The coronavirus gives humanity one last chance – but for what exactly?

Many of us who are awake to the climate nightmare cycle through periods of despair on the one hand and desperate hope against hope on the other. We veer between not seeing how we can possibly make it through the long ecological emergency, and declaring that we must and will. Between being tempted to give up, and throwing our all into a no-holds-barred defence of Mother Earth.

The general election of December 2019 was a gut-punch. There had been hopes that it would be ‘the climate election’. That, in the era of Extinction Rebellion (XR) and Fridays for Future, at last we were about to get a real political move in the direction of sanity.

The hope was in vain. The gut-punch, huge.

Then, hot on its heels comes the coronavirus. Wreaking a trail of sudden havoc, proving that it’s never a good idea to feel too sure of what is and isn’t possible. 

It’s been the worst of times, and yet there have been some surprising glimpses of the best of times. We’ve experienced a planetary crisis of potential mortality, of vulnerability. We’ve had the chance to feel emergency together. The vulnerabilities, the supply-chain issues, the very sense of disaster and experience unity that XR and others have been seeking to evoke through Rebellion and active resistance against a failed system, have been suddenly scaled up for us in a manner more powerful than we could have imagined.


Credit: Markus Spiske

Whole fleets of planes have been grounded, air pollution has plummeted and nature has begun to return. Britain’s climate-deadly emissions fell by a third over just one month! We are seeing the value and courage of real workers, as opposed to the fantasy-work of the parasitic financial sector. To save our most vulnerable, we decided to protectively contract the economy, and we forced the government to lock down even when they didn’t want to.

Don’t let them get away with calling it a ‘recession’, by the way. It has been a deliberate, protective contraction, supported by local communities across the UK. And those same communities are resisting government attempts to reverse protective measures in favour of a return to a system which sacrifices those vulnerable people to the generation of wealth for the elites. Love and life must matter more than GDP.

Doesn’t your heart leap to contemplate it all?

The period of unlock will be a chance to reset the world in a manner embodying the sanity just outlined. To cement the reconnection with nature that many of us have felt during this time — when finally we’ve been able to hear the birds singing without traffic or aircraft drowning them out. To make the massive reduction in commuting more permanent than temporary; many who can work from home should be allowed and indeed helped to do so. To make our roads put cyclists and pedestrians first, not last. These kinds of changes are not only necessary – they are also now actually possible.

The previous chance to reset, after the 2008 financial crisis, was squandered. We simply must not squander this true last-chance saloon. (The next comparable crisis almost certainly won’t come until after 2025, XR’s deadline for system-change.)

And yet…we who care about climate cannot embark on this true last chance in the same spirit we’ve embarked on previous versions of it (e.g. remember ‘100 months to save the world’? That campaign started…140 months ago and ended very quietly indeed).

Partly because “Wolf!” has been cried prematurely before, we have to approach this very last chance, after which – if we miss it – there would almost certainly only be bad and less bad ways of collapsing, in a different spirit. Now that the wolf actually is at the door, with our climate starting to spin out of control, there is no way we’ll attain the scale and passion necessary if we simply try the same again, one more heave.

We need instead to be ruthlessly realistic. There are truly enormous forces — psycho-cultural, financial, political — gearing up for a growthist rebound. Is the world really ready, at this moment of economic uncertainty, to jettison growthism tout court? Dream on. Some airlines are already being bailed out with no or few strings attached. A gigantic race to the bottom is underway in seeking to revive tourism: Sicily is promising to pay half of tourists’ flights and a third of their bills! Once people are allowed to go on holiday again without quarantines, do you really think that they are mostly going to be willing to enjoy staycations — especially when offered that kind of lure. Plus, there’s a bonfire of environmental regulations in the USA, not to mention strongmen grabbing more power in a number of countries.

We need somehow to fight all this, and XR are doing so: but do you really think we are going to win on all fronts? Consider also the direct downsides of the continuing coronavirus crisis for us. It is cherry-picking to focus only on the reduction in commuting etc; we need to consider also factors like the likely ongoing need for physical-distancing measures — and its effects upon the travel that does continue. Public transport is in trouble; and we needed it to be a key part of the solution.

This IS our last chance. We MUST seize it. But I think that you already know deep down that its not going to be the full salvation we imagined.

The cycle I outlined at the start of this piece DOES need to be brought to an end. This is very hard to accept.

But our realest hope lies in accepting it. We have to hope actively, through brave actions and absolute determination, to achieve a reset that works for people and planet. But we have to do so while being clear in our hearts that we just are not going to win outright.

The best we can hope for is to soften the blow that humanity is going to receive in the 2020s.

We are setting ourselves up for burnout – and that of course is what the cycle I referred to at the start of this piece is really describing – if we pretend otherwise. Setting ourselves up for another round of devastating disappointment.

Instead, desperate hopes need themselves to be allowed to despair. Only if we achieve honesty about what is (and is not) now possible do we have any realistic hope of seizing the last chance that now lies before us. Because only if we achieve such honesty can we achieve any clarity about what this last chance is for… It is not for some glorious utopian total victory. No. It is for survival. For a gentle as opposed to a dire descent from our current height of civilisational hubris. For wise adaptation to the climate and ecological decline baked into the next generation.

And believe me, that will be one hell of a lot better than the hellish alternative. It’s very well worth non-violently fighting for.

Rupert Read is co-convenor of the Extinction Rebellion Political Liaison team. This article is written in a personal capacity.

4 thoughts on “The coronavirus gives humanity one last chance – but for what exactly?

  1. I liked it especially because in a world of spin Utopianism becomes a drug (as in ‘ world beating’ tests for C19) and you insist on honesty and realism. So, really, thanks

    No need to reply

  2. Isn’t it a bit of a contrast between this article saying how bad things are going to be and the optimism of some climate campaigners who focus on the better world we will have if we fight climate change?

  3. All and any successful push-backs on the dinosaurian big-bully don’t-give-a-toss greed elites that are screwing Earth and us will make it less serious in some measure. Utopia has passed, dystopia is looming, we’re ALL somewhere in between. My efforts are in max push-backs with max long-haul regen for max bio-survival: under-action against extinction is not an option.

  4. In fairness, I don’t think anyone realistically expected the December 2019 election to be about anything other than a lot of Brexit, but the point is valid, agreeing about something doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll vote for somebody who also agrees with it

    The other point is that, as CND found out in the 80s, apocalypse talk only gets you so far – after a while you just sound like Private Fraser shouting “We’re Doomed”, and people switch off. And, of course, never ever predict the End of the World at a specific time, you only look daft the next day.

    This is why the talk about Green New Deals and Green Recovery plans coming from both Labour and the Lib Dems recently feels like the right way to go. They talk just as much about the economic case, the social benefits and even things like the career opportunities that arise from doing this. Instead of going through plans like that with a fine toothcomb and grumbling about the things that got missed, they’re the sort of practical political initiates that should be supported and promoted.

    “Do the right thing because you’ll be better off doing the right thing” is a stronger message than “do the right thing or we’re doomed” .

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