Capitalism, Climate Change and Coronavirus
This is the time to re-assess our capitalism.
On the day of the Janata curfew, birds were louder than I ever heard them around my house. It was like all of them together decided to come out. The funny thing was, they just didn’t stop. They chirped all day, well into the afternoon, until the entire neighborhood was drowned in their voice. And why wouldn’t they? There were no cars on the street to chase them away and blow smoke in their faces. No humans about to ruin their peace. Two days later, when the lockdown was announced, the birds rejoiced; they had the world to themselves for at least twenty-one more days. Since then on, people can’t stop gushing about how clean the air is, how blue the sky is, and how finally we can see the cotton candy clouds. The sunsets have been stunning, and even the trees seem greener and more alive.
The emission levels have plunged in China, allowing its citizens to breathe the cleanest air it has in years. Reuters reports that in Europe, cities like Brussels, Paris, Madrid and Frankfurt show reductions in levels of noxious nitrogen dioxide.
The world has been shut down, and these are the direct consequences of it. A third of the global population is under lockdown and is either trying to work from home, or doing nothing at all. Cars, taxis, trains, and scooters that ferried people day in and out have come to a standstill. And while China is loosening its restrictions and reopening work, the struggles have just begun: factories are facing various supply and demand problems. And it could be a long time before things go back to normal. This just goes to show one thing: there is a relationship between climate change, coronavirus and climate change. With increasing capitalism, climate change exacerbates; with coronavirus, capitalism has been halted and climate change reversed.
This is the time then, to re-assess our capitalism. If there was ever an indication of how unfit capitalism is for the current world, it is this. If there ever was a signal to show how the current capitalistic system has failed us, it is this. You can see it at an individual level as well: we are being stripped to our basic makeup, as layer by layer is removed. All everyone has now, or can hope for, is a roof over their head and food to last them through the crisis. The order is to sit still and stay at home till the crisis abates. What does that say about the fancies we have created?
The coronavirus, as of now, has infected almost 800,000 people globally and killed almost 40,000. It’s on track to create more damage as the number of cases double almost every two days. An article in Jacobin suggests that vaccine against COVID-19 could have been developed years ago, and all this damage could have been averted; but the vaccine wasn’t developed because at the time, it just wasn’t profitable for pharmaceutical companies to develop it. So what if companies weren’t driven by profit? The best of healthcare systems across the world are failing in front of this pandemic. The USA, now with the greatest number of cases in the world, has a healthcare which leaves millions of people uninsured. This, as Yes! magazine reports, is the crux of the matter: a capitalistic economy will not save you in a pandemic.
Yet capitalistic impulses do not halt, even in a public health crisis: ‘The cure can’t be worse than the disease’, Donald Trump recently said, hinting that he could not let the economy suffer. The Lieutenant Governer of Texas recently suggested that grandparents wouldn’t mind sacrificing themselves for the good of the economy. Basic necessities are being sold at unfair prices. Two US senators have been booked for insider trading over coronavirus. The joke is not that a guy ate a bat halfway across the world and now you can’t go to work- the joke is that your capitalist government doesn’t care about you, only what you can contribute. And once you cannot contribute anything, you are dispensable. The dead, to capitalism, are just numbers. The real disease is capitalism, and it’s making our planet gasp for breath.
Merion West, in an article, quotes Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative?, arguing ‘that it is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism. The term capitalist realism refers to a perceived widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but that it is also now impossible to imagine an alternative.’ While we despair the absence of an alternative, capitalism has proven that it fails us at the most crucial times. Just like it has fallen short of preventing the coronavirus, it puts the human population once more at risk by refusing to avert the climate crisis.
Growth and well-being can exist with nature, as we talked about Costa Rica’s model. Countries and economies can flourish while taking care of the environment. But can extreme and relentless capitalism cannot exist with nature, and the current world is testimony to that. The equation has been clear- as soon as they shut down capitalism, the birds and the clean air reappeared. What is needed is a complete overhaul in terms of how we look at the world- profit cannot be prioritized over the planet. There can be a new way for the economy to function, if only we sit down together to find it.
In a Vox article, Adam Tooze talks about how the Communist party in China right now recognizes that ‘everything has to change so everything can stay the same.’ Indeed, and it is more true for climate change than anything else- everything we know about the world has to change, in order for everything to remain the same.