International Earth Day and Covid-19

Today, April 22, is International Earth Day, writes Alan Thornett.

Photo: Steve Corey

It was established 50 years ago following a massive oil spill off the coast of California as an opportunity to reflect on the degradation being inflicted on the planet. Half a century later it is observed in 192 countries and comes at a time when we are faced with the most dangerous global pandemic that we have seen for a very long time.

The left has rightly castigated numerous governments over the virus for being unprepared, acting late, and causing thousands of unnecessary deaths. We have rightly denounced the capitalist system for creating the social conditions – the pollution of the planet, industrialised agriculture, deforestation, habitat destruction, and the mis-treatment of animals both wild and domesticated – under which such pandemics can arise and flourish.

In Britain, the left have slammed 10 years of deliberate and devastating Tory/Lib-Dem cuts which have left the country vulnerable to dangerous pandemics of this kind. It has denounced the breath-taking incompetence of the Johnson government, its criminal (and social Darwinist) herd immunity policy, and its scandalous down-grading of testing at the time that it was crucial – plus its failure to provide basic life-saving protection equipment to millions of NHS and social care workers.

This is good but we have to go further. Our starting point, in the best traditions of Earth Day, has to be the defence of the planet itself as a viable living space. We as human beings cannot keep on trashing nature without serious consequences.

Our starting point has to be where these pathogens come from in the first place, what drives them to become a pandemic, and why such problems are they getting more frequent. We have to have an exit strategy from such pandemics and we need to discuss the kind of societal changes that will have to be made if we are to reduce the risks of and from such pandemics in the future.

Crucially, we have to insist that pandemics such as C19 are an integral part of the global ecological crisis we are facing. They are not just happening at the same time, they are the new normal. They are on a par with the other existential threats to life on the planet such as pollution, global warming, the mass extinction of species, the fresh water crisis.

We are living in the age of the Anthropocene – an age defined by the impact human beings on the planet, and this is the practical upshot of it. They are driven by globalisation, population density, habitat destruction and industrialised agriculture. These factors facilitate both the initial transition of the virus from animals to humans and the speed and distance the disease is able to spreads. The aviation industry, as currently constituted provides the perfect platform for pandemics to spread globally. 

Lessons from the pandemic

Ironically, this pandemic itself, in the shape of the lock-downs that have had to be taken against it, is pointing to some answers to the ecological crisis itself. The discussion as to how to reach zero carbon emissions by 2030 has been taken to a new level. With the global civil aviation fleet grounded, millions of cars off the road and big sectors of industry as a standstill, carbon emissions are dropping like a stone. People trapped in smog-filled cities are breathing clean air again and the path towards zero carbon by 2030 could hardly be more clear.

At the same time nature is bouncing back in a remarkable way ((other than those species already extinct). I have lived under the Heathrow flight path into for 20 years during which the drone of approaching aircraft has started at 5.30 every morning and continued without a break until midnight 365 days a year. Now, for a month, there has been complete silence other than the dawn chorus of the birds as they start the nesting season. In Venice, fish are returning as pollution levels in the lagoons are dropping.

In the tropical regions myriad species (at least those not yet extinct) are taking full advantage of beaches closed by the block-down. In Brazil, nearly 100 hawksbill sea turtles, a critically endangered species, have hatched and made their way to the sea without the normal disruption by tourism. Government employees witnessed the hatch and took photos of the chicks making their way into the water.

No reversion to previous models

The environmental left has to be clear that the end (whatever that means) of the pandemic must not, if we are to take the aspirations of Earth Day seriously, mean resurrecting the previous ecologically disastrous structures that were there before, with all the planes taking off and all the cars back on the road. That would be a lost opportunity – and a calamity.

Governments will no doubt (presumably) be proposing major investment to get the collapsed economies up and running again and to reduce the unemployed levels created by the lock-down. Such investment, we have to argue, should go towards reshaping society towards a much more sustainable model.

This means:

  1. An end to trashing the planet and forming a new and different relationship with nature.
  2. An end to industrialised agriculture and deforestation
  3. A crash programme to introduce a carbon free energy system based on renewables.
  4.  The rapid phasing out of the internal combustion engine; free public transport systems with a big reduction in the use of any kind of car, carbon or electric.
  5. Retro-fit the national housing stock and replace gas fuelled boilers – one of the biggest challenges in the decarbonisation process.

Let’s make Earth Day 2020 count!

This article was first published by Socialist Resistance in April 2020.


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