When small things dispel grand illusions

As carbon dioxide accumulates in the atmosphere, we can expect disruptions to our world — and these disruptions will not be temporary. But the coronavirus shows we can act in a global emergency.
Photo: Fusion Medical Animation on Unsplash
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The virus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic is 125 nanometres in size — too small for the naked eye to see but large enough to drive the global economy into depression.

Sometimes, small things are implacable. They do not abide by the ideological assumptions and political rules that have been set for how our economy is supposed to run.

What they do, instead, is show the basis for so many of those rules to be illusory.

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No libertarians in a pandemic

So many of the standard rules have been set aside that a recent headline read “America is a Sham.” It is, for instance, difficult in these times, as the U.S. is undergoing a reckoning with its for-profit healthcare system, to see much more than illusion in the American right’s utopia of a beggared and withered public sphere. No one serious leans libertarian in a pandemic.

The hoarding of essentials in the time of a pandemic, for instance, is not much different than the hoarding of obscene wealth in the time of climate change.

Perhaps the grandest illusion, the one that everywhere in the world is now confronting, is this: that our interests are best served by an economic system that determines our wellbeing according to whether and to what degree the market values our labour at a given moment.

The millions now dealing with painful COVID layoffs and unemployment have an occasion to confront the cruelty of that illusion in a way that too many precarious, underemployed, and minimum-wage workers have long done.

The moves here in Canada to freeze evictions, to suspend student-loan payments, to provide government income suggest there were always more humane and decent ways to not only ease people’s burdens in tough times, but to run an economy altogether.

The illusion that capitalism should be held more important than life and wellbeing is proving (however briefly) difficult to reassert. Those hoping to reweave the spell face immediate criticism. Consider the outrage directed at Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick or British Columbian Conservative MP Marc Dalton for pushing to prematurely reopen the economy.

The small matter of climate breakdown

Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas molecules driving climate change are even smaller than the coronavirus. But as they accumulate in the atmosphere, they will be enough to bring even larger disruptions to our world — and these disruptions will not be temporary.

And so these small things also dispel illusions about how the world is supposed to be. The plausibility of the very core of the neoliberal project — faith in market forces to order society, a small role for democratic government in developing the public good, an eschewing of environmental regulation, an obscenely unequal social order unperturbed by wealth redistribution — is eroded by the climate crisis.

However, the climate crisis, unlike the pandemic, has yet to see anything like a global emergency response. COVID might help us to see things in a new light.

The millions now dealing with painful COVID layoffs and unemployment have an occasion to confront the cruelty of that illusion in a way that too many precarious, underemployed, and minimum-wage workers have long done.

The hoarding of essentials in the time of a pandemic, for instance, is not much different than the hoarding of obscene wealth in the time of climate change. (Largely lost amid the coverage on the pandemic was news of an important recent study on how the lifestyles of the rich make them disproportionately responsible for energy consumption.) In both cases, there is a real cost to society of believing self-interested profit maximizers should have free reign.

It has been well out of the mainstream to say that governments should enlist the private sector into the climate fight as they would in wartime — arranging to retool industry’s productive capacity to rapidly roll out badly needed green energy and transportation infrastructure. But the Canadian government’s plan to spur industry to do just that for essential medical equipment for the pandemic might very well open up new possibilities that the same can occur to meet ambitious emission reduction targets. Similarly, the Canada Emergency Response Benefits payments for people unable to work during the pandemic is not so different from calls for governments to provide workers in high-carbon industries with income while the fossil fuel industry is phased out.

And there are other matters that could give us a new perspective. Might air quality, dramatically improved during the economic shutdown, lead people to resist the reopening of coal plants or support bans on future sales of internal combustion engine vehicles? Might this time spent with our families open up space for reduced working time?

Back to life, back to reality

This is not to say that major illusions have melted away for everyone or that everyone wants them to long stay broken.

Alberta premier Jason Kenney’s decision to invest $1.5 billion of government money in the Keystone XL pipeline the day after laying off 20,000 education workers is a recommitment to the illusion that oil and gas offer a future. Donald Trump, too, recommitted to an illusory fossil-fuelled future, citing the pandemic in his decision to roll back vehicle emissions standards.

The kind of politics that might be able to kickstart the global economy while simultaneously acting on climate change has recently experienced major setbacks in the Angloworld. In December, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party fell hard in the U.K. federal election. Less than four months later, Bernie Sanders suspended his campaign to be the Democratic presidential nominee in the United States. Both included in their platforms ambitious Green New Deal approaches in which government would invest massively in a just transition to a post-carbon world.

The European Green Deal appears to be the closest the Western world now has to anything like this. Though doubts about its true ambition have been raised, there are signs that its program to drastically reduce the continent’s emissions will be incorporated into economic stimulus plans. The news that South Korea’s centrist government is adopting a Green New Deal framework could provide an example of how to bring something like that here.

How the world recovers from this pandemic, whether it re-embraces old illusions or rebuilds around deeper truths, is massively important. History has dark lessons for what happens to politics when economic depression takes hold and nativism is rife, and our best science has only ominous warnings about recommitting to a fossil-fuelled future.

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