In the “postapocalypticworld” Instagram account I follow, the visuals have lately begun to eerily echo the present – hospital settings, masked faces and posts about loneliness. Today, wherever one looks, be it Twitter, Facebook, or Whatsapp forwards, one comes across messages of resilience, camaraderie and a belief that “this too shall pass”.
In circles of political power the expression of choice happens to be “war on the virus”, while business likes to talk about the post-pandemic scenario in terms of “bouncing back”. In these utterances, articulations and images it might be possible for us to look for clues about a world that awaits us on the other side. The post-coronavirus world that lies beyond the dark mountains of the present.
In Shweta Taneja’s dystopian story “The Daughter that Bleeds” which is in the running for a major French award, women have become infertile in a post-apocalyptic India ravaged by bio wars. Fertile women are rare and are auctioned for marriage to the highest bidder. Manjula Padmanabhan’s novel Escape imagines a future India where women are the “Vermin” – because technology has provided an alternative route to reproduction, they are not required anymore.
Though rumours of bio-weapons and laboratory leaks keep floating around the Covid-19 pandemic and misogyny does creep out of the closet in times of social strife, the current disaster is likely to follow more complex trajectories. Not least because it is a new virus and the world on the other side of this plague is expected to be different in significant ways.
The features of that post-scourge world are still fluid, still being framed in our imaginations, actions, preparations and hopes. Which is why we need to look at stories which are the channels of our imagination, while also listening to what the pundits and the person on the street has to say.
Pointing out that the current pandemic had been predicted, philosopher Noam Chomsky, criticising the neo-liberal order, has said nothing was done because “there’s no profit in preventing a future catastrophe”. He buttresses his assertion citing how a project to manufacture simple and cheap ventilators in the US was scuttled in 2014 because it was not thought to be profitable.
Because of increasing contiguity of humans and animals, some of which are reservoirs of deadly viruses, we cannot expect Covid-19 to be the last pandemic to strike humanity. Therefore, if the current neo-liberal order prevails with all its attached values and institutions, would a future outcome from a similar outbreak be the same, if not worse? Perhaps not. Some change can be reasonably anticipated.
Just as the United Nations was founded right after the cessation of hostilities of the Second World War, a slew of reforms, including several at the World Health Organisation, can be expected to be launched at national and multilateral levels, all geared towards addressing the causes and incidence of future catastrophes.
Whether these reforms will be eyewash or robust attempts to address the causes and management of emerging diseases depends on whether the logic of profits and non-interventionist governments will be able to maintain its velvet grip on the ways of the world, or whether spontaneous broad-based popular movements in the nature of the recent climate change gatherings will help establish an alternative course for the future.
There is a reason I use the term velvet grip. In a Whatsapp group I am part of, some members are currently sharing plans of taking cruise holidays next year or as soon as this pandemic is over. Meanwhile, others are worrying about impending pay cuts or job losses. A few have been thinking aloud about investing in shares of big pharma companies which are developing treatments and vaccines for SARS-CoV-2.
While the pandemic has foregrounded these divisions, there is little doubt that the velvet chains of consumerism and the allure of the free market, notwithstanding their proven impact on climate change, haven’t loosened. So, many are treating the current incarceration as an unplanned, maybe slightly uncomfortable, holiday on a dark mountain while preparing for business as usual on the other side.
The other side
Yet it is clear that the world on the other side of this mountain will be poised at a crossroads, and perhaps we will see an alliance of common people pushing back against systems and practices that foster the destruction of ecosystems on one hand and give rise to unmanageable diseases on the other. Surely those photographs of the sparkling Himalayan peaks visible from cities of Punjab or reports of clean river water will have left an impact on us, as will have the uncertainty and fear while the pandemic raged.
Which force will prevail, and what could be the contours of a desirable alternative? Let us slip back to literature for a moment and see what has been envisaged in the realm of imagination. In Kim Stanley Robinson’s Pacific Edge, which is set in the near future, a long and difficult legal struggle has led to a series of reforms which include limiting of company sizes, a ceiling on management pay packets, and nationalisation of energy, water and land.
In this fictional setting of El Modena in a future California there is a lot of sharing as people take part in town-work, live in common houses, and join hands to tear out the asphalt roads of an unsustainable past. Yet greed is not dead, as evinced by a proposed commercialisation venture at Rattlesnake Hill.
Is there at all a possibility that the disruptive effects of this pandemic will be so great that we might be prepared to embrace more ecologically conscious lifestyles and radically new ways of running our affairs while addressing vested interests and greed? Transition theory shows us a number of ways through which change occurs including slowly, suddenly, through transformation or replacement of institutions and practices and with the involvement of a variety of actors.
Change here is also categorised as occurring and flowing upwards from “niche” to “regime” and from there to “landscape” level. The Sustainable Transitions blog, following Geels and Schot, points out how a fully developed technology like solar energy could quickly replace oil during a time of high prices if there are disruptive pressures from the “landscape”, which covers external factors like climate, wars and a pandemic in our case.
While oil prices are naturally low at this time, this situation might change when economies begin to open up. The role and impact of community groups in pushing for alternative technologies and practices against a backdrop of disruptive change is no doubt important in our context. Even before the immediate threat dies, there is some news to cheer.
New York State, one of the worst affected by the pandemic, has just passed enabling legislation that will facilitate the use of renewables for Covid-19 recovery efforts. Yet alongside this there are also worrying reports from the US about the controversial Keystone XL pipeline project being speeded up to take advantage of the pandemic induced disruption.
From temporary to permanent
Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme recently said that the coronavirus pandemic and the climate crisis are messages from nature. It is well known that a belief in limitless growth, high-consumption lifestyles and indifference to climate change, among other reasons, have destroyed and shifted habitats of wild species, bringing them in close proximity to humans leading to spillover events and increasing outbreaks of zoonotic diseases like Covid-19.
Jem Bendell of Cumbria University, who is well known for his “Deep Adaptation” paper, has in fact stated that climate change could have affected the movement of bats, which are natural reservoirs of the novel coronavirus, bringing them closer to humans. In fact, according to a 2010 study, about 60% of emerging pathogens in humans are zoonotic, and 70% of these come from wildlife.
So the linkages between resource-plundering economies, habitat loss, climate change and disease are well known, which is why the calls for studying and addressing health (human and animal) and the environment together as a single issue should be heeded. As popular movements around climate change, propelled by Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future, are well established in the collective psyche, these might serve as a good vehicle for seeding the ground for larger mobilisation in support of sustainable futures where concepts like a circular economy, zero-carbon lifestyles, sustainable cities, and eco-communalism, along with equity and social justice, may take centrestage.
In the more proximate event horizon following the pandemic, it can be expected that various institutions, companies and employers, having appreciated the benefits of work-from-home and video-conferencing, and the lighter impact that these have on the environment, will increasingly opt for these alternatives as they would often make more “business sense”.
Whether industry will be ready to curtail unsustainable production practices will, however, largely depend on the success and influence of popular movements on companies and government policy, as well as judicial activism in certain cases. Meanwhile, as individual consumers, will we be prepared to forsake unnecessary air travel, cruise holidays or our appetite for non-essential consumer goods and ecologically-damaging lifestyles that harm the environment? Some change can be expected but as for their extent, only time can tell.
The route to recovery
It is well known that the First World War not only helped spread the Spanish flu (1918-19) pandemic, but the flu also facilitated the Allied victory. It also killed between 10 million and 20 million Indians, and may have energised the independence movement. Looking for greater implications of the current pandemic for countries and economies, it is more than certain that there will be varying degrees of social strife, hunger and exacerbating poverty in many nations.
In India we have already seen the terrible plight of migrant workers walking back hundreds of kilometres to their villages from the cities where their livelihoods are gone. According to some estimates, India’s unemployment rate has climbed to 23% from 8.7% after lockdown measures were implemented.
Meanwhile, the United States administration has been contemplating disaster scenarios, which cover the possibility of “widespread domestic violence as a result of food shortages”. Still, it’s early days, and if the lockdowns around the world are extended much longer, the effects of economic slowdown through job losses, pay cuts and reduced demand in the absence of sizeable rescue packages will soon be aggravated. Yet lockdowns are necessary to save lives from the pandemic.
In a recent conversation organised by Scroll and Juggernaut Books between 2019 economics Nobel laureates Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee stressed on this conflict between lives and livelihoods, while also mentioning that they were unsure if consumption will bounce back after reopening, as was the case after the Second World War. As the world enters a coronavirus-driven recession, many economists have been talking about Keynesian economic policies which advocate increased government spending and job creation to spur consumption demand and restart economies.
In a world plagued by anthropogenic climate change and its manifestations, from the return of forgotten diseases to migration and wildfires, laissez faire economic liberalism, globalisation and free market capitalism are definitely part of the problem. Keynesian prescriptions for demand-led resurgence and growth are no doubt important in the post-disaster setting, but it is important to account for ecological costs and equity in all measures that need to be taken.
Though Keynes hardly mentioned environmental issues, researchers have found in his philosophy of uncertainty, the stress he puts on unemployment and equity, his critique of capitalism and his consideration of economics as a secondary science, the foundations of social and ecological sustainability.
Which brings us back to the necessity of deeper and more radical changes that can guarantee an environmentally sustainable future with economic equity and social justice. That’s a tall order no doubt, but unless we imagine what is desirable there is no clear path to that goal.
Technology or cooperation?
The ecological-economist Robert Costanza, in his well-known paper “Four Visions for the Century Ahead – Will it be Start Trek, Ecotopia, Big Government or Mad Max?” outlined four possible outcomes for the future, linking them to works of speculative fiction and cinema which approximate these visions. In this approach the imagined futures are primarily divided into those with technological optimism (human progress will continue unhindered driven by technology and science) and those which are techno-sceptic (the road ahead is through social cooperation and community development and not technology).
This techno-optimist vision can come true – that is, technology, say geo-engineering or universal vaccines, really solves problems like climate change or disease outbreak. But this may not materialise, and things could fall apart, taking us towards dystopian scenarios as envisaged in the Mad Max films or, to consider an Indian story, Prayag Akbar’s Leil , with its post-apocalyptic India of scarce resources, gated sectors and flyroads.
Similarly the positive techno-sceptic vision, wherein social cooperation and not technology plays a major role in addressing future problems, gives us scenarios like Ernst Callenbach’s Ecotopia, which is about an ecological utopia that has broken away from the United States. The solarpunk movement of which Ecotopia is considered a predecessor is about imagining such positive futures mostly with existing technologies like solar energy and cooperation between individuals.
Negative techno-sceptic visions of progress on the other hand generates scenarios with big governments and authoritarianism clamping down on companies that don’t work for public interest, population control for stabilising economic growth, and so on.
In the dynamics of the real world, we will usually be somewhere in between these four visions or boundary conditions, moving closer to one or the other as the policy scenario and other variables change. While vaccines and techno-fixes are desirable, though these might breed complacency, big governments are not. However, during and after the current pandemic we can expect an increasing and legitimate demand for a larger role for the government.
From providing medical and financial support, imposing lockdowns, however detrimental these might be for business, to ensuring that industry falls in line and participates in mitigating this disaster, the government’s role is undeniable and important. Without this, the situation in many countries could quickly spin out of control with serious social unrest in the backdrop of increasing death counts.
The state steps in
Governments are, however, slowly stepping in. In the United States, currently the country most affected by the virus, President Trump has lately invoked the Defence Production Act. The Russian President, on the other hand, announced economic measures which will be partly funded by a levy on bank deposits. In China, where the outbreak began, western media channels have reported the use of draconian tactics to contain the outbreak.
A strong government within a rule-based democratic setup can be desirable in times of a crisis like Covid-19. Not so in the medium and long run, especially when we think of the rise of authoritarianism around the world. The increasing powers of the surveillance state and what has been described as the “coronopticon” – involving tracking and other technologies to fight the pandemic which can also be used to keep tabs on citizens – besides the impact of the politics-industry nexus on the environment, are not welcome in the long run.
However, reduced government role should not imply handing over the reins to the vagaries of the free market. More than a century ago, the rivalry between German physician and microbiologist Robert Koch, who discovered the bacteria responsible for cholera and tuberculosis, and the Bavarian chemist and hygienist Max Joseph Pettenkofer, that played out in the backdrop of the cholera outbreak in Hamburg (1892), clearly demonstrates the conflicts between strong government action to prevent and control an epidemic and the laissez-faire demands of unhindered trade and commerce. The local government’s liberal attitude towards trade and commerce, coupled with Pettenkofer’s own theories and disbelief in the cholera diagnosis, resulted in a large number of deaths.
The role of civil society as a moderating force in the tug-of-war between strong government and free enterprise assumes importance in all such contexts. Social cooperation and community initiatives, which fit with Costanza’s positive techno-sceptic vision transported back to the present, can be expected to play a major role in the post-coronavirus landscape. This is already visible in fundraising initiatives and support for the health and emergency services professionals in many countries. It is anticipated that this cooperative spirit will gradually energise the movements for more broad-based change mentioned before, perhaps joining forces with the climate change platforms already in place.
“This too shall pass”, we repeat as we check the Worldometer statistics of the pandemic. Chomsky expects that there will be recovery from Covid-19, but this will entail “severe and possibly horrendous cost, particularly for the poor and more vulnerable”. He is, however, not so optimistic about the outcome of the unfolding climate disaster.
How the worldwide catastrophe wrecked by the novel coronavirus will transform mindsets, societies, politics and economies will finally depend on the interplay of power, greed, benevolence, the spirit of innovation, and the sense of community among fellow humans. Science, industry, governments and civil society will all have important roles to play in this future, which cannot be too far away. Finally, it will be the collective realisation of our kinship with the living planet that will determine what awaits us on the long road that stretches beyond the dark mountains of the present.
Rajat Chaudhuri has published six books, which include ecofiction, short story collections and translated works. He has advocated on climate change issues at the United Nations. He can be found here on Twitter.