Can we look forward to a more sustainable future when the Coronavirus virus recedes?
By PAUL HALAS
For the first time in years the smog has cleared over San Francisco, Beijing, Delhi and Los Angeles. The criss-cross vapour trails in the sky have been decimated and for a while bird-song could be heard in urban streets instead of the roar of traffic. The Coronavirus outbreak has led to a massive reduction in global CO2 output.
Illuminating as this is, it is still some distance short of the decrease in CO2 output that would be necessary to stay within the Paris Climate Accord of a 1.5 degree climb in global temperature.
Will this breathing space we’ve been given be the wake-up call we need to begin implementing measures that will really tackle the climate problem, or will governments and the corporate sector succeed in getting us back to business as usual – with all that entails? Will the window that has let in this breath of fresh air be slammed shut?
That window is still open. While governments are trying to get countries back to work, in some cases most precipitously, the economic landscape has changed. Riding through the pandemic has been expensive, and the knee-jerk reaction of nations such as the UK – to load the debt accrued onto the people through austerity – will only hinder economic recovery… as well as ramping up already unacceptable levels of hardship for many.
Jobs have disappeared, myriad businesses have gone under. In the UK the government’s insistence on making employees and tenants pay for losses rather corporations and rentiers has been short-sighted. A nation of shopkeepers cannot thrive when the shoppers are skint. The entertainments and hospitality industries are on their knees, and the travel industry will undoubtedly contract greatly.
We’ve learned that our supply chains are fragile, especially international ones, and we’re only ever a matter of days from real shortages. Our wonderful, foolproof economic structure, shaped according to the monetarist tenets of Thatcher and Reagan, is once again exposed as a fragile creature – in need of finance transfusions from the state whenever things get tricky. We’ve also learned that in times of hardship we need better planning at governmental level and far greater self-reliance at local level.
We would do well to heed those lessons. A global contraction, with all the big players facing problems with various degrees of debt, looks inevitable. Their vast stakes in the increasingly fragile fossil fuel industries now look like liabilities. Will we see globalism in retreat? To an extent, it’s bound to happen. If we want to feed ourselves and keep the lights on, we need to be better at growing our own produce and creating our own energy. It will make more and more economic and environmental sense.
Labour’s Green New Deal of 2019 outlined a radical change of direction, and Alan Simpson, Jeremy Corbyn’s advisor on sustainable economics from 2015-19, has recently written on how we can implement these ideas in a post-Coronavirus world.
He is insistent that things will not and cannot revert to the way they were before. Large numbers of consumption-based jobs will simply no longer exist; we won’t be defined so much by what we buy but how we live. He points out that the technologies we need for greater sustainability and self reliance already exist – or will very shortly if we have the will to develop and implement them. We can build a new kind of economy, one that involves the complete replacement of our outdated carbon addicted infrastructure with a sustainable one.
This will all come at a cost, but whichever way nations drag themselves out of the post-Coronavirus slump, a lot more finance will have to be procured. Eyebrows were raised when the Conservatives doubled the UK’s national debt between 2010 and 2019, but on the international stage that is nothing exceptional. Britain hocked itself to the hilt bringing in the Welfare State, and no one except our current administration believes that was money badly spent. Whatever it costs, we cannot afford not to make that investment. The time to begin is now; the impediment is status quo politics.
While the technological know-how to transform nations exists, there is another factor that has to be taken into account before we can even think about environmental sustainability: inequality.
In the 1980s Margaret Thatcher’s assault on the British working class – the destruction of whole industries, communities and social structures, and their replacement with a stakeholder economy peopled by aspirational homeowners – reversed a tendency towards increasing equality that had been in effect since the Second World War. Thanks to Thatcher’s Monetarism people were no longer in it all together, greed became good and sauve qui peut the prevailing credo. And thirteen years of New Labour did little to halt the trend.
As for being “all in it together” during the Coronavirus pandemic, the Dominic Cummings episode has been illuminating. His liberal interpretation of rules he helped formulate unleashed a torrent of people flouting lock-down restrictions. If he could do it, when not everybody?
On a global scale, maybe folk in the richer nations may be coerced and cajoled into adopting more sustainable lifestyles, but such measures will only become acceptable when they are made to apply to everyone.
In the world’s poorer nations, the conditions of most people in the developed world will continue to look like an impossible pipe-dream.
For countless millions bare subsistence is the normality. It may well be that one’s first priorities are food to eat and somewhere to live, but once those conditions are met people are entitled to ask why they shouldn’t be able to do a little better…
Across the developing world people live in abject poverty, but with an awareness that there are others enjoying considerably more. The slum hovels in the shadow of the high-rise condos. Long hours working for pittances while glimpsing lives of unbelievable opulence on TV. Hanging onto trucks and buses while limousines sweep by.
Poverty exists almost everywhere, in affluent nations as well as poor. If there is going to be sustainability in a Green New World, then that great swathe of humanity who currently “do without” must be accommodated too. In their books “The Spirit Level” and “The Inner Level” Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett describe how greater equality benefits all, both rich and poor. They cite ‘status insecurity’ as one of the most powerful forces driving inequality, the factor that dives the hedge fund manager to an early heart attack and the benefit claimant to want a better phone. The playing field must be levelled. Somehow, the global tax-avoiding magnate must be reined in and the slum dweller in Jakarta should be able to get the motor scooter and TV she hankers after. Without a levelling, it’s not so much that sustainability will be hard to implement – it’ll be unsustainable.
All being in it together is the key to it all, as Mr Cummings has kindly demonstrated to us. The nations making a better fist of both equality and sustainability – as Wilkinson and Pickett state, they go hand in hand – tend to be those to the left of the political spectrum. Those that use the state to invest sustainably and humanely, and respect human rights.
The world appears to be a million light years from any solutions while demagogues, imbeciles and puppets hold sway in so many influential nations, but as the world’s climate – both physical and political – becomes more volatile, perhaps change will come quickly and unexpectedly.
We can all do our bit, but more than adopting a vegetarian diet or switching to an electric car, the most effective thing we can do is strive for the renaissance of left wing politics. The biggest, most far reaching changes will have to be state-led, and I believe the only means of delivering them is through various forms of democratic socialism.
At home in the UK I’m afraid we have our work cut out with the Labour Party – but strive we must.
Paul Halas’s escape from 1970s hippidom was the discovery that he could invent stories. He spent forty years contributing to various Disney magazines and books, as well as a variety of non-Disney comics, books and animated films. His retirement from commercial writing coincided with Jeremy Corbyn becoming the Labour Party leader, which led to five years’ political activism. He left the party two years ago with a heavy heart.