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
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
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.
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
We thought we held
the whole world in the palm of our hands. We were wrong.
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
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
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
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
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