Collectivism, Climate Change and Covid-19

Here’s what’s been on my mind for the last weeks, and I’m sure many others are struck by it as well:

Contrary to what I previously believed, people are capable of mass behaviour change in the face of an emergency. So that’s positive, even if the measures taken are imperfect or inadequate. People are able to organise themselves into local communities of mutual support, and to curtail social interaction, as well as travel, to an absolute minimum. When faced with a high alert, governments are actually capable of getting over concerns about costs to take extreme measures (even if only at the eleventh hour), that may well precipitate a huge contraction of the global economy with profound economic consequences. And all of this seems to make sense when faced with the threat of a highly infectious virus. But when contrasted with the inaction on Climate Change, which overall will lead to many more deaths than Covid-19, and so logically should precipitate a huge effort to do whatever is necessary to tackle the problem, why is it that collective action to avert catastrophe has been so entirely limited and ineffective?

In exploring this question, it’s good to start off by recognising the differences in the situation between Climate Change and Covid-19. Climate change has been on the agenda for some decades. It’s a vastly complex problem, it’s crept in insidiously, being initially invisible, and potential solutions to the crisis would potentially mean changes to every aspect of modern life, leading to the most spectacular dragging of heels by government, corporations and the public alike in taking any action. At the same time, because the issue of Climate Change has been around for so long, and because there are such powerful vested interests in downplaying or denying the effects of carbon emissions, there has been time for the development of professional sceptics, funded by the fossil fuel industry, to undermine scientific analysis, adding to the confusion on the action that needs taking. By contrast, the speed of the development of Covid-19, which gives immediate clarity for the emergency, has not allowed for such an industry to occur.

However, from a personal perspective it’s interesting to me that ultimately Climate Change is now something I regularly observe in my everyday life, whereas with Covid-19, I only really observe changes in social behaviour. It seems important to state that I recognise that thousands and thousands of people around the world have been affected first-hand by Covid-19, primarily through contracting it, or through losing people around them, or by working for the medical system in overburdened hospitals. But from my own perspective, (which may change greatly in the coming weeks if the pandemic should move closer to home), I feel that I currently observe the direct effects of Climate Change much more than I observe the direct effects of Covid-19. The abnormal amounts of rain and flooding, fluctuating with abnormal hot and dry periods, abnormal heat-waves in the winter, abnormal plant growth, not to mention in the last years my general failure to raise crops with any real degree of success due to adverse weather conditions (I’m a gardener), are all ways that I directly observe changes in climate. With Covid-19, my experience is mostly indirect; apart from a number of people I know who think they’ve had symptoms but have come out the other side, Covid-19 comes to me via news and social media, growing red blobs on maps, empty supermarket shelves, the wearing of masks, my places of work restricting their activity, and my social interaction suddenly consisting of looking at people in boxes on a screen.

My point here is that I feel fear both about Climate Change and about Covid-19, but the texture of that fear is very different for each one. My fear of Climate Change has been an underlying rumble of fear, reverberating throughout my life since I learnt about it in my childhood in the 80s. It’s been like being lost in the dark, disorientated, and every so often punctuated by a sense of panic, which then subsides again to a low rumble of fear. In the beginning I couldn’t see Climate Change in action, but now I do. The fear might be a low rumble, but I feel very, very afraid. 

In contrast, my fear of Covid-19 is primarily a heightened sensation. It’s an overwhelming sense that things are going very wrong, very rapidly, and its invisibility only leads to the spiralling paranoia involved in social interaction, but also reaching into a fearful future in terms of the economic, social and political implications. So given the different types of fear involved, I guess it’s not surprising that we seem to have acted with such a rapid response to try and contain the spread of infection. Though as I dug a little deeper, I started to realise that with Covid-19, what we’re really responding to now are merely the symptoms of much deeper and more complex problems, which have similar roots to the roots of Climate Change.

There is long recognition of the problem Climate Change as being rooted in an economy driven by profit, and that the profit motive is consistently put before the needs of people or planet. To ensure that profits are continuously made, the economy is reliant on continual growth, leading to a constant demand for high levels of energy input to fuel the economy’s ever growing needs. The burning of fossil fuels remains the dominant way of meeting energy demands, the waste products of which are the carbon emissions which are causing us all the problems of Climate Change.

It’s important to recognise that we are generally sold a bland version of this story: Climate Change is caused by the use of fossil fuels, meaning that if we simply switch our source of energy to other sources, we will be able to mitigate the problem. If we don’t look to the root of the problem, we don’t see that the profit motive, which results in the growth-based economy, which necessitates high energy usage, lies at the heart of the issue [1]. Fossil fuel usage is merely the process for meeting these demands. By not addressing the root causes of Climate Change, we can easily end up swapping one set of problems for another, as we try to meet our ever-growing energy demands without problematising the ways in which we need to drastically reduce our energy use across whole societies. We may resort to all sorts of measures such as nuclear power, or cutting down old growth forest to use as ‘biofuel’, because wood is apparently ‘renewable energy.’ 

Parallel to this, the spread of infectious diseases can be seen as a symptom of deeper problems in the same way that carbon emissions are symptoms of deeper problems. In fact, the roots of the Covid-19 crisis may also lie in our economic system’s insatiable need for growth, having many knock-on effects. Economic growth necessitates the extraction of materials from the natural world. This decimates ecosystems, which in turn liberates viruses and other pathogens from their usual ecological contexts. We tend to blame the spread of infectious disease on high population density and high volumes of people travelling, but the decimation of the natural environment, especially in the global South, has much more effect on the transmission of disease than we realise. Demand for wood, minerals and other resources – largely for use in the Western world – leads to the erosion of natural habitats and biodiversity for the purposes of logging, mining, and road building [2].

As landscapes become degraded and people venture ever further into what’s left of wild areas to extract from the environment, they will come into closer contact with animal species – and therefore pathogens – that they may never have encountered before. In addition, as natural habitats shrink and ecosystems are thrown out of balance, it becomes more likely that disease is no longer contained within its own natural habitat and will spill over from animals into humans. There are some animals that proliferate when natural habitats are disrupted – such as rats and bats – which carry and transmit disease. In addition, as Climate Change escalates, this will in turn create conditions in which viruses and other pathogens are allowed to further thrive. It is thought that as a result of a warmer climate, the melting of the permafrost may lead to the release of ancient viruses. And a warmer climate results in shorter winter seasons, which may well lead to infectious diseases that thrive in the warmer conditions, such as dengue and malaria, or may encourage the growth in disease-carrying creatures such as rats and mosquitos [3] . 

It seems quite common these days to blame China or Chinese people for the outbreak of Covid-19. This doesn’t recognise that in many places in the world, urban populations are rapidly expanding because people are forced out of rural areas to look for work in cities, serving the needs of capitalist industry, and at the same time leading to population pressure and a large urban poor. Informal markets, such as the one in Wuhan where Covid-19 is thought to have originated from, are what local people have as their source of food. These markets have proliferated in many places in the world. Often they source the animals they sell from what’s left of the wild, but as has already been noted, the context from which the animals are sourced already gives rise for viruses and other pathogens to be shaken loose from their natural habitats. The Ebola virus is thought to have been transferred to humans in a similar way in West Africa, from chimps captured for food. Although it was previously thought that natural environments teeming with exotic wildlife were hotbeds for transmission of pathogens to humans, it’s starting to be understood that it’s actually biodiversity destruction that creates the conditions for certain viruses to mutate and transfer to the human population [2]. 

In addition, just as scientific experts have been banging the drum on Climate Change for the last decades without the necessary attention and action being taken to avoid a Climate Emergency, so have experts on public health with regards to the spread of infectious disease, and essential funding has been cut. In the U.S., Trump is derided for saying in 2018 that he would cut nearly 40% of public health professionals deployed in disease outbreaks, natural disasters and humanitarian crises. In 2019, Trump shut down a federal programme that monitored infectious diseases, radically undermining federal capability to contain pandemics. It should also be recognised that although things are now drastically worse, by all accounts the Obama administration already laid a baseline of underfunding centres for disease control and prevention [4]. In the UK, austerity measures resulting in huge underinvestment in medical services leaves us in the position we are now in of hospitals being overwhelmed when we are still a long time from the peak of the crisis.

Essentially, the Covid-19 crisis and the Climate Emergency highlight the same thing: that both on an individual/societal level and at a governmental level, we don’t respond to the reality of risk the vast majority of the time. The Covid-19 crisis teaches us how we don’t perceive and respond to risk unless there’s a crisis happening in the moment. We don’t plan ahead in anticipation, we don’t take proactive preventative measures, and then suddenly we find ourselves in a situation where we’re scrambling to respond. And because we’re unprepared, and things are already out of control, we need to look at the question of whether the measures put in place will realistically deal with lessening the threat [4]. If only a piecemeal approach is followed, as we’ve seen in the UK, we need to have a strong public health system in place to deal with the impacts of not having taken the necessary measures. And we don’t. Lastly, we need to recognise that the multiple and complex factors that led to the Covid-19 disaster haven’t gone away, and that there will be other epidemics and pandemics if things keep being as they are, and they could potentially be even more deadly than Covid-19. And in the same way, we need to think about how our lack of preparedness will look with the impacts of Climate Change.

Ultimately, the response to this pandemic is actually a reaction to what is symptomatic of complex things that have gone wrong on a much deeper level. In the same way, we only really respond to the emergency symptoms of Climate Change, such as the rampant fires in Australia or the floods in the North of England or the myriad other natural disasters that are occurring at faster and faster rates. In terms of dealing with the roots of the Climate crisis, only a tiny fraction of the population ever becomes mobilised into any kind of response. When the threat of Covid-19 finally dies down, I wonder if we’ll all go back to ‘business as normal’ as quickly as we possibly can, or if amongst the chaos we’ll start to address that the roots of the Covid-19 disaster run deeper than we’ve previously thought about? My poor brain really wants to believe more than anything that the Covid-19 curve is going to flatten and then we’ll all carry on as usual; we’ll go back to whatever was going on before and pick up from there. I think we’re mostly starting to get that that’s not going to happen. We know we’re living in a very different world from the world we were in a month or so ago. And the social, economic and political consequences of this disaster are bigger than we can currently possibly know.

Viruses are microscopic chemical packages, much smaller and more simple in form than bacteria. They have caused great debate in the scientific community as to whether they can be classified as being alive, as they lack the full attributes of other living organisms. Viruses do not have metabolic functions, and they cannot reproduce without a host cell. For something so small and so simply composed, it is mind-boggling that at the moment, a particular kind of virus essentially has control of the world. In the history of global carbon emissions, there are only two moments until now when there has, for a period, been an overall drop in emissions. The first of these was after the fall of the Communist bloc in 1989, which led to a severe drop in economic activity, which led to a contraction of the global economy that was great enough to lead to an overall fall in carbon emissions. However, as the economy picked up, so did carbon emissions rise. The second drop in emissions was after the economic crash of 2008, and in the same way, carbon emissions rose and exceeded previous emission levels as the economy picked up. I imagine that curtailing the spread of this tiny virus will precipitate the third overall drop in emissions, as the economy likely contracts to levels of depression.

This means to say that in spite of some moves towards renewable energy, there has to date never been any drop in overall carbon emissions that are a result of anybody taking intentional action to reduce carbon emissions and therefore reduce the effects of Climate Change. Dealing with the crisis of Climate Change and with the crisis of Covid-19 are distinct from one another in one highly important regard, which is that in the case of Covid-19, there is not such a great need for collective commitment across nation states in order to prevent its spread, although it does of course help to work cooperatively in a situation such as this. Each nation state can close its borders, impose lockdowns, and restrict travel and economic activity to the degree that it inhibits the spread of infection within its own parameters. By contrast, Climate Change is the greatest collective problem of all time. Any action taken by any individual or single state actor is meaningless in terms of the effect it will have on the overall problem, unless it can inspire or pressure others to act. What’s been needed for the last several decades is a commitment to action made across the board, where there is a shift from, ‘I’m not going to do anything if they’re not going to do anything because if they don’t do anything it’s pointless for me to do anything so I might as well carry on as usual.’ Climate Change is already beyond the point of no return, but we still get to make some choices about how fucked we want to be.

Covid-19 holds us in a bizarre situation in which capitalists can’t promote economic growth as much as activists are unable to come together to take action on social and environmental justice. Given this state of powerlessness, we could start to think that the best we can do right now is to sit back with Netflix, irritating social media threads, and terrifying stories about Covid-19. The fear associated with this pandemic makes worst-case-scenario thinking seem more logical than anything else. If the virus doesn’t get us, economic collapse will. In any case it’s all very big and terrifying and feels like there’s nothing much we can do. Then there are the memes going round, which talk about Covid-19 as nature taking its revenge, or which say, ‘humanity is the REAL virus. Covid-19 is the cure’ [5] 

Ideas such as these are dangerous for two reasons. Firstly, because of the passivity involved in ‘nature taking its course,’ – we were powerless to do anything than be blithely destructive and now nature will punish us, and we can’t do anything about that either. And secondly, because of the ecofascist undertones. Covid-19 does not affect all humans equally. It’s people who are poor, sick, pregnant, elderly, disabled, homeless, undocumented, working in disastrously underfunded healthcare systems, detained in prisons or immigration removal centres and so on and so forth, that are at the most risk [6]. Saying that ‘humanity is the REAL virus. Covid-19 is the cure,’ is to suggest that the people most susceptible to the virus are the ones somehow to blame, and the Earth will therefore purify itself of these people via Covid-19. I’m sure that if Nature was making any decisions about who should get this virus, it would be the people most responsible for the mess we’re in, being people with more power than anyone else. And as soon as it’s possible to grow the economy once more, Nature won’t get a look in again, which it never will do until we take collective intentional action rather than waiting around for Nature to take its course.

I learnt women’s self-defence some years ago, and one of the key principles was, even when a situation looks impossibly awful, you always think, ‘what can I actually do here?’ The importance of keeping space for possibility can be paramount to survival. I feel certain that the ‘powers that be’ are doing everything that they can behind the scenes to work out how to deal with this shit show after the peak of the crisis is over – how to get the growth-based economy back on the road, and how to make best use of the state’s newfound powers to keep everyone isolated from one another and out of public space. From the other end of things, I believe, more now than ever, that we need to be coming up with visions of a future that we want to exist in – even if it’s within an overall context of multiple and converging crises. 

I think it’s great that so many people are engaging in mutual aid in their communities, towns and cities. It’s also important to recognise that there are different models of mutual aid. Under one model, mutual aid is a matching service: there’s a person in need and a person who needs help, so there’s a straightforward transaction in one person meeting the needs of the other. Under a second model, mutual aid is more of a community network, where everyone is invited to put in what they can and take what they need. In this model, anyone can be the helper or the helped at different times; no one person is always the vulnerable victim or the rescuer. This creates the basis for a stronger community to face challenges, and to still be there on the other side of a crisis to be able to address other challenges that come up. The first model is the one that people have largely been operating under so far in this crisis, and indeed, at the height of an emergency, it’s the one that makes sense. But as the crisis goes on, the second model becomes of great importance, as we all become more vulnerable in all sorts of unanticipated ways. This is a form of mutual aid that can be foundational to our resilience as communities [7].

At the same time, we’ve got to recognise that mutual aid is generally dealing with the symptoms of a deeper emergency, and we’ve got to ask ourselves whether the only thing we ever want to deal with in the world from here on in are the symptoms of multiple unfolding emergencies. I appreciate that for anyone who’s working for the health service, who is caring for someone elderly or sick, who is desperately trying to find emergency accommodation, who suddenly has a lot of childcare to do in a confined space, or who actually has Covid-19, life is even more high pressure than usual. For many, though, and I include myself in this, things have massively slowed down. This gives a moment of opportunity to either (a) watch a whole lot of Netflix, or (b) take some time to think about how we want to collectively deal with things in the future. Unlike the frenetic nature of life as usual in capitalism, there is actually some space to think about how we want the world to look. Our future looks to be one of multiple and converging crises, and that’s enough to overwhelm anyone into not thinking about the future beyond our families, jobs, hobbies, or what furniture we’d like from IKEA. But given that we’re here and we want to live as best we can, and the majority of us want to live in a just and sustainable world, we need to think about what may be the best possible outcomes for the context we’re in, and how we can work towards achieving them.

Some of the unintended consequences of the Covid-19 crisis are very interesting in terms of informing how we may want the world to look. The peace in the streets no longer clogged with vehicles. The drop in air pollution levels in China, where Covid-19 has led to such a decline in industrial activity and vehicle use, that it has been speculated that the lives saved from deaths due to air pollution may actually outnumber the lives lost to Covid-19. We are accustomed to seeing a sky laced with climate-warming aeroplane trails; this is the first time in decades that I look to the sky and struggle to see one. Progressive initiatives such as Universal Basic Income, which it was previously possible to ignore, now look like the only thing that makes any logical sense. After decades of squeezing public services, pouring money into the public sector to avert further problems is the only plausible thing to do. People are finding ways of fighting back in spite of the limits on social contact – university students squeezed by the structure of the education system have gone on rent strike [8], and General Electric workers have walked off the job, demanding to make ventilators rather than jet engines [9]. And as a huge economic depression looms over us, the Green New Deal now looks to be a plausible way of both providing the newly unemployed with new jobs in renewable energy, and Amsterdam has committed to ‘Doughnut Economics’ to rejuvenate its post crisis economy – committing to minimum living standards for all, while rejecting growth-based economics to remain within ecological limits [10].

Beyond that, we need to build up a better picture of how the world works, how power works, and how historically people have collectively worked to equalise power imbalances. As people who have always lived under capitalism, neoliberalism and individualism, it’s difficult for any of us to know how to effectively collectivise and self-organise to challenge power. I believe that engaging in a process where we challenge ourselves to learn how to do that is the best chance we’ve got. To those ends, I leave you with the important work of Adam H via his blog, ‘Building a Revolutionary Movement in Britain,’ – a plain English guide to building collective power by those from below. Let’s get our thinking caps on.  

https://buildingarevolutionarymovement.org/

Endnotes

[1] I recognise that there are other problems that lie at the heart of the issue. One of these may be population growth, especially as people in the ‘global South’ look to the consumer products of the ‘West’ to enhance their lives. Because this means the development of new markets to meet those needs, I again see this as a problem of economic growth, though it is deeply problematic to say that people shouldn’t be allowed the same products that Westerners have. This presents a problem for how to keep energy usage and emissions down at the same time as people making use of life-enhancing products like washing machines, as energy demands may rise even if there is a shift away from the model of economic growth. 

[2] See https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/mar/18/tip-of-the-iceberg-is-our-destruction-of-nature-responsible-for-covid-19-aoe

[3] See https://www.scmp.com/comment/letters/article/3051700/climate-change-and-coronaviruses-warming-world-encourages-emergence

[4] See/listen to audio https://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/what-covid-19-and-climate-change-have-in-common

[5] See video https://novaramedia.com/2020/03/27/18784/?fbclid=IwAR0-hgLu31zanTDvlA4E_HfP-iHfu5LaOcRFa21h0JuEHKo5uresV407THo

[6] See/read https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/coronavirus-emily-maitlis-newsnight-bbc-inequality-boris-johnson-a9456696.html?utm_medium=Social&utm_source=Facebook&fbclid=IwAR1ANcmlIppqE6zWMHj6jeQdI2ujYfOd7_7VzAEN2soyAP2tvZpUQwwZ15w#Echobox=1586418716

[7] Ideas from online training, ‘Building Community in a Time of Coronavirus.’ By Ella Baker School of Organising https://www.ellabakerorganising.org.uk/

[8] See https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-bristol-52105927?fbclid=IwAR0eC2_kx6u3gVNVLUXYT03BSrTfXyW4NxAAEqGIabwdER_qL8bcb-B63Lc

[9] See https://www.vice.com/en_ca/article/y3mjxg/general-electric-workers-walk-off-the-job-demand-to-make-ventilators?fbclid=IwAR2aSpKGusHSs8tDLB5UJVTdZypkMa_lK2buytG2q2b3YLvWhgRNxWVs7pw

[10] See https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/08/amsterdam-doughnut-model-mend-post-coronavirus-economy?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other&fbclid=IwAR0vHPBRIvUzNyGtEY4oBXs0rLLxllR9McP1NrsKfv0scS5nV_llnw-wyGQ

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