Published Tue Apr 28 2020
As the world slowly takes its first steps out of lockdown one aspect is becoming increasingly clear: we need to re-think our social interactions, the way we will manage our environment in the future, and above all the way we define human values. The current COVID-19 crisis might offer a unique perspective to learn from. The current debate seems to focus around how we can regain the status quo and return to our old lifestyle – “once all of this will be over“. However, we could instead be using this crisis to fundamentally rewrite the way we live, because global warming is and will be an even more challenging task than the Covid pandemic.
Civil society plays a pivotal role in shaping the path after coronavirus. PanDam spoke with two members of Extinction Rebellion Amsterdam: Camille Miellca and Valentin Jully.
COVID-19 and global warming: a much needed ‘break’ for our planet or a death sentence?
With airplanes not flying, dropped car numbers and many factories closed, COVID-19 has arguably given our planet ‘a break’: but do the threats posed by the pandemic override the breath of fresh air for the environment? Camille believes that, at least in the long run, Corona will be detrimental to environmental efforts by taking the climate agenda off the central stage: “climate change is no longer on the news, this year’s COP has already been cancelled and governments are delaying their efforts to tackle the climate crisis ‘because of Corona’. Even worse, companies and governments worldwide are using this moment to implement ecocidal projects, while populations are in isolation and can’t protest”. Those developments are worrying as COVID-19 is a symptom of the looming environmental crisis: “Many scientists warned in the last decennia that a deadly pandemic virus outbreak was a serious risk because of deforestation and exploitation of wildlife.”
Valentin, on the other hand, tries to take a more optimistic stance: “There is actually a significant bright side. Cheaper oil makes fracking in the US and North Canada less profitable, and may even lead some fracking facilities to close, because the running costs are too high compared to the price the product can be sold for.” Cheaper oil, however, means that other sources of energy -including renewable energies- became less profitable and therefore attractive.
“Overall I think, like everything, whether this crisis ends up being good for the environment or not will depend on our reaction to it. As of now it’s an important break for the planet, but will it last? The outcome will depend on what we choose to do, and when I say ‘we’ I am referring to us, the civil society. I hope we will be able to re-organize ourselves so as to consume less and use energy more reasonably.”
The COVID crisis proves that, when governments consider something a priority, they can take drastic and radical measures efficiently: why hasn’t this happened before with the climate
According to Valentin, the question isn’t really about whether it’s possible for governments to take massive action, but rather: would it be accepted by the people? To halt the spread of the virus, countries have adopted intrusive and strict measures that citizens have been willing to accept because of the fear and urgency: “The first demand of XR is to tell the truth: governments should tell the raw and scary truth about climate change the same way they are telling the truth about COVID-19. Then, perhaps, people will be afraid enough to want such massive government actions to be taken”. Camille expressed a similar thought: “I think it proves that if citizens are told the truth about the risks of a situation and the behaviour they need to adopt -and the sacrifices they might need to make- most of them understand, follow the rules and even participate with solidarity, creativity and courage (as that displayed by the health workers). I think it is a great lesson for everyone to remember: we can build communities, we can trust each other, we can find solutions together.”
On climate justice
As Camille points out, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the current pandemic does not affect us all in the same way: “Vulnerable populations are the most likely to contract the virus and suffer from the economic impact of the lockdown. Indigenous populations in the Amazon forest, for example, are at risk of being decimated by the virus that has being brought into their land by illegal miners.”
According to Valentin this applies to the citizens of producer countries -like Bangladesh, a country he knows well and in which he has lived in the past- since those countries are also the most polluted, and recent studies suggest that air pollution is linked to a higher COVID-19 death risk. Not to mention that staying safe and in lockdown is arguably impossible for those who don’t have a home and can’t work in remote: “In Dakka, where the majority of people live in slums a lockdown is impossible: locals have often no home and no savings to buy food. In this sense, COVID-19 will be very problematic there.”
“We can also see injustice on a smaller scale in our own countries: if you are rich you can isolate yourself in your house in the mountains with a garden, but if you live in the suburbs you might be sharing your home with five people, and quarantine becomes much more difficult. Also, the cheaper parts of the city are those next to trafficked roads and airports, where air pollution levels are higher and contracting the virus is easier because those areas are also the most densely populated,” explains Valentin.
XR online and digital rebellions
The theory of change of XR is that of mass mobilizations and civil disobedience which, in times of isolation, is far from feasible. But the XR movement is developing many creative ideas to keep building pressure and expressing their voice and demands. For example, on Monday 13th XR NL left a letter and chalked message at the doorstep of Dutch political parties, asking to keep the climate crisis high-up on the political agenda while involving citizens in decision-making through Citizens’ Consultations: “We think it is very important to listen to the science and ask you to do the same. Not only when it comes to the COVID-19 crisis, but also when it comes to the current climate and ecological crisis. We cannot go back to ‘normal’, ‘normal’ was precisely the problem. With love, anger and respect, we wish you a Happy Easter.”
“XR UK is also organizing a debt strike -a form of digital rebellion- inspired by Hong Kong’s online civil disobedience,” explains Valentin. “A debt strike is an effective way to block the activities of banks. In this way, pressure is built up on banks, which is an opportunity to make demands heard.”
On XR Online you can also find a table summarising all Zoom events coming up in the next weeks. On the 2nd and 10th of May Valentin will be hosting a ‘Growing XR Workshop’ on how to keep as many rebels interested and engaged with XR as possible, and how to ensure that XR has a place and events for all types of rebels.
What is the meaning of all of this?
COVID-19 could be an important opportunity to gain the much needed green-switch in our economy and lifestyle: “If we really want to give our planet a break, we need a radical system shift, to half CO2 emissions globally and protect ecosystems,” explains Camille. If we want COVID-19 to be the last global crisis to throw our lives up in the air we -as a civil society- must take action and demand change, in the name of the planet and in the name of global justice. Photo credits: Sam ten Thij en Teresa, Extinction Rebellion NL