Covid-19 as Practice in Collective Action

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This is an exclusive extract from the new edition of The Best of Times, The Worst of Times: Futures from the Frontiers of Climate Science

Covid-19 as Practice in Collective Action

Paul Behrens

Early in 2019, there was a hope that the Covid-19 pandemic would bring about a fundamental shift in humanity’s trajectory. There was hope that the pandemic would necessitate and facilitate an important development in collective international action – the very action needed to address our climate and biodiversity crises. The similarities were pointed out in the earliest weeks of the pandemic, with a viral cartoon of three increasingly large waves, named ‘Covid-19’, ‘Climate Change’ and ‘Biodiversity Crisis’, which were about to crash on a small town, whose inhabitant commented: ‘Be sure to wash your hands and all will be well.’

There were early signs of hope on community and national levels. There was a flurry of reporting about cleaner and bluer skies, of purer water and lower emissions. There was an appreciation that the most important things in life, such as spending time with family and friends, should never be taken for granted. On the national level, organizations and policymakers called for huge investments to stabilize economies in a ‘green recovery’ and to ‘Build Back Better’. It was argued that these policies would help to accelerate the energy transition and address inequalities. (Interestingly, the need for a Great Food Transition – in diets, food waste and food production – was largely overlooked, even though slaughterhouses were suffering from record infection rates and pandemics themselves often emerge from animal agriculture). Rich countries would, apparently, provide aid to help poorer nations deal with the pandemic and procure vaccines.

In reality, emissions reductions were fleeting, the ‘green recovery’ was paltry, and international cooperation was disastrous. Lockdown-related travel restrictions and lower consumption in 2020 helped emissions drop by 6.3%, but this rebounded to close to 2019’s historic record by 2021. So we cannot cite emissions reductions as being a positive outcome of the pandemic. Perhaps this is unfair; like an oil tanker, the global system driving carbon emissions simply cannot change direction overnight, which is to say within two or three years. But it should be shocking that promises of a ‘green recovery’, which might have meant a course correction, have largely evaporated.

About the author

Paul Behrens is Associate Professor of Environmental Change at Leiden University. His research and writing on food, energy and climate change has appeared in leading scientific journals, the New York Times, Politico, and the BBC.

Paul’s work focuses on the impact of human consumption and the changes societies must make to live within environmental constraints.

Author photograph © Arash Nikkhah

About the book

The environmental emergency is the greatest threat we face. Preventing it will require an unprecedented political and social response. And yet, there is still hope.

Academic, physicist, environmental expert and award-winning science communicator Paul Behrens presents a radical analysis of a civilisation on the brink of catastrophe. Setting out the pressing existential threats we face, he writes, in alternating chapters, of what the future could look like at its most pessimistic and hopeful.

In lucid and clear-sighted prose, Behrens argues that structural problems need structural solutions, and examines critical areas in which political will is required, including women’s education, food and energy security, biodiversity and economics.

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