Since the western world re-set its priorities following the Covid-19 outbreak, one of the most noticeable consequences was that the measures taken to stem the disease’s advance had some really interesting, positive, unanticipated, collateral consequences for the environment.
It might have seemed that the climate agenda had been shelved in the face of a more immediately overwhelming challenge but it re-surfaced very quickly in a completely unexpected way. Not as a problem, but as a problem being solved before our very eyes. Dispatches from my son’s girlfriend in Jinan, China describe the pleasure of being able to jog in the campus, where she is still confined, under clear, blue skies. Even in midsummer skies are rarely blue in China. Now blue skies are becoming the new normal because manufacturing is suspended and of course those who normally purchase their stuff can’t get to the shops for now. Blue skies are one aspect of the new normal that millions of Chinese would like to hang on to when old normal resumes.
Even here in Ireland, where we assume our atmosphere is tolerable for the most part, we have been noticing more subtle changes. People are posting picture perfect sunsets. It has become a trend. Anyone who looks at the night sky will notice too that the stars seem to have added a few more carats to their sparkle.
We read about pollution levels ‘plummeting’ in US cities like Chicago and Los Angeles, according to the New York Times. EcoWatch has made similar observations.
As for carbon emissions, our diesel/petrol consumption is down 40%. Our skies are mostly silent as more and more airlines ground flights. Our behaviour as consumers has become more responsible even if it is happening under duress. We are learning new habits. Making lists because impulse dashes to the shop are no longer an option.We shop online, pool together for grocery pick-ups, walk in the countryside near our homes instead of travelling to more distant amenities. We are making do and finding outlets for our creativity alone or as a family in our homes and gardens, if we are lucky enough to have them.
The change is global. Venetians are posting photos of swans and dolphins as well as ‘fishies’ in the canals and lagoon that edge their over trodden piazzas and streets. Yes, Italy needs tourists and China needs trade but we know that economic imperatives have to be re-fitted to even more pressing environmental ones. This is going to cost however we go about it. The covid-19 crisis has given us a preview of the tangible benefits of ‘going green’ and they are the kind of things that people value more than money until they get used to living without them.
Incrementally, we have all grown used to the degradation of our environment in the name of economic development. Recovering it, even under a temporary contingency, gives us an insight into the price we have paid for progress. Of course there are other costs too and these weeks of sequestration will give us plenty time to evaluate them and decide it they are really worth the gains.
So you might think the Green parties and extinction warriors would be cock-a-hoop with joy over our new carbon-light lifestyles. Some people thought they would. Others more astutely thought they might feel a bit cheated because the emerging solution was not according to their political prescription.
And so it has transpired. If you thought they would point out that some of the pared back living was actually good for the environment and worth carrying forward into post-covid life, you were indeed naive. Nobody welcomes what might make them redundant.
Writing in the Irish Examiner, columnist Victoria White who is married to Green Party leader, Eamon Ryan, in a tacit acknowledgement of what the world is observing, asserted that ‘a pandemic is not a strategy for addressing climate change’. Her assumption is that people will revert to old wasteful ways once normality resumes and then, led by the Greens, we will all get back to tackling climate issues according to their ideological gospel. A top down, politically managed strategy, rather than the bottom up, behavioural change we are seeing now.
Anyone can see that consumer responsibility can impact global as well as local emissions because most of what we buy is not made in Ireland. Making such a fuss about Ireland reaching its emissions’ targets is playing politics with a problem that, like the Covid-19 virus, does not recognise borders. It is little more than a vanity project in the greater scheme of things. Currently we are welcoming plane loads of PPE from China for our medical personnel. While there is more than one ethical question arising here, in terms of environmental impact, do we ask ourselves what standards and protocols apply in their manufacture? We can bring our own emissions to zero and congratulate ourselves fulsomely but if we continue to outsource the manufacturing of most of what we consume to less scrupulous countries, what is the point?
But citizen-led change messes with the economic and political models.. Big government or Nanny state is no longer in the driving seat. And some parties like the Greens may find their raison d’etre threatened.
Maybe we will revert to type once the storm passes. But where is the inevitability ? One might expect environmental and climate activists to at least point out the manifold benefits of our new carbon-reduced lifestyles, to make some of the observations made in the early part of this article. If they cared more about the planet than defending their power base they surely would.
The cynicism of this movement should not be surprising. They have used a teenager of seventeen to front their crusade. They hide behind her. They put themselves beyond question and challenge like the proverbial woman with the baby in her arms.
They are showing they are as opportunistic and self-protective as any other political movement. After a lengthy lull, we heard from Greta Thunberg last week. She believed that she and her father may both have caught Covid-19 while visiting eastern Europe. Not a word to her young support base to play their part responsibly in fighting the pandemic. Needless to say, not a word from the long time school absentee about keeping up with their studies and supporting their parents. Instead she urged them to take the now impossible street protests online. To wage digital war on pollution and carbon at a time when the air was never cleaner or clearer.
The Green movement has an agenda that is broader than the achievement of blue skies and clean air. Commending people for the sacrifices they are making in the battle against a deadly disease, that is unexpectedly yielding visible, measurable environmental improvements, does not serve their purpose. In fact, it works against it. Turkeys can hardly be expected to vote for Christmas it is often said. An odd expression that implies turkeys know where their interest lies. Smart turkeys, like some of the environmental commentators who have broken cover in the last few weeks, clearly do. Is it the rest of us however who are being taken for turkeys here and particularly gullible ones at that?