Viral Political Ecology IV

In one of the posts in this series I spoke about the loss of horizon, the feeling of dread at a seemingly never-ending crisis. Here I want to think further about the possibility of a future beyond crises. More precisely, I am interested in the necessity of thinking the long term, despite the requirements of the present (or, rather, in order to appropriately meet these requirements). 

My starting point is the claim that it is irresponsible to not think about and plan for the end of the current predicament (covid-19 pandemic). I make this claim tailored to the situation we presently find ourselves in, but it holds just as much, if not more, for the generalized ecological crises that our modernity has instigated. To refuse to think of the end because the present is urgent is to refuse to think at all. Thinking is never about the present – that is the territory of fight or flight – but always about deferral. When we act thoughtfully in the present, it is only inasmuch as we manage to not react. 

One of the main dangers of not thinking through the long term is that it allows demagogues the space to set the terms of the discussion. The progressive left has made an unfortunate habit of not mustering the tact and courage to think through the existence of tragedy and live nonetheless, proposing a better tomorrow. In the coronavirus pandemic, the only voices that have raised the issue of the long term have been Boris Johnson and Donald Trump. Of course, they have done this in their own way and for their own interests, with characteristic cruelty and xenophobia. We cannot allow them to set the tone of this debate. 

In order not to fall for demagogic traps, progressives need to ask how the present crisis can end, and how we can get there in the most equitable way. Trump wants the crisis to end so that his business friends can go on destroying the planet. Johnson likewise cares not a single bit about actual human lives. But these should be fringe positions, and the longer we ignore the necessity to talk about the long term, the more these positions become accepted as mainstream. We risk ending up in a situation where the end point is not planned according to equitable principles, but rather shoved down the throats of the most vulnerable so that the elites can continue their plunder. 

How will the current measures end, and for what reasons? This is a question that is urgent today, because it forces us to think through the consequences of what we are presently doing, and plot a conscious way forward. It allows us to be lucid about the costs of the different options that we might be tempted to contemplate. It also opens up a space where political alternatives to the dominant political economy become tangible proposals, today. In this spirit, Fletcher and colleagues recently wrote a blog post (on the heels of a special issue and an edited volume, which you can find in their post) plotting a degrowth path for seeing us through the present moment and into a more livable future. They focused specifically on tourism, and how to not return to the suffocating tourism of before, but rather use this moment to think about a different future for this sector. They showed the courage to think through the momentary benefits of a pandemic, and raise the important question of how to keep producing these benefits long after the virus would have become history. 

Over and beyond tourism, take clean air as an example. It is obvious that the current measures have radically improved air quality in Western Europe. It is also likely, as research has shown time and again, that under business as usual scenarios these temporary gains would be just that – temporary. Instead, we should take this opportunity, when anyone can feel for themselves the difference between a noisy, polluted city and a human one, to talk about air travel and traffic congestion in the long run. Planning for the end of this can, I would argue must, also mean planning for how these kinds of benefits can persist. It is of course ironic that at the time when our cities are most breathable we are not allowed to go out. But I have also seen people reappropriate public space (by jogging in the middle of the road, for example) precisely because its privatization (via car ownership) is temporarily halted. My neighbors stuck indoors now open their street-facing windows to let clean air in, something unthinkable on a ‘normal’ weekday. 

Governments are still committed to the relentless growth machine that is ripping the world apart. The latest stimulus packages being voted into law have the benefit of exposing money as the printable fiction that it is, but the drawback of potentially locking in business as usual for the foreseeable future. Instead, we need to pass stimulus packages as a way to transform our societies (not just economies) away from extractive, growth fueled development. If it wasn’t for the present requirement of social isolation we could say that, in many different ways, we are healthier under a pandemic than under ‘normal’ circumstances. This, if it was still needed, shows the absurd conditions of life to which we have become accustomed.

Planning for a reasoned end of the crisis need not mean planning for a return to normalcy. Instead, it should mean planning a way towards a different way of life. One of the benefits of the present moment has been, as Fletcher and colleagues also point out, the revelation that the economy is not the end-all of human life. Yet any equitable scaling down of our economies (including transport and industrial production as key components) cannot work, logically speaking, without some form of universal basic income. This is the moment to talk about that. This is the time when people that would not even accept to contemplate such a measure can be brought to the table. But in order to do this we need to move past the impulse to censor our thinking and ask: how does this end, and why? 

The decades-long reign of neoliberalism has accustomed us to hearing that the government cannot do everything. The economy and the private sector were thought as the ultimate movers and shakers, and the government had to find its place in their shadow. This myth has been unexpectedly and definitively busted. Governments can shut down entire countries if they want to. Given this, who will be able to say that governments cannot intervene to stem the death toll from congestion and the dominance of cars over public spaces? How can we still believe that governments cannot restrict how much we fly, and who does the flying? Why would governments not be able to guarantee a liveable wage to all?

The present crisis can be thought as both tragedy and poignant lesson: there is no contradiction between the two. It needs to be clearly stated that the pandemic is both a result of our severe encroachment on non-human life (not a punishment, mind you!), and a personal tragedy for many, many millions. It is both a severe restriction of freedom, and an opportunity to think about the value of freedom and its uses for common goals. It is a public health emergency, but it also transcends public health and should be approached as more than just a technical issue. This last point is particularly important as regards the latest progressive coverage of the virus. In The Atlantic, for example, a recent article does begin to think about the end game, but it does so exclusively from the perspective of public health. This is why it ends up only seeing progressive potential in the further development of epidemiology and related fields. That is all fine, of course, but if we only focus on public health we are prepping for a life where we are able to keep more and more people alive that are getting sick from the very conditions of their lives. 

By all means, investments in public health are urgently needed. But what is equally urgent is the radical change of society away from devouring models of growth and towards human-centered models of common well-being. Then, we may hope to have a public health system that is able to deal with tragedy when it hits, also because it would not have to deal with so many ailments of our own making. This is the time to be bold and dare paint a radically different picture. The alternative of preserving the status quo, beyond the present virus, is unconscionable. 

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