How COVID-19 & the environmental crisis are linked | All Hail The Lockdown
ALI: We’re in the midst of a global emergency. It has made people sick and killed on a mass scale. It has destabilised local economies and overwhelmed poorer countries.
It has disrupted societies, entire nations - the world in fact. But there are still people who dismiss scientific expertise on its causes and severity. Media outlets aren't sending push notifications to our phones alerting us to every new development And a shocking number of governments remain resistant to the kind of radical action this situation demands.
That's because the crisis I'm referring to, isn't the coronavirus - it's the ecological breakdown of our planet. ALI: On the 11th of march 2020 the World Health Organisation announced: WHO DIRECTOR GENERAL: "We have rang the alarm bell loud and clear..." ...that we were in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic "We cannot say this loudly enough, or clearly enough, or often enough: All countries can still change the course of this pandemic." ALI: The global reaction was at a scale we've rarely seen before. governments responded with a mix of chaotic politics and politicised chaos with only some countries managing to put a method to the madness.
Regardless of how they got there though a significant number of countries went into lockdown with some cities and regions being put into actual quarantine. It was stunning how such wide-ranging policy measures were brought into effect in such a short space of time especially when you consider that for decades there's been a much bigger more threatening, more long-running crisis needing urgent global action. GEORGE: The first thing I'd say is that the climate crisis is such that it makes the COVID-19 pandemic look really easy to handle. George Monbiot is a British journalist and activist whose focus is the state of the climate.
GEORGE: It is so much bigger, it is so much more threatening to our survival, not least because it threatens our food supplies. And this is something we're discussing far too little at the moment but the science is pretty clear that between 3 and 4 degrees centigrade of global heating above pre-industrial levels we go into massive net food deficit structural famine where crucial bread baskets collapse, turn into dust bowls. This is genuinely threatening to the survival of humanity And if we think people fighting over toilet paper in the supermarkets looks ugly I really, really hope we don't live to witness people fighting over food.
ALI: Since the pandemic was announced and lockdowns began George has been pointing out the connection between the climate crisis and the dual health and economic crises that we are facing right now. One of the main link points is a subject he came back to repeatedly during our interview - capitalism. GEORGE: I think there are three fundamental problems with capitalism that are not compatible with the long term survival of humanity. One is that it relies for its apparent success on perpetual economic growth which would be fine if the planet were growing at the same rate but if we were to follow the prescriptions of the World Bank or the OECD where we sort of maintain a steady track of 3% growth, doesn't sound like very much that means it doubles in just 24 years. And then doubles again in 48 years.
But already, you know, we've gone beyond the limits that the planet can take. The second problem is this extraordinary belief that the numbers in your bank account equate to a right to own natural wealth. What possible connection is there between those numbers in a bank account and the right to own a tract of land or a private jet that's going to pollute a certain amount of atmosphere or to buy bluefin tuna sushi or to panel your fourth home in mahogany? Because in all those cases you are taking away natural wealth from someone else. And the third one is that capitalism promises us all private luxury. That's why we go along with it. Because one day we'll get there, too. We're all temporarily embarrassed millionaires. And it can't possibly fulfil that because if it did, we would trash our entire life support systems.
ALI: The unsustainable exploitation of nature has a direct connection to the health crisis we are now facing. Just months into the lockdowns, officials from the WHO, UN and World Wildlife Fund all stated that the illegal wildlife trade and deforestation were driving forces behind the increasing number of so-called zoonotic diseases illnesses like the coronavirus, that have leapt from wildlife to humans. GEORGE: It seems at this stage, from what we know, to have spread as a result of the wildlife trade that as a result of people mopping up rare wildlife from around the world, you brought humans into contact, close contact with species that have never been in close contact with before. I first became aware of this, 30 years ago when I lived in the Amazon.
And every so often there'd be an outbreak of rabies, always in deforested areas. And the reason for that was that the vampire bats, which had been feeding on sloths and monkeys in the treetops in the canopy came down to earth when the trees were felled and started feeding on people instead. And people were terrified. You know, these outbreaks of rabies rampaging through areas without proper healthcare and so large numbers of people would die of it. And that sort of piqued my interest in how destruction of nature can lead to destruction of people. ALI: George isn’t exaggerating here. According to recent reports from the WWF, approximately 60-70% of the new diseases that have emerged in humans over the past 30 years have had a zoonotic origin.
HIV and Zika emerged from primates. Ebola & SARS from bats. MERS was traced back to camels. And in the case of bird flu - well, the answer is in the name. The birds are primarily industrial farmed poultry. All of these diseases spread to humans from animal populations under conditions of considerable environmental pressure. Eliane Brum is a Brazillian journalist and filmmaker who lives in the heart of the Amazon in Brazil. ALI: The overall message is clear: the less room left to nature, the more environmental problems - including new, deadly zoonoses - there will be.
But Eliane’s focus is not just on the plant & animal life that is being destroyed. Her point is that there are communities of people who can have a net positive effect on the world and even those people are at risk from an economic ideology of relentless growth and the destruction associated with it. BILL: The human economy is a subsystem of the natural ecosphere. And the only thing that enables it to grow is its continuous capacity to extract resources and energy from the rest of the ecosphere.
ALI: Bill Rees is a professor of human ecology. He has a compelling way of describing the human takeover of the planet. BILL: If we went back 10,000 years to the dawn of agriculture... the biomass, the sheer weight of human beings constituted far less than 1% of the total biomass of mammals on Earth. Today, humans are now 32% or 34%. But if we add our domestic animals, cattle, sheep, pigs and so on, that's another 60+%. So in total on earth today, human beings and their domestic stock are somewhere between 95-98.5% of the total mammalian biomass.
So wild nature has been displaced to the tiny fringes. ALI: One of the markers of the human impact on the planet is something we’ve come to know as a ‘carbon footprint’ - the measurement of greenhouse gases emissions. However there’s also something known as the ‘ecological footprint’ - a concept co-developed by Bill that compares the total natural resources consumed by an individual or group, against the planet’s ability to renew it. If you look at the ecological footprint of any advanced, highly populated, rich country, they are in a state of ecological deficit. BILL: So if everyone lived the way people do in Europe it would require the biocapacity of say, 3 planet earths. If everyone lived the way we do on average in Canada, we would need the biocapacity of 4 or 5 planet earths. And we don't have them.
We can only live this way because we are effectively overexploiting the global commons. Europe would have imploded a century ago had it not been for the capacity to import resources and wealth from the colonies. GEORGE: The ecological footprints of the rich, the very rich are thousands of times greater than the global average. We can have great public swimming pools and public tennis courts and public art galleries and museums and playgrounds and parks.
but if everybody tries to do it for themselves then in my country, London would cover half of England and England would cover half of Europe and Europe would cover the whole world. There wouldn't even be physical room for everybody to live, let alone the ecological space. ALI: Being able to measure environmental impact has been crucial not only to help identify which human activities, communities and countries bear the biggest responsibility for climate harm but also to understand the populations that bear the biggest brunt of it all. A paper published in the science and medical journal The Lancet in September 2020 sought to quantify national responsibility for climate breakdown. The findings indicated that high-income countries - most of them among the most industrialised nations in the global north were responsible for 90% of excess emissions. Back in March, as the enormity of the COVID crisis was becoming clear, I saw this tweet from a climate change activist. It said:
“If the media covered the #climatecrisis the way they are covering the #coronavirus - constantly & thoroughly then the public would be awake to the crisis & the whole world would be mobilising to stop it. Like folks have said: Climate Change needs to hire #COVID19's publicist.” I asked George & Eliane what they thought of this...
GEORGE: It's a really interesting thought and quite a clever and cheeky way to put it. It has to be said, first off, that a lot of governments communication on coronavirus has been really, really bad. But the coronavirus kind of does its own communication, issues its own warnings. And says, "Right, you've got to wash your hands. You've got to practise physical distancing. You've got to do all the things which this virus demands" - and it becomes an imperative.
GEORGE: You know, governments have been forced to step up and have been forced to tell us what to do. and I think now they need to tell us what to do with climate breakdown. It's all very well saying "we're building new airports, but please don't fly" and "we're encouraging economic growth, but please minimise your material footprint." I mean, the messages are just so confused that all you end up with is cognitive dissonance. ALI: The drastic response demanded by COVID inadvertently gave us a glimpse of what we thought serious and somewhat sustained change could look like.
As the virus spread around the world, air travel ground to a halt, car trips were significantly cut back, industrial manufacturing dipped and yet, data in June revealed only a 5% lower emissions than at the same point in 2019 even though normal activity has not yet fully restarted. The target we need to hit to avert the climate catastrophe predicted by the UN back in 2018 - is an emissions reduction of 7.6%. So our unexpected experiment in reducing our ecological impacts has revealed the sheer extent of the changes we have to make for the health of the planet. But as governments address the economic fall out of the pandemic environmental regulations and laws in place across many countries - are being weakened or torn down at alarming speed. This was particularly evident in the United States, where limits on pollution and carbon emissions were lifted and Brazil where there was a huge surge in executive acts by President Jair Bolsonaro. BILL: If you think of what's been happening in Brazil, the destruction of the Amazon the abandonment of environmental regulations, the increased deforestation of the one of the most biodiverse habitats on the planet - it's a travesty against all humankind.
But it's not that much different from what goes on in every other capital on earth where governments are beholden to this growth ethic. When everyone talks about getting back to normal. We talk about getting back to a 2% annual growth that is minimally acceptable on a national basis. The 3% growth that's minimally acceptable for the world as a whole Those are prescriptions for the continued scouring of the planet.
If you insist on doing that, you will destroy the very basis of your own existence. ALI: In fact there’s historical data to show that often after a significant dip in emissions, comes a spike. The Center for International Climate and Environment Research in Oslo tracks emissions and has documented how, since the 1960s key events that resulted in emissions falling – the two oil crises, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the 1990s Asian financial crisis and the 2008 financial crash – there came a period of growing emissions. From reusable shopping bags to energy efficient home systems and even bamboo toothbrushes - over the past few decades, there has been a surge around the world in individual efforts to live more so-called ‘eco-friendly’ lives. While there is unmistakable power in the collective action of many individuals giant corporations can render these efforts irrelevant simply because their actions are many orders of magnitude more impactful on the earth.
Just take a look at the breakdown of greenhouse gas emissions since 1988. 100 companies alone are responsible for an astonishing 71%. There is literally nothing individual action can achieve if big businesses do not make fundamental changes. So why is this mythology of individual ‘green’ transformation pushed so aggressively as a viable solution to this global climate crisis? Well, there’s vested interests of course - fossil fuel companies, big manufacturers, the airline corporations, intensive industrial agriculture - all these giant industries spend billions to lobby policy makers and to shape global messaging so they can pursue their business. Shifting the onus onto individuals takes the heat off them. GEORGE: Well, an essential element of neoliberalism is the individuation of blame.
"You don't have any money? Well, that's because you're lazy and feckless." Never mind the massive inequality and maldistribution of wealth. "You want to protect the environment? Well, stop buying plastic bottles." Never mind the fact that the fossil fuel companies have got their claws into the whole apparatus of government. So it's all about passing on blame from structural factors onto individual people. BILL: So part of the kind of neoliberal growth mythology is that technology will solve all our problems. "So climate change is a big deal. But, it's caused by, say, the burning of fossil fuels. So all we need to do is shift to renewable green energy."
And people feel that's it. I don't have to worry about climate change anymore because technology has solved all our problems. Now think about that. If you truly believe and we teach this in our business schools all over the planet - that through growth, we can create the wealth needed to produce the technologies needed to replace nature, if you really are so anthropocentric, so self-centered on the success of our species - then the sky's the limit. I don't happen to believe that. As long as people can still make huge fortunes out of this system, they'll resist any effort to redesign the system before it implodes on itself.
So now it's beginning to implode on itself. And that's a wake-up call. ALI: The events of a few months have begun to stretch our collective imagination in directions we would not have contemplated before. And as we take stock of everything we’ve learned from this pandemic we need to apply it to the much bigger ongoing emergency of the environmental crisis. After, all that is the biggest health problem we will ever have to collectively face. BILL: It's time for the pendulum to swing back toward a greater sense of balance, not only in the relationships among nations but in the relationships between humankind and the rest of the ecosphere Whereby as a species, as a global civilisation, we can live more equitably within the bioproductive means of the systems that support us. Now, that seems perhaps a bit of a stretch from COVID, but it is merely symptomatic of the great imbalances that currently exist.
COVID will not by any means be the last epidemic. There will be more if we stay on the present track. GEORGE: When we want to, we can mobilise resources very, very quickly. We can totally change our behaviour. We can totally change the structure of politics and the way that it operates. All these things we were told were completely impossible suddenly become possible because we're faced with an emergency.
Now we have to recognise climate breakdown as an emergency. We need now to mobilise on a massive scale to ensure that our lives are not sacrificed on the altar of money. ALI: Thank you so much for watching the fifth and final episode of our #AllHailTheLockdown series.
If you haven't seen any of the other episodes you can easily catch online we've got a website or you can use the hashtag #allhailthelockdown on social media. Thank you also for sharing, commenting, engaging with the series I hope, like me, you've come away with a deeper understanding of some of the complexities surrounding the COVID-19 crisis and the different ways it's impacting us all around the world.