democraciaAbierta: Opinion

After the pandemic, will we return to business as usual?

After the catastrophe of the Covid-19 pandemic, we can seriously ask if the “new normal” will be business as usual or is this an opportunity to seriously start changing the paradigm of our civilisation. Português, Español

IMG-0249.JPG
Francesc Badia i Dalmases
1 May 2020
Aerial photo of Manhattan in New York City, taken in October 2019
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Li Muzi/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

Meteorologists have warned that this year is on track to become the hottest since records began. The climate crisis continues, whose medium-term consequences will be devastating, without being controlled. And meanwhile, all of us are looking with uncertainty at the future that awaits us, and the daily Covid-19 lockdown news leave us dreaming of returning to a lost normality.

Whilst it is true that the global halt in social and economic activity, the closure of borders and airspace, and the lockdown of the world’s populations has left clear skies and created a small window for fauna and flora to regrow.

It is also true that the long hours in quarantine, without distractions, has opened another window of opportunity for us. To rethink the accelerated rhythm of the model of life in which we are immersed, personally and as a society. What should our existential priorities be? Are we going to do something meaningful when we regain the freedom to move and consume goods and services?

There is an intolerable social and economic pressure to return to work as soon as possible, as governments have seen the terrifying figures of the economic catastrophe.

But it looks like these windows will be quite short lived. It would take years at this level of inactivity to repair some of the damage to nature and the environment that has taken place since the industrial revolution brought about an economy based on fossil fuels and the endless exploitation of natural resources.

But there is an intolerable social and economic pressure to return to work as soon as possible. Governments have seen the terrifying figures of the economic catastrophe and are worries about dragging many millions of workers around the world into unemployment. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has just warned that, as a result of the economic and health impacts of Covid-19, almost half of the planet's formal workforce - some 1.6 billion people - could be affected.

The rush to get back to business is therefore understandable. However, what is at stake now leaves us with a dilemma. If we want to ensure control of the pandemic, we must still stay at home as much as possible, learn to live separately and work from home as much as we can, but that will ruin us economically and socially. The other option is to immediately return to the streets and do what we did before but if that triggers the return of the pandemic, we will return to square one.

Many will say it's a false dichotomy. In any case, each option has different personal consequences depending on our circumstances: age, sex, working conditions, health, type of housing, geographical location, income and disposable income, services within reach, quality of WIFI connection, even ideology, or religious beliefs... As is evident, we are faced with a complex existential paradox, although the dependent variable is inequality.

What do we do? Do we behave as selfish individuals and bet on every man for himself, knowing that in this scenario the powerful win? Do we behave as a closed community, and bet on our own, on our family and neighbours, our parish, our small tribe or "our nation first"? Or do we behave as a species, and seek solidarity, the common good and mutual care, even if this means great personal sacrifices, and also at the level of our tribe?

Even if we know what the morally correct answer is according to our values, the decision, loaded with emotions, is difficult for anyone.

Looking forward

If there is one virtue to this pandemic, it is that it allows us to look up for a moment at the daily whirlwind and think about what future we want for ourselves, for our society and for the entire species. But to do this it is necessary to have some certainty about what our immediate future holds. And the future is, at present, dominated by the uncertainty of Covid-19. There are too many unknowns and too few certainties.

Among the certainties is the knowledge that this virus is here to stay.

Among the unknowns is the behaviour of the virus in the medium term. We don't know yet what kind of immunity our body generates, or for how long. We do not know if science will find an effective vaccine, how long it will take to arrive, and if it will be universal or only available to a limited part of the population. But it will be of little use if the immunity is short. Nor do we know, and this is perhaps what is most worrying now, if and when the virus will get out of control again in a second outbreak, which is expected to be much more lethal for people and for the economy, as happened with the Spanish flu a century ago.

Among the certainties is the knowledge that this virus is here to stay. That it's very contagious, much more so than the common flu. And that, in the absence of an effective vaccine for everyone, only with strict measures of social distancing and continuous hygiene can we avoid too many infections and radically reduce the mortality rate. We are also certain that, in any event, we are facing an unprecedented economic disaster, that our lack of a viable alternative model right now, means we must somehow return to the past.

Yet many of us also know that, to ensure that the way out of this is sustainable over time, we would have to change our way of life. And that this change implies what is called a paradigm shift, a "reset", as Manuel Castells recently called it. And this is where the resistance begins.

Change of paradigm?

We have known for too long (since the 1950s) that our model, based on the values of industrial capitalism, individualism at all costs and continuous growth, is unsustainable. We also know now that it has reached such a saturation point that it has become highly toxic for the planet and very destructive for our habitat and that of almost all other species.

Changing the paradigm would mean, among other things, stopping the growth rate, so destructive for the climate and the biosphere, and entering a degrowth process.

But to change the paradigm, to “reset” the system, we would have to give up too many things. Even if now, physically and psychologically damaged by the effects of the pandemic, we declare that we are willing to do so, as soon as normality returns our beloved capitalism of consumption, leisure, and perpetual mobility will return. And so will inequality. And then, anxious to "reincorporate", to "reopen", we will have forgotten our promises and vows, made in a moment of weakness when we were forced to reflect, because we were afraid of dying.

Changing the paradigm would mean, among other things, stopping the growth rate, so destructive for the climate and the biosphere, and entering a degrowth process, as many sociologists and economists already claim. This would mean changing the industrial model and minimizing the consumption of the unnecessary, of the dispensable, and ending the abuses of the financial economy, starting with tax havens. And at the same time, it would mean ending the tremendous inequalities, not only raising the standard of those who have nothing, but significantly reducing the standard of those who have a lot.

Dizzying figures

Since the evidence of the catastrophic scale of climate change has become undeniable, some timid model transition programmes have been launched, with the intention of progressively abandoning greenhouse gas emissions and moving towards non-resource-based growth, such as the European Green Deal.

But up until the beginning of March, billions of vehicles with combustion engines were still on the road. Tens of thousands of planes were still flying around the planet. In 2019, 90.3 million new cars were sold worldwide, even though it was 4% less than in 2018, at 94.4 million. On the morning of November 20, 2019, for example, there were 11,500 planes flying simultaneously around the world. What is the point of having an average of 154 daily flights between Sydney and Melbourne, according to 2017 data? And what is the logic behind the fact that 83.7 million tourists arrived in Spain in 2019, more than 80% of them on board aircraft? Aren't the 65.7 million tourists who visited New York in 2018 far too many? And what about the dozens of new airports, the countless kilometres of motorways, the billions of animals slaughtered, the endless hectares of forest deforested?

Although these figures should cause vertigo, they are generally assumed to be "normal", and it is to this "normality" that we aspire to return, the sooner the better.

Because: who, among the rich and the middle classes, is going to suddenly give up flying in airplanes, their second homes, their swimming pools, their cruise ships? And who, among the underprivileged, is going to stop dreaming of achieving one day, for himself or for his family, some of these privileges that the system promises, even though it almost never fulfils them?

Our system is full of contradictions, but Schumpeter has already said that the nature of capitalism is its creative destruction. Perhaps many will have taken advantage of the quarantine to ask themselves profound questions, although I don't think that the Covid-19 is strong enough to be a true game changer. More than one person will have to make a proposal for amendments, and I hope that this will have some influence on their future political behaviour. For example, in our democracies, where we will see whether those who are seriously committed to a change of model will win, or the nationalists and populists who are committed to deepening what we have, trusting in God and borders, will eventualluy win, and that they really do not care about the others .

What is almost certain is that, as soon as it leaves us, as many of us as possible will go back to normal, back to the beach. After all, we are members of an orchestra that will continue to play while the ship is sinking. But after the coronavirus catastrophe, one can honestly ask: will the new normality be business as usual or an opportunity to start changing, seriously, the paradigm of our civilization?

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