I enjoyed writing my column for Mint, published online on 4th May and in the newspaper on the 5th May. The column header should have been “Vaccine or cleaner environment? You cannot have both.”
Most of us are now happy about the cleaner environment, cleaner air and clear skies that the world is experiencing, although it is coming at the cost of economic activity, the absence of which, unfortunately, hurts the poor and low income households more than the rich.
Of course, it is also true that a polluted environment too hurts the poor and the low-income earners more for they have little savings to deal with the adverse health outcomes that pollution creates.
Further, this story reminds us that even as carbon dioxide emissions are lower (2.6 billion metric tonnes not emitted), April was one of the warmest on record:
This past April equaled the warmest on record. Global temperatures were 0.7 degrees Celsius warmer than the average April between 1981 and 2010, according to Europe’s Copernicus Climate Change Service. [Link]
That is a reminder that our love for environment has to sustain for a long period involving actions on multiple fronts, to reverse global warming.
However, limited evidence of healing is here. Ms. Pilita Clark of the FT writes:
It was while I was on one of those lopes, down the local high street, that a more profound realisation dawned. Shop after shuttered shop existed to sell stuff for a rushed, commuting office life that I — and millions like me — may never lead again. [Link]
She also correctly recalled that modern culture is about spending
money we don’t have, on things we don’t need, to create impressions that won’t last, on people we don’t care about?
On reading these lines, I made a mental note to complete watching ‘The Century of the Self’ – a four-part documentary available on BBC here, here, here and here. I have watched the first two parts.
Daniel Humm, the owner of one of the world’s best restaurants, Eleven Madison Park (EMP), said he might not reopen and if he did, he would do the following:
If EMP were to reopen, Humm says, he will continue to use his restaurant to feed the homeless and hungry, along with the very fortunate. “The infrastructure to end hunger needs to come out of the restaurants. Any way that EMP reopens—and it’s like a blank canvas right now, we would need to redefine what luxury means—it will also be an opportunity to continue to feed people who don’t have anything. [Link]
One also sees plenty of creativity being unleashed in captivity. In the sphere of Carnatic Classical Music, see this, this, this, this and this. All this is making the tedium of the isolation bearable and, more importantly, point to a different way forward, if we could imagine it. But, will we?
Pilita Clark, who has tasted frugality, is not so sure herself:
The question is, now that people like me have had a taste of frugality, how long will it last once a semblance of normality returns? Will there be a pent-up splurge of excess?
She spoke to an artist by name Michael Landy, who catalogued and burnt everything he owned, in a public display in 2001. He said it had left him with two permanent behavioural changes:
“It changed me as a consumer, most definitely,” he said. “I have a lot less things than I had before.” He also became much more aware of what he was buying, he said, and prone to periodic clear-outs. [Link]
So, it does change some people for the better, for good! The question is whether enough people change by enough.
In the BBC article linked above on how the virus-induced lockdown has been good for the bees:
…. like with all the other environmental changes we’re seeing now, any long-term benefits for bees would depend on these changes being carried forward as lockdowns lift. For some, like leaving verges wild, the change may not be so hard to maintain. For others, like keeping traffic volumes low, the changes would need to be more systemic.
One change that Perkins anticipates carrying forward, though, is people’s reconnection with nature. “They are beginning to realise how their mental health and wellbeing is supported by nature – particularly by bumblebees, which are so iconic and beautiful and buzzy,” she says. “I hope that remains after lockdown.”
Recall what Gillian Tett wrote on the 11th March this year in FT:
When I emerged from my brush with meningitis in Singapore, I felt so giddy to be alive that I declared I would try to feel grateful each day — and never “sweat the small stuff” again. Sadly, that pious resolution probably lasted about a month; humans are hard-wired to lose perspective amid the daily grind. [Link]
She deserves full marks for honesty. As she writes later in the same column, humans need periodic reminders to stay the ‘enlightened’ or ‘reformed’ course. But, equally, there are, perhaps, far more powerful reminders to go back to the easier and familiar ways and ‘sweat the small stuff’. That is the power of the world of illusion we live in.
That is why it is not just enough to appreciate the silence, the blue skies, the birds and bees, sitting in an apartment balcony that is part of one’s fast paced life that has temporarily slowed. When it all resumes, we may get out of the balcony, take the fast elevator down and the next flight out…
In a brilliant piece for ‘The Statesman’, John Gray assesses the likelihood of a return to a ‘better world’:
With all its talk of freedom and choice, liberalism was in practice the experiment of dissolving traditional sources of social cohesion and political legitimacy and replacing them with the promise of rising material living standards. This experiment has now run its course.
So, is there hope for an alternative path? Well, not quite:
This does not mean a shift to small-scale localism. Human numbers are too large for local self-sufficiency to be viable, and most of humankind is not willing to return to the small, closed communities of a more distant past.
John Gray channels John Stuart Mill here:
Mill recognised the danger of overpopulation. A world filled with human beings, he wrote, would be one without “flowery wastes” and wildlife.
Again, a dose of reality:
In many ways this is an appealing vision, but it is also unreal. There is no world authority to enforce an end to growth, just as there is none to fight the virus. Contrary to the progressive mantra, ….., global problems do not always have global solutions.
Does this give a glimpse into how we would behave once the vaccine is at hand?
The most harrowing of Ballard’s experiences as a child in 1940s Shanghai were not in the prison camp, where many inmates were steadfast and kindly in their treatment of others. A resourceful and venturesome boy, Ballard enjoyed much of his time there. It was when the camp collapsed as the war drew to a close, he told me, that he witnessed the worst examples of ruthless selfishness and motiveless cruelty.
John Gray concludes and I concur:
Dealing with the virus requires a collective effort that will not be mobilised for the sake of universal humanity.
I will paraphrase him:
Ushering in a better world requires a collective effort that will not be mobilised for the sake of universal humanity.
The bailout to the airline industry in the United States and the terms on which it was secured, the policy measures that central banks around the world have unleashed, the pervasive fear of emerging out of lockdown and the insouciant (ht: Srinivas Thiruvadanthai) reaction in stock markets around the world all suggest that the collective effort will not be mobilised for the sake of universal humanity.
Many are dazzled by the possibility of a cleaner environment, cleaner air and water; some reflect on it but only a few will act on it, eventually.
If a vaccine is found, many would interpret it as a signal (from God) to continue with their old ways; the ‘few’ will become a trickle.
Uncertainty keeps humans grounded; the false promise of certainty has influenced them to telescope experiences of multiple generations into one or two. They will feel vindicated with a vaccine against the virus and stick to ‘business as usual’, per pre-Covid-19.
That is why all other living organisms and the elements of nature need a vaccine to protect themselves from Sapiens.