If you are among those, who like myself, want to see a radical and urgent change in our civilization, the global reaction to the coronavirus may give you some hope. Many shared articles that show a positive side of what’s going on. A large number of these publications are false: the dolphins have not really conquered the canals of Venice, drunk elephants are not roaming around the vineyards… I understand why people are attracted by these stories, we are all struggling to boost our mood during this period of uncertainty, but there are some real positive effects that can already be measured. For example, air traffic has dropped so much that quarantine measures will save the lives of many people because of reduced air pollution. The crisis is clearly tragic, it is a drama of historic proportions that will cause enormous suffering around the world. But perhaps all is not bad, perhaps the scale of the crisis could open our eyes and call into question our way of thinking, our habits and our political system. The failings of neoliberal capitalism are exposed: The king is naked! Our civilization is at a crossroads of geological dimensions. Could this crisis propel us in the right direction, towards the fundamental restructuring of our economy and our culture? Maybe, but probably not.
We already knew that the lives of millions could be saved by cutting back on non-essential economic activity, but despite all the warnings, very little has been done so far. However, the virus has shown us that we can act in an extraordinary way in a very short period of time. Perhaps we will open our eyes and demand serious measures to finally limit, let’s say, air pollution and save the lives of hundreds of thousands of people just in Europe. Half a million Europeans die every year from polluted air! This is without any doubt, a crisis which demands urgent and effective measures. Even if we can bring that number down 25%, we will save the lives of 100,000 people in one year, just in Europe. We have just seen that when we want, we can. And to get there it is not even necessary to confine oneself at home, it will be enough not to take the plane as much and to give priority to public transport. I would say that this is not a huge sacrifice.
As soon as we heard about confinement, we rushed to the supermarkets, motivated by fear. Seeing the shelves, emptied by our panic, could maybe make us think of those who have never entered a supermarket. Perhaps we will have more compassion for the thousands of children who starve to death every day in the arms of their horrified parents. Maybe we will empathize more with all the people who lived under the weight of food insecurity in 2019:
The crisis has made economic inequality in our countries more visible and unjustifiable than ever before. Perhaps we will realize that the labor of millions of underpaid and ill-treated workers is of vital importance to our society. While confined, these people put themselves at risk, but they continue to produce food, bring it back to stores, arrange it onto the shelves. They continue to maintain all the public services and supply chains essential to our well-being. Perhaps we will realize that if our survival depends on them, we should pay them much better and as a society we would honor the work they do.
In Europe we greet the nurses and doctors on our windows and balconies, but perhaps this crisis will allow us to do much more. Perhaps, it will remind us that there is really nothing more important than health and that an economic system based on the pursuit of profit is not well-equipped to ensure that everyone has access to good quality healthcare. Perhaps we will no longer accept the austerity measures that dismantle our social services. Perhaps we will imagine an economy that works with the goal of protecting the vital needs of citizens and ecosystems rather than the sole purpose of accumulating more property.
Perhaps by staying locked in our homes, despite all the comfort we have, we will notice that we need to move, to breathe fresh air, to interact with others. We are not the only social animal on Earth, we lock up billions of animals in deplorable circumstances and we deprive them of everything that makes life worth living. Perhaps this experience will strengthen our empathy and push us to stop the torture, imprisonment and massacre of billions of sentient beings who love the sun and the fresh air just as much as we do.
We need centralized institutions that have the capacity to react quickly and coordinate our response to major crises. Containment measures are extreme, but they will end up saving the lives of many people. Even if we fully understand the need to implement these measures, being forced to stay at home by an order of the government, for an indefinite period, can leave a bitter taste in our mouths. Perhaps by staying confined we will realize that governments have a lot of power that can be used to save lives, but once in the wrong hands, that power can destroy our precious and fragile freedom. Perhaps we will reflect more before voting for parties and politicians with authoritarian and xenophobic tendencies. Perhaps we will have more compassion for those who do not enjoy the same level of freedom as we do and we will fight to strengthen the freedoms of everyone, in our countries and around the world.
Unfortunately, this crisis will most likely do the opposite and push us on an even more dangerous trajectory. True, falling pollution will save many lives, but the effect will be temporary. As soon as we come out of the viral crisis, we will hear that the economy has been damaged and that we have to make sacrifices. The only answer that capitalism has to respond to any crisis is to produce and consume more. And to produce more we will surely hear that we have to lower the cost of production. We will also have to lower our hopes for a reduction in pollution, greenhouse gases or deforestation. We will probably hear that this is not the time to worry about the environment, because the economy and therefore production have to be turned back up to make up for lost time. It doesn’t matter whether what we are going to produce is essential to our survival, it doesn’t matter whether this production involves many environmental and health risks shared by everyone. This is already the case in the United States, where the environmental protection agency did not even wait to relax the pollution regulations. The media is not going to bombard us with messages about the “air pollution epidemic” that will silently kill millions of people in the coming months. The ecological and social crises will not be publicized, our leaders will not do anything serious to resolve these problems and we will probably say nothing and continue to suffocate.
Many people have been surprised by the lack of preparation on the part of our governments to deal with the virus. These people will be amazed when they see our lack of preparation for massive disasters caused by global warming, deforestation, ocean acidification, soil erosion etc. Probably, we will soon forget what it feels like to be locked in a concrete box, as comfortable as it is : collectively, we will continue to eat more meat and we will continue to kill and imprison billions of animals every month, which will continue to cause severe environmental damage. The lack of reactivity and preparation in the face of global warming is very likely to cause radical and unavoidable changes to the climate. Water shortages, falling agricultural production, forest fires, and heat waves will kill millions of people and displace billions of people before the end of the century. Our collective reaction will probably be even worse than it was during much less severe crises. The 2015 migrant crisis succeeded in destabilizing and radicalizing the entire political landscape of Europe. This should not give us much hope for the near future which will be infinitely more unstable and complex. Our societies risk falling into the grip of hatred and fear. History has given us enough examples of what happens when these emotions dominate political discourse.
The virus cannot change the balance of power in our society. Those who have prevented effective action against environmental degradation will have as much, if not more, economic power as a result of the crisis. Our politicians will not become less corrupt and the market ideology will not give up its grip on our institutions. Reacting with temporary measures to mitigate the damage of an epidemic does not require a change in the foundations of the economic system based on the exploitation of the environment, humans and animals. The people who have benefited the most from this exploitation will not be tempted to erode the structure that gives them power.
Even though it is much more likely that everything will go wrong, I remain positive. A better scenario is not likely, but it is entirely possible but any positive change will not happen in a miraculous way. Nature is not going to produce a virus to save us and scientists are not going to invent a technology that will solve all structural problems we face. Positive change will never happen without the massive efforts focused on raising awareness, organizing and mobilizing. Just as we have mobilized our societies to reduce the damage caused by the virus, we will have to mobilize to start implementing radical and effective solutions at all scales. Unfortunately, the solutions are going to be much more complicated than “stay at home and wait for the vaccine.” The transformation of our consumer culture, the questioning of the economic system, the emergence of a united global community, among others, imply a profound restructuring of our society. This transformation cannot follow a precise formula, it must be composed of a wide variety of elements: political tools, ethical projects and companies, changes in our habits, the democratization of the workplace, the construction of new increasingly large and inclusive communities. The likelihood of solving these problems is very small compared to the possibility of total failure. In order to be able to apply real solutions, we have to go against the current that pushes us forcefully towards the cliff. This will require effort, communication, creativity, empathy and audacity. The lockdown will be lifted, but this will not be the end of worries. We are in the midst of an ecological and social crisis, we must act as if the lives of billions of people depend on what we do every day. It’s the case !
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Steve the Bartender