JULIET BENNETT. The Covid-19 catalyst? From industrial to ecological civilization

Apr 3, 2020

While the Covid-19 crisis threatens our lives today, the climate crisis threatens our lives today and for hundreds of years to come. As we mitigate the Covid-19 crisis, can we mitigate the climate crisis as well?

Fighting the virus as individuals and communities means treating the ill, caring for carers, living frugally and trying to maintain our relationships without touching each other. Meanwhile cars are parked, planes are grounded, and there will be a moratorium on production and consumption of things we don’t need. As a result, the greenhouse gases that have been accumulating in our atmosphere will decline. Across the sea of sadness and uncertainty, images of pollution dissipating offer a glimmer of hope.

2020 was destined to be a big year, kicking off a decade that would determine the future of humanity and many other species. Every year that reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are delayed, the further away “net zero emissions” becomes. By 2030, business-as-usual would make warming within 1.5-2°C of pre-industrial temperatures impossible, and the climate chaos and its devastating social and economic impacts would be worse than Covid-19 has brought upon us.

With the arrival of Covid-19, we couldn’t be further from business-as-usual. Countries have closed their borders, financial markets have plunged and the number of job losses and anticipated medical needs is “unprecedented.”

Responses to Covid-19 indicate a shift in economics. Governments on both sides of politics are beginning to recognise that the “neoliberal” approach to policymaking—that privatises everything and relies on “monetary policy” (adjusting interest rates) to encourage provisions of goods, services and employment—is unable to meet the current crises.

In the rollout of “stimulus” packages we are seeing the return to “Keynesian” economics that uses “fiscal policy” (government spending) to invest money where it is needed (in this case in medical services) and provide a de facto Universal Basic Income (revised NewStart, or JobSeeker payments) to people unable to work from home. President Roosevelt enacted a similar Keynesian “New Deal” to bring the Great Depression of the 1930s to an end. Prior to Covid-19, proactive thinkers were promoting a “Green New Deal” to deal with multiple social, economic and ecological challenges.

Unlike some Keynesian approaches of the past, the Australian Government appears to be balancing its support for both the “demand-side” and “supply-side” of the economy, providing a lifeline to both the Australian people and Australian businesses. The bi-partisan support for these relief packages is to be applauded. The ongoing revisions and upscaling of this support seems geared to provide the social and economic stability people need in these times of uncertainty.

How might this shift in economics be institutionalised beyond surviving the next six months? How might policymaking in response to Covid-19 also tackle the climate crisis, enabling humanity to thrive in harmony with the environment in years to come?

First, the goal of GDP growth—whose inadequacy has long been recognised—cannot measure the success of these stimulus packages. Following Bhutan and New Zealand, Australia might institutionalise more holistic measures such as the Genuine Progress Indicator, Happiness, or Wellbeing Indices. They could apply a contextual approach to economics that Kate Raworth conceptualised as “the Doughnut”: a “safe and just space” for human activities that stays within the “planetary boundaries” identified by scientists in addition to meeting the basic social needs of people (per the Sustainable Development Goals). Setting in place such goals and evaluative tools are pivotal in preparing the economy for rejuvenation following Covid-19, and directing it toward the long-term wellbeing of all people and the ecosystems their lives depend up.

Second, in place of the law of “competitive advantage,” a multi-level approach would consider the “appropriate scale” of activities to enable these wellbeing goals to be met. For example, food might be grown as locally as possible, and to this end governments could provide educative tools and financial support for citizens to cultivate rooftop, balcony and community gardens (while keeping to physical distancing for the time being), increasing food security at local and national levels. The national manufacturing of toilet paper was a relief to many, and policymakers might consider the other national necessities for which production best be returned onshore such as production of solar panels, lithium batteries and electronic vehicles.

To this end, a third suggestion: that further stimulus packages are directed toward the development of ecologically-sustainable social and economic systems and lifestyles. This includes investment in research, education and businesses poised to implement zero-waste and zero-emitting production and consumption processes. It means directing stimulus and job transitions not only from those temporarily deemed “non-essential,” but also those no longer environmentally viable in the long-term, to opportunities that enable people to participate in co-creating a better future. After the Defense Production Act is invoked for medical equipment, might it next be utilised to extract the greenhouse gases that have accumulated and are warming in our atmosphere? A roadmap to many of these opportunities is found in Project Drawdown, modelling the most effective solutions to reach net zero emissions by 2050.

Can these “solutions” be implemented soon enough to make a difference? Now that the world is at a standstill, the time is riper than ever.

The Covid-19 crisis that has brought industrial capitalism to its knees may be a catalyst for rethinking our values, our lifestyles and the way we conduce our consumption and trade. The gift of time for many at home may be an opportunity to seek out ways to co-create an “ecological civilization.” This calls for shifts not only in economics and politics, but also in everyday decision-making at work and at home. It calls for a shift in our way of thinking, to see the interconnections including between Covid-19, climate change and the world economy, between politics and lifestyles, between individuals and the communities they are a part of. It involves all of us, together, planting the seeds for a better future for all.

Juliet Bennett is a PhD Candidate and Teaching Fellow in the Department of Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney.

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