Covid-19 and climate emergency: A painful irony
- Vishwas Satgar
The coronavirus is a moment to be humble and realise our finitude in a wondrous and infinite natural order.
Covid-19 pushed an already weak and crisis-ridden global economy over the edge. Massive value has been erased from crashing stock market prices. Many commentators have talked about the return of economic conditions similar to the great financial crash of 2007-2009.
The most powerful countries in the world, from China to the US, ground to a halt and the South African economy followed suit as citizens hunkered down in lockdown. Governments across the world have, to different degrees, seized the challenge to protect their populations, at least that is what it seems given the people-centred rhetoric.
Climate of carbon capitalism
The geo-politics of Covid-19 engulfing the entire globalised world in its rapid spread is also a shot across the bow of carbon capitalism.
Elite consumption of exotic animals in Wuhan, China unleashed the swift and lethal revenge of nature. These injustices are not new for climate justice politics as elite use and consumption of fossil fuels is linked directly to extreme weather shocks such as heatwaves, droughts, floods and cyclones, for instance, which impact those who most vulnerable the hardest.
Yet there is no consequence for those responsible and the fossil fuel industry, carbon addicted states and wealthy carbon-based consumers continue on as though climate science does not exist.
‘Black Swan’ event?
In the business world, Covid-19 tends to be reduced to being considered a Black Swan event. A sudden or unforeseen happening with great consequence that is rationalised after the fact. The idea was initially popularised by Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s five volumes on uncertainty, including the famous Black Swan.
While business risk analyses missed the likelihood of a Covid-19 pandemic, its occurrence cannot be explained as a Black Swan event.
Equally the worsening climate crisis and its global shocks are not Black Swans. They are dangerous systemic crisis tendencies produced by a hard-wired logic based on the duality of capitalism versus nature. Science has provided us with understandings and warnings, and yet the global capitalist system persists in driving us towards harm and destruction.
End the war on nature
The climate crisis is worsening with a lack of will to phase out fossil fuels and decarbonise.
We are facing a 1.5°C increase in planetary temperature most likely in the next five years, which will be accompanied by intensifying climate shocks. These crises will become interconnected, cascade into each other and push our socio-ecological orders towards collapse.
There are three considerations to address the imbalances, with each being critical if we are to enable nature to reverse climate damage that we as humans have caused.
First, in the South African context, the country will need an eco-justice stimulus package to tackle the impacts of Covid-19, the economic crisis and worsening climate crisis. South Africa’s Climate Justice Charter is a crucial point of departure in this regard.
Second, a war approach to Covid-19 is based on dangerous philosophical foundations. It continues the anthropocentric conquest of nature which is central to capitalist thinking.
Killing Covid-19 from this war-based framework is about us being the dominant species as we attempt to demonstrate superiority to the forces of nature. This is really a conceit which fails to understand that nature has been and will always be more powerful than us.
With Covid-19 we are really trying to mitigate the revenge blow from nature. It’s a moment to be humble and realise our finitude in a wondrous and infinite natural order. We are just one little part of a vast and delicate web of life.
As such, ending Covid-19 should be about ending the war with nature. This includes ending wet markets for exotic animals, ending globalised industrial agriculture and rapidly phasing out fossil fuels.
Third, the war on Covid-19 keeps us bound up in an ethical knot and derives from deeply oppressive ways of thinking. Violence whether colonial, imperial, patriarchal, racist or ecocidal is not what the world needs.
Ultimately Covid-19 has achieved what over 20 years of UN climate negotiations have failed to secure. What is required is a world led by those who place profit above human and non-human life is placing us all in jeopardy. Complex and holistic systems thinking that is grounded in an ethics of care, rather than war, has to prevail.
This article was written by Professor Vishwas Satgar. Professor Vishwas Satgar is an Associate Professor of International Relations at Wits University. He edits the Democratic Marxism series, is the principal investigator for Emancipatory Futures Studies and has been an activist for four decades. He is the co-founder of the South African Food Sovereignty Campaign, Climate Justice Charter process and Chairs the Board of the Co-operative and Policy Alternative Center (COPAC).
The full article captured in this excerpt was first published in the Daily Maverick.