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The great unravelling: the portal — another world is possible

In part 4 of a series looking at ecology and economics in the era of rapidly accelerating global crises, ALAN SIMPSON reflects on what the future holds

“A sense of cosmic specialness is no guarantee of good stewardship.”

— David Wallace-Wells

“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.

We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”

— Arundhati Roy

THE ink had barely dried on Arundhati Roy’s visionary invitation when “old economics,” crude lobbying and legitimate fear closed ranks on it.

None make the coming choices less urgent. They just clarify how much “luggage” we must leave behind. “Not normal” is the new normal.

Economics, as we know it, has imploded. No amount of ventilators will restore its former health. No amount of credit thrown out by central banks will avert its demise. And yet, beneath a welter of social measures, governments still bail out the owners of capital, in markets that are dead or dying.

Already, the heaviest of polluters lobby for huge slices of the rescue cake. It would be disastrous to heed them.

Today’s pandemic may not go away, at least not any time soon. Those looking for an early return to past lifestyles are self-deluding. Serious constraints on the movement of people and goods will be with us for a long time to come.

Circularity, resilience and interdependence will become tomorrow’s touchstones. Libertarian zealots surrounding the likes of Trump will soon discover that history has an unsparing way of punishing such greed and folly.

In 1720, powerful Marseille merchants pressed authorities to lift the quarantine used to constrain the ravages of bubonic plague. The plague struck back with a vengeance.

More than 50 per cent of the population died in just two years. Even more died in surrounding towns. It took 50 years for Marseille to recover.

Donald Trump won’t mind if this the US’s fate too, as long as he gets a short-term boost that keeps him in the White House. But the “war damage” would be immense. We need new tools and new thinking to get out of this mess.

Disruptions to today’s global food supplies emphasise the need to invest in more resilient local supply systems, and to create new national and international buffer stocks.

In Italy, great swathes of olive plantations have been wiped out by Xylella, a pathogen transmitted by sap-sucking insects. Greece, Spain and Portugal look on with impotent alarm. There is currently no cure for the infection.

Africa, already struggling to contain the spread of coronavirus, has been hit by its second locust plague in a matter of months. The second was 20 times larger than the first, devouring food enough for 35,000 people every day.

Uganda, Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya are the main countries whose crops have been pillaged. Forget food export markets — avoiding starvation becomes the order of the day. Containing the pandemic has limited Africa’s ability to control the pestilence.

Wherever you look, “not normal” has become the new normal. Everything calls out for a rethink of local, national and global food security systems. Anyone with half a brain would see this is as a time to invest in a renewed United Nations and World Health Organisation, not to undermine them.

There is no escape from the climate feedback loops the world is caught in. The US faces an emerging mega-drought in the south west. Last summer’s devastating wildfires hit the region’s farmers and cut the flow of vital internal waterways.

On the opposite coast, spring temperatures in Florida have shattered records, rivalling heat normally reserved for the heart of summer. Miami has endured its earliest heatwave on record.

At the same time, food processing plants across the US are being closed after becoming breeding grounds for the coronavirus pandemic.

If the coronavirus had hit during the fires that devastated Australia or California, it is hard to see how the two crises could have been juggled at the same time.

Something of this is actually happening in the Ukraine, where uncontrolled forest fires steadily eat their way towards the abandoned Chernobyl nuclear power station.

Meanwhile, Britain flies in planeloads of seasonal workers from virus-hit Romania, to harvest foods in virus-hit Britain, with no sign of in-flight separation seating distances, or of a quarantine period at either end.

Such are the rationalisations forced by compound crises. Least-worst choices and convenient moralities become the order of the day.

We have entered an era of cascading crises. Getting through them requires systemic change, not piecemeal reform. It begins with a refusal to repeat past mistakes that only rescued the problems.

The most important lesson from the 2008 financial crisis is that Britain’s first priority must be to rescue communities, not capital.

Labour made a huge mistake in bailing out casino capitalism — preparing the ground for the decade of austerity politics that followed. It wasn’t just that the poor had to pay for a problem the rich created. Little has changed in today’s cultures of self-reward that the rich still think they’re entitled to.

Today, if polluters (and the corporate elite) discover that financial lifeboats aren’t coming their way they will insist that lifeboats per se are unaffordable: debts would be too high, the economy left in ruins, Britain’s trading position untenable.

We have been here before. We just need to remember that long-term debts have never been a problem… if they are to bail out the rich.

Almost 200 years ago — just two years after passing the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act — the British government put 40 per cent of its annual income (the equivalent to over £300bn in today’s terms) into a massive rescue act.

This huge compensation programme saw Britain borrowing money from the banks, not to compensate slaves but slave owners.

It was one of the biggest loans in British history. Taxpayers only finished paying it off in 2015… almost 200 years later. So, throughout the post-2008 austerity era, taxpayers were still paying off slave owners while their own basic services were being shredded.

The only plus-point in this saga is that it puts paid to the notion that nations cannot take on huge reparation debts, repaying themselves over centuries, not years. Today, we just have to insist that reparations go to people and planet, not to plantation owners.

Without doubt, the first post-coronavirus priority will be restoring the care services that have kept us alive — despite government policies rather than because of them. No front-line public service workers will have offshore bank accounts. All will be British taxpayers and spend their money in Britain.

Providing decent wages (and budgets) will boost the domestic economy, keeping others in work and returning tax payments to the Exchequer. Then comes the circularity of a planetary clean-up. It will come in fragments, but is already happening.

Forget your “roads budgets.” Paris has decided to keep hundreds of the streets it handed over to pedestrians and cyclists during the Covid-19 crisis. It has also accelerated a shift in transport thinking.

Diesel cars will be banned from the city by 2024, petrol ones by 2030. To support priorities given to cyclists and pedestrians, Paris will get a new fleet of 800 EV buses. By the middle of the decade, its entire bus fleet will be electric or bio-gas.

The right to breathe will supersede the right to drive.

Brussels has set a 12mph speed limit for its city centre, reinforcing the road space already given over to pedestrians and cyclists.

Milan is allocating 22 miles of its road system to pedestrians, runners and cyclists, in a post-Covid-19 shift that puts air quality ahead of motoring. A legion of cities will follow suit.

Expect to see the same in air transport. Once Britain has found the courage to say no to Richard Branson, two other big shifts will follow.

The first is that governments are likely to follow Denmark’s lead in saying no financial aid will be given to companies that are a) paying out dividends, b) buying back their own shares, or c) banking in tax havens.

Then aviation and shipping will have to operate within reducing annual carbon budgets. Forget “offsetting” — this needs to be annual and real.

Shipping will find this particularly challenging. Forty-one per cent of global shipping is currently devoted to transporting fossil fuels. It makes the sector’s position as unsustainable as it is absurd.

Even a glimpse at the map of oil tankers currently parked out at sea during the crisis tells you how urgently we need a better plan.

Energy will be no different. Non-consumption (energy saving) will be more important than consumption. Clean will replace dirty. Instead of ripping nature (and forests) apart we will have to rediscover how to repair and replant.

In this process there will be jobs galore — just not the old ones. We will find them if we hold on to the solidarities the Covid-19 crisis itself rekindled, through the millions of people who have reached out to each other.

It will come through remembering that we really are our brothers’ (and sisters’, and aunts’ and uncles’, and neighbours’ and friends’) keepers. This is where the next economics will plant its roots.

There are loads of videos currently doing the rounds of birds, reptiles and animals reclaiming the spaces we’ve hastily vacated.

It is a reminder that nature gets along comfortably without us; that we are guests on this planet, not its owners.

If we don’t wish to overstay our welcome and are seriously looking for the portal, it’s a point we need to remember.

Alan Simpson was Labour MP for Nottingham South from 1992 to 2010.

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