Apr 10, 2020

When Climate Met COVID: 7 Reasons We Should Tackle These Challenges Together

By Guy Dauncey / thepracticalutopian.ca
When Climate Met COVID: 7 Reasons We Should Tackle These Challenges Together

We face not one but three simultaneous inter-connected crises: the COVID-19 Emergency, the Climate and Biodiversity Emergency, and the Crisis of Capitalism. We urgently need connected constructive responses.

When you recall the movie When Harry Met Sally, your horny mind probably goes straight to the scene in the delicatessen, and “I’ll have what she’s having”. Setting that aside, it took Harry and Sally a long time before they realized that they were natural partners. In my version of the story, Harry is the climate and biodiversity action movement and Sally is the COVID-19 community response movement. For each, the movement includes a wide mix of people, organizations, scientists, health workers, artists, businesses, banks and governments who have realized the urgency of their respective crises. Ideally I need a third character to represent the new economics movement, but since there was no suggestion of polyamory in the movie, I’ll settle for tradition. It would make for a great sequel, however.

Harry is a strategic planner for the Sunrise Movement. He is also active with Extinction Rebellion, 350.org, and Canada’s Climate Action Network. Busy man, our Harry. When he and Sally first met they were curious, but they were still two solitudes. Sally demanded and got all the attention, because her COVID-19 crisis is very immediate, while Harry’s climate crisis could supposedly wait another few months. After all, hadn’t he already been waiting thirty years for serious climate action? But when they took time for that infamous coffee together they realized that they saw eye-to-eye on many things. This is Harry’s memorandum to Sally, laying out Seven Reasons why they should marry.

1. There’s a Double-Whammy Coming: We’ve Got to Work Together

Sometime soon, whether next week or the middle of July, a community that’s struggling to contain COVID-19 is also going to be hit by a climate-strengthened hurricane, tornado or flood, and social distancing will conflict quite hopelessly with the need to rescue people from flooded homes. The Climate and Biodiversity Emergencies are not taking time off to give the COVID-19 Emergency some space – Nature doesn’t work that way. But while COVID-19 may or may not return once it has gone, the Climate and Biodiversity Emergencies will not go away at all, not until we have made big changes to the way we do things throughout the planet. The emergencies will just get more dire, every year.

Most human pathogens originate from fauna, including HIV, Ebola, influenza, MERS, SARS, and now COVID-19. On April 2nd, Germany’s Environment Minister, Sevenja Schulze, said “science tells us that the destruction of ecosystems makes disease outbreaks including pandemics more likely. This indicates that the destruction of nature is the underlying crisis behind the coronavirus crisis.” Professor Josef Settele, from Germany’s Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, added that “the conservation of intact ecosystems and their characteristic biodiversity can reduce the emergence of infectious diseases. Humanity depends on functioning, diverse ecosystems. By destroying ecosystems we are also destroying our livelihoods, as the coronavirus epidemic is showing. What is needed is no less than a fundamental, system-wide reorganisation, covering technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, objectives and values.”

Our crises are inextricably entangled, so we need to work together. We need each other.

2. You Warm My Heart

You, Sally (the COVID-19 Community Response Movement), have shown what people can do when they understand the real urgency of a crisis. We both know there are selfish narcissistic jerks out there, but when you pull out all the stops, my, do you deliver. I bow my head in respect.

You are inspiring people to form neighborhood mutual aid groups to help each other. You are inspiring hundreds of thousands of people to volunteer to help our heroes, the healthcare workers. You are inspiring healthcare workers to put themselves in the path of danger, to heal the sick and protect the rest of us. You are inspiring businesses to rejig their plants to make Personal Protective Equipment as fast as they can. You are inspiring millions of individuals and families to hunker down, however great the inconvenience. You are inspiring people to organize fundraising efforts to help the most vulnerable. You are inspiring many governments to pull out all the stops, discarding ideological prejudices and the economics of austerity to do whatever it takes to end the crisis. Some more, some less, and a few alas are led by selfish narcissistic jerks, but you have shown the world that they are the exception, and that in a crisis most people and most governments are compassionate, cooperative, and eager to help.

Just imagine, if we could work together. The compassion and heroism that you bring out could help us tackle the the climate and biodiversity emergencies, and contribute to our need to build a new economy based on kindness, instead of greed. We could be a good team.

3. We Share a Dislike of Market Selfishness and Greed

One of the bugbears of the climate movement is the way the fate of the Earth has been handed over to the market, as if it possessed some superior wisdom wiser than Nature, democracy, or the instinct to survive. If the free market deems that people want coal, oil and natural gas to be extracted and burnt, or rainforests to be destroyed to grow soybeans to feed cattle, that is supposedly good. Climate action is fine, we are told, as long as investors can continue to maximize their returns. TC Energy, the company behind the Keystone XL Pipeline, is using the cover of COVID-19 to rush workers to states along the pipeline route to hurriedly build the pipeline while the protestors are shut away at home, all to enable yet more oil to be poured onto our burning planet.

You are suffering the same thing. People are bulk-buying Personal Protective Equipment and reselling it for a profit ‘to increase market efficiency’. States are competing to buy essential life-saving equipment, pushing up prices to inflate profits. Drug company investors are looking to get rich by using their monopoly power when it comes to selling a vaccine.

From the perspective of neoclassical economics, which alas guides most government and corporate decisions, Nature is an awkward externality. So are the tens of thousands of coronavirus deaths, and the complete disruption of life. For the market, they are nothing less than an opportunity to make money. We both dislike the belief that the market must be allowed to operate with minimal government interference, because that’s what the supposed laws of economics say. There are no such laws! Conventional neoclassical economics, on which most corporate and government decision-making has been based for the last forty years, has become a religion preaching the primacy of selfishness, greed, and social and ecological blindness. No wonder we are in such a mess. When we come out of this, we will urgently need to build a new economy based on different values and goals, and not go back to business as usual as if nothing had happened.

4. We’ve Got Time. Let’s Use it to Make Plans.

More than a million people are struggling in their beds with the coronavirus, but most people are not: they are hunkered down at home, looking for ways to fill the hours. At the same time, we face three urgent challenges:

  1. To tackle the climate emergency,
  2. To tackle the biodiversity emergency, and
  3. To design a new global economy based not on capitalist selfishness but on compassion, entrepreneurial brilliance, and the economics of kindness.

We should use this time to plan – to share ideas and work out the details of how we can tackle the three challenges, combining your compassion and instinct for cooperation to survive the COVID-19 crisis with my need for policies and programs that will both end the climate and biodiversity crises and build us a new economy based not on greed but kindness, and respect for Nature, communities and workers.

As soon as the COVID-19 crisis begins to be over, whether in two months or two years, governments will need to rebuild their economies. They will want shovel-ready projects through which they can inject money into the economy. Being shovel-ready requires detailed planning and budgeting – and now is the time that we must be doing this. If we wait until the crisis is over, institutional laziness will mean that our governments’ economic stimulus programs are directed to restoring business-as-usual, and we will have missed the most important opportunity of our lives.

What does being “shovel-ready” look like? Let me offer some random examples for each of our three challenges:

The Climate Challenge

  • Being ready for the nationwide roll-out of a program of mass deep home retrofits, to eliminate the use of fossil fuels for home heating by 2030.
  • Being ready for a nationwide solar roll-out, such that every unshaded south-facing roof is solar-clad by 2030.
  • Being ready for neighborhood climate action in every community, with paid Climate Action Coordinators who have been trained in how to get neighbours together to plan how they can retrofit their homes, switch to cycling, transit or electric vehicles, grow more food, plant trees, embrace the goal of zero-waste, adopt a climate-friendly diet with less meat and dairy, switch to climate-friendly banking and investment, and so on.

The Biodiversity Challenge

  • Being ready for a nationwide shift to nature-friendly agro-ecological farming, phasing out the use of the pesticides and fertilizers that are causing so much harm to insects, pollinators, birds, and other wildlife.
  • Being ready with programs and regulations than can transform our economy into a fully circular economy in which there is no such thing as waste, in which every product we consume contributes to the regeneration of nature, rather than its destruction.
  • Being ready with local ecological restoration maps, and plans for how each critical area can be restored over the next several years, by whom, and at what cost.

The New Economy Challenge

  • Being ready to roll out a new legal foundation for all businesses and banks, after reaching agreement with many partners, setting them on a path that will increase wellbeing for all stakeholders, including Nature, workers, communities, customers and suppliers, not just for shareholders and CEOs.
  • Being ready to roll out a new foundation for education, work, income and welfare that will end poverty, debt and financial insecurity, helping people to find work that enables them to fulfil their highest sense of purpose while supporting the formation of cooperatives and worker-owned businesses.
  • Being ready to roll out a new foundation for global trade in which terms and tariffs are used to raise nations’ commitments to human rights, workers’ rights, climate action, ecological restoration and regional resilience, rather than lowering them, thereby accelerating the race to the bottom through the exploitation of workers, communities, animals and Nature.

We can’t wait for governments to do these things for us: their hands are full, and they haven’t got time to think about the bigger picture. It is ordinary people, activists, business leaders, non-profits, labor unions, universities and foundations that need to take the lead, just as they have done for all major social change breakthroughs in the past, from ending slavery and winning workers’ rights to winning public healthcare and civil rights.

5. We’re Going to Need to Eat 

At the time of writing, the stores are being resupplied. But we need to take seriously the risk that COVID-19 may spread among farmworkers in California, Florida and Mexico, and among truckers, and the vulnerability of our food supply this will reveal. We need to start planning, seeding, sowing and growing for much greater food self-sufficiency, to give us resilience against this and future pandemics. And because seeds are sown in the spring for crops that are harvested in summer and fall we need to address this NOW, not in six months time, when it will be too late to increase our harvests.

Your need, from a COVID-19 perspective, is a reliable supply of food. My need, from a climate perspective, is a shift from ecologically destructive, climate-destructive, trade-dependent farming to resilient, local, climate-friendly, agro-ecological farming. We need to achieve much greater self-sufficiency in food, instead of depending on just-in-time shipments from far parts of the world that can collapse in times of crisis, leaving people hungry and afraid. We need to add The Food Challenge to the challenges described above, and we need to be planning now for how we can double or triple local food production. Once more, we’re in this together.

6. We’re Living Together on This One Small Planet

At the time of writing, COVID-19 is beginning to reach the most vulnerable parts of the world: India, Africa, Indonesia, and the 2.6 million people who live in refugee camps. When we look back we may see that Phase One was China and South Korea, Phase 2 was Europe and North America, and Phase Three was the rest of the world. The true extent of the distress may still be in our future: for all our inconveniences and the stress on healthcare workers today, this may be the calm before the storm.

Unless we tackle COVID-19 together as one planet, with every nation looking out for every other nation, we could rapidly crumble into chaos. We need to share financial resources, volunteers, medical supplies and drug patents. We need to end the trade sanctions against Iran, which are making it much harder for them to tackle the pandemic. We need to quickly draft a global partnership to make and distribute Personal Protective Equipment and ventilators that will eliminate hoarding, profiteering and selfish supply-grabbing.

Unless we tackle the climate and ecological emergencies in the same way, acting together as one world, a similarly distressing outcome will result. The last time the world was 2°C warmer, the sea-level was 25 metres higher, and that’s just one of a myriad destructive outcomes that are coming our way. Hunkering down as nations would be our worst possible response, closing not just borders but hearts. Maybe we could incorporate the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals into our wedding vows, since they address most of the goals that matter. Let’s Goal #18, to replace capitalism with the economics of kindness.

Antonio Gutteres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, said recently that “the fury of the virus illustrates the folly of war,” and he called for an immediate global ceasefire in all corners of the world so that we can focus on the true fight of our lives. He said that COVID-19 does not care about nationality or ethnicity. It attacks all relentlessly, including during wartime, and a ceasefire would allow humanitarians to reach the most vulnerable – the women and children, those who have disabilities, the marginalized, the displaced, the refugees. They pay the highest price during conflict, and are most at risk from the disease. Health systems in war-ravaged countries are already at the point of collapse, while the few health workers who remain are often seen as targets. He called on all warring parties to pull back from their hostilities, and to put aside their mistrust and animosity: “To silence the guns; stop the artillery; end the airstrikes”. We need to end the sickness of war, and fight the disease that is ravaging our world, he said.  “It starts by stopping the fighting everywhere. Now. That is what our human family needs, now more than ever.”

So, Sally, can we use this time to tackle the COVID-19 emergency, the climate and biodiversity emergency, the need to build a new economy and the food challenge, and to finally put an end to warfare, coming together as a planet in the face of this shared danger?

7. Together, we could build A New Ecological Civilization, based on The Economics of Kindness

Is this not what our world really needs? Our old civilization has run its course. It began in the Age of Enlightenment, and undoubtedly, it has brought so many benefits. But it also brought two mindsets that are now proving fatally destructive.

The first is that Nature is a Thing, not a Being. With this mindset we have killed, exploited, mined, felled, burnt, cleared and exploded Nature, the better to take her resources, feed ourselves and make a myriad technologies and toys. We have done so in almost total ecological ignorance, however, and thus we have caused the climate emergency, the biodiversity emergency, and now the COVID-19 pandemic emergency. In the neoclassical economics that guides most corporate and government decisions Nature does not even feature, except as an awkward externality. She is just an ‘input’.

The second fatally destructive mindset, which stems from Adam Smith’s deluded insight, celebrated by business leaders and neoclassical economists the world over, is that if we all behave selfishly, striving to maximize profit and gain, the whole world will be a better place. What Adam Smith got wrong is that it was not competitive capitalism that brought such progress – it was innovation, derived from science and engineering. Competitive market capitalism simply rode the wave, and Smith mistook the rider for the horse. Without such innovation competitive market capitalism would have forced everyone into the gutter, seeking gain by increasing working hours, lowering wages, and shredding health and safety.

What we need now is far more than reformed capitalism. We need to move beyond the Enlightenment, beyond the Industrial Age, beyond capitalism, and build for ourselves a New Ecological Civilization, premised on the centrality not of money, but of Nature.

We need to learn how to think, feel, live, work and trade in harmony with Nature, not at her expense. We have been in an abusive marriage with Nature for far too long, and we are the ones still doing the abusing, but rather than a divorce we need a new relationship that is respectful, non-abusive, and mutually nourishing. We need to fall in love with Nature again, rekindling the admiration and respect we had when our relationship started, many thousands of years ago. We need to make that love the foundation of everything we do.

As we approach the COVID-19 emergency’s darkest days, it is revealing the exact opposite of Adam Smith’s supposedly great economic insight. It is revealing that most people are not greedy and self-centred, but loving and kind. Our hearts swell at the thought of all the healthcare workers who are busting their guts and risking their lives to save our loved-ones. Likewise, our hearts anger when we learn about a selfish narcissistic jerk who is using the crisis to profit and gain.

Within this most simple of insights lies the foundation for an entire new approach to economics, and the way we operate our economies. The intellectual foundations for neoclassical economics were developed in the late 19th century by economists who wanted the imagined prestige of being real scientists. Economics is the study of human behavior in the economic realm, but in order to become a scientist the economists had to invent a unit of existence that always acted in the same way, like an atom, enabling them to churn out impressive mathematical equations. They did so by taking Adam Smith’s insight and assuming that every human had only one concern in life – to maximize his or her self-interest. Homo economicus, they called him, and on this flawed foundation they built the entire edifice of modern economics. It is both non-sense and non-science, but because it concluded that governments should minimize their interventions in the market and let enterprise flourish with minimal regulation, it became the favourite intellectual camouflage for greedy businesses and corporations the world over, and for governments that were beholden to them.

My pitch for the seventh reason why we should get married is beginning to take on the length of the Best Man’s speech, alas without the humour, but it is truly foundational. Our New Ecological Civilization needs to be based on the economics of kindness – and in practical terms this makes it a cooperative economy, rather than a capitalistic one.

In a cooperative economy, every business, bank and trading relationship extends its antennae to consider Nature, and the workers, communities, customers, investors and suppliers who are integral to its operation. Every business becomes similar in structure and legal obligation to Benefit Corporation, and many become cooperatives. Every bank becomes more like the Triodos Bank, or Vancity Savings. Every act of money-creation by a bank or central bank becomes premised on the regeneration of Nature and communities, rather than their exploitation.

Every community becomes an opportunity to express our rediscovered love for Nature – for planting trees, growing food, restoring creeks and wetlands, constructing pedestrian and cycling trails, pedestrianizing busy roads, for building ecologically-friendly homes and factories.

One of the new insights that will hopefully be widely understood is that in this New Ecological Civilization the old political division between left and right is completely irrelevant. Every society needs its matrix of tension, but the matrix that matters, that is grounded in our actual existence as humans, is the tension not between right and left but between dominating and cooperating – between the selfish jerks and those who want to live cooperatively.

For more than two hundred years, ever since the French Revolution, we have shaped our politics and economics on this false division between left and right – left for those who want more public ownership and governance and right for those who want more entrepreneurial brilliance and freedom – as if we do not need both.

When you scratch the left wing idea, you will find that its historical origins lie in a false 19th century Marxist view of the world in which workers are good, bourgeois businessmen are bad, and the hidden laws of history will supposedly make a workers revolution inevitable.

When you scratch the right wing idea, you will find that its historical origins lie in the false 19th century neoclassical economists’ view of the world in which every human is a money-seeking robot, and the hidden laws of economics operating in a free market without government intervention will supposedly make prosperity for all inevitable.

Both ideas are intellectual and scientific nonsense, and yet in the mutual hatreds, fears and conflicts they have generated over the last two centuries they have reaped more blood, grief and horror than any other ideas in the entire history of our civilizations.

The economics of kindness defers to our actual reality as humans, which is that sometimes we are selfish, sometimes we are cooperative and kind. If we want to build a world based on selfishness, we just need to elect selfish narcissistic jerks into positions of political and economic leadership.

If we want to build a world based on kindness, by contrast, we need to work together cooperatively to decide what this world will look like, using healthy inclusive democracy and discussion.

My Concluding Argument

Some people say that now is not the time to be talking about the climate emergency because people are feeling anxious, afraid and overwhelmed, and that you and I should desist from dating until the COVID-19 crisis is over. I suspect that those saying this never took the climate and biodiversity emergencies seriously in the first place, and they don’t understand that just as the causes of our troubles are linked, our solutions must also be linked. So let’s build a better world together. Let’s get married. Can we discuss this on Zoom tomorrow morning?

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