In an astonishing long-read, Sophie Shnapp offers two visions of a new world order after Coronavirus, for better or for worse
CORONA (crown) PAN (all) DEMIC (the people)
Crisis comes from the Greek word krisis. It means a turning point in a disease or a decisive state of things, a point at which change must come, for better or worse. And we are all in one.
In the midst of the current global crisis, our movements are limited, borders are closed, we have stopped travelling; the world stands still. Yet, despite the death and despair, there is also a growing belief that this pandemic has the potential to bring change. Is this the catalyst for our global awakening?
In isolation, we now have the time to wonder if the current state of affairs is Mother Nature’s way of sitting us on the naughty step, to think about what we’ve done. We are “a society of altruists governed by psychopaths”, says George Monbiot, and now, in quarantine, we can reflect on how sheepishly we have adhered to the deadly triumvirate of Capitalism, Consumerism and Neo-liberalism, knowing full well the catastrophe we are imposing on our planet.
Frank Snowden points out “epidemics are a category of disease that seem to hold up the mirror to human beings as to who we really are…” Covid-19 has dropped us bang in the middle of the political battleground between human impact and the economic implications, whilst reminding us “that all human beings are vulnerable to being randomly exterminated at any time, by a virus, an accident or the actions of our fellow man” (De Botton discussing Camus’, The Plague). In one way or another, in this crisis, we have all experienced some form of internal moral conundrum; guilt, vulnerability or fear for ourselves, loved ones and the citizens of the world.
We are all vulnerable, and currently the number of mortalities of Covid-19 is increasing exponentially. Hospitals are overwhelmed with patients in critical condition and there are insufficient life support systems to save everyone, forcing doctors to face previously unthinkable forms of wartime triaging. A broad range of non-pharmaceutical intervention (NPI) responses linked to Corona suppression and mitigation are being implemented around the world, aiming to ‘flatten the curve’, to reduce the Covid-19 mortality and healthcare demand. In the absence of any control measures, a report by the Imperial College London estimates that over half a million people would die in the UK alone. Their research and modelling conclude that, although the social and economic effects will be profound, “the only viable strategy is to supress the virus until a vaccine is made available.” This means the entire world should practice social distancing efforts combined with home isolation of cases for 2/3 of the time (a global game of whack-a-mole), “until vaccines are available to immunise the population – which could be 18 months or more.” The report states that a short-term (3-month) mitigation policy option might only “reduce deaths seen in the epidemic by up to half”, leading to a quarter of a million deaths in the UK. This figure alone is alarming, made all the more so when we include the effects that aren’t yet being quantified or examined. Psychologists predict a “secondary pandemic of mental-health problems” linked to the ‘deaths of despair’, anxiety, child abuse, domestic violence, homelessness, loneliness, malnutrition, racism, trauma, unemployment, and more.
If we look back in time, we can see that financial and pandemic crises have fundamentally reordered the nature of politics and reshaped our modern world. There is no reason to believe this crisis will be any different. The timing of the virus coupled with impending environmental tipping points will ensure the change that coronavirus will bring will be radical; we are at a crossroads in our history. The timeline below exhibits a non-exhaustive list of historical crises and the impacts they had in shaping our modern-day world.
So, what about the current climate crisis? Although the scientific discovery of the human effect on the environment dates back to the early 20th century – Edison voiced concern about climate change as early as 1930 – scientific evidence and agreement has only recently come together. The 70s saw a collective understanding amongst scientists of global warming, and in 1972 the UN hosted its first environment conference in Stockholm. Shortly after, in 1976, Al Gore held the first congressional hearings on climate change and global warming. Over the 1990s, the term ‘climate change’ became more widely accepted, discussed and trusted, not only by scientists, but by the general public too. That being said, as recently as 2006, when Al Gore’s climate documentary ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ came out alerting the public to an increasing “planetary emergency”, a significant body of climate deniers stormed forward to debate and oppose global warming.
Moving forward another 30 years, our language surrounding climate change is shifting; 1,400 local governments, 28 countries, the EU Parliament, Pope Francis, networks of thousands of universities and many others have declared a “climate emergency”. In November 2019, a paper published by 11,000 scientists across the globe in the journal BioScience states, “we declare clearly and unequivocally that planet Earth is facing a climate emergency”. On the 27th of February this year, the UK Court ruled against the expansion of Heathrow airport, stalling plans to build a third runway. Many environmentalists hope that this will have set the precedent of ‘ecocide’, so that actions against the environment will be deemed unlawful by the International Criminal Court.
Divestment from fossil fuels is at an all-time high, money is being invested in and towards sustainability, efficiency and renewable energy, and thanks to American Senator Bernie Sanders, investing in fossil fuels is likely to become akin to a criminal act by 2025. However, the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest report states we have 11 years left to save the planet before an irreversible climate catastrophe is triggered. So, I ask myself, where will we be in another 30 years…
Fast-forward to 2050, the citizens look back on the great Covidemic of the 20s, knowing the impact it had on Earth and society.
For the past 25 years, most rural areas in the UK have been declared “dark sky sites” offering mesmerising stargazing conditions. Favoured family activities include playing ‘spot the constellation’ at night, and ‘spot the wildlife’ by day. The art of storytelling is championed, and generations sit together in the evening playing music and games and laughing at pre- and post-covidemic tales. Corona Day is celebrated once a year, when people appreciate their home and nature, spending the day in household isolation together, being creative, gardening, cooking, reading and learning new skills.
The corona pandemic of the 20s was a turning point for society, it paved the way for companies and individuals to adopt sustainable methods of living, working and travelling. Remote working became the norm and digital technology proved itself in practice, entering a new period of remote-everything; from VR conferences and events to live VR concerts, whereby virtual interaction involves all 5 senses. Live events could be enjoyed both in-situ and online. People could attend any event they wanted, sitting in the best seats, no queues, and enjoying interaction with other attendees. With the depletion of oil and the greening of public opinion, airlines rushed to dedicate their R&D resources to carbon-neutral planes, and mandatory carbon taxes for every flight ticket purchased were introduced. Trains and electric buses flourished, cars became defunct, old tramlines resurfaced, linked to more direct drop off and pick up points, and the autoroutes previously used by cars became super greenways for cities to grow vegetables.
In just a few weeks, the natural habitat started to come back to life, animals and plants were seen in places they hadn’t inhabited for decades, a rewilding of the land began. People fleeing from the locked down cities began to appreciate the serenity of nature and there was a transitional shift in consciousness. Returning to the cities, sustainability and nature were at the forefront of conversation. As projected, cities were now home to 80% of humanity and the understanding that compact urban centres were the path towards tackling climate issues was harnessed. Architects, city planners, scientists and politicians developed ecotopian cities, finding solutions to ensure the cities of our planet were ready to react to and work with the climate, resources and natural shapes and boundaries of the surrounding lands. Positive energy cities and districts meant that a natural economy and order was at the frontline of every political decision.
Thanks to the supply chain breakdown, old consumption and shopping habits were uprooted and our eating habits were reformed, adapting to the seasonality of fruit and vegetables. People were forced to localise food systems, and with inventive and technologically advanced community farms in every neighbourhood, food exports and imports greatly reduced.
Upon recovering from the virus, having come close to death, world leaders’ beliefs, attitudes, and values changed, realising they ‘owed their lives’ to national health services, they found a new sense of compassion and empathy towards their citizens. There was a realisation that interconnectivity was paramount for human survival and the world started to act collectively, opening borders, finding a balance between centralised responses to medicine, the judiciary, law and order and the growth of community rights and resources. A naissance of support for Green Politics arose. The European Green Deal became the blueprint for global climate change action for all countries, including Britain. There was a stark realisation that the media’s characterisation of green policies ‘only being interested in the environment and not being economically viable’ had always been false. Now green policies that focussed on returning to a natural democracy (putting life of planet ahead of profits) and a natural economy (self-sufficient economy) became the norm, driven by fundamental concerns focussing on every citizen’s income. The Green Party worked with a tax system countering inequality and pollution of all sorts, a banking system in which smaller banks were championed and policies against the privatisation of public transport, the health system and council houses were enacted.
Another profound impact of the Covidemic was the understanding that communities are the cornerstone for health, growth, policy and sustainability. Communities all over the world worked together to support the vulnerable, and each other. Together, communities learned and developed ways of farming, growing fruit and vegetables, producing their own energy and sharing their natural resources and lands. Making history, people and communities were living through an enriched social, ethical and planetary awakening. A new ideology was formed based on a social commons approach, whereby craftsmen and artisans were valued as highly as farmers and doctors. Greed and crime became negligible as everyone had what they needed to survive and live well.
The world worked together to secure an enrichment of biodiversity, a reduction of emissions, and communities all across the globe began to learn and share their lands, the skills and tools needed to work them. In this brave new world, children are free to roam and explore the world, asthma inhalers are a thing of the past.
It is bleak and dark, blue skies are described to children as in a folktale, of a world that once existed back in “the good old days”. When looking up at the sky one sees smoke, lots of smoke, smog, fog and planes, but not a bird in sight. Children conceive of polar bears, badgers and bees as they once imagined dinosaurs.
The Corona Virus Act, approved in March 2020, was only meant to grant the government temporary new powers, lasting for a maximum of 2 years, containing the most “draconian powers ever proposed in peace-time Britain.” This was the beginning of basic rights falling casualty to crisis. These ‘temporary’ security measures put in place to protect us from Corona were distilled into everyday life, forever, moving us into a highly surveyed, totalitarian regime. As predicted by Yuval Noah Harari, governments across the world ensured the corona-related extra security measures (such as urban video surveillance, widespread mobile location tracking and ubiquitous face recognition) became the new norm.
The years of social distancing left most citizens vulnerable, suffering from loneliness, isolation or desperation. Many people agonised and battled with mental or physical illness. Charities, food banks, and other support mechanisms dried up and the overall net effect of the pandemic further entrenched the divides that already existed.
Upon recovering from the virus, having come close to death, world leaders’ beliefs, attitudes, and values took a turn for the worst. The public health and education systems quickly collapsed due to privatisation which, coupled with the slackening of environmental regulations, meant that deep civil unrest was cast upon society. The planetary environmental effects compounded the citizens with a deep sense of hopelessness and guilt. As described by Le Guin in an essay for Motherboard “every benefit industrialism and capitalism have brought us, every wonderful advance in knowledge and health and communication and comfort, casts the same fatal shadow. All we have, we have taken from the earth; and, taking with ever-increasing speed and greed, we now return little but what is sterile or poisoned.”
In this new world, lands are arid, dull, lifeless and poisoned; vegetables are grown in labs in the industrial parts of the capitals. Following the Covidemic, environmental regulations relaxed and have taken a back seat. Cities rest on stilts to avoid the bi-monthly floods, many people are permanently displaced due to the sea level rise, and the infrastructure of mono-cities are cyclically being destroyed and rebuilt by some “natural disaster”, like the ebb and flow of the tide.
The outside world is dangerous; the years of austerity, war, famine and the constant battering of natural disasters increased homelessness tenfold. Similar to the days of Corona, the streets are empty, occupied only by flashing blue lights and masked roamers, hungry and cold. In this world smiles are a thing of the past, as is face-to-face interaction. Anyway, you can’t see a smile behind a mask. Screens are the safe socialising place for kids, who live in imaginary worlds designed to keep them occupied, sucked into a distorted freedom where data is stolen, capitalism reigns, children are obese and the rich wear the crowns.
Deep crises of this nature offer opportunities to bring about social change, for the better or the worse. We are stuck inside a brief moment of history; the world as we knew it will never be the same.
These two conflicting views of our future shows us the stark potential of “what could be”, it’s up to every one of us to make “the change we wish to see in the world” and fight against what is currently the most successful and resilient ideology on earth: global capitalism. Thomas More was the first person to write of “utopia” more than 500 years ago, describing his perfect imaginary world, yet the rulers he was escaping from then are much like the rulers now, “greedy, unscrupulous and useless”. Revolution has been dreamed of for centuries, so how can we expect this to change in 30 years?
Looking back at the handling of the early responses to this crisis, we witnessed Boris Johnson’s overriding driver being profit above people. The new Corona Virus Act 2020 is deeply troubling, as to ‘protect citizens’, militarism has been normalised and, if we are not careful, this exception can then become the rule, legitimising heightened levels of security surveillance. Wartime metaphors are being employed in the media as if this is a reality show, ‘us against Corona’. Fighting our common adversary is leading to more power, control and vigilance. As Naomi Klein shows in The Shock Doctrine, neo-liberals use crises to impose and push unpopular agendas under the carpet while people are distracted and vulnerable. One cannot but fear another corona-driven Shock Doctoring impact featuring deep global recession leading to the privatisation of social security, the bail-out of polluting industries, further lockdown of borders and the incarceration of more and more innocent migrants. Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens and Homo Deus, warns us about the Covid-threat to our freedom: “The coronavirus epidemic is a major test of citizenship. In the days ahead, each one of us should choose to trust scientific data and healthcare experts over unfounded conspiracy theories and self-serving politicians. If we fail to make the right choice, we might find ourselves signing away our most precious freedoms.”
It has crashed economies, shattered health care systems and professionals, emptied parks and killed tens of thousands, yet this crisis, for all its terrible consequences, has already begun to help build a greater sense of common endeavour and community spirit. The ‘Clap for our Carers’ campaign supporting a nationwide applause to thank NHS workers every Thursday at 8pm fills the skies with cheers, music, vehicle horns, fireworks and a collective, deep and gut-wrenching feeling that this is serious, scary, death is ubiquitous – but that we are in this together. And this is the case in many cities across the globe, from Vienna, Paris, Madrid and Milan; balconies, porches and gardens are filled with explosions of gratitude. Colossal charity, community and volunteering efforts are being seen to support people in need, tens of thousands of people joining community groups, neighbourhood groups and 250,000 people have joined the NHS as volunteers.
Although more is needed, the unprecedented social policies being implemented by our right wing government are a step in the right direction, including weekly supermarket vouchers for more than a million children, new social security systems for the self-employed (Self-Employment Income Support Scheme), and companies (Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme) being able to reclaim 80% of their income, changes are being made to Universal Credit and Employment Support Allowance and Housing Support Schemes are offered, all enacted in the space of weeks. Governments are putting security systems in place that seemed impossible just a month ago, the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak claiming that these are “unprecedented measures for unprecedented times.”
The coronavirus standstill could not have come at a more vital moment for our planet. Transport, industry, travel and the global use of carbon has slowed down and over the past month, as we bear witness to the regeneration of ecosystems, the clearing of the Venice canals due to a drop in boat traffic and satellite images from NASA showing towns and cities being free from smog for the first time in years. Although reductions in carbon emissions are reducing in the short-term, a post-virus rebound is expected to offset the emission drop (emissions rose by 5.9% in 2010, following the 2008 Financial Crash). Just before the corona pandemic, grassroots climate action movements were gaining traction, and the climate emergency and the global movement for Green Deals had the limelight amongst politicians, businesses and investment funds. However, the pandemic has brought about change. We are witnessing a divergence of resources, a waiving of pollution audits and regulations, and a slackening of policies supporting climate efforts, alongside the postponing or cancellation of climate law debates. The UN’s international climate talks, COP26, seen as “the most important climate negotiations since the Paris agreement in 2015” have been postponed to 2021, Alok Sharma, UK energy minister and president of COP26 saying, “the world is currently facing an unprecedented global challenge and countries are rightly focusing their efforts on saving lives and fighting Covid-19.”
So, those of you focussing on the supposed silver-lining of Covid-19 induced pollution reductions, think again. A global standstill is not a viable nor sustainable way to reduce air pollution. As Gernot Wagner, a clinical associate professor at New York University puts it, “emissions are down because the economy has stopped and people are dying, and because poor people are not able to get medicine and food”, is this really an analogy for how we should combat climate change? No, but it does provide us with an opportunity. An opportunity to use this already altered mindset of the populace and mobilise the “emergency mode” brought on by this coronavirus crisis to support the climate crisis. An opportunity, during and post-recession, to reshape and reframe policies so that carbon negative and resilient infrastructure are at the forefront of rebuilding and transforming our economy. An opportunity for architects, city planners, engineers and all stakeholders involved in urban planning, building, energy, health, transport and aviation policy to use their time in furlough, and beyond, to develop and formulate progressive solutions for a sustainable future. An opportunity to use this unimaginable experience of Covid-19 to help us understand climate change mitigation differently, as, in the short-term, Covid-19 has reduced industrial activity, transport activity and air pollution has plummeted.
Will we remember this period as being Covid-19, the ‘missed opportunity’, or will we look back and thank citizens for their self-reflection and growth, for protesting for our freedom and fighting to live with nature and not against it? In order to reach utopia, Le Guin argues that we must embrace the cyclical nature of our environment, the never-ending process of reflection and growth, and reject the self-destructive ideals defining success through the values of capitalism and patriarchy. In our New World, will it be wealth that plays the decisive role, or will neighbours, communities and flourishing vegetable gardens be more important? Will this pandemic be the wakeup call we’ve been lacking that allows us to change our lives for generations to come? Our future is yet to be written, hitherto there are a plethora of social and green ideologies floating around, Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn have been advocating for a ‘Green New Deal’ for years, one that boosts clean industries using a comprehensive agenda of economic, social, environmental and racial justice. Policies that reclaim the economy back from the rich, giving everybody a right to free healthcare, shelter and a basic income, as Bernie says, “it is time we had democratic socialism for working families, not just Wall Street billionaires.”
As far back as 384 BC, Greek philosophers understood the pivotal importance of a crisis, as Aristotle says, “the wise man does not expose himself needlessly to danger, since there are few things for which he cares sufficiently; but he is willing, in great crises, to give even his life — knowing that under certain conditions it is not worthwhile to live.” This crisis is an opportunity to fight and reform, as currently “our economic system and our planetary system are at war,” says Klein in This Changes Everything. This crisis is revealing what’s already broken in society; we are all witnessing the global issues surrounding food, health and income insecurities and at the same time we are all experiencing a global shift in consciousness. If we yield to our compassion, could we, together, reshape the future of politics, one in which we can all wear a crown?
If you are someone who’s been furloughed and/or have time on your hands – why not find a way to help support those in need in during this crisis, but also find ways to support the climate crisis predicted to be with us for centuries. Don’t hesitate to get in touch.