Climate Change and COVID-19: What these crises tell us about a modernising approach

Why an ecological approach is necessary for tackling contemporary global crises

This blog is Part 2 of our new series on ‘Studying an uncertain future‘ written by members of SPERI’s doctoral researchers network.

From my little thesis-writing nest in lockdown, I’m supposed to be reading about climate change, but it keeps turning out to be about COVID-19 as well. First, there is the uncomfortable dislocation between “what is” and “what ought to be”, that Sheila Jasanoff identifies in A New Climate for Society, as social institutions fail to relate distant, dispassionate science to our everyday concerns of how to live.  Jasanoff talks about ‘the tensions that arise when the impersonal, apolitical and universal imaginary of climate change projected by science comes into conflict with the subjective, situated and normative imaginations of human actors’ – a description that rings very true for trade unions, the actors considered in my thesis. Trade unions, like the rest of us, have been comfortable within the modernising paradigm, where ‘normal’ science and humanmade capital solve local problems, and fulfil our value of prosperity. But as I explore here, Covid-19 brings home how we are vulnerable to, and implicated within, the emergence of global environmental and health crises that no longer respond to such treatment.

This dislocation between science and values certainly reminded me of Boris Johnson over the last few months, desperately trying to salt down a convincing 3-word slogan from the whole of viral epidemiology. He managed this for Lockdown Version 1 through invoking our national moral talisman, the NHS: if we stay at home, we will protect the NHS and all will be well. Lockdown Version 2, “Stay Alert”, didn’t come out as smoothly, as the public quickly pointed out that you can’t smell or taste the virus. As Jasanoff reminds us, we don’t know much about climate change, or Covid-19, except through science – and, I’d add, even that can be pretty sketchy, as illustrated by the great “What is R, anyway?” mystery.

‘R’, as it turns out, is just as tricky to calculate as our chances of avoiding 1.5C of global heating. But if R, or global temperatures, rise too much, it has sad and difficult consequences for our lives – people die, food gets more expensive, it gets harder to make a living.  Somehow, we need to get a grip, reinstate some sense of cause and effect between abstract science and in-your-face social problems.

Searching for clues about this, I’ve been back to the 1970s. I’m old enough to remember hearing about Limits to Growth as a young teenager and realising, at the time, that it doesn’t make sense to just keep doing more and more, faster and faster. (You can only imagine how disappointing the last 45 years have been, as the world economy has more-or-less followed the trajectory predicted by Limits to Growth which would lead to world collapse by the mid-21st century).

Part of the trouble has been that we are still modelling for ‘normal’ environmental problems, and reality has gone very post-normal: “facts are uncertain, values are in dispute, stakes are high, and decisions urgent”. In ‘normal’ environmental problems, if your local factory spews out nasty stuff into your local river, you can band together with some mates and get science applied to sort it out (and, with a few diplomatic twiddles, the same is true of wider issues like acid rain). The world has accepted this modernising approach for those 45 years – the mantras of clean production, green jobs, environmental efficiency and the knowledge economy are all in play, but they never challenge the fundamental “more is better” thing going on underneath it all.

With climate change, and with COVID-19, we reach a point where “more” is definitely making things worse. All the ecological space has been used up. How we do basic things like growing food, or keeping homes cool, or going to work, are now driving global heating that has the potential to make doing those simple things crazily difficult. The pandemic too is a product of an ever-growing world economy putting massive pressure on nature and the kind of globalisation that sees 18 million people fly into the UK each quarter. This is where a fundamental challenge to the “more is better” mindset kicks in.

Climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic represent ‘wicked’ problems – not only complicated in terms of how many different elements they contain, but complex in looping back on themselves and setting off emergent new issues (such as tipping points in global heating). Was COVID-19 worse in Italy than in Japan partly because their culture believes in embracing, not bowing? What are the structural reasons why BAME people have suffered more from COVID-19? Suddenly the idea that nature can be bracketed off while we talk about sociology seems rather foolish.

This wickedness is why we can no longer use engineering thinking – the old ‘normal science’ of modernising – to solve our problems. An ecological approach is needed that considers the system as much as the detail, and recognises real limits. Perhaps the crisis caused by the virus can demonstrate that “less” is better – less traffic, less commuting, less rushing around, less travel, less shopping – these would be better for nature, but what about society? Ecological thinking considers the relationships in the system, works in an intersectional way, not allowing one dimension to dominate – whether economic, political or military. In ecology, unchecked growth will no more lead to a happy ending than unchecked decline – both are indications that the system is dangerously out of balance. But this is not to praise stasis – the question is how to prosper, dynamically – what kind of change is good for nature and humanity?  

The idea of a Green New Deal is becoming a popular response to how to benefit nature and humanity in recovering from Covid-19 – but for me the most fruitful ways of thinking about this are ecological and intersectional – what does a decolonising Global Green New Deal look like? A feminist Green New Deal? How do we apply these ideas in our own region, scarred and blessed with its own history and geography? Change is possible, but scientific knowledge will not be sufficient, we need, as Jasanoff says, social institutions that bridge science with “the layered investments that societies have made in worlds as they wish them to be”.

Read all the blogs in our series on ‘Studying an uncertain future‘.