Coronavirus, climate crisis and the self-loathing state

Nathan Williams
Mar 15 · 4 min read
Artwork from After the End of the World exhibition, Barcelona

The coronavirus pandemic has brought to the surface something those of us freaked out about the climate crisis have known for some time: how risk is quantified and managed in this system is going to kill us.

Do we define risk as the potential for mass suffering and death, or the potential for economic disruption? The risk factors we prioritise as a society determine our response to that risk.

This is why, in the midst of a global pandemic, the UK has opted to prioritise the economy over maximising the number of lives saved (or protecting the health service). A huge peak in virus victims might overwhelm the health service in the short-term and kill more people, but in the medium-term we get back to “normal” sooner. A flatter curve saves lives and the health service, but prolongs disruption.

The response to an emergency is always entirely political and determined by what risk means to those in charge. Is it riskier to act in a way that knocks 1000 points off the stock market but saves 1000 lives? Or is it in fact riskier to try and save 1000 people if actually the deaths of those people, in a roundabout way (through both the signal and on-the ground shock sent by aggressive measures that try to save them) protect the economy?

This is why “act on the science” can never be enough as a rallying cry.

The coronavirus pandemic has striking parallels with the climate emergency. The climate crisis is a slow-moving pandemic. The science is clear, the models have been incredibly accurate: if certain activities continue in a certain way, the future is cast. Politicians have largely understood the science and the risk, but have prioritised some risks over others. This is why for 40 years the response to the climate crisis has been dictated by a market-first approach that places the emphasis on minimising disruption to economic and social business-as-usual. This is why we now have a rate of CO2 increase (alongside a host of other biosphere markers) last seen on the cusp of a mass extinction event 66 million years ago. The risk to be managed wasn’t the end of the world; the risk was the end of the market world, the end of capitalism.

If you don’t think this is true, consider what happened last week when global stock markets started to quiver: the US Federal Reserve injected $1.5 TRILLION within minutes to inflate those stocks. It lasted under an hour before the slide continued. This money could have paid for enough ventilators to avoid mass pandemic death, or for the rapid transition of the economy away from fossil fuels.

The self-loathing managerial state is not equipped to handle a crisis. It has flayed itself alive, selling off its vital organs to private companies that operate to maximise profit, not to maximise social good. The logic is: if the market cannot fix it, perhaps it doesn’t deserve to be fixed at all. The self-loathing managerial state exists to protect capital, not people. The self-loathing managerial state will kill you in a pandemic and it will kill you in a climate apocalypse if it judges your death cheaper than economic dislocation.

And this warped moral outlook permeates society, propagated by the media.

Last week The Daily Telegraph ran an article by one of its senior journalists Jeremy Warner who said that “from an entirely disinterested economic perspective, COVID-19 might even prove mildly beneficial in the long term by disproportionately culling elderly dependents.’

A Guardian story said that ministers had been “warned” that closing schools would cut GDP by 3%.

Capitalism has shredded our ethics and replaced our morality with an Excel spreadsheet of cost-benefit analysis.

Anything good the UK government does in response to this crisis it will do having been dragged kicking and screaming. It’s U-turn on banning large gatherings was one example. People are taking it upon themselves to practice social distancing. The Football League went against government advice and cancelled fixtures. The government wanted hundreds of thousands to cram into stadiums because its instinctive response is to prolong business-as-usual even if that means more people die.

The world had months to prepare. Experts said the spread of the pandemic from China was inevitable. Get the systems in place to test and isolate. We may have been able to avoid the authoritarian measures that now look inevitable if they had acted earlier. Why didn’t they? Ventilators cost money. Tests cost money. New government departments cost money. Having a crisis plan requires a mindset from our leaders that isn’t self-loathing, that believes the state is there to shape outcomes, not just distribute them.

We can no longer go on as before.

The pandemic has laid bare the moral vapidity of the controlling elite and the fragility at the heart of our global civilisation.

We must seize this opportunity to make the economic and social changes that create a resilient, communitarian society that places human life above the market. At a minimum this means a re-localisation of production and consumption.

At a maximum it means the overthrow of the anti-social establishment by a pro-social movement that reclaims human dignity from the cold dead hands of the managerial state.

Nathan Williams

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Climate, ecology, breakdown, revolution, renewal.

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