Charles Stott - 18 March 2020
As economic activity is hampered by measures to contain the coronavirus, we have the opportunity to use this time to pause, reflect on the way we live and take what we learn to create a more prosperous society afterwards.
The current situation is an unprecedented natural experiment in degrowth. The virus is challenging business-as-usual more than any civil disobedience could. With many elements of the economy shutting down we can learn and prove to ourselves which pieces we really don’t need to live a good life and which are most essential. With this knowledge, rather than returning to normal after the outbreak, we can create a new normal.
Like pruning a tree we can cut off the most unnecessary harmful, polluting and or wasteful elements and live more simply producing fewer carbon emissions. For example, airlines have been hit hard by the crisis and many airline executives are calling for the government to bail them out. In Italy air travel decreased by 90%. The centre for aviation has said that “by the end of May 2020, most airlines in the world will be bankrupt” without government intervention. Given the huge environmental cost of air travel should we bail them out? Perhaps we can live in a future without as much flight? Is there a way of creatively enabling the airlines to survive but in a smaller form?
Many will lose jobs and livelihoods but those who do could be provided for by the emergency implementation of Universal Basic Services. Petitions for Universal Basic Income are already being circulated. The US government is considering sending money directly to Americans. We may also gain insights as some countries adopt UBS and some UBI.
We must not make light of the suffering and death caused by the virus outbreak but we can acknowledge and find solace in the public benefits of lockdown that are apparent. In China CO2 emissions are down 25% (saving 200 million tons), the reduction in air pollution could save 50-75,000 lives, and we’ve seen a 36% drop in coal consumption. Nitrogen dioxide levels around the world are falling. In London dropped by a third from Sunday to Tuesday and significant reductions were recorded in Italy also while Venice residents said the canal waters were clearer than they had ever seen.
An upswell in community spirit is also taking place as people band together in volunteer groups to help vulnerable people in their local area. Hundreds of groups of thousands of people have been set up to deliver food and medicine to isolated people, as well as provide services like online teaching and music. A facebook group in which people read stories aloud to each other has been created to combat loneliness in self-isolation. All this will give a greater and renewed sense of belonging, shared purpose and identity alongside a recognition of the importance of togetherness.
As well as the interruption of business-as-usual we may also see innovation during this time as people adapt to lockdown. Working from home may become the new norm. People may form stronger community ties that last beyond the crisis. We may discover improvements to the supply chain.
With reductions in emissions and pollutants we are likely to see an increase in ecosystem health and biodiversity. What better time than spring to be quiet and reflect outside in nature and think of this as a chance for a new beginning for our society like a blossoming flower?
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