Will COVID-19 prepare us for permanent eco-austerity?
They are likely to have got this wrong. The public are certainly showing a willingness to submit to temporary restrictions on freedom in order to manage a genuine and acute emergency. It is not hard to understand that if coughing on granny might kill her in two weeks then staying at home is advisable. The threat is believable, tangible and credible. That the global death toll ticks up each day, and the fact that no one, rich, poor, old, young, prince or subject is immune, reinforces the message. Soon we will all know someone who has suffered, who has been hospitalized, who has been impoverished, or even someone who has died from the virus. Histrionic headlines accompanied by images of half empty parks do not change the reality that most of the population, where restrictions apply, are still complying with being restricted.
That is a very different thing to a projection of multiple impersonal harms some 20, 30, 50 or even 100 years hence. If it were possible to scare the population into changing their behaviour to reduce carbon emissions by yelling “Will no one think of the grandchildren!” more loudly we would have seen the success of this already. The protesters and even more credible science-based advocates have been ramping up the hyperbole in various forms for at least two decades, oblivious to the many times their predictions have failed to be accurate. Even the normally pragmatic British Parliament declared a “climate emergency” last year, with no evidence of it exciting much action beyond Guardian headlines, and technocratic debates about super-regulators.
Now that we are living through a real emergency, one that is lethal now rather than irritating tomorrow, this rhetoric seems even more alien to common sense.
Climate change is not an emergency or a crisis. It is an unforeseen and slow rumbling side effect of technology choices over two centuries that have vastly enriched our lives, both in quantity and quality. Flying, driving and heating our homes using fossil fuels were good choices at the time, and have constantly evolved to reduce their environmental impact as time has gone on. They displaced economies based on horse riding and wood burning, the former causing injuries and animal suffering, the latter deadly pollution that is still a source of early mortality in the developing world. Modern medicines and medical equipment are hugely dependent on manufacturing, including plastics, rooted in chemicals derived from fossil fuels. They replaced alchemy, leeches and reusable equipment that caused infections by cross-contamination. But those processes do cause carbon emissions, they do cause pollution, of the air and oceans, and we do need better choices. It just will not happen instantaneously, or as the result a brilliantly devised “keep it in the ground” policy attached to enforced bans on economic activity, until something better turns up.
Climate change further is not a virus. You cannot catch it by standing too close to an oil executive. Fossil fuels are not self-replicating parasitic organisms, nor their combustion akin to a cytokine storm in your lungs. The associated processes cause harm and for that reason are being replaced by less harmful alternatives when they have been developed. In that regard climate change is more like the consequence of an experimental drug to treat a novel virus, not the virus itself. We would not though wish to stop treating the virus simply because our first efforts at a vaccine were not perfect. And that is a problem with utopian environmentalism, it often asserts positions such as “net zero by 2025” that demand the impossible perfect be the enemy of the possible next step, and without considering what other consequences would follow. If we banned all drugs that had side effects, there would be almost no drugs left, and life expectancy would be measurably shorter. We need by way of analogy the carbon economy to function in order to get to a low carbon economy, without killing the patient in the process.
This cannot be centrally planned. The Chinese Communist party cannot materialise a cure to Coronavirus by edict. The UK Government’s 25-year environment plan cannot anticipate, let alone dictate, the advances in our knowledge that will be required in order to deliver a smooth reduction in emissions to net zero. The central lesson environmentalists should be drawing from the crisis is what systems seem to deliver the most innovations most quickly in order that medics might test what works best, and feed those outcomes back into a cycle of continuous improvement. That is a worthwhile analogy to the climate change challenge, not one of avoiding an imminent and hideous choking death.
The answer would not appear to be those that are most rigidly wedded to central planning and state control. Nor those regulated to prioritise limiting the risk of unintended harm rather than promoting innovation. Mixed systems, with decentralised controls would appear to be more resilient. One with projects more like nodes on the internet feeding off each other to see what works, rather than a moon landing exercise in finding a cure. And much of this is becoming visible, people can see the supermarkets have done a better job of managing food distribution than Public Health England has done in managing the distribution of protective equipment. They can see that there is no contest between “clapping for the NHS”, and appreciating the contribution drug companies, manufacturers and universities are making to giving NHS workers better tools.
But, neo-romantics and anti-capitalists continue to assert, this crisis shows we can live simpler lives, we do not need all this stuff, we don’t need to fly, zero growth is possible, and so on. And they are right – it is possible to permanently lead ascetic lives. The question is whether it is desirable. Passengers who got off a sinking ship do not “desire” to be on a lifeboat, they just accept it in an emergency, because it is less bad than the alternative. On a lifeboat, vegans will eat fish and use seagull fat to seal leaks out of necessity, they will not continue when ashore.
The current restrictions on economic activities are tough, and we’ve not yet seen the worst of them. Panic-buying and early lay-offs have happened while the economy is still strong. The more troubling behavioural impacts are likely to kick in when people’s savings run out, when people feel they have no choice but to try and find work, and when it becomes clear that not all businesses and jobs will be returning when the quarantine is lifted and temporary support measures end. If the early estimates are correct and that impact is around a third of the productive economy, there is no way of avoiding that translating into lower living standards and fewer opportunities, while paying higher taxes.
The left think they are selling solidarity and a cleaner, greener tomorrow. The package is just as likely to include hoarding and social strife, were a similar exercise ever conducted merely to accelerate the uptake of biodegradable bags and ration their contents. It has never been a good idea to promote environmentalism as asceticism, or sustainability as the acceptance of pain as a virtue. Environmentalism has been strongest when it presents credible reasonable choices to people, and particularly when it embraces innovative, technology-led solutions. Tesla is a better lodestar than the Sinclair C5 for that future, and pandemic living is no car at all.
We can though reasonably expect that the post-pandemic parties will be epic, not that the public will come to believe this world is the new normal, let alone that they will want more of it to tackle climate change.