hope, we do not lose either the lessons we are currently being taught by a harsh teacher or the multiple opportunities for change this current moment offers. We have the ideas and we need to find way of unleashing the creative potentials of workers and citizens – for dusting off the lessons of the Lucas plan for example and seeing how places of production and learning for example, need to be rethought and repurposed to provide solutions and produce socially and ecologically useful products and services to tackle the greatest threat and opportunity humanity has ever faced. This is the promise of a ‘building back better’, a ‘jobs not growth’ led green new deal or a ‘justice and sustainability’ focused recovery strategy.

The coronavirus pandemic is a wake-up call to stop exceeding the planet’s limits. Deforestation, biodiversity loss, and climate change all make pandemics more likely.

Deforestation drives wild animals closer to human populations, increasing the likelihood that zoonotic viruses like SARS-CoV-2 will make the cross-species leap. Likewise, both international bodies such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warn that global warming will likely accelerate the emergence of new viruses, and national bodies like the UK’s Parliamentary office of Science and Technology stress the causal relationship between global heating and ecological disturbance and vector borne diseases.

The rise of the COVID-19 pandemic is but another example of an expanding, globalising capitalist economy hitting against ‘planetary boundaries’. Research indicates that factory farming, monocultures, the destruction of biodiversity and climate disruption are all triggers for the emergence of new infectious diseases. Although too early to tell, the pandemic reveals how industrialised and commodified, large-scale farming within globalised supply chains has led to humans taking more and more, reducing biodiversity and coming into closer contact with those degraded ecosystems. When biodiversity declines as a result of habitat loss, it does not do so in a random way; some species are more likely to disappear while others are more resilient. The latter who survive and thrive after biodiversity declines are the ones that are also most likely to give us new diseases.

As such we need to qualify describing Covid-19 as ‘natural’; both its causes and consequences are thoroughly related to particular human institutionalised practices and ideas around capitalism which regard globalisation and consumption based undifferentiated economic growth as a permanent features of the human economy. Like the climate and ecological crisis, the pandemic is an endogenous not an exogenous shock to the global capitalist system. As Marxist geographer David Harvey notes, ‘the economic and demographic impacts of the spread of the virus depend upon pre-existing cracks and vulnerabilities in the hegemonic economic model’.

Updating the saying about the Irish famine of the 1840s (‘Providence sent the potato blight, but the English caused the famine’), we might say ‘Globalised capitalism caused the virus and national capitalisms the pandemic’.

Unlike the coronavirus, there have been official political declarations of ‘climate and ecological emergencies’ from parliaments in the EU, UK, Ireland, France and over half of UK councils. However, unlike the determined and swift actions of most governments around the world to the public health threat from Covid-19, there is little evidence of the same governmental determination to take radical and tough decisions on the climate and ecological crisis. It is pertinent to ask why not, given the latter crisis presents an even greater threat to the lives of vulnerable citizens in those ‘minority world’ countries and others in the global south or the ‘majority world’.

Could it be that all these declarations of ‘emergencies’ are just that? Some ‘in tune’ public and ‘politically correct’ rhetoric and associated positive media coverage for politicians forced by mobilisations like Extinction Rebellion and the Youth Strike for Climate to do (or say they will do) more on climate action? Cheap talk about recognising there is an emergency…. But in reality not believing it really is an emergency? Why is it that our political leaders listen to and make decisions informed by the science in the case of coronavirus – closing schools, restricting travel, putting in place financial support for those who ‘self-isolate’ etc. – but not when it comes to the climate and ecological emergency? The reality of course is that while there is some evidence of governments ‘listening to the science’ on the pandemic (well, up until the point at we are at now when lobbying by business has placed ‘restarting the economy’ i.e. ‘capitalist return to normal’ above public health), they will only ‘listen to the people’ when organised in large scale protest on the planetary emergency. Non-violent direct action will be more effective in delivering climate action than relying on governments listening to climate science.

The pandemic induced economic slowdown should not be viewed as a temporary pause on either economic growth or capitalism, But rather the foundation upon which a better and different economy and society is constructed. I am reminded here of a wonderful phrase from the Scottish author Alasdair Gray about “working as if we are in the early days of a better nation”.

In ‘building back better’ and responding to the pandemic-induced economic contraction, we should insist government bailouts be used to create a sustainable, climate resilient, post-carbon, post-growth and post-capitalist economy. A tall order? Yes. Costly? Yes. Difficult to achieve politically and democratically? Absolutely. But we now know the following:

• Austerity was a lie;

• There is a magic money tree;

• States and populations can act with speed, determination and at scale for the common good when faced with an emergency;

• Another world is possible.

And maybe, just maybe the pandemic has created the possibility for thinking that it is now easier to imagine the end of capitalism than the end of the world.

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