Coronavirus — An Opportunity?

Client: Daily Times
30th April 2020

The recent viral photographs and videos of a leopard prowling Margalla Road has people mesmerised. WWF-Pakistan has indeed confirmed the descent of species such as the porcupine, barking deer, wild boar, fox and martin into their rightful habitat, as Islamabad and surrounding areas remain deserted during the lockdown. Lahore’s air quality index has fallen from 496 PPM in January to a bewildering 37 PPM in April. Satellite images from NASA showing changes of tropospheric density over China in January and then February (a month into their lockdown) is indicative of a sharp drop in heat retaining gases. Similar images soon popped up of Italy, Korea and England. Scientists are speculating that by May 2020, C02 emissions might be at the lowest yet since the last economic crisis in 2008. Nature is reclaiming its territory -prompting us to question the notion of “business as usual”.

If there is one systemic problem with the environment, it is the economy. Capitalism is parasitic. Unlimited growth in a limited environment bears no logic and is irrational on a mantra that assumes ‘rationality’. It is absurd to assume that ‘rational decision makers’ make choices without the influence of other factors, individuals or emotions. Herman Daly’s ‘impossibility theorem’ stays relevant – “the continuation of capitalism, as a grow or die system dedicated to unlimited capital accumulation, is a flat impossibility”. Rituals arise from religion, and capitalism managed to ritualise commodities.

As businesses and organisations are using this time for development and strategizing, our governments should be keeping themselves busy in a similar manner

The coronavirus pandemic is nothing short of a twisted zombie apocalypse movie. The virus stems from anthropogenic activities – population boom, illegal wildlife and black market trade, unprecedented pollution and so on. All things unnatural occurring all at once – wildlife that would never have come into contact naturally finds itself in horrific, close quarter conditions. A video on the Wuhan wildlife market will have you regurgitate, become paralysed with fear, and have your hair stand on end with the atrocities being committed. Capitalism breeds unintended consequences as well, such as negligence and lack of accountability. No wonder wet markets are breeding grounds for swine flus, mad cow disease, ebola, bird flu and MERS.



svg%3EThe ability of certain species to become more resilient (evolution) then stems from this exponential capitalistic growth. For instance, typhoid has become a super bug in Pakistan that can fight all antibiotics; the BD pathogen catalysed the ‘amphibian apocalypse’ in 2019 and rats have evolved to fit into every alien environment that they find themselves in and wreak havoc. The globalisation of ecosystems has had heinous consequences without a doubt. Yet, only when something was visibly and directly affecting us, did we begin to take action. One little virus has brought the entire world to its knees – a feat even wars have not been able to accomplish.

According to environmental professors Fred Magdoff and John Foster, in order to make a true move towards sustainable human development, we need a drastic transformation in social relations, community, culture and economy. Solving our environmental crisis is not possible with our current social relations intact.

The global lockdown has offered us exactly this! We have immediately begun rethinking our way of life and adapting. Teachers, first and foremost, rose to the occasion and are conducting successful lessons online. The archaic 9 to 5 way of life that breaks down productivity and employee morale, now has individuals working from home. Individuals have taken to other forms of entertainment such as organic gardening that improves soil health which in turn pulls excess carbon out of the air and into the soil. Others are exploring organic cooking which improves human and natural health, they are reading, or spending more time noticing birds and nature. All of which improves mental health. Our buying choices have changed as we are now truly identifying our needs verses our wants. Primark sales fell from 650 million pounds a month to zero, oil prices have hit $0 per gallon in the U.S. Ecologically, this is stupendous!

Karl Marx indicated the problem with capitalism that stems from alienation in three spheres; from ones self, from means of production and from society and other individuals. Corona has opened our eyes to all these spheres.

The virus has united us at a human level. We are now ‘communicating’ and interacting in a manner which capitalistic society does not enable us. We are ‘checking in’ with one another, worrying about domestic abuse victims, those with mental health illnesses and the hard hit daily wager. Some of us are focusing on and learning the importance of self-care more so than ever. We are pondering over how our products came to the shelves of our stores, and whether they could have been contaminated somewhere in the exceedingly long supply chain. Making us now, more than ever, truly ‘rational’ buyers.

Governments across the globe have imposed laws and regulation at such vehemence that it is proof that it indeed is possible. Does this mean the capitalism can go green?

The only real way to do that is through politics. As businesses and organisations are using this time for development and strategizing, our governments should be keeping themselves busy in a similar manner. It is finally time we start thinking about how capitalism can better serve nature and our needs, verses fabricating and manipulating whims and wants. This is the perfect time for a Green New Deal and making a shift to renewable energy.

However, they are discussing bailouts, airlines are demanding a relaxation on cutting carbon emissions from the United Nations once lockdown ceases and the US (the biggest global polluter) Environmental Protection Agency is relaxing all environmental restrictions on businesses. The little cap and trade that previously existed is also being stymied. The economy is still taking precedence at a time when it is imperative to protect ourselves from viruses and superbugs such as corona and typhoid, wildfires such as those in Australia and California, locust attacks such as that in Africa and Hurricanes such as Irma, anomalic temperatures and sea level rises. We never seem to learn. After the 2008, economic stimulus increased carbon emissions by 5% – scientists are speculating it to be worse this time around.

It is time we start thinking about the economy as a subset of ecology, and not the other way around. We need drastic transformation in global energy use if we need to keep global temperatures below 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). This incredible feat, with constant production, would take 25 years. No longer are technological and market based solutions enough to save the ecological contradictions of capitalism. It has to be a combination of a change in energy usage, a transformation of social relations and global culture, low tech solutions (soil health, reforestation efforts etc) and lowering individual ecological footprints. This is our chance to live in a sustainable world.

About the author

Azal Zahir has a Master’s degree in Environmental Education from New York University. She is Founder of AbadTak, an environmental education organization in Pakistan. She has considerable experience in education, research, writing and management.