by John Morrissey
19th June 2020

When asked for his thoughts on the COVID-19 pandemic, the Irish writer Kevin Barry remarked that his greatest hope was that we realise that ‘we have been living in a fable, a fable of progress, growth and equality’. For the last 50 years, that fable has been neoliberalism and has involved a conjoined political and economic vision that has normalised ecological depletion, worked to deregulate environmental responsibility and ultimately been destructive of life and human security. COVID-19 has begun to bring down the neoliberal house of cards, and the idea of endless growth has been revealed as a consumerist fable. The fable, as Barry dolefully observes, was always ‘a very flimsy construction’.

Geographers, ecologists and earth systems scientists have warned for a generation of the looming dangers of overstepping planetary boundaries in our extractivist capitalist mode of life. The resource requirements of unfettered consumer capitalism affect ecosystems all around the world, with wide-ranging evidence pointing to the destructive consequences, ecologically and socially. A recent pronouncement from the United Nations Environment Programme on the socio-ecological effects of uncontrolled capitalism is instructive, but warnings of the potentially catastrophic effects of biodiversity and habitat loss are not new: the World Health Organization (WHO) has highlighted for over two decades that habitat degradation poses significant overlapping risks to human and environmental security.

The emergence of COVID-19 was enabled by the formalised deregulation of the exotic food sector and its incursion into habitats containing pathogens for which humans have no immunity. The virus emerged at one terminus of a global supply line that set off a devastating human-to-human chain of infections. It is a mistake to focus on just the outbreak zone, without taking into account the long history of multinational agribusiness driving deregulation in the ‘Big Farm’ food sector, the powerful ‘global economic actors that shape epidemiologies’, who have long been in conflict with public health through sustained efforts to operate in a deregulated environment.

The absence of an ‘international public health infrastructure’, furthermore, alerts us to what is fundamentally wrong with a global capitalist system that operates without concern for collective actions to protect life in an interconnected global world. The pandemic may have led to inspiring solidarities at the ‘micro level’ – in communities and across nations – but it has also divulged the absence of solidarity at the ‘macro level’ – between states, across regions and globally.

How do we change towards a more responsible living and governing of the planet? Author of Against Extinction, Bill Adams, is joined by many in urging governments to respond creatively to the COVID-19 emergency by planning to build a different, greener economy. The health and well-being corollaries of less frenetic economic production are certainly becoming clearer as the fog of pre-pandemic levels of travel and consumption clears. The improvement in air quality during the lockdown is one of the most indicative indices.

Aspirations for greener, more responsible and more cooperative modes of economic production and consumption have also been heard at key nodes of global governance as the pandemic unfolds. UN Secretary General, António Guterres, for instance, has declared that the pandemic has reminded us of ‘the price we pay for weaknesses in health systems, social protections and public services’ and that now is the time to ‘redouble our efforts to build more inclusive and sustainable economies and societies’.

But all such hopes must be activated in tangible and legally binding ways through cooperative networks of responsibility and accountability. This requires strengthening and resourcing the global governance architecture of UN agencies such as the WHO with the necessary measures to demand that states and corporations comply with global conventions. And this must happen at national levels too, by initiating new forms of citizenship and ‘deliberative democracy’.

There seems little doubt that we have reached a key juncture in thinking differently about the environment, capitalism and the idea of endless economic growth. We have been living a neoliberal consumerist fable that was always biologically unsustainable, and we will all gain from expanding our sensibilities of a global, interconnected environmental precarity. The neoliberal house of cards is built upon the prevailing belief in unremitting and seemingly innocuous economic growth, which is a ludicrosity whose time has surely come to an end.

Vital challenges now face us in forging a new post-COVID-19 world. They span multiple scales. On an individual level, can we heed the important lessons of environmental depletion, from travel to material consumption? More broadly, can we strategise to build a wide enough consensus (politically and socially) to demand government investment in environmental protection, climate action, adequate health infrastructure and the regulation of sustainable economic production?

Political will as ever is the key, but surely now is the time to take stock on what an economy is actually for? If neoliberal capitalism cannot secure public health, and fails to safeguard ecological sustainability, then it is not fit for future-proofing the planet. Focusing only on short-term fixes is the capitalist way of things, but this time we surely need clear comprehension of the structural dysfunctions of the neoliberal house of cards, and how we can live differently, more responsibly, and ultimately more sustainably in a fairer and healthier world.

John Morrissey is Associate Director of the Moore Institute for Humanities at the National University of Ireland, Galway and Senior Lecturer in Geography. His books include Spatial Justice and the Irish Crisis (2014); The Long War (2017); and Haven: The Mediterranean Crisis and Human Security (2020).

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