By Yvan Bourgnon
President and Founder of The SeaCleaners
” Let’s not miss the opportunity offered to us by this lockdown to reinvent a model of society that is sustainable, more frugal, more supportive, more fraternal, more just, compatible with the health of our planet and our oceans. “
Will the year 2020 be, in the eyes of history, the year of the changeover to a new era? Will it be the year when our lifestyles will have irrevocably changed? Faced with the coronavirus crisis, most governments have chosen radical measures to contain the pandemic’s progress. Unless they want to play Nostradamus, it is impossible to say today what the social, economic or societal consequences will be. However, without waiting for the lifting of the containment and the return to our “old lives”, we can guess that the impact will be unprecedented. And express the hope that we will never return to the “life before”. For if the time has come for action and solidarity, confinement can and must also be used to think about the world of tomorrow.
A “blank year” will not be enough to save the planet.
Even if we do not have enough hindsight, it is foreseeable that the forced economic slowdown measures will lead to a significant decrease in air pollution around the world. Greenhouse gas emissions are estimated to have decreased by 25% in China during the quarantine period, while the concentration of fine particles decreased by 20% to 30%. Global air traffic is heading towards its largest ever contraction. In Europe, it was already -13.5% at the beginning of March and this figure will increase. Perhaps we will also see a decline, for the first time in 40 years, in the amount of plastic waste that is dumped annually into the oceans, which is expected to reach around 9 million tonnes in 2019, with the majority coming from the countries first affected by the virus.
But let’s not rejoice too quickly. These positive short-term effects, as spectacular as they are, should not hide the possible long-term environmental disaster. (Bad) habits die hard. Emissions and over-consumption always tend to bounce back after a crisis: we are already starting to see this in China, as we saw after the financial crisis of 2008. Several governments have announced massive stimulus packages for their fossil fuel, gas, oil, airline and cruise ship industries. While these stimulus packages could be a unique opportunity to plan a low-carbon economy and launch deep structural reforms, laying the foundations for a new and sustainable green economy, leaders are preparing to throw a lifeline to the old carbon economy.
Even more worryingly, in the name of the sacrosanct economic recovery, the same governments risk undermining measures to combat climate change. Some members of the European Union, such as Poland and the Czech Republic, are already calling for the abandonment of the European Green New Deal. Yet this plan, which aims to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 and plans to radically transform European public policies on energy, industry, transport, agriculture, etc., should more than ever serve as a compass for rethinking our economic model.
To want to return to the “world before” by forced march is irresponsible and dangerous. Worse: it gives credence to the idea, which is already all too often widespread, that preserving the environment requires a complete halt to the economy. That planet and human activity are incompatible.
The destruction of our environment, the pollution of the oceans and climate change are not crises: they are irreversible transformations, with no possible return to normal, with no vaccine. A “blank year” will not be enough. Preserving our planet requires a sustained and regular decrease in greenhouse gases and an urgent detoxification of our addiction to hydrocarbons and their derivatives.
If the Covid-19 crisis teaches us anything, it is that it is possible for governments to take urgent and radical action in the face of imminent danger, including costly measures that are normally considered impossible to implement. The forced pause we are experiencing today must be an opportunity to reinvent ourselves, to innovate, to ask ourselves how to implement these necessary, priority reforms, instead of desperately seeking to return to the mistakes of the past.
Putting people back at the heart of what is at stake
Crises are always conducive to the revelation of unsung heroes. Today, the whole planet applauds every night the nurses, the nursing staff of hospitals and care homes. But what? Do we expect them to pay for it with our eternal gratitude and applause? How can we accept that these carers, who save lives every day, who go to the limit of their strength to push back the disease, earn 5, 6, 10 less than some professions that are precisely responsible for the ecological cataclysm that is looming? 10 times less than those, political and economic decision-makers, who push us to consume more and more, to produce more and more, to desire to own more and more? Those who create artificial needs, even though all the lights are red and scream to stop this unbridled race?
The question of social justice is more acute than ever. When I see the list of professions considered “indispensable to the life of the nation”, I am surprised not to find in it the high-paying professions, but to see, on the contrary, those that are often at the bottom of the social ladder! Why, in this case, not index wages on the social utility of a profession, on the service it renders to the general interest, rather than on the law of the market?
Our resources are being exhausted, climatic disasters are on the rise, food and drinking water are in short supply for billions of people, global warming is continuing, the oceans are becoming acidified, plasticised and desertified… Added to this proven situation today is the anguish of uncertainty. The post-Covid-19 world is already frightening to many: the economic recession is a breeding ground for the worst horrors committed by humanity. It favours the rise of populism, nationalism, rejection of others, social injustice. It is always the most vulnerable who pay the price.
In order to prevent history from stuttering, I express the hope that this unprecedented crisis will enable new democratic processes to emerge and new political personnel to make their voices heard. Leaders whose aim will not be to perpetuate a moribund system at all costs, but to invent a new one.
It is civil society that will make the leap. From our collective capacity to produce radical change and to imagine an alternative model of society.
Covid-19 forces us to take our foot off the accelerator and take off our blinkers. This is the time or never to question our priorities. To realise to what extent our over-consumption is a dead end and to change our behaviour in a sustainable way. Let us have the lucidity to admit that, for ourselves and for future generations, we must renounce excessive consumption, learn to live with less superfluous tourism, fewer telephones, less comfort, to favour short circuits, to ban single-use products…
Let us redefine together what we call “progress”. Moving towards a happy sobriety means leaving more room for humanity, for listening, for solidarity. More room for dreams too. This is something that the ocean has taught me: freedom flourishes in less materialism. And I am convinced that the same is true of fraternity and equality among all. Sailor’s word!