Although the Government and the media have been keen to shift the blame for the UK’s high number of coronavirus deaths onto individuals breaking the lockdown rules and going to the beach or what-have-you, the inconvenient truth is that the lockdown has been far more successful than expected, with more people following the lockdown rules than the Government had modelled for. And yet, as of today we have 64,200 deaths (and counting). Why is that?
Could it be because our lockdown was less strict than lockdowns in other European countries? While other countries shut down all non-essential work, our Government balked at the last minute, keeping workplaces like construction sites open where social distancing isn’t possible, and before protective measures like personal protective equipment (PPE) were available to health workers, let alone builders.
The rationale behind this decision was that to shut down the non-essential parts of our country completely would damage the economy too much, and that the health of the economy is the health of the country. Although it might mean a short-term spike in excess deaths, the argument goes, protecting the economy would lead to a long-term preservation of both life and the lifestyles we are accustomed to. The Prime Minister’s Chief Adviser, Dominic Cummings, put it slightly differently: herd immunity, protect the economy, and if that means some pensioners die, too bad.
In any case, our laissez-faire lockdown has failed to prevent damage to the economy. This week we heard the news that the UK’s economy has shrunk by 20.4%—the greatest economic contraction in our country’s history—due to the lockdown, and also the news that the UK’s economy is likely to suffer the worst damage of any country in the developed world.
The strictness of the lockdown was presented as a tradeoff between coronavirus deaths and economic damage. Somehow, we’ve come out with the worst of both worlds…or have we? After all, gross domestic product (GDP)—or some derivative thereof—is usually given as the key measure of the health of an economy, but it’s not a measure of whether people have enough food to eat or enough housing to live in—it’s just a measure of economic activity.
Now, to be clear, I’m not saying that we aren’t in deep trouble, or that the economic crisis we’re facing isn’t going to lead to a lot of misery. I’m just saying that it doesn’t have to. During the Second World War, poor British children actually got taller because rationing increased the quality and quantity of the food they were receiving.
The global financial crisis of 2008 and subsequent UK Government austerity programme only led to 130,000 excess deaths because we allowed them to. To quote the head of economics at the New Economics Foundation, “In a country like the UK, lower GDP doesn’t kill people. How it is distributed does”.
Such unprecedented times call for unprecedented action. What is our Government’s great plan to get us out of this mess? What great, imaginative leap forward in thinking could possibly get us through this?
Get everyone to go to the shops.
This week we were treated to an orgy of consumerism as tabloid after tabloid encouraged us to “shop for Britain”. Going to the shops to buy ‘non-essential’ goods was framed as an act of patriotism by newspapers that could not possibly have more contempt for their readers. On Friday the absurd spectacle culminated with the Queen herself joining in, instructing her subjects to go out and help the British economy bounce back. But, erm, is that actually a good idea?
The Arctic is on fire
On an extremely related note, today, the Arctic recorded its hottest temperature ever. Guys, I shouldn’t have to tell you this, but climate breakdown is really fucking bad.
Climate breakdown represents a much greater threat to our way of life than the COVID-19 pandemic or the lockdown, and an irreversible one at that. And the links to consumerism couldn’t be clearer—it is uncontroversial that climate breakdown is rooted in the fact that our economy is built around overconsumption. The entire global economy shouldn’t fall over when we temporarily stop extracting fossil fuels from the ground to produce cheap plastic tat.
In fact, the global economy shouldn’t fall over at all when we stop ‘non-essential’ work. The clue is in the name—why is our health and wealth so dependent on the overproduction and overconsumption of ‘non-essential’ goods and services when so many people don’t have the basics, and when the overproduction of these non-essential items is responsible for the planet burning?
Capitalism is killing the planet. Everybody knows it, but nobody in power is willing to seriously engage with this fact because they can’t imagine any alternative. Instead, they pretend that we in the West can continue to heap the consequences of the lifestyles we lead on those we enslave and exploit. But climate change represents a threat that even we cannot ignore.
The lack of ability to imagine that much-needed alternative extends beyond politics into media, which is the only lens through which we the public are able to perceive the wider world. When the Labour Party in the 2019 general election proposed that we plant lots of trees (a number of trees which is not only possible but necessary according to the Government’s own advisory climate change advisory body), it was met with universal derision from the ‘sensible’ mainstream media.
The lockdowns have shown us that alternative. All these things that were previously imagined impossible have suddenly happened. But the Government wants us to forget about them as quickly as possible; the limits of its ambitions are for ‘bounce back Britain’ to go back to exactly the way things were, but a bit shitter. We have a moral imperative to resist it, for the future generations of our country and our planet.
The 2018 IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5ºC said that, “limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society”. The global lockdowns represent exactly that, but even they may not be enough. To put things in perspective, the lockdowns could cause global CO2 emissions to drop by about 5.5%—but an annual decrease of 7.6% would be required every year until 2030 to limit warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. Even with the lockdowns, we may not hit that target for this year alone.
The upheaval of the pandemic has expanded the limits of what seems possible. We need to use this time to plan how we permanently transition to a lower-consumption economy, one based on need rather than endless economic growth, and where rather than GDP, the measure of our success is whether peoples’ needs are being met.
In this new economy maybe we enjoy fewer luxuries, but in return maybe we spend a bit less time in pointless jobs. How do we put food on the table or pay our rent if we don’t work as much? Well, it’s not like the food or housing will have gone anywhere. But they’ll surely be withheld from us should we transition to this new world while attempting to preserve capitalism. So capitalism must go as well. A small price to pay, to have a planet to leave to our children and grandchildren.
Imagining this new world is no small task. Lockdown may be coming to an end now, but the good news is that we’ll all get another go in a few months. See you in the second wave.
A completely non-exhaustive list of interesting environmental projects in Wolverhampton
- Exctinction Rebellion Black Country
- Gatis Community Space
- Little Eden Community Garden
- Make:Shift Wolverhampton
- Penn Climate Action
- The Real Junk Food Project
- Tettenhall Little Environment Group
- Wildside Activity Centre
- Wolverhampton Bike Shed
- Wolverhampton Friends of the Earth
- Zero-Waste Wolverhampton
If you happen to know of any more, let us know.