No Turning Back: How the Pandemic Opens the Door to a New Economy for People and the Planet
by Anja Rudiger
A quarter million people dead, trillion dollar economic losses per year — the cost of doing too little too late. This is the projected impact of the global climate crisis, not the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet the virus is on track to inflict a comparable toll, expedited by the same disregard for human lives at the frontline of the crisis. While the gradual but momentous impact of climate change has yet to fully register with people, the pandemic’s horrific effects are with us now, nearly unparalleled in their instant magnitude. The United States may lose more people than in the Vietnam war, and more jobs than in the Great Depression. Over 22 million workers have already filed for unemployment, and all but essential businesses and institutions are shuttered.
The pandemic’s reach is global, as is climate change, endangering us all. Yet in a profoundly unequal world, it is poor people, people of color, indigenous communities and women that bear the brunt of these crises. While the wealthy retreat to their restocked second homes, and the middle class buys resilience online, low-waged workers lack the means to escape exposure to harms. Far from being “in this together,” some of us can marshal the resources for their protection while others are left behind. This is the most disturbing failure of our society: the withholding of equal protection for all people.
Instead, the logic of market fundamentalism forces us to fend for ourselves. A threadbare safety net, defunded and privatized public services, downsized government, deregulated industries, at-will and contract employment act in concert to impede almost any collective public action that could prevent or mitigate health and ecological disasters. Yet rather than the triumph of the individual, we are witnessing the wealthy’s dependence on the toiling masses of “essential workers.” With private consumption moving online, the monopolized digital economy has morphed into a servant economy. It is “virtual” only in so far as the workers fulfilling orders remain invisible. As the safety of the rich is serviced by the poor, individualism is exposed as an illusion. When workers have no choice but to risk their lives in order to feed and care for the well-off, our society’s inequitable divisions and dependencies are laid bare. The connections that keep us alive are steeped in inequity.
The pandemic, once it subsides, will leave a collapsed economy in its wake. And eventually, another pandemic will follow. Humans have altered the planet to an extent where epidemiological and ecological shocks will become more frequent. Pandemics and climate disruptions are the catastrophic expressions of pervasive systems of exploitation, extraction and exclusion. As we struggle to cope with unprecedented losses, layoffs and lockdowns, our longing for normalcy will be in vain. Even in the best of times, millions of people suffer from poverty and racism, underpaid work and chronic health conditions, hunger and homelessness. For too many, every day is a crisis. The current economic breakdown is so dramatic precisely because our political and economic systems have failed us. A proactive crisis response that kept all workers on payroll, guaranteed adequate housing to shelter in place, distributed food for all and provided free virus health care was never on the table. Similarly, climate action has always been conditioned on market incentives and was never about investing in communities and democratically-controlled housing, food and energy systems. Those who now seek to resuscitate the old order are prepared to sacrifice lives on the altar of capitalism. But there is no turning back.
For decades we heard from those in power that it was impossible to halt harmful economic production, to slow fossil fuel combustion, to curtail conspicuous consumption. And yet, that’s exactly what we’re now doing. But it is not the just transition climate advocates demanded. It is an abrupt, painful breakdown that unmasks the moral bankruptcy and economic unsustainability of the existing order. Yet the pandemic has achieved what the climate movement couldn’t: changing what is politically possible. Suddenly, we’re in an entirely new phase of the struggle. The hegemonic economic model is self-destructing, and attempts to push radical agendas and realign power are gaining steam.
Unsurprisingly, those in charge are one step ahead. With many democratic assemblies suspended, the powerful are concocting plans behind closed doors. Trump’s knee-jerk nationalistic and xenophobic reaction to the global virus started with fortifying the border. A $500 billion corporate bailout, approved by Congress, followed. Under the cover of the pandemic, Trump is now pushing a wish list of right-wing policies, including attacks on labor, voting and abortion rights. His choice target is the environment: he directed the Environmental Protection Agency not to enforce environmental laws, rolled back Obama era fuel economy standards and helped the oil industry circumvent stay-at-home orders to begin construction on the Keystone XL pipeline. These measures may be designed to rescue the neoliberal order and revive capitalist markets, spearheaded by the most climate-destructive industries. Or they may usher in an even grimmer scenario, an authoritarian order facilitated by compromised or postponed elections and fortified by health and climate apartheid.
Yet as political elites scramble to save capitalism, they also prefigure the possibility of a new, people-centered economy. Austerity champions find themselves approving trillion-dollar spending bills, and small government ideologues are agreeing to massive state interventions. Progressive demands long deemed unfeasible — such as paid sick leave, direct cash transfers, reduced imprisonment, and pedestrian and bike friendly cities — are suddenly becoming reality. While falling far short of what’s desperately needed, these policies signal a shift of the political terrain. How can we step into this opening and push current changes in the direction of lasting justice for all?
First, we must be clear that the political and economic logic that brought about this crisis cannot solve it. The stark inequities scarring our society are not ancillary problems that add to the public health and climate emergencies, but inseparable from them. Our vision for healthy people and a healthy planet must be centered on equity and justice and guided by the voices and experiences of communities on the frontline. The pandemic has disrupted how we produce, consume, work and live. It is revealing in real time whose lives are on the line, whose labor is essential, which industries deserve to grow and which are superfluous. Let’s start here: public investment in essential but undervalued work in health and social care settings, as well as in food and ecological systems. A public jobs guarantee can expand sectors that serve social and environmental purposes and enable a just transition for all workers, whether they are affected by this immediate crisis or by structural changes such as accelerated automation, fossil fuel industry phase-out or reduced carbon-fueled consumption. We also need a democratized energy and transportation infrastructure that enables rather than undermines purposeful work. A Green New Deal could use public powers and investments to foster economic activities that heal and replenish, and relinquish those that distract and destroy.
Second, we must join the resistance of workers who reject their sacrificial roles. All workers should be able to determine their own lives, retain their livelihoods, protect their health, and feed and house themselves during a crisis. No one’s fate should depend on someone else’s decision. This pandemic is a crisis of workers’ rights and a call to arms for worker power. History recorded strike waves in the wake of pandemic-induced economic breakdowns, and strike actions are popping up across the country.
Third, we must cultivate the solidarity that is emerging in community-based mutual aid networks. Countless people are stepping up in their communities to keep vulnerable people safe and redirect broken supply chains. These actions affirm our connections in times of social distancing. They also help overcome unequal dependencies and forge more equitable links that resist exploitation and foster collective action. Building community resilience creates the organizing infrastructure to push for systemic transformations and lays the groundwork for a regenerative economy that produces what we value and shares what we need.
Our hope and imagination can also find nourishment in the natural world, briefly freed from pollution and noise. It is saddening that this respite for nature comes as communities are ravaged. Yet the opportunity for working together toward a lasting balance between people and the planet has rarely been clearer.
This post was originally published on Medium.