After Covid-19: Business-as-usual and ‘normal’ life is not an option

Illegal logging on Pirititi indigenous Amazon lands, Brazil, with a repository of round logs on May 8, 2018. Photo: Felipe Werneck/Ibama via Flickr via AP)

The long read

Despite the life-changing coronavirus pandemic that has gripped Ireland, and the economic and social challenges we face in order to contain and minimise its deadly impact, there is already much talk about economic recovery.

This pandemic is touching every aspect of our daily lives – way beyond that of war – the heartbreak of losing loved ones and not being able to attend their interment, cocooning, isolation, social distancing, business closures, financial loss, physical and mental wellbeing, sporting, cultural, shopping and travel restrictions and much, more. Let’s bear in mind that what we had become accustomed to pre-Covid-19 as “normal life” has brought us to this point in our lives. Any post-Covid-19 activities, must respond to its challenges by ensuring we do not return to what we have known as “normal” life.

Politicians have lined up to reassure us that as soon as a new government is in place and the coronavirus is under control they will put numerous financial stimulus packages in place to get the nation on its feet economically once again in an attempt to regain lost production. That is great and most welcome.

When the coronavirus crisis eases, there will be an understandable desire and determination to return to ‘business as usual’ and regain some of the financial capital lost during this pandemic. But ‘business-as-usual’ is not an option. So our present Covid-19 crisis must be used as a turning point. It will be an opportunity for the next government to put the country on a sustainable economic footing and tackle the lack of social and affordable housing that has led to the country’s shameful housing crisis.

The other pandemic

We should not lose sight of the fact that the world is also in the grip of another pandemic – accelerating human-caused climate breakdown with potentially catastrophic effects on life that will put the Covid-19 pandemic in the halfpenny place. Like the coronavirus, human-caused climate change will impact everyone, the young and older. But the people who will suffer most will be those in developing economies who have least contributed to its catastrophic impacts.

Here in Ireland we will not be immune to the impacts of fresh water shortages, food insecurity, soil erosion, wildfires, heatwaves, floods, droughts, melting icecaps, rising sea levels, coastal erosion, cyclone-related crop destruction, displacement of millions of people and increased deaths. As Guardian columnist George Monbiot pointed out in an article last month, 

“we have been living in a bubble, a bubble of false comfort and denial. The wealth we’ve accumulated – often at the expense of others – has shielded us from reality.”

How can we discuss climate breakdown, environmental and biodiversity issues at a time like this?

Right now our priority is rightly on doing everything in our power to contain and deal with the coronavirus pandemic. A result of the unprecedented cutbacks in air travel, industry and the huge scale-back in the numbers of vehicles on the roads as more and more people work remotely, there has been a dramatic increase in air quality.

NASA reports significant drops in air pollution globally since the outset of the coronavirus. Fintan O’Toole states it in his article in The Irish Times, (Sat, April 4, 2020)

As the immediate improvements in air quality caused by the Covid-19 shutdown shows us, the planet would benefit enormously if we were to disappear tomorrow. It would restore itself to health quite rapidly. From Earth’s point of view, the toxic virus is us. It is we who have to find a way not to kill the host we inhabit and infect’. The result is a significant drop in air pollution – we are “doing the right thing for the wrong reasons”.

Dramatic reductions in air pollution, like a double-edged sword, might seem like a silver lining in global efforts to combat the Covid-19 pandemic. However, we should also be very concerned about the possible backlash in pollution a return to business-as-usual after the outbreak shows based on evidence from the 2008 global financial crisis.

We must also concern ourselves with the possibility that, as habitat and biodiversity loss increase globally, the coronavirus outbreak may be just the beginning of mass pandemics.

Reports suggest that this new coronavirus is a result of the over-exploited wildlife trade – a wildlife trade which, according to INTERPOL’s Wildlife Crime Division, is worth an estimated US$20 billion per year and has been known to finance terrorism. Covid-19 is just one of a number of emerging infectious diseases that are classified by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as ‘neglected zoonotic diseases’, meaning they are transmitted between animals and people.

To add further to the problems associated with the great efforts of containing the outbreak and protecting frontline healthcare workers, a number of European countries, including Ireland, have rejected supplies of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) from suppliers in China as being sub-standard and not fit for purpose, as reported by BBC News. This prompts the question: why can’t we make them in Ireland?

COP26, the landmark United Nations climate conference of 2020 — originally planned to be held in Glasgow, Scotland, in November — will be delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Relaxing already weak climate and biodiversity policies post Covid-19 in an attempt to regain lost production is a receipt for disaster and opens the door to further pandemics.

On the streets…and me

During 2018, Ireland witnessed a huge public outpouring as thousands of people from around the country took to the streets of Dublin in a national protest to highlight Ireland’s housing crises. Long established housing and homeless charities, supported by students, civil society groups and trade unions came together under the ‘Raise the Roof’ rally to highlight our accommodation crisis.

In 2019, we saw millions of children and protesters across the world, taking to the streets, to demand urgent action on climate change. More than 10,000 children, supported by teachers and parents, many carrying signs criticising the Irish Government’s environmental policy, took part.

Backtrack to Saturday 10th September 2011 when two squad cars surrounded me outside the public library in O’Connor Square, Tullamore, where I was campaigning against Offaly County Council’s use of Chinese plywood in the redevelopment of the library. I was arrested, handcuffed, detained at Tullamore Garda Station for four hours and charged with a ‘criminal’ offence. I had three subsequent court appearances.

Why was I arrested? I had written the following statement on the Chinese plywood hoarding that surrounded the construction site: ‘OFFALY CO COUNCIL LIKES CHINESE THROW-AWAY’. The particular type of plywood in question was known in the trade as ‘throw-away Chinese plywood’ as it was only used once or twice on construction sites and then it was dumped.

That particular type of low-quality Chinese plywood was made from a tropical timber called bintangor (Calophyllum of the family: GUTTIFEREA) which was routinely over-exploited and illegally logged by Chinese logging companies in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.

Cover: Responsible Timber Procurement Policy, 2009. Just Forests

I was simply reminding Offaly County Council in a very public manner that they have a Responsible Timber Procurement Policy (which, incidentally, I had written for them some years earlier as a member of one of their strategic policy committees) and that they needed to put it into practice.

Nature – the foundation of life

Now back to today. While we can be very grateful to China for sharing their experiences in tackling coronavirus, we must ensure that we do not follow their reported moves to ease environmental restrictions on businesses in their attempts to get their economy going again after the Covid-19 shutdown.

A joint NASA/European Space Agency report shows there has been a significant drop in air pollution over China.  But that’s about to change as China is already planning to relax environmental rules to allow factories idled during the epidemic to get back up to speed.

Nitrogen dioxide amounts over China have dropped with the coronavirus quarantine, Chinese New Year, and a related economic slowdown, March 2, 2020. Source: NASA/European Space Agency

Approximately 1.6 million people die in China from air pollution each year; to date about 3,200 people have died inside China from the coronavirus threat.

Natural resources and environmental services are the foundation of our livelihoods and economic development. Yet, since the start of the Industrial Revolution we have wrongly treated natural resources as income instead of natural capital.

During almost 30 years of facilitating Wood of Life Workshops with teachers and pupils in primary and post-primary schools across Ireland, I would always ask the following question in an attempt to draw comparisons between declining natural resources (natural capital) and their attitudes to Credit Union/Post Office savings accounts (financial capital): What do you think would happen if you continued to take money out of your savings account every week and put nothing back?

Teachers visiting the travelling Wood of Life exhibition. Source: Just Forests
Student visiting the travelling Wood of Life exhibition, in Cardonagh. Source: Just Forests

Their answer would most often be “I would have no money left” or “I would be broke”. Then I would ask: Using the same logic, what do you think will happen if we continue to destroy the Earth’s ecosystems in our search for natural resources? They got the message.

By wrongly accounting for our natural resources and environmental services as ‘income’ instead of ‘capital’ we end up bankrupt – as Fritz Schumacher outlines in his bestselling book of 1973, Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered. The goods and services provided by the natural world  make human development and economic trade possible and as such should be regarded as capital. We continue to deplete our soils, destroy our forests and over-fish and pollute our oceans with oil and plastic. The resulting economic activity is treated as income, not as a decline in the endowment of natural capital.

Shrinking natural resources and the threat of losing a million species of life in the form of animals, birds, insects, pollinators, trees and other plants as referenced in The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) report of April 2019, based in Bonn, tell us that it can never revert to ‘business as usual’ after the coronavirus.

When it comes to health the IPBES report tells us that “an estimated four billion people rely primarily on natural medicines for their health care and some 70 per cent of drugs used for cancer are natural or are synthetic products inspired by nature.” We must change the way we do business.

Saving three levels of biodiversity

“There are three levels of biodiversity that we’re trying to save: ecosystems, then the species in the ecosystems, and then the genes that prescribe traits of the species that make up the ecosystem,” Edward O. Wilson, a legendary figures in biology and conservation, commented last year in the National Geographic.

“And we should decide upon areas to be saved not by the general appearance or what are the main ecosystems in them. We don’t know enough about ecosystems. We should be choosing them according to the number of species that are in each. And particularly the number of endangered species of some kind.”

The 2020 Sign of The Times survey by Behaviour and Attitudes (B&A), tells us that, seven out of ten consumers (68%) surveyed are concerned about environmental issues. A further 51% believe environmental issues have a ‘profound  effect on their life’. On the hot issue of climate behaviour, the survey reveals, ’almost nothing is being done to foster a sense of collective effort that could make a difference’.

While there is a greater understanding and awareness of climate change, natural resource scarcity, biodiversity decline and ecosystem destruction, there is a corresponding sense of ‘guilt’ and a feeling that we are not doing enough to address the root causes and reverse the situation, according to the survey.

When people we know with addictions to drugs and alcohol do irresponsible and destructive things, we often call their actions ‘insane’. The insanity of our collective addictive actions under the headings of consumerism and economic development has brought society to this point, where the very earthly life support systems that we depend on daily for our economic, social, environmental and cultural survival needs to change. Destroying the very planet that feeds us is a form of insanity.

I believe we need a stepwise recovery programme based on a twelve-step programme that people can adapt to their own situation in order to empower them into positive and rewarding actions for real change.

‘Business as usual’ not possible

There are other and equally compelling reasons why we can’t return to ‘business as usual’ post Covid-19. The destruction of critical life-enhancing habitats such as forests and oceans, and the resulting loss of biodiversity, is creating the perfect incubation conditions for viruses like Covid-19. The logging of timber from tropical, temperate and boreal regions, which Ireland depends on so much as the largest per-capita consumer of tropical timber in the EU, disrupts and ‘creates new opportunities for disease organisms to move from non-human animals to people’.

In 2016, I wrote to the then minister responsible for the National Parks and Wildlife Service to support my call to have Ecocide – the destruction of nature and ecosystems made a criminal offence punishable by law. Ecocide is defined as mass damage or destruction to ecosystems such that inhabitants are severely affected. In other words, serious harm to the natural living world. I fully support the belief that it should be listed as an international crime in the Rome Statute, alongside Genocide, War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity.

While over-stretched workers in Ireland spend hours in cars commuting to and from work on a daily basis because of a shortage of affordable housing/accommodation, the fossil fuel industry in Ireland gets massive injections of public money. The Irish government grants the fossil fuel industry subsidies in the order of €2.5 billion per year. University College Dublin (UCD) is home to the Irish Centre for Research in Applied Geosciences (iCRAG), mostly funded by Science Foundation Ireland (a semi-state body) whose overarching objective is ‘to significantly de-risk Ireland’s offshore and onshore hydrocarbon and mineral resource exploration, increasing exploration activities.’

Subsidising fossil fuels

In the Friends of the Earth commissioned report, launched in March 2020, Fossil fuel subsidies in Ireland: Financing Climate Chaos, the report states,

There is no good case for investing limited public research finance in iCRAG’s research. SFI should consider its broader role as a scientific institution and align its funding with what is scientifically required to avoid the worst impacts of climate breakdown and assist Ireland’s transition to zero emissions. In addition, mandatory disclosure agreements should be required in all cases where industry representatives sit on publicly funded advisory committees to make the full extent of relationships between research and the fossil fuel industry transparent, including staff. Host academic institutions, in this case UCD, should assess whether these research activities contribute to their codes of ethics and the Sustainable Development Goals.’

“Governments need to put huge amounts of money into trying to sustain jobs and livelihoods,” Mary Robinson commented in late March, a former Irish president and UN high commissioner for human rights, who served twice as UN climate envoy. “But they must do it with a very strong green emphasis. The threat from climate change is as real as the threat from Covid-19, though it seems far away.”

“Money has poured into the fossil fuel industry since the Paris agreement [of 2015],” she said. “That can’t continue.”

I often ask myself why do intelligent people with BAs, MBAs, MSCs and PHDs – such as academics and investment bankers –  think it proper to profit from destroying what the 2020 Investing in Amazon Crude report by advocacy group Amazon Watch calls “part of the Earth’s natural ‘thermostat’ in order to extract hydrocarbons that would wreck the planet? According to Paul Sears Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies – Prof. David Orr – “…those who contribute to exploiting poor communities and the Earth’s ecosystems are those who have BAs, MBAs, MSCs and PHDs and not the ‘ignorant’ poor of the South.”

United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030

As we embark on the United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030 let us take this opportunity to ask ourselves do we need foods, flowers, timber, beef and other goods that originate thousands of miles from our shores. The environmental and social footprint is enormous. Our climate is in crisis. People are suffering. People are looking for credible leadership.  And our economic recovery must reflect this.

We need to see the same determination and leadership that is presently being applied to deal with the coronavirus pandemic applied to a new economic order that places climate, people’s health and well-being, and biodiversity at the heart of everything we do from here on. We must also remember that our children and grand-children will inherit what we leave them. How do we want to be remembered?

It has been so encouraging to see our politicians reacting so quickly and so decisively and listening to the  science of this pandemic over the past few weeks. Encourage them now to listen to and act immediately to the science of climate change, declining natural resources and biodiversity loss. It’s in our hands.

While we in Ireland continue to invade tropical forests and other wild landscapes around the planet which harbour so many species of animals and plants — and within those creatures, so many unknown viruses – we are asking for trouble. So, let’s leave the last word to  David Quammen, author of Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, who wrote recently in the New York Times:

We cut the trees; we kill the animals or cage them and send them to markets. We disrupt ecosystems, and we shake viruses loose from their natural hosts. When that happens, they need a new host. Often, we are it.”

Tom Roche is a woodworker, carpenter and former co-ordinator of Just Forests – an education and campaigning NGO advocating responsible management and conservation of the world’s forests as a means of poverty alleviation.