Climate justice after Covid-19

| 4th May 2020
XR Bristol College Green
XR
Recovering from this pandemic is an immense opportunity to reshape our economic systems and our relationship to the natural world.

Let’s grasp this opportunity, immense as it is, and not be tempted to fall back into what we have been misled into thinking we need and want by an economic system built on the misguided idea of perpetual growth.

The full impact of our decades of environmental destruction may never be fully understood. But we can be certain that the current pandemic represents just the beginning of a new wave of global challenges.  

We find ourselves in the midst of a social and economic breakdown. Covid-19 is the cause of terrible human suffering, countless personal tragedies and the growing uncertainty about what the future will look like seems to be the only constant. 

Read Coronavirus, economic crash and climate breakdown.

Covid-19 is a stark warning sign of ecosystems under great stress and widespread habitat destruction. We need to treat the underlying causes as well as seeking to alleviate the symptoms if we are to restore the planet to good health. 

Causes

The single most important realisation right now is that the Covid-19 pandemic is not a separate issue to the environmental crisis.  In fact, Covid-19 is just one manifestation of the ecological emergency as a direct result of our continuous exploitation and mismanagement of the natural world. 

Society’s immediate reaction to a crisis tends towards finding someone to blame: the Government for not acting fast enough; the wet markets for their apparently shoddy and barbaric set-up; the airline industry for not grounding all flights. I’ve even seen calls to eradicate all bats (as indeed civets were attacked when the SARS epidemic took place in 2003).

However, by yielding to this temptation, we’re merely trying to address how Covid-19 has been able to spread, not why it came about in the first place. If we don’t appropriately address the why, humanity will find itself in a similar place in a very short period of time.  

In July 2012 an article on the Ecology of Disease was published in the New York Times. The article addresses the causes of diseases: "If we fail to understand and take care of the natural world, it can cause a breakdown of these systems [ecosystem services] and come back to haunt us in ways we know little about."

I wondered, could it be that we are directly to blame for the appearances of these viruses? A Guardian article from March 2020 asked the same: “Is it possible … that it was human activity, such as road building, mining, hunting and logging, that triggered the Ebola epidemics in Mayibout … and that is unleashing new terrors today?” 

Industrialisation

During my research I came across a Visual Capitalist overview of the deadliest pandemics in human history. The purpose of the visualisation was to put the Covid-19 in perspective alongside other pandemics, and to stress the point that “despite the persistence of disease and pandemics throughout history, there’s one consistent trend over time – a gradual reduction in the death rate.”

While that is correct, it is apparent that the pandemic timeline looks particularly crowded after the late 1800s. Counting the number of recorded pandemics between 165AD and 1631 (there have been seven in those 1,466 years killing about 300m people) and between 1817 and 2020 (there have been 13 in those 203 years killing about 76m people) confirms this initial observation. 

This alarming increase in the number of pandemics is neatly aligned with the time Europe and North America transitioned to new manufacturing processes known as the industrial revolution. Between 1760-1840 the industrial revolution radically altered the way we could extract natural resources, how we could live, and maybe most unfortunately, how we viewed ourselves in relation to the natural world. 

Unknowingly to our ancestors, could the impact of industrialisation, while allowing some of humanity to experience probably the safest and most prosperous period in its short history on earth, also mark the beginning of the end to life of humans as a species just some 200 years later?

Cost

But Covid-19 presents an immense opportunity to change things at a truly fundamental level. It’s a chance to re-assess everything as we witness the world grounding to a halt.

First, though, we must acknowledge the devastating damage that unregulated corporate greed has done to our natural world and to our communities. We must accept that benefitting from the comforts of a consumer society comes at a cost.  

As consumers we need to realise that ‘cheap’ simply means that someone else, somewhere else has had to pay the price. But, if habitat destruction is the root cause of our current crisis, so restoring habitats is a potential solution.

We have all, to some degree or another, allowed ourselves to become imprisoned by a system that, through telling us what we should strive for, is enriching a few but destructive for so many.

We as individuals - CEOs, professionals, politicians, community leaders, parents and friends - need to start demanding change from our respective positions of influence. Until we each make the required sacrifices and take appropriate, collective action then we remain part of the problem and are all, to varying degrees, culpable. 

The SARS epidemic in 2003 cost the global economy an estimated $40bn (US dollars) in six months. The Covid-19 pandemic might cost the global economy a total of $4.1tn (US dollars) in lost income – or more.

If these pandemics can be directly traced back to human activity, how can protecting ecosystems and our natural world be a threat to our economy? And, if habitat destruction is the root cause of our current crisis, is restoring habitats a potential solution?

Values

So, let’s start demanding that externalities - those ‘invisible’ costs - are incorporated and make the responsible parties pay appropriately.

Be that the airline industries for polluting and expediting the spread of the Covid-19 virus, the oil and gas companies’ profiteering while the effects of a global increase in temperature are spiralling out of control due to human generated emissions, or indeed the agricultural giants deforesting vast areas, disturbing the ecological balance and potentially releasing new viruses into the human food-chain.

Let’s grasp this opportunity, immense as it is, and not be tempted to fall back into what we have been misled into thinking we need and want by an economic system built on the misguided idea of perpetual growth.

For the first time in years have I allowed myself to properly slow down, to be completely present with my children, to fully appreciate the silence that has wrapped itself around one of the busiest cities in the world. 

I worry for our family business, how the kids will remember this period in their lives, for some of the vulnerable people I deeply treasure. But my absolute biggest fear is that we won’t, as George Monbiot writes, be able to prevent the temptation [that], when this pandemic has passed, will be to [just] find another bubble.” 

What I think is urgently needed is that we, so fortunate to live in peaceful democracies, with education and health systems, ask ourselves what we love, value and really need. And start daring to imagine the possibilities within our grasp even though we do not know all the answers.

We need to start building new structures within our respective communities, based on a common set of values and principles, not political ideologies or financial ambitions. 

Opportunity 

We need to review what brings us together as humans, identify our weaknesses and strengths as a species, give up what we can do without, and protect what we cannot. 

We need an economy based on supply rather than demand, one which values restoration more than profit generation, one that provides more than it takes. 

We need to practice leaving our egos aside and realise we’re here to serve and steward – not control and exploit.

We need to acknowledge the forces and restrictions of nature and accept we are part, not in charge, of our natural world. 

This is possibly a once in a lifetime opportunity. Please, my fellow humans, I beg you, let’s grab it with both hands! 

This Author 

Helena Farstad is a mum, wife, dog-owner, business consultant and environmental activist. 

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