In Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency: War Communism in the Twenty-First Century (2020), Swedish academic Andreas Malm explains how the primary catalyst of the pandemic is the deforestation of wildlife habitats. Deforestation has squeezed the once yawning gap between wildlife habitats and human civilisation, paving the way for pathogens to embed themselves in human societies. Malm’s intention is to illustrate that the climate “emergency” is in fact an emergency. Highlighting that it is an emergency, which the “global north” has displayed no urgency to ameliorate because it is always over there, where poor, ethnic people live. Malm gives us an alternative scenario to ponder over:
Consider a counterfactual timeline of victimhood more similar to that of the climate crisis. Imagine that Covid-19 would have jumped from Iran into Iraq in February 2020, killing a couple of thousand in Basra and Baghdad, then leapfrogging to Haiti, killing another 5,000 before swerving down to Bolivia and Mozambique, taking out another few batches of the same size, while the number of patients hovered in the lower hundreds in London, Paris and New York. It is not a far-fetched conjecture that governments of the global North would then have let the virus fester.(Malm, 21-22)
The global North would not have “put capitalism in quarantine” (22) if people in regions of the world, historically perturbed financially and culturally by the global North, suffered the initial impact of coronavirus’s interruption. Who gave much consideration to MERS, Ebola or ZIKA? None of us; despite having always been culpable and vulnerable to what we thought (if we were paying attention) only affected others. We don’t like to think that colonialism is still in operation. However, the reality is that it is—in numerous iterations: think of the UK’s shipment of used plastics to South East Asia (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/jan/12/loophole-will-let-uk-continue-to-ship-plastic-waste-to-poorer-countries). Or the coltan (which is used in all cell phones and laptops) mined informally in the Democratic Republic of Congo, by children (https://ejatlas.org/conflict/congo-coltan-in-the-kivu-region-dr-of-congo).
The perturbations of Covid are radically here, in our own shops, gyms and leisurely spaces—perturbing the smooth spatiality by forging invisible barriers between us, hindering the close-proximity capitalism requires to functionally produce normalcy. Now, there are not only invisibly-connective tissues in the form of WiFi signals, but also invisibly dis-connective tissues in the form of pathogens. Who’d have thought these invisible dis-connections have been incubating in cave-dwelling critters for millennia, morphing and adapting till they could inch near enough, which we helped them do by cutting down their incubator’s habitats—(there will be more on this in a future post).
The pressing urgency is no longer out there, in some media-portrayed hinterland ravaged by IMF and World Bank debts beyond the scope of our interest and line-of-egress–calculations. It’s here, because those hinterlands have always been both here and there, because of the complexity of connectivity. So it is in our interest for poorer nations to not be poor. In fact, it is quite simple: if we want to cancel debt we can, nothing to stop us apart from “old-certainty” (see previous post) hurdles we’ve erected: (https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2021/jan/26/uk-must-cancel-poor-countries-debt-or-face-covid-19-financial-tsunami).
We even have an example of when this has happened and proof of its efficacy: (https://www.cadtm.org/How-Europe-cancelled-Germany-s). In 1953, in London, a number of nations agreed to relieve Germany of crippling debt reparations, amassed in the wake of WWII. Without this relief it is hard to imagine Germany would be the economic powerhouse it currently is. It’s conceivable that, if a similar act of debt-waivering were agreed upon, then the problem of heavily indebted poor countries (of which there are 39: https://www.economicsonline.co.uk/Global_economics/Debt_and_debt_relief.html) would be immediately eradicated. What would follow: deprived countries would be able to allocate the money for debt payments to improving their population’s standard of living, rather than paying off obligations that were never realistic to begin with. Moreover, they will have the financial support to combat climate change, disease proliferation and the dismantling of informal settlements and markets. This protects us and them.
Covid is here and it is forcing us to calculate the costs of an emergency to ourselves this time. However, if we are to truly understand its origins, the emergence of coronavirus must not been seen as a temporary aleatoric moment; nor as an event isolated from other anthropogenically caused emergencies that are directly impacting nations such as Bangladesh, where the Sundarbans are being eaten by rising waters. No! These must be understood to be the consequences of the same problem: human (anthropogenic) caused destruction.
The usual narrative of the global (“other”) poor tasting tragedy before the incremental effects reach us in some to-be-determined future, is flipped on its head. Rich nations were the first to be majorly interrupted. It was the shock and awe of Covid and a sense of disbelief that we could ever be perturbed by extrinsic threats, which caused the global North to procrastinate long enough for the virus to evade containment. For Malm’s purpose, suggesting this lag as a cause of the high death rates in developed nations countervails his insight that corona = immediate action, whereas the climate crisis has received only lukewarm responses in comparison to the blitz of restrictions and disruption. However, whilst I agree with this, and whilst the lag wasn’t prolonged, it isn’t as if the global North has made the return to consumption a secondary focus. This remains the near-future, teleological summit of the Covid crisis (even as the folks at Davos try to pave a way to a more equitable—stakeholder capitalist—world: (https://www.weforum.org/events/the-davos-agenda-2021 ).
For most of my life I have been concerned about the environment. When I was an undergraduate over a decade ago, I was often belittled for my (supposedly) exaggerated, doom-laden world-view. Nobody who previously judged me insane thinks I am any longer; especially now that Covid has torn mercilessly into our enforced conception of normality. Covid has brought decades of slow ecological erosion into a media-maneuverable timeline: this is blitz-like shock and awe, a weekly zoetrope of harrowing news articles reporting the deletion of normalcy, caused by a zoonotic spillover (more in that future post I promised). Newspapers could be double the volume. The coverage of anthropogenically caused environmental impact, whilst certainly receiving more coverage than previously, hasn’t, despite the losses and erosion to the livelihoods of “others” and now ourselves, received the same infra-structural attention from governments and business. The evidence bears this out: we haven’t met any of the targets established to curb destructive pathways: (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/sep/15/every-global-target-to-stem-destruction-of-nature-by-2020-missed-un-report-aoe). We have made promises, but they are not being kept. I have to agree with Malm then, when he says, “Perhaps humanity should thank Covid-19 for taking the early route through Europe.” (23)
What Malm means is (putting the global North’s hypocrisies aside for a moment) the corona-crisis has brought to our attention the undeniable evidence that anthropogenic causes of habitat destruction are not only affecting “others”—who leftist political advocates have highlighted the abuse of since I was an undergrad—but that these destructive acts are actually the cause of globally manifestable crises, one of which is currently challenging our conception of normality. We are very close to the realisation that we are living in a world of metamorphosis.
In short, because of Covid, the global North has realised it is vulnerable to its own systemic processes of capital generation. This is important, as the global North actually has the financial, scientific, engineering and persuasive gravity to do something meaningful regarding anthropogenic climate change, habitat destruction and massive loss of biodiversity. Moreover, it can bring an improvement to all peoples’ standard of living (with debt cancellation being a good start). And even better, Covid has proven that we have the capacity to react to problems, pretty quickly. As Malm outlines:
[Leaders did not]…take to heart the proposition that the climate crisis constituted an emergency on a par with war. For a number of years, that had been a staple of agitation of climate scientists and activists, who liked to cite the Allied war effort as an actual case of society facing death, corralling its forces to survive, focusing on one aim to the exclusion of everything else and managing, under extreme time pressure, to defeat the enemy. The most cited paper on how the US economy could replace fossil fuels with 100 per cent renewable energy pointed to the factories of GM and Ford rolling out hundreds of thousands of aircraft during World War II. Then why not wind turbines and solar panels?(Malm, 10)
And Covid has indicated this same wartime-like response (https://www.theguardian.com/business/2020/mar/17/uk-manufacturers-regear-factories-build-ventilators-nhs) is possible, as companies are diverting their manufacturing focus to provide equipment for the fight against Covid. Admittedly this is due to their own product being obsolete during the pandemic. Which begs the other question of the viability and relevance of privileging the accumulation of things that are utterly useless and merely passively gorged on. Why is this the best way to establish a status quo? What value has fast fashion got when nothing is open? What is the purpose of passive consumerism if it is going to destroy us? Why not a huge surge in action to address climate and habitat related dilemmas? We know, faced with an existential crisis we can allocate resources to their solution. We know that we can pause to reflect and assess value. That we can stop the machine to take note of how damaging it is. And in stopping it, witness how beneficial this is to other systems (biodiversity), which really do support us.
It stands to reason that if change is belated post-Covid and blamed as an impossibility, their will be no leg for the excusers to proverbially stand on. It will be easy to point to the futile efforts to save capitalism and remind them of how capitalism failed to support us when we relied on it most. I am not advocating the cessation of the fight against Covid, nor the diversion of energies to the climate crisis. I am encouraging the carry-over of these efforts into a strategic plan to curb habitat destruction and anthropogenic climate change. Now that we understand that we are actually experiencing the sort of metamorphosis of the world I explained in my previous post, we can begin to be coefficient—there aren’t, any longer, the tedious excuses of infeasibility. If the global North hasn’t learned that its productive capacities are part of the problem that led to Covid, then post-Covid is going to be as dismal and desperate as pre-Covid. This cannot be allowed to happen. We must not let this happen. In order to elude this fatuous return to normality, we must change our minds about what is valuable. What we have been told is valuable, really isn’t…not anymore, not after all this. We must not take the changing of opinions lightly, when enough people do this, massive assemblages are formed, new trajectories endeavoured upon, new stabilities established—better opportunities and a more equitable society.
Malm, Andrea. Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency: War Communism in the Twenty-First Century. Verso, 2020.
For more on the Bangladeshi refugee crisis, see Amitav Ghosh’s novel Gun Island (2019) and his non-fiction text The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (2016).