Blue Sky Thinking

While it’s important to avoid the misleading “the planet is healing itself” jingoism, and to sidestep the many fake news stories about miraculous urban recovery, and to shout down the awful eco-fascist “Corona is the earth’s vaccine…” patter, the economic shutdown is telling us something very important about our ‘other crisis’, our ecological crisis, the one that will still be here if and when we recover.

 

Using Purple Air real-time air quality monitoring data Peter Flax has pointed out the astonishing air quality in South California right now.

As climate scientist Michael Mann, whose groundbreaking research led to the so-called “hockey stick graph” of Earth’s rising temperatures put it:

“On the one hand, this crisis accidentally demonstrates how our ongoing depletion of resources is threatening our planetary environment by providing us at least a fleeting window into what things might look like were we living more sustainability and demanding less from this planet. And as we gradually see the sorts of services and conveniences we’re so used to begin to disappear and get a sense of how fragile our societal infrastructure really is—infrastructure that we now rely upon to support a population of 7.8 billion and growing people that are demanding more food, more fresh water, more space—we are starting to get a sense of how precarious modern civilization really is. We’re only one crisis away from dystopia. That crisis could be climate change if we don’t act now.”

It’s becoming very clear that growing our economy is costing us our future.

Degrowth and post-growth economists, once derided as utopians are now, suddenly mainstream.

Cookie Wellbeing economists are now being given the kudos they deserve.

The anarchist concept of mutual aid is now an everyday organising tool.

As the Enough collective put it: “This story of growth is so embedded in our ways of living that any kind of change demands the complete re-imagination of our society. We believe that not only is this possible, it is now essential. We are consuming resources faster than they can be replenished and we are pushing our planet’s capacity to its limit. In our lifetimes, this will have a massive disruptive impact on our society and on the way we live; on our food, and on the air, water and soil we rely on. If we want to avoid huge disruption, we must change the way we think about living, working and distributing resources.”

The task of survival, the task of recreating a viable liveable society is staring us in the face.

Like the people flouting the guidance on public health in a pandemic today, the people avoiding the reality of climate breakdown but continuing they’re normal activities were part of the problem. But as Katherine Trebeck explores in ‘Building Back Better Depends on Addressing the New Divides in our Economy’, the solutions lie in reconceptualising our entire economy and our entire relationship to work.

And the idea that individual behaviour change on its own, especially in a society in which social ties and the very idea of having collective shared common interests has been completely undermined, can succeed, is looking very doubtful.

But two things may save us. The first is the ability of people to remember the sociable and the communal instincts that have been suppressed by our economic systems and the values it promotes. The second is the rediscovery of collective state action and the rediscovery of urgency.

But the virus is telling us more about the structures and systems we suffer under. As degrowth economist Jason Hickel has noticed:

“This economic crisis is revealing that the main reason we all have to work for wages isn’t just to buy the things we need, but to pay rents and debts – in other words, to give money to the holders of capital.

It’s worth remembering these things:

We must not all go back to work.
Things must not go back to normal.
Business as usual is a terrible idea.
Our economy was killing us before the virus came.

 

Comments (16)

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  1. Wul says:

    Spot on Mr Small. “Normal” is killing us.

    From your Michael Mann quote:
    “—infrastructure that we now rely upon to support a population of 7.8 billion and growing people that are demanding more food, more fresh water, more space—we are starting to get a sense of how precarious modern civilization really is….”

    Is really our demand for food, land and water that is creating our mega-polluting habits ? Or is it our demand for all the useless consumer/lifestyle shite: ever cheaper air travel, instagram tourism, plastic tech-garbage, a second home to rent on AirBnB, a fancy SUV, unworn clothes, dumped food we couldn’t eat etc?

    If we lived in a world where most people felt safe and their health and well-being were safeguarded into old-age, maybe we wouldn’t feel a need to re-produce so often ?

  2. Stewart Bremner says:

    Spot on. With regard to “we must change the way we think about living, working and distributing resources”, I see Universal Basic Income as a big step in that direction.

  3. Black Rab says:

    I think I remember a quote from a situationist essay that revolution brought better weather to the 1968 streets of Paris. Looks like the coronavirus does too. Thats a great blog Mike. Thanks.

  4. Daniel Raphael says:

    From pregnant sentences to a pregnant paragraph–yes, Mr. Small, your writing is fertile with creative ideas and incisive commentary.

    Sorry, I know you don’t like gushing. But…you can bear it.

    Tweeted to a few of the usual suspects.

  5. meg macleod says:

    we see it …the need to make those changes….the people who can help bring about those changes are in the wrong place.People who wish to keep everything `the same` and `normal` hold the meachnisms of control. World leaders as a combined force should in theory by the law of averages be able to stop the mouths of people who speak rubbish . But they do not.In the world of free speech a certain leader of a very large country seems to have lost the plot. So what do you suggest? Ordinary people are laying their lives on the line to help others. We cannot let them down after the event. But how do we achieve that? I am one of those people whose job it is` to sit on the couch and save the world` at least till this is over,hmelpless to change this world except to support those with energy to do so.

  6. SleepingDog says:

    Competing political-economic ideologies are being unavoidably tested during this pandemic, and many people are shaping their commentary accordingly, sometimes defensively, sometimes offensively. There is a key area around human behaviour in a crisis, perhaps summed up by the question of whether anarchistic mutual aid or neoclassical prisoner’s dilemma predicted behaviours are more prevalent (and useful). Mutual aid theorists (like Peter Kropotkin) see humans as one of Earth’s social species who have gained evolutionary advantage by helping one another in more or less altruistic or collectivist ways. Neoclassical economists (without compelling evidence apart from the characteristic behaviour of neoclassical economists) have predicted that a ‘rational’ typical human will betray another when (roughly speaking) the benefits of cooperation require trusting another’s social sensibilities. In other words, mutual-aid anarchists believe that most people will share and look after the needy, while neoclassical economists predict that most (‘rational’, ‘self-interested’) people will panic buy and deprive others of supermarket produce. Let us see how it goes.

    I am not sure if the ‘eco-fascism’ label is here intended to cover the green authoritarianism I have occasionally written is necessary to bring public policy in line with planetary reality, but in any case I have argued for more defensible borders (internal to countries, along natural features) to protect people. There are, after all, many dangers associated with collapsing societies and systems, and a great likelihood that even if any valuable lessons were learnt, they would be lost in the chaos. Perhaps one of the new arrangements we will consider wise is to built a cellular structure into global civilization, to stop failure of one cell spreading, while making sure each cell has health and resources to function independently (perhaps we could start by wiping out state debts in many cases where these debts were the result of infection by foreign bodies).

  7. Meg says:

    We are a hive of humans when it comes down to the basic structure…

  8. florian albert says:

    ‘Our economy was killing us before the virus came.’

    I question how many people in Scotland would agree with that. The voters repeated elected members of the SNP, SLAB, Conservatives and LibDems. None of these
    parties would accept that the economy ‘was killing us’, though nearly would have supported reform of one sort or another.
    I doubt very much that Mike Small’s view will be much more persuasive after the present crisis.

    1. Yeah, nothing’s wrong, everything will go back to the way it was before very soon.

  9. florian albert says:

    ‘Yeah, nothing’s wrong’

    Plainly, I did not write that. Nor did I write anything from which your comment could be inferred.

    My objection is to your approach; ‘we must rebuild from scratch.’ This was the attitude of 20th century political utopians.
    Their legacy was not just one of failure but of failure in a sea of blood.
    It was the antithesis of social democratic thinkers such as Karl Popper and Leszek Kolakowski.

    Thankfully, such utopianism has no support among ordinary people in Scotland.

    1. Your comment reeks of inertia and stasis and privilege.

      1. florian albert says:

        I think that, in the circumstances, my comment about ‘sea of blood’ was way OTT. I apologize.

        ‘Your comment reeks of inertia, stasis and privilege’

        ‘inertia’ ? Not really. I think that social democracy – however little impact it is making at present – offers a better way forward than anything that the Left has been offering since 2008. An updated version of the post-1945 settlement, not an attempt to put the clock back.

        ‘privilege’ ? In many respects I am privileged, though I would say that over of 60% of the population of Scotland is so privileged. My problem is that so few of them are aware of this and – perhaps even more – unaware that their privilege has little to do with their own merits. They have – in material terms – a far better life than their parents, grand-parents etc, though I doubt that they have done much to deserve this.

        1. No doubt we have privileges that our predecessors never had, no doubt.

          But progress isn’t some kind of linear line ever upwards. Is it?

          The existential threat of climate change is a result of our growth economy and our endless consumerism and unless you can explain to me why it isnt all the talks of how brilliant everything is is just hollow and stupid.

          1. florian albert says:

            ‘The existential threat of climate change’

            Like it or not, most people do not see climate change as an existential threat.

            If they did, there would have been a response such as we are seeing to the Corona virus.

        2. Meg says:

          I should like to believe that progress means water food shelter for all .we strive towards .music ,poetry etc , a different kind of food. But why else? The etc includes all the creative .don’t know what we do about the negative elements of the human genome.but if all equally supported..who knows? The way we are now isn’t working .,..while one child dies starving

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