This Pandemic Will not be the Game Changer you are Hoping for.
The latest crisis has spawned a flurry of articles and blog posts predicting that at least some of the changes wrought by the pandemic will become permanent. This is hailed as a good thing since it will be good for the environment and ensure a more equitable distribution of material goods.
I have been an optimist all of my life, but since I became old and spent more time studying history, as well as thinking about the world shaping events that have taken place since I was born in the midst of a world wide conflagration, I have become a realist. Some would say a cynic.
I have seen the 2008 financial crisis and 9/11 cited as examples of events that brought about a new awareness of inequality and movements for change. In 2020 it is hard to see concrete evidence that either event caused more than a pause in the relentless march towards prosperity for the few at the expense of the many.
Living memory, for me, goes much further back. The 1980s and the 1960s each had their youth rebellions; rioting in the streets of Paris and on university campuses in the USA.
A cursory study of history reveals revolutions in Russia and elsewhere, earlier attempts in France to overthrow the aristocratic governments of the time. Every one resulted in the replacement of one governing class with another. Gallons of blood shed with little by way of real change to show for it.
Sometimes the new governing ‘elite’ were incompetent and the old guard returned within a few years. Other times the new governors imposed their will in the most brutal fashion. Think of the horrors of the first years of the Soviet Union or the massacre of academics and professionals who refused orders to labour on collective farms under the Khmer Rouge in 1970s Cambodia.
Go further back, to the USA’s civil war or the bloody period known as “The English Civil War”, as though there had not been many others before it.
In parallel with all of these power grabs there have been plagues and famines far more devastating than the present pandemic. The Black Death of the mid 14th century is estimated to have caused the death of 30% to 60% of Europe’s population, up to 200 million people across Europe and Asia.
Like the two recent events cited at the beginning of this essay it slowed, but did not alter, the relentless course of history.
And what of that course? It has not been all bad. Many more people enjoy a higher standard of material well being in this 21st century than any could have imagined a hundred years ago.
There have been significant social advancements, too. In my lifetime the voting age has been reduced from 21 to 18 in the UK and elsewhere. In most Western Democracies same sex marriage has both been legalised and accepted by the majority of the population. The same is true of abortion under certain specific circumstances. The ability of women to contribute to the creation of material wealth has been increasingly recognised. Most of the diseases that killed millions in their youth, suppressing the average expectation of life, have been eliminated throughout a large part of the world.
But these material, if not the social changes, have come at a price for the environment. The medical advances we applaud have contributed to the explosive growth in population that has been the most extraordinary and, perhaps, least noticed development of my near 8 decades of life. This pandemic is only the latest and most visible consequence of that growth. It is, we all hope, short term. Biodiversity loss, oceanic pollution and climate change are more serious consequences and they are mostly irreversible and certainly very long term.
What can be done? I believe there is one thing we can all do, one revolutionary action we can take. The present crisis has demonstrated its efficacy. Simply consume less.
Do you really have to change your smart phone quite so often? Do you really need it at all? Look around your home. What else could you manage without? That big-screen television? The play station? Do you really need such a big car? Must the family own one for each member or could you share?
The founder of Amazon is said to be one of, if not the, richest man in the world. And yet I must ask: Do we really need an Amazon? Oh yes, we need the Amazon rainforest but could hardly care less about its rapid destruction. But the warehousing and distribution giant? I don’t think so, and I say this as someone who is content to use Amazon to distribute my books.
In my childhood, in rural England, the mail order catalogue was handy to facilitate the purchase of clothing and other stuff we could not access without travelling to the nearest city. I am sure this is true of other nations. But these days most of us live in Cities. We do not need mail order or on-line shopping. Couldn’t we revert to using it just for rural dwellers? It would solve the problem of empty shops on or high streets.
Consuming less would certainly slow the enrichment of the richest. If it catches on it might even reverse it. But it would not relieve poverty. Rather, would it not increase poverty by throwing people out of work?
How can we facilitate the transfer of those displaced workers, displaced from making and distributing all that stuff we really don’t need, into undertaking tasks that are needed? Like building more homes and increasing the number of hours of social care allocated to elderly and disabled people?
The first of these begs the question of why there is a shortage of first homes when so many have two? It’s not only the wealthy 1% who own second homes. Many families on middle incomes in what used to be called the first world own a town house and a cottage in the country or in some tourist location in a foreign country. A mixed benefit for those with permanent homes in those places. The presence of holiday homes brings trade to local businesses and, with that, jobs for local people. But it artificially inflates the cost of owning or renting for those same local people.
But there is an easy answer to the problem of labour loss caused by decreased consumption. For as long as I can remember, and longer, humans have sought ways of making labour easier. They have nurtured the dream of eliminating work altogether. Today, no less than at any other time, this dream persists. AI, they say, will create a society in which no one needs to work, all we need is a way of distributing the money created through a Universal Basic Income — another idea, by the way, that has been around since before I was born.
The real consequence of all this endeavour by scientists and engineers, myself included, has not been, nor will it be, the end of work. The reality has been an increase in the amount of “stuff” we all consume, at the same time taking the pleasure out of the work of crafting something by hand, instead generating new low-grade jobs in commercial environments that mimic the days of plantation slavery.
We do not need to take to the streets to transform society, save the planet and reduce the wealth of the elites. We only need to curb our appetites for “new and improved” gadgets and appliances, our desire to wear the latest fashions and our addiction to travel and tourism.
Will any of it happen? I don’t think so. What my opening paragraphs demonstrate is that it is in our natures to pursue something more than we have, especially anything that our neighbour has.
I once lived for about a year next door to a young couple with identical twin sons. They were just learning to walk during that year. Every item of clothing, every toy, the parents purchased for them was acquired in pairs. Whatever one had, the other had an identical copy of. And yet one would fight the other for the trike, or the toy racing car, the other was playing with, leaving his own identical thing abandoned on the lawn.
That is why the classic literature of Greece and Rome, the Biblical stories of the tribes of Israel, the history of Europe, are all filled with tales of battles for land and the resources it contains.
The new, migrant populations of the former colonies of European countries arrived believing they were escaping the inequalities of those countries to create a new world with a fairer, more just way of organising things. Look at those former colonies today and you see what really happened to those dreams.
My realism tells me that your optimism is miss-placed if you believe that big changes for the better are coming. There will continue to be blood shed, there will be more pandemics, there will be famines. And in a world of 7, going on 8, billion, it can only get worse.