March 26th, 2020
Right now, millions of people around the world are waking each day with a sensation of panic in the pit of their stomach, a feeling that likely gnaws at them constantly, and is sharpened with every news bulletin and headline.
For anyone who has been closely following the unfolding horror story that is the global climate and biodiversity emergency, these are feelings are only too familiar. As author David Wallace-Wells wrote recently: “The age of climate panic is here…the planet is getting warmer in catastrophic ways. And fear may be the only thing that saves us”.
Of course, no one really believed him, just as no one has believed the mountains of scientific evidence built up over the last three decades and more. After all, if this stuff was true, then everything we think we know is wrong, and the very edifice of our industrial civilisation is built on sand, and that couldn’t possibly be the case, could it?
Up until a couple of weeks ago, if you tried telling anyone in Ireland that an emergency of the kind we’re now experiencing is not just possible, but almost inevitable , you would be immediately dismissed as a Chicken Licken alarmist, extremist or bug-eyed activist.
Illusion of control
That was then. As the shock begins to wear off, the first casualty of our strange new reality may be the shattering of the illusion of control. Many people are now, perhaps for the first time in their adult lives, feeling profoundly helpless – and afraid. Our politicians, business and society leaders are equally stunned, but in Ireland, at least, we have responded reasonably well.
To see how else this crisis might be playing out, you only have to look to the UK or US and their cack-handed efforts to contain the pandemic seriously hampered by the populist antics of Johnson and Trump. Their glib slogans have proven no match for a reality that cannot be bluffed, tweeted or browbeaten out of existence.
During his inaugural speech in March 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt sought to calm a public deeply traumatised by the economic crash of 1929. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” was how FDR memorably put it. He went on to point out the many positives, including that nature “still offers her bounty”. Nearly a century later, we face into the first of many global crises with a bounty that has been severely depleted and nature itself critically degraded.
Crises in purely human-made systems such as economies can indeed be fuelled by raw emotion and likewise abated by a shift in public sentiment or attitude. The rules governing the physical world are altogether less pliable as the climate and latterly the coronavirus crises have shown.
‘We all have a choice’
“I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act”. These famous words were spoken by Greta Thunberg at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos in January 2019.
In words that eerily presaged the arrival of Covid-19, Thunberg added: “You say nothing in life is black or white. But that is a lie. A very dangerous lie. Either we avoid setting off that irreversible chain reaction beyond human control or we don’t. Either we choose to go on as a civilisation or we don’t. That is as black or white as it gets. There are no grey areas when it comes to survival”.
World leaders and assorted celebrities gathered at the Swiss resort shifted a little uneasily in their seats as the young activist set out the options in the starkest of terms: “We all have a choice. We can create transformational action that will safeguard the living conditions for future generations. Or we can continue with our business as usual and fail”.
Last May – as much out of embarrassment as actual concern – the Oireachtas declared a climate and biodiversity emergency. It was the kind of stunt that politicians love: grand-sounding declarations drained of meaning and vague aspirations towards action at some indeterminate future point safely beyond the political career horizons of those making the statements.
Not even the sight of prosperous Australia in flames at the start of this year, with unprecedented devastation that left over a billion animals dead, could make a dent in our collective sense of detachment from and indifference towards the fast-approaching darkness.
Professor Liz Bentley of the UK Royal Meteorological Society told the BBC in February that extreme weather events everywhere around the world were “a wake-up call to the reality of climate change”.
She was absolutely wrong. As the Amazon burned, then the Arctic, then parts of Greenland, rather than waking up, humanity simply rolled over, hit the collective snooze button and went back to sleep.
While death, destruction and ruin has been sweeping ever deeper through the natural world as ancient habitats and species are wiped out and entire ecosystems razed to the ground, the chief architects of this maelstrom – people in the so-called developed world – have been astonishingly immune to the blowback from environmental destruction. So far that is.
Now, as the coronavirus pandemic gathers pace, entire populations in the western world are, perhaps for the first time since the 1940s, gripped by fear, feeling their ontological security crumble, seeing the tables finally turned as a deadly new viral micro-predator targets homo sapiens as an abundant and largely defenceless host.
We thought we held the whole world in the palm of our hands. We were wrong.
Evidence is emerging that that novel coronavirus we are facing is in fact a spectacular ecological own-goal. As author David Quammen wrote recently, we have created a near perfect environment for the virus to flourish as we cut down forests and kill or cage wild animals and send them to markets. In the process, Quammen says that we are disrupting ecosystems, shaking viruses “loose from their natural hosts” and welcoming them instead as our guests.
Ever-increasing rates of transmission of disease from wildlife to humans are now “a hidden cost of human economic development”, says Dr Kate Jones of University College London. She sees these zoonotic diseases as linked to environmental disruption and human behaviour. It is us, humans, she says, who are creating habitats where viruses are transmitted more easily, yet “then we are surprised that we have new ones”.
Leviathan role required
There will be countless consequences arising from this novel coronavirus outbreak. For one, the return of Big Government. Following decades of neoliberal attack and relentless privatisation, the power of governments to effectively govern has been weakened, with transnational corporations in many cases now wealthier and more politically powerful than nation states.
Any fleeting sense that Apple, Google, Richard Branson or Jeff Bezos were going to save the world from Covid-19 or climate breakdown is well and truly dashed. Anyone expecting the corporate leopards to change their spots in a crisis is a poor student of recent history.
Take EasyJet, for example. Despite possessing £1.6 billion in cash, it is currently lobbying furiously for state aid as much of the world’s airline fleets are grounded. And while demanding taxpayer bailouts, EasyJet has decided in the midst of the current crisis to go ahead and pay out a £174 million dividend to shareholders, including £60 million to its founder Stelios Haji-Ioannou.
This, in the new Gilded Age, is state welfare for the mega-rich and bare-knuckle capitalism for the rest. Just as Haji-Ioannou fills his pockets with tens of millions, EasyJet has told staff to accept zero pay (yes, zero) for three months.
With hundreds of thousands of jobs lost in Ireland alone and tens of millions across the world as a result of the coronavirus shutdown, the risk of recession tipping into a full scale global economic depression grows daily.
This is why the once-heretical notion of the State providing its citizens with a universal basic income has seen a dramatic comeback. As a recent opinion piece in Bloomberg put it: “The state, much maligned in recent decades, is back, and in its fundamental role: as Leviathan, the preventer of anarchy, and the ultimate insurance against an intolerable human condition in which life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
In the same article, author Pankaj Mishra adds: “It has taken a disaster for the state to assume its original responsibility to protect citizens”. He was talking about Covid-19 but could as easily have been describing climate breakdown.
If some long-term good is to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic, it has to be in states rediscovering their mojo, and in a new understanding that the threats that confront humanity are truly global in scale and nature and can only be confronted by decisive action and tough choices based on the best available scientific evidence.
This, combined with a traumatised public newly shaken from the slumber of easy consumerism and political disengagement, could help form the conditions for an era of purposeful austerity where the existential threats that confront us are, at last, squarely addressed. We have few choices remaining. This is one.
By John Gibbons
John is an environmental writer and commentator