It is said that one should never let a crisis go to waste.
That may seem heartless, but the Covid-19 pandemic is both a warning and an opportunity.
It is a warning that the world is interconnected in ways that we cannot unravel.
It is a warning that we cannot insulate ourselves from the global threats that are a consequence of the fact that we ourselves are a virus, too lazy and selfish to see that we are destroying our host, the planetary ecosystems on which we depend to survive and reproduce.
Globalisation has arguably lifted millions out of poverty, but it has also produced unprecedented global fragilities as the human world has expanded and become ever more connected – and has remorselessly encroached on and debased the natural world in ever more extreme ways.
The coronavirus outbreak is just one symptom of that encroachment – but the global climate crisis remains the most serious medium-term global threat.
The situation is rapidly deteriorating and is likely to trigger secondary crises of increasing severity in the decades ahead.
Someone on my timeline recently said his daughter asked him if, growing up, she would ever have the benefit of living in a time without crisis.
There’s a terrible truth in that question: as things stand we are bequeathing our children a world of continual and worsening environmental and social dislocation.
So, in the midst of one crisis, amaB is launching its focus on another: #EarthCrimes.
It is our attempt to blow the whistle on the companies, policies, politicians and people who are helping to wreck the planet or standing in the way of solutions.
In our launch exposé, we show how government’s plan for a giant Chinese-run, coal-fuelled mineral processing zone at Makhado, near the Beitbridge border crossing, is fronted by a man branded a crook by co-directors in one of his companies. A London high court judge threw out his civil challenge to such allegations because he lacked candour.
Read #EarthCrimes — Limpopo’s dirty great white elephant here.
That is just the start of the deep flaws of this absurdly ambitious project that purports to give the Limpopo government and the Ramaphosa administration a foreign investment coup to crow about (see part 1 of our multi-part series).
One might think that the Covid-19 crisis would put paid to such dirty industrial fantasies: pipedreams that really belong in the 20th century, if not the 19th.
A recent report on global coal plant construction noted: “Responses to COVID-19 in China, Southeast Asia, and South Asia are substantially impacting the coal plant pipeline. In an apparent move to stimulate its domestic economy, China has surged its new coal plant permitting. From 1 to 18 March 2020, authorities in China permitted more coal-fired capacity for construction (6.6 GW) than they did in all of 2019 (6.3 GW).”
This is despite the fact that China already has a huge energy surplus.
Similar pressures were on display on 27 March, the day our lockdown began, when our own minister of environment, forestry and fisheries gazetted sulphur dioxide (S02) air pollution standards that are twice as weak as the previous standards.
So, while the global industrial shutdown enforced by the pandemic has temporarily produced clearer skies and cleaner water, it may not necessarily produce the kind of deep economic and industrial reboot that the planet needs – at least not without a global shift in thinking and practice.
In that sense the coronavirus represents a stark opportunity.
There is every indication that the pandemic will force us to confront the kind of changes needed to keep the planet from warming much more than the dangerous levels it has reached already.
Firstly, it has put paid to growth.
The optimistic consensus suggests that we are headed for a global recession worse than that set off by the financial crisis of 2008. The more realistic view, such as set out here and here, is that we are headed for a great depression that might outstrip the economic implosion that characterised the 1930s.
From the point of view of the planet, that might be just what the doctor ordered.
What the evidence on climate change has been telling us for a while is that we can have a liveable planet or we can pursue unchecked growth, but we can’t have both.
Up to now, that has been an unpalatable political choice, condemning us to continuing on the same destructive path.
As Simon Kuper wrote in the Financial Times as recently as October 2019: “A long economic depression might be enough to keep the planet habitable… We are not going to find out. No electorate will vote to decimate its own lifestyle. We can’t blame bad politicians or corporates. It’s us: we will always choose growth over climate.”
Now the virus is likely to enforce that outcome – at least for a time – without us having to make the initial hard political choices.
As Bloomberg’s Michael Liebreich wrote recently, it now looks as if greenhouse gas emissions (specifically carbon dioxide) could easily drop by 5% or more this year alone as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The second potential impact of the pandemic is to force us to restructure our societies to deal with the fallout of economic collapse.
What the pandemic has shown is that it is the social floor that counts, not the ceiling.
Without a proper social contract, without a broad socio-economic safety-net – healthcare, shelter, education, information – societies are not able to contain and manage a crisis like this pandemic.
Covid-19 has the potential to force us to create the politics and economics needed to change the current skewed balance between the individual freedom to accumulate and consume, versus the collective responsibility to protect, conserve and share.
If it does that, it will not only contribute towards meeting the global climate goals, it will also prepare us to mitigate the climate damage already baked in.
But those positive outcomes are by no means assured.
It is not coincidental that the Great Depression was followed by a period of fascism and war.
And we are not at a good starting point.
In many places the contract between states and citizens has been weakened – and the ability of political parties and governments to act as instruments of social cohesion and redistribution, rather than merely in the interests of elites, has been undermined, especially by the influence of money in politics.
The result has been a rise in disaffection, nihilism and populism.
Social consensus seeking has been made more difficult by the crumbling of the global news ecosystem – just as ubiquitous social media has atomised audiences and created systems that enable propaganda, emotivism and self-reinforcing silos.
As the International Crisis Group has reported, “For now, one can discern two competing narratives gaining currency – one in which the lesson is that countries ought to come together to better defeat COVID-19, and one in which the lesson is that countries need to stand apart in order to better protect themselves from it.
“The crisis also represents a stark test of the competing claims of liberal and illiberal states to better manage extreme social distress.”
At the heart of our crisis, locally as well as globally, is a failure to have a politics that accounts to citizens, instead of to elites, factions and self-interest.
AmaBhungane was formed to expose and attack that failure.
We pledge to continue that battle.
Read all the stories in this series: