COVID-19 as an Opportunity

I see the pause forced on us by COVID-19 as an opportunity for cultural housekeeping and for learning. The pandemic clearly demonstrated some weaknesses in the lifestyle that we had been living. The economic ‘system’ that we depended on fell in shreds when attacked by a virus — a non-living microscopic chemical particle — spreading with our help.

For every success in marketing, there is an impact on the natural systems somewhere on the globe. The pandemic makes us ask: how many of those ‘consumer products’ that are advertised as essential are actually just conveniences? The COVID-19 lockdown can let us critically examine our need for such conveniences. And we have the opportunity to think about how the marketing and production of those conveniences may cause the loss of an irrecoverable natural object or a vital natural process or the foundation of a distant community’s lifestyle in some distant land.

Our survival of the pandemic did not come from the consumer economy but, instead, came from our social support mechanisms. Some call that social support ‘socialism’ and fear it. They believe that socialism opposes ‘clean competitive capitalism’ and is almost like communism and is to be avoided. But there are two clear concerns with our community response to COVID-19. First, our response was withheld until we or our loved ones were threatened with death. And, second, the threat had to be immediate to get a response and we responded only in the short-term.

Our defenses against the death threat from the COVID-19 virus have set aside considerations of most other threats from the pandemic. For example, the long-term impact of waste production receives no mention in our response against the virus. But our responses to the virus have caused huge increases in plastic wastes. We are sensitive to the shortage of Personal Protective Equipment but it is considered insensitive to discuss the huge amount of wastes that intensive use of gloves, gowns and masks produces. We urge increased production of PPE but we have neither time nor funds to devise procedures and institutions for reducing and reusing the resulting waste. Almost all similar longer-term considerations have received no attention and probably no thought.

Forward looking politicians, especially finance ministers, with enormous support from business leaders, all declare that ‘the economy should come charging back’. This puts aside the effects of that charge on climate change. Climate change will disrupt millions of lives and will kill nearly as many humans as we are protecting from COVID-19. Effects of climate change will continue to do so well into the future.

Marketing of consumption during the 1970s had unprecedented success. Based on that success, the promoters of the consumer-based economic system have charged ahead taking more profits than ever before. So they are staunchly opposed to any change in their economic system. It was easy for them to arouse fear among many consumers that any change would threaten consumer livelihoods and consumer’s ability to satisfy the demand of over-extended credit obligations. As the New Green Deal, the Leap Manifesto and similar movements have insisted, globalized consumer economics will not change until we each accept our personal responsibility to consume less.

Accepting that personal responsibility also will require recasting of human communities, revision of national goals, restructuring of global trade and transport agreements and all the fallout from those changes. In other words, a completely restructured socio-economic system where judgements are based on multiple factors, not just effects on economic flow patterns.

But as Naomi Klein has underlined, if you want people to take a leap, there needs to be somewhere to leap to. For many it is hard to imagine what a place to leap to would look like. Profiteers used this uncertainty to enhance fear of change among consumers and among politicians. COVID-19 has shown us, experimentally, something of what it would look like.

The pause enforced by this virus is an opportunity to re-examine the so-called values that have been promoted by the consumption marketers and to consider alternatives before we ‘come charging back’ to the same flawed economy and the lifestyle that it generated.

For example, what are the societal gains and what are the longer-term dangers from industrial processing of chromite mined from Ontario’s ‘Ring of Fire’. A processing plant has been proposed for Sault Ste Marie. Processing chromite produces toxic chromium-6, known to cause cancer, along with other toxic byproducts. Chromium-6 was the toxin in Erin Brokovich’s successful lawsuit against Pacific Gas and Electricity.

Such issues have been overlooked in our industrial past and in the shaping of our pre-Covid-19 lifestyle. (Often carelessly called ‘normal’.) The market value of gold from the Giant mine in Yellowknife ($2.7 billion) overrode the accompanying production of toxic arsenic trioxide from ore roasting. That toxin invaded the living bodies of First Nations people in Yellowknife. The cleanup costs were levied on all Canadians. We paid $903 million for a refrigeration system and will pay an estimated $2 million per year, forever, to prevent the escape of the arsenic trioxide left behind by the escaped mining company. We lost both money and people in the promotion of the Giant Mine.

Are these examples of what is meant by the popular political mantra “the nation will come charging back…”? That mantra implies the fearful idea that economic revitalization will be given complete authority regardless of damages to the biosphere and to humanity. The current issue of National Geographic entitled “How We Lost the Planet” cautions “our reckless consumption and abuse of resources have made the world a deadlier place for us — and for the rest of life on earth”. That devastated state of the total global community could be made several fold more severe by “the nation charging back” with all attention on economic indicators and none on long-term environmental and cultural understanding.

“Extractivism” is emerging as an expression for the socio-economic belief that human society can be advanced by simply digging harder. Selling materials extracted from the earth often without adding economic value to them. This belief, sometimes erroneously called a theory, or business model is promoted as harmless. A wealth of reports from many corners of the globe show that is not true. Harm has been demonstrated to environmental systems, to local social structures and processes and, too frequently, to individual lives. Eminent Canadian Edward Burtynsky summarized the problem with ‘extractivism’ as “… for every one of our great creations, there is a greater act of destruction somewhere in nature.”

Perhaps our clearest example of extractivism is the tar sands. Can we learn from the pause caused by COVID-19 how to avoid including components such as the tar sands in our economic system when we charge back? In 2015 the Auditor General estimated that just to clean up the 220 square kilometers of Tar Sands tailings ponds would cost $20 billion. The small amount of funding designated for repairing the boreal forest that has been devastated by the surface destruction is an insult to intelligent thinkers. And the vitality of the petro corporations, considering the current oil market, suggests that, once more, the clean up will have to be paid for by all Canadians, not those who profit and vanish.

Unquestionably, all of us, across a wide economic spectrum, need a survivable economic future but that does not necessitate thoughtless damages to the fundamental processes that sustain the vital systems of the ecosphere. The fundamental mistake was in assuming that we could add as many individuals to Canada’s population as we wished and all would have meaningful jobs simply by extracting things from the natural systems of the earth. To lessen the damages to global natural systems and the world’s cultures will require a national effort and commitment to change to an economy based on training, skills, intellect, culture and science. Extractivism is a relict from when colonial masters extracted valuable resources from colonies that lacked the power to resist. We cannot participate in such a relationship either as the extractors or the source.

We need to think carefully about the overall structure of the old socio-economic system that depended almost completely on consumption. The COVID-19 pause should have raised questions about depending on increased consumption of the earth’s non-renewable resources in order to produce goods and processes that are needed only to provide profits to corporations. If we “come charging back”, let’s be sensible not just profitable.

A suggested mantra for the recovery period might be: “I can do without that…”

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