Let’s never return to normal
Save your hugs, but invest your imagination. Now is the moment to think one crisis ahead, writes Sam McGlennon
Covid-19 is slashing global greenhouse gas emissions with a speed and tenacity that we as a global community have spent 30 years failing to muster. Now might be a painful moment to admit it – too painful for some – but that outcome is beyond good; it's necessary. It should come as sweet relief.
Of course it doesn't feel like that to anyone right now. Even though our direct experience of the virus here in Australasia has been at the lighter end of the spectrum, the systemic effects are resolving into clarity by the day. They look profoundly challenging.
The tree of our economy is being brutally pruned. Many of our livelihoods are thrust into deep uncertainty. On top of that, we're entering a period – of unknown duration – where we must physically distance ourselves from one another. Is the most lamentable part of this experience that we can't hug this one out?
It's a delicate moment to argue that we can put this crisis to good use. I get that. But there was a crisis before this crisis, and it has barely left the stage while we grapple with our immediate concerns. Both globally and here in New Zealand, this may be our last real chance for boldness and blue-sky thinking before our climatic fate is sealed.
There are three lifelines this virus has thrown us in our climate crisis.
First, in drastically quieting economic activity, our emissions will surely follow China's and drop. This is the worst way to rein in our emissions, but let's play devil's advocate for a moment. What do we really have to show for all the years equivocating over optimal reduction pathways? Some good plans, sure, but in terms of actual reductions? None. Covid-19 has monstered us into changes, some probably necessary, all of which we were proving unwilling to make for ourselves.
In doing so, the virus is doing us a second favour: highlighting the economic and social challenges we need to overcome to live within our atmospheric means. Our economy has taken a huge hit in order to drop our emissions, which tells us we simply don't have an economy compatible with a safe climate. When we begin to recover, we will face the easier question of which low-polluting activities to (re)stimulate rather than which to wrangle into oblivion.
We can do what we should have long been doing – tending our economy like a garden, allowing activities to regrow with one eye on their emissions and the other on their contribution to the society we wish to live in.
A third climate plus wrought by Covid-19 is the wild card of this whole experience. As we enter lockdown today, we are unwrapping a once-in-a-generation opportunity for individual and collective reflection on the fundamental shape of our lives and our society. Was the frantic rush of our previous lives preventing us from reorienting them towards what truly matters? Was the unharnessed growth of our economy creating problems we didn't have the space to deliberate on, or rein in? I believe so.
On a much deeper and more profound level than following the 2011 Christchurch earthquake, our entire country will soon be rebuilding its whare from the foundations. We must spend this time imagining the society we wish to create when the crisis passes. And then we must create it.
These are the silver linings of the current crisis. But let's not pretend this virus is a perfect agent of change, even from the limited perspective of the climate. Its economic impact goes well beyond the high-polluting industries that most needed reining in. Stealing one of Obama's old lines, this is a hatchet when what we needed was a scalpel.
And that's not to mention the deeply uncomfortable social deprivation we're going to become overly familiar with. That situation is the exact opposite of the supportive, connected approach that tackling climate change requires (and will create).
But even this economic and social hardship present us with opportunities and lessons.
Economically, it gives us a chance to start asking the big questions. For example, what could we do with half a million people in need of employment? Could we start a thriving rooftop or community solar industry? Or activate a paid army of native bush 'regeners' to start rehabilitating our whenua? Or advance our ambitious pest-free agenda?
Could we draw on some of the most promising ideas available before the crisis, for example by experimenting with a Universal Basic Income? How about a Just Transition to help farmers exit with dignity from an overcapitalised and highly vulnerable dairy industry? Or is this the perfect time to transition to a four-day week, with a day each fortnight spent contributing to local community projects?
This is not just a blue-sky moment. As governments frantically attempt to keep economic activity on life support, it's also a moment of maximum leverage. We have the ability to reimagine our future economy. At the very least that must involve strategic moves attracting or siphoning people off from particular industries or professions. Much of this thinking needs to orient specifically around the climate.
Even more acutely, in bailing out aviation, as New Zealand and Australia have just done and the US is poised to do, there are many options for getting airlines to make meaningful, scheduled reductions in their emissions. As Bill McKibben has noted, as long as we're bailing out corporations, they should be bailing out the planet. Rescuing high-polluting industries without imposing any climate conditions is not just a waste of taxpayers' money, it's also a recipe for further hardship, bailouts and stranded assets in future. Allowing this would be an abrogation of our leaders' responsibility for our future welfare.
The lessons get more personal, too. One day not too far from here, we will emerge from these artificial conditions of isolation and disconnection. Will we remember the social and personal vulnerabilities the virus has already exposed for us?
The frailty of the relationship between what we truly value and our lifestyles. The mobility we take for granted. The distance we live from the people and places we love. And in the utter dependence of our livelihoods on conditions that simply cannot endure.
What if instead, we lived with those we love and loved those we live amongst? What if we aimed for sufficiency and located our comfort and security within geographical and consumptive limits? What if we deliberately created livelihoods better buffered from climate and other economic risks?
We need to use the tsunami of Covid-19 to position ourselves better for the creeping tide of climate change. Trying to solve these two profound challenges separately is impossible. Personally and collectively, the old normal of December last year is off-limits to us now. The worst we could do is try to get back there.
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