Does the Coronavirus cloud have a silver lining?

John Daniels reflects on the Coronavirus and the connections between the environment and the economy.

China cuts CO2 emissions by 25%.

Hallelujah!  That’s the kind of headline many of us have been praying for.  For years we were bugged by thoughts like ‘What’s the point of my catching the train instead of driving, or of turning down the central heating thermostat, when China’s opening a new coal-fueled power station every other week?’  

Over the last few weeks, all that has changed – for now, at least.  The reason of course is the COVID-19 virus. The large-scale shut-down of Chinese society in an attempt to control its spread has led to a drastic curtailing of production in what is still in large measure an industrial economy.  Consequently global CO2 production has declined by 6%.  

Where years of international negotiation had largely failed, the humble virus has succeeded overnight.  

So is this unambiguously good news?  Of course not. Death and serious illness resulting from COVID-19 are real enough for those afflicted and for their families, even if thankfully mortality rates are very low overall.  

Most of us will experience the pandemic primarily not through becoming seriously ill, but rather through governmental responses to the pandemic.  With the closure of schools and businesses along with constraints on travel being implemented in many countries, the impact on the economy and on ordinary life is massive.  As actuary Gail Tverberg said recently:

We tend to lose sight of the fact that an economy cannot simply be shut down for a period and then start up again at close to its former level of production.  China seems to have seriously overdone its use of quarantines. It seems likely that its economy can never fully recover. The permanent loss of a significant part of China’s productive output seems likely to send the world economy into a tailspin, regardless of what other economies do. 

In any event, consumer demand across the world may struggle to recover even after people have returned to work and normal service has been resumed (whenever that turns out to be), simply because wages will not have been paid and businesses – from airlines to coffee bars – will have gone bust. 

What this brings into relief is the perversity of our economic system: short-term prosperity is yoked to long-term environmental degradation; so turning off the CO2 taps leads to economic collapse. 

The lesson?  Tweaking the system just can’t deliver the outcomes we need.  We need to think afresh about what true flourishing means, and how that can be achieved as equitably as possible in a world of almost 8 billion people.  The good news is that there are those leading the way here – e.g. Tim Jackson’s prosperity without growth, Jason Hickel’s notion of radical abundance, and the degrowth movement more generally.

But most basically we need to learn to live by a new story.  A story very different to the ‘win-win competition & accumulation’ story briefly rendered plausible by the time-limited exploitation of cheap fossil fuels.  

Joy in Enough offers a space to craft and tell just such a story.

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