COVID-19 is the chance for a social and ecological reset….but, how? Part II

In the first part of this post, I discussed the links between climate change, biodiversity loss and future pandemics. In Part II of this post, I’d like to talk about the consequences of COVID-19 and how we can use the lessons learned to tackle climate change.

It is really a tale of two emergencies, one has come upon us with startling rapidity, and the other has been more of a slow-burning crisis. In my article in The Conversation, I talked about a few key lessons we could take from the COVID-19 crisis, in particular: act early, slowing down and localising more, and spending on environmental sectors like renewable energy and sustainable technologies.

COVID-19 has taught us the importance of swift action. At the start of the pandemic we really pulled the emergency stop brakes. We could clearly see the way this was heading and therefore that we needed urgent action.

This slowing down of life globally has resulted in a slowing of the economy. Some say it’s an unintended degrowing of the economy.

This has had both positive and negative consequences. The negatives were things like massive job losses and jump in unemployment globally. Pandemics and climate crises alike hit the most vulnerable the hardest. They act as poverty multipliers because of the way they force people into extreme poverty.

Where this is a disadvantage for climate change is if we address these issues with the same system that has caused the problem in the first place. If decision-makers seek to ramp up production, stimulate economic growth, and expand extractive industries this will all but ensure timely action to avoid climate catastrophe.

These negatives highlight the inherent problems with the current economic system – problems that we already saw with the GFC, that when there is a crisis, the whole system goes into chaos. To justly tackle these social problems, we will need to take a good hard look at the root of the problem, and take effective structural action.

But there have been positive impacts for the environment. In the first 4 months of the pandemic emissions dropped more than a billion tonnes from the same period in 2019.

This has illustrated the significant positive impacts we can have if we slowed our pace of life, and started localising more, including trade, business, production, food, socialising, and travel.

The International Energy Agency estimates a 5% drop in emissions in 2020. This means that if we continue on this path, we will reach net zero emissions by the target of 2050. But even this is too little too late. The UN Emissions Gap Report in 2019 said that to keep warming closer to 1.5 degrees, global carbon emissions need to fall 7.6% per year until 2030.

So, in terms of action for climate change, the environmental consequences of COVID-19 provide us with a chance to reset the way we do things, to reset the economy, if we are willing to abandon the old normal and embrace the ‘newmal’, as it has been called.

This is where ideas like degrowth come in. While the slowing of the economy from COVID-19 is unintended, it provides a window for policymakers to seize the opportunity to introduce intended policies that are socially and environmentally just.

Because degrowth has always been considered a radical approach, no country has shown the will to implement it, but this unintended degrowing of the global economy has started the wheels in motion for change in that direction.

The key word is intended. Sustainable degrowth is not the same as a recession, and if done correctly it can lead us to more socially and environmentally just outcomes. This is because there are accompanying social policies to counteract less wealth accumulation in society. It would mean scaling back the environmentally damaging sectors of the economy but strengthening others like healthcare, sanitation, education, aged care, renewables etc.

This requires decoupling from carbon to prevent climate-related crises from having such a profound impact. So we need to look to more sustainable ways to revive the economy. From a degrowth perspective, that might involve things like a universal basic income, more money in health systems and sustainable technologies, greater small-scale renewable energy rollout, reskilling workers in green jobs.

By effective policies investing more in people and environment focused industries and less in extractive industries it will not only have a positive runoff on climate, but we will also be more prepared to tackle any future pandemics or crises related to climate change.

So while we need a shift in policy, we also need a behavioural shift towards collective action, collective wellbeing and away from individualism, which we have started to see during COVID – this strengthening of solidarity and a shared sense of humanity, that we are all in it together.

Degrowth pushes away from the capitalist economic system from a policy perspective, and then this has implications for our way of life, like a reduction working hours, more leisure time, reducing consumption and this consumer culture we have. It short, it means less stuff, but more time and freedom and therefore greater wellbeing. We would all need to jump onboard. This requires a shift in society as well as in policy.

Many people have seen the benefits of a slower way of life and many people are saying they don’t want to go back to normal, because ‘normal’ was the problem. This is where Buen Vivir comes in.

Buen Vivir is a Latin American concept for people-led wellbeing and sustainability. In this blog you will see me write about it quite a bit. It is my particular area of expertise. I have spent the last 7 years trying to understand it, analyse it, study it, write about it. I have spent time with Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in the cloud forest of Ecuador in that aim. Because through my preliminary understandings, I strongly believed that we can learn a great deal from them and their philosophy of Buen Vivir in seeking to transform the trajectory of our Earth and its peoples.

Buen Vivir has similarities with degrowth in its aims, but it is slightly different. Both degrowth and Buen Vivir are complementary, and in fact if Buen Vivir is attained, degrowth is a consequence of the changes made, but not the explicit aim. Where degrowth is policy-oriented, Buen Vivir shifts the power to the people.

Under a Buen Vivir approach these changes are pushed from the bottom up. Change is put in the hands of the people so they can decide on the direction to meet their needs. Needs, is a key word here. We are talking fundamental needs – basic and emotional needs, not materialistic desires for more consumption.

Like degrowth, Buen Vivir advocates for a move away from an extractive and consumerist economy, towards more equity in social and economic systems.

Where Buen Vivir is pertinent for action against climate change and future health pandemics, is that is calls for less anthropocentrism in recognising this vital connection between the health and wellbeing of nature and that of our own. So, it is biocentric, meaning that all life matters equally. Not humans first and foremost, and we worry about the environment later once the consequences start to impact our own wellbeing. After all, we are intimately connected to nature, and our survival depends on the health and wellbeing of the natural environment.

One of the biggest lessons from COVID-19 is this connection – how we are deeply connected to each other and the earth. As a society we must start to internalise this more, and act on it mindfully through our decisions and choices to make sure we have both strong healthy communities and a healthy environment.

So while Buen Vivir is people led, it is important to recognise the symbiosis between policy and society because we can’t achieve ecological sustainability and wellbeing alone, we need effective and supportive policies. So, this brings me back to policy post-COVID19, and how policymakers need to aim for both human and environmental wellbeing to avoid more global catastrophes of this kind.

One way to protect this relationship at the policy level, is through a legal recognition of the rights of nature as has been done in some jurisdictions. Nature can no longer be a resource to exploit, but it must be a relationship to nurture.

This last part, we can all consciously and mindfully practice through the decisions and choices we make every day. Thinking our way to a better planet by doing.

I spoke of these issues in this webinar with The Conversation, the Hawke Centre and the Embassy of France.