MAC: Mines and Communities

The Monday Essay: Monbiot trashes "return to normality", should Cofid-19 be defeated

Published by MAC on 2020-07-27
Source: The Guardian (2020-07-22)

The reputable UK environmental journalist, George Monbiot, presents compelling reasons why we mustn't attempt going back to the unacceptable world that typified the immediate period before Corona Virus took a hold.

This, he maintains, is pushing us "towards what some scientists warn could be global systemic collapse".


The great majority of people do not want to return to business-as-usual
after the pandemic, but our governments are determined to make us do so.

By George Monbiot

The Guardian (UK)

22nd July 2020

Out there somewhere, marked on no map but tantalisingly near, is a
promised land called Normal, to which one day we can return. This is the
magical geography we are taught by politicians, such as Boris Johnson with
his “significant return to normality”. It is the story we tell ourselves,
even if we contradict it with the very next thought.

There are practical reasons to believe that Normal is a fairyland, to
which we can never return. The virus has not gone away, and is likely to
keep recurring in waves. But let’s focus on another question. If such a
land existed, would we want to live there?

The polls consistently suggest we would not. A survey by BritainThinks a
fortnight ago showed that only 12% of people want life to be “exactly as
it was before”. A poll at the end of June, commissioned by the nursery
provider Bright Horizons, suggests that just 13% of people want to return
to working as they did before the lockdown. A YouGov study in the same
week revealed that only 6% of us want the same type of economy as we had
before the pandemic. Another survey by the same pollsters in April showed
only 9% of respondants wanted a return to “normal”. It’s rare to see such
strong and consistent results on any major issue.

Of course, we would all like to leave the pandemic behind, with its
devastating impacts on physical and mental health, its exacerbation of
loneliness, the lack of schooling and the collapse in employment. But this
doesn’t mean that we want to return to the bizarre and frightening world
the government defines as normal. Ours is no land of lost content, but a
place in which lethal crises were gathering long before the pandemic
struck. Alongside our many political and economic dysfunctions, normality
meant accelerating the strangest and deepest predicament humankind has
ever confronted: the collapse of our life-support systems.

Last month, confined to our homes, we watched columns of smoke rising from
the Arctic, where temperatures reached a highly abnormal 38°C. Such
apocalyptic imagery is becoming the backdrop to our lives. We scroll past
images of fire consuming Australia, California, Brazil, Indonesia,
inadvertently normalising them. In a brilliant essay at the beginning of
this year, the author Mark O’Connell described this process as “the slow
atrophying of our moral imaginations”. We are acclimatising ourselves to
our existential crisis.

When business as usual resumes, so does the air pollution that kills more
people every year than Covid-19 has yet done, and exacerbates the impacts
of the virus. Climate breakdown and air pollution are two aspects of a
wider dysbiosis. Dysbiosis means the unravelling of ecosystems. The term
is used by doctors to describe the collapse of our gut biomes. But it is
equally applicable to all living systems: rainforests, coral reefs,
rivers, soil. They are unspooling at shocking speed, due to the cumulative
impacts of normality, which means a perpetual expansion of consumption.

This month we learnt that $10 billion-worth of precious metals, such as
gold and platinum, are dumped in landfill every year, embedded in tens of
millions of tonnes of lesser materials, in the form of electronic waste.
The world’s production of e-waste is rising by 4% a year. It is driven by
another outlandish norm: planned obsolescence. Our appliances are designed
to break down, and are deliberately engineered not to be repaired. This is
one of the reasons why the average smartphone, containing precious
materials extracted at great environmental cost, lasts for between two and
three years, while the average desktop printer prints for a total of five
hours and four minutes before it is discarded.

The living world, and the people it supports, cannot sustain this level of
consumption, but normal life depends on its resumption. The compound,
cascading effects of dysbiosis push us towards what some scientists warn
could be global systemic collapse.

The polls on this issue are also clear: we do not want to return to this
madness. A YouGov survey suggests that 8 out of 10 people want the
government to prioritise health and well-being above economic growth
during the pandemic, and 6 out of 10 would like it to stay that way when
(if) the virus abates. A survey by Ipsos produces a similar result: 58% of
British people want a green economic recovery, while 31% disagree. As in
all such polls, Britain sits close to the bottom of the range. By and
large, the poorer the nation, the greater the weight its people give to
environmental issues. In China, in the same survey, the proportions are
80% and 16%, and in India, 81% and 13%. The more we consume, the more our
moral imagination atrophies.

But the Westminster government is determined to shove us back into
hypernormality, regardless of our wishes. This week, the environment
secretary, George Eustice, signalled that he intends to rip up our system
of environmental assessments. The government’s proposed free ports, in
which tax and regulations are suspended, will not only exacerbate fraud
and money laundering but also expose the surrounding wetlands and
mudflats, and the rich wildlife they harbour, to destruction and
pollution. The trade deal it intends to strike with the US could override
parliamentary sovereignty and destroy our environmental standards, without
public consent.

Just as there has never been a normal person, there has never been a
normal time. Normality is a concept used to limit our moral imaginations.
There is no normal to which we can return, or should wish to return. We
live in abnormal times. They demand an abnormal response.



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