Crisis conversations: learning as we go for long-term transition #2

This blog was originally published on the Rapid Transition Alliance website.

In the debate over the global response to Covid-19 a battle of hashtags has broken out between those urging a quick return to ‘normal’, and those saying that ‘normal’ had many problems and the crisis has revealed both the need and an opportunity for changing direction, and shift of economic purpose.

From the countless personal tragedies and horror at the daily rise of mortality figures, conversations are shifting to what comes afterwards. France has already begun a national conversation called Le Jour d’Aprés. On social media hashtags vie for attention ranging from #JustRecovery to #OnceThingsGetBackToNormal.

In this, the second of our crisis conversations, the focus moves on from assessing the characteristics of the outbreak and its immediate response, to exploring how longer term recovery should be approached, at what level action is needed, different frameworks in which to imagine next steps, and how initiatives should be delivered. It also considers the potential joint benefits of Covid-19 recovery and climate action.

In the first Alliance crisis conversation, looking at lessons from the global coronavirus outbreak for rapid transition, key characteristics of the pandemic response were identified and their relevance for application beyond the current crisis analysed. These included:

  • Protecting wages and income
  • Rethinking transport
  • Ensuring fair shares
  • Rebuilding useful, local banking
  • A quid pro quo for financial support and ensuring a ‘just recovery
  • Five principles for a just recovery
  • Empowering the first line of support at community level
  • What measures should we keep and what deeper flaws have been revealed?

The global Covid-19 outbreak had revealed not just immediate weaknesses in countries’ abilities to respond to a major public health challenge, but also long-term underlying economic problems. Measures introduced to deal with the outbreak would not only shape the severity of its overall impact, but the nature of the recovery, and the ability of nations to deal with related environmental and social crises. In other words, an agenda for action was emerging to build kinder, more resilient and less environmentally destructive economies.

There are links between measures to tackle the pandemic and the climate emergency

But there was caution too. Out of sensitivity many climate campaigners were wary about stressing links between Covid-19 responses and needed action on the ecological and climate emergency, but literal connections soon emerged such as between air pollution related largely to traffic, and death rates from the virus.  That points to additional benefits from Covid-19 prevention measures, such as curbs on unnecessary travel. By reducing traffic not only is contagion cut, but through emissions reduction the morbidity of respiratory disease is lowered.

Heavy smog over a city in China
Image by Götz Friedrich from Pixabay 

The United Nations Environment Programme also demonstrated the many environmental factors  involved in increasing ‘zoonosis’ – the transmission of diseases from animals to humans. These included deforestation, industrial agriculture and global heating, meaning that both push factors and preventive action for pandemics and climate breakdown are clearly linked

Shifting to support bottom-up approaches

Remco van der Stoep of Compass commented on how the pandemic is triggering an immediate response almost exclusively at nation state level, and that mainstream reporting focuses on national impacts and comparisons. However national responses are often also cross-border in nature, with Italian patients being transferred to German hospitals and medical equipment moving along global supply chains. But he questioned whether, for example, there could be a more ‘bottom-up’ version of the EU’s Interreg programme – one of the Union’s key instruments supporting cross-border cooperation with project funding, specifically designed to address common challenges and find shared solutions for everything from health to, clean energy, transport and environment. Could citizen-led initiatives sponsored by regional authorities be supported and funded from Brussels?

He argues that the networked society of the 21st century doesn’t answer in the same way to the old dominant forces of the state and the market. Bottom-up initiatives and movements are already successful at addressing many of the challenges we face, but often in relative isolation and at a modest scale. We will only be able to make lasting change happen if the state models itself to support – not command – the people and groups who are making change happen, using its influence to join up and scale up the citizen-led projects that are pre-figuring the ‘good society’. Roger Manser of the Network for Social Change suggested that one way for government to play an enabling role would be by establishing a Ministry of Transition.

Seeds of these different approaches can be seen in transnational networks of local, regional, and national initiatives in the mould of Transition Towns and the municipalism movement. The challenge is joining up transition across places and nations. Local cross-border collaborations and mutual aid initiatives are appearing in border regions across Europe, where new restrictions are in place. Another expression is in the civil society-led international emergency work on migrants and refugees, for example in housing children who were stuck on the Greek island of Lesbos with the help of local authorities across the EU.

Professor Paul Chatterton of Leeds University said that often there was more leverage in starting dialogues with known people in your own city regions. Local knowledge means being able to point to the vulnerabilities of how cities are run and question what are cities going to do to create epidemic proof housing and transport systems.

Nicky Saunter of the Rapid Transition Alliance said the situation for many rural communities was acutely relevant for decentralised approaches because the crisis response was very much at the very local parish level. Rural communities were also seeing a of devastation of local businesses, happening in the context of big, long-term unresolved issues of land use, food and farming, biodiversity, which were not being connected and needed to be.

The need for mobilisation and agenda setting

Lindsay Mackie of the New Weather Institute warned of the dangers in wishful thinking, that progressive changes coming out of the crisis are far from guaranteed and that there should be a focus on creating the structures that will allow any positive shifts to take root. Neal Lawson, the executive director of Compass, also warned that vested interests will be seeking to take advantage of the crisis and that there should be a swift move to focus on a set of demands and actions and build broad support for them.

To help with this, Leeds University based academic, Milena Buchs, recommended mapping initiatives that are developing progressive visions of societies post pandemic. On behalf of the UK Green New Deal group, Ruth Potts said that the newly forming All Party Parliamentary Group on the Green New Deal would be focused on an inquiry into ‘resetting’ the economy  post pandemic, and that the approach would be broad and inclusive, drawing in people from different sectors, and from across the country.

Frameworks for recovery

Prof Peter Newell of Sussex University and the Rapid Transition Alliance drew attention to some of the frameworks for policy responses being used by city and national governments that intend to weave-in social justice and sustainability. Amsterdam in the Netherlands, for example, is adopting an approach which has fair shares and sustainability designed-in using so-called ‘doughnut economics’, which sets a minimum threshold of meeting people’s needs and an upper level of consumption for sufficiency, but within ecological boundaries. Spain’s plan to introduce a Universal Basic Income was another response recognising the need for long term change to correct economic vulnerabilities and flaws.

Jon Bloomfield, Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham, a policy specialist on Europe and for ten years Head of Birmingham City Council’s European Division, argued for the framework of the Green New Deal, pointing to the potential for a major programme of retrofitting 30 million homes and other buildings. He said the conditions from the current crisis demonstrated the role of an active Government; and that such building works would help address the post-crisis recession.

Parallels of unpreparedness

Christos Katsioulis, Director of Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES), in London, referred to a provisional assessment made by his organisation of responses which highlighted glaring deficiencies in national health care systems, often which had been severely cut for economic policy reasons and the pursuit of profit. These included: in many countries a lack of protective equipment in hospitals and care homes: inadequate existing stocks for such a pandemic and an unreliable market response. Intensive-care capacities unable to cope in the event of a sharp increase in severe infections were also common.  And, a lack of lack of health care professionals even in countries operating specialist-worker migration programmes highlighting market and policy making failures.

States that held back initially, balking at far-reaching restrictions, like the United Kingdom and the United States, quickly reversed their approaches falling into line with other countries.  Late and laissez faire responses almost certainly worsened the scale and rate of infections and hence lives lost. The themes of adequate preparedness and fast, sufficient action hold direct lessons for measures to adapt to and mitigate the impacts of the climate emergency. A public opinion poll in the UK found that 48 per cent thought the government should respond “with the same urgency to climate change as it has with Covid-19”, much fewer,  just 28 per cent, disagreed.

How to talk about recovery and rapid transition

A challenge agreed on by many was the need to find ways to talk about the world after the crisis that could convey a positive image of change. But part of that, said Frances Foley, incoming Compass deputy director, is about confronting what advocates for change are uncertain about, what is not known. The approach should be democratic, and done with careful observation, be adaptive, flexible and always in listening mode.

Future conversations will focus on particular sectors where recovery and long term transition can align, highlighting examples of best practice, the policies needed to make them normal practice, and who can make the changes happen.

Andrew Simms is Coordinator of the Rapid Transition Alliance, an author, political economist and activist. He is co-director of the NewWeather Institute, Assistant Director of Scientists for Global Responsibility, a Research Associate at the University of Sussex, and a Fellow of the New Economics Foundation (NEF). His books include The New Economics, Cancel the Apocalypse: the New Path to Prosperity, Ecological Debt and Do Good Lives Have to Cost the Earth? He tweets from @andrewsimms_uk

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