Opportunities to learn from Covid-19

We can learn a great deal about how to respond to the climate emergency from looking at how organisations, governments and individuals are reacting to the novel coronavirus. Here are six points to start with.

1. It is possible to respond to a global emergency.

Until the Covid-19 outbreak, there was a distinct sense that as a political species we had simply lost the capacity to act decisively. Although there have been very different kinds of response—some authoritarian, some collective, and some incompetent—it is clear that a response to a global threat is possible.

2. Some of the emergency changes should be made permanent.

We have managed to radically scale back transport. Prestige air travel, vacation air travel, and cruise lines, all of which are huge polluters and contributors to global warming, have slowed to a crawl. Airlines have gone out of business. This is a *good thing*!!

At least one analyst has argued that the air pollution benefits of the economic shutdown in the PRC has actually saved more lives than have been lost to the coronavirus.

At the same time, the contagion means that public transport is now even more the “poor worker’s option”. Perhaps this will be a good thing for the shift to cycling, but anything that drives people back into automobiles in preference to public transport (especially rail, but also busses) is a big step back.

We know that responding to the climate emergency will require accepting a massive restructuring and downscaling of the economy. Degrowth and wellbeing go together quite well—working patterns and patterns of consumption can change. It’s important for us to choose to keep those sudden changes that are actually healthy.

3. Bad economics kills the vulnerable first, but endangers everyone.

In societies like the USA or Australia where huge segments of the population are scraping by on casual work, staying home from work isn’t an option. This is a double oppression: it is already the case that women, people of colour, disabled people, Indigenous people, queer people…are the very same people who feed themselves and their families through zero-hours contracts, gig work, sex work and other insecure labour. Undocumented immigrants (whether that means folks with legitimate student visas working in the black economy, or folks with no visa) are hugely vulnerable. Yet without their work being made explicit and valued, it isn’t possible to say, “Go home for a fortnight if you feel ill.” They will get sick, and in a society where access to healthcare is limited, they may well stay sick for a long time.

What’s different is that in a pandemic, the indispensable labour of all these marginalised people has to continue, and it becomes a conduit through which community transmission establishes itself.

Worse still, these are folk who know perfectly well that the state and the business owners simply don’t care about them. Any effort to document and protect these labour communities during a pandemic is bound to fail because of a thoroughly justified mistrust. If their work is necessary during the pandemic, that’s an opportunity to survive and thrive. If they make themselves vulnerable to state surveillance during the pandemic, they are likely to be expelled when things get back to “normal”.

This is also true in the climate emergency. Fair distribution of wealth and universal access to medicine, education and housing has to be part of the solution to the climate emergency. A clear accounting of prejudice and oppression; a transformation of our understanding of disability to see it as a social process, not an individual attribute; a complete opening to all kinds of difference and diversity—these aren’t frilly liberal wishes, they are bedrock necessities for our survival on this planet.

4. National governments won’t be able to respond to the climate crisis.

First, there has been a wide range of responses on the part of different governments. While we could contrast the PRC and the USA, for example, and observe that the PRC took decisive action to quarantine while the USA appears to have a very poorly co-ordinate response, it is equally true that for both governments fear of authority and a culture of controlling the flow of information has severely hindered an effective response worldwide.

Second, co-ordination among national governments has been key to success or failure. The European Union nations have been able to share information and resources at the same time that Brexit ideology at Westminster has meant that the UK shut itself out of important conversations.

Third, most large nations are now oligarchies, but the self-interest of oligarchs is a serious obstacle to an effective response. This is true both because self-interested oligarchs such as Trump do not act on behalf of the population, but also because governments who are not trusted cannot or do not disseminate important information (it will be suspected and wrapped up into conspiracy theories) and lead key changes in behaviour. Trump’s national address on 11 March and Boris Johnson’s offhand remarks about herd immunity are good example of leaders inspiring suspicion and mistrust. CCP officials were openly mocked when they came to Wuhan. In a different context, the violent actions against some Ebola treatment clinics are another example of this problem of trust.

Fourth, nation-states have become fragile, and prop themselves up through xenophobia and populism. In the context of a pandemic and even more in the context of the climate emergency, these are simply lethal.

We are certainly not alone in observing that the climate emergency will require an international executive to lead the response, because it is a threat that crosses all borders. The poor performance of national governments in the face of Covid-19 suggests that however that international executive is constituted, it may well be the case that smaller political units such as small states, substate entities, INGOs and local action groups will have to work together to formulate, implement, monitor and sustain a global effort. Nation-states may now be at best one kind of partner, and at worst an obstacle, in the survival of our species.

5. Ecology isn’t an extra.

This one’s obvious. The Covid-19 pandemic is a zoonosis. It’s a virus that crossed into humans from some other animal; we don’t yet know if it was a bird or a mammal. We know it wasn’t a bat or a pangolin, as the genetic analysis of those suspected hosts showed too great a difference. It might have happened because someone in Hubei was selling wild animals for food, but those animals could have come from anywhere in central or southwest China, or indeed, come over the border from Southeast Asia. There’s a huge traffic in animal flesh as exotic delicacies, as medicine, and simply as food. The OneHealth paradigm has done a great job of showing that land use change, economics, trade routes, loss of biodiversity, intensive meat production, and poor regulation all play a part in the emergence of zoonoses.

From the perspective of the climate emergency, zoonoses are one among many intermediary effects—like big storms, heat waves, ocean acidification, sea level rise, loss of food crops, and toxic pollution—that we should expect to see more and more of over the next ten years. There will be a lot of suffering, and this is a fairly minor warmup act. (That’s why #1 is so important: we can respond!).

6. Technology can be helpful, but only when it gives people the power to create bottom-up, decentralised, connected movements.

Let’s begin with information technology. If we look at the role of social media in the Covid-19 crisis, it’s clear that it hasn’t been very helpful. Conspiracy theories, crisis capitalism, authoritarian control of messaging—people have had to fight against the tools to make positive changes. Nonetheless, people have found ways to communicate and collaborate, either by subverting monopoly networks through covert signalling, or by moving to decentralised networks such as the Fediverse.

So, too, with the large-scale shift to online teaching, there might be more opportunities for network building. Sadly, some universities are refusing to allow teaching staff to use anything but closed-source, for-profit tools to teach their classes. It’s perfectly possible to resist, and there are very good free tools such as Moodle, Matrix and Jitsi that allow for lively collaboration.

The alternative use of technology (whether that is medicine, IT, transport or some other), to centralise wealth and control ideology, is unfortunately also very clear right now. The simple fact that the US Senate refused to pass a bill providing healthcare for the coronavirus if it capped the price of a treatment, that Wexia users who tried to spread information about a new coronavirus were arrested, that black markets in masks and medicines are thriving worldwide, that Covid-19 testing kits are a source of profit, that the development of a vaccine is impossible unless a pharmaceutical company can profit—these make it painfully clear that technology is not neutral.

The growing interest in maker movements, bottom-up technology, decentralised networking, tech self-teaching groups that are explicitly *not* centred on able white men, and open-source software and hardware: these are all promising developments that will help cut through the knot of economic exploitation, technology development and marketing that have channelled new technologies to regressive, oppressive, and extractive uses.

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