George Kerevan’s in a cheery mood this morning. Or as cheery as is possible when obliged to acknowledge the possibility of humanity being wiped out by disease and/or climate change. Or stupidity. We can be fairly certain that stupidity will play a significant part in bringing about our extinction. Scientific knowledge and technological innovation are wonderful things. Less so when placed in the fumbling grasp of infantile apes with lizard brains. Which comment may lead you to suppose that I am measurably less optimistic than Mr Kerevan. And you’d be right.
There are two ways of thinking about the winter solstice. George goes with shortest day. I tend more towards the longest night perspective. Not because I’m naturally pessimistic. I’m not. What I am is relentlessly realistic. If recognising the possibility of good outcomes counts as optimism, I am an optimist. If being realistic about the chances of achieving good outcomes is pessimism, then I am very much the pessimist.
I see opportunities. I just don’t rate our ability to grasp those opportunities. The Covid/climate situation could serve as a massive reset button for the world. Dealing effectively with the climate issue was always going to involve breaking the dominant socio-economic model. A prospect abhorred by those who find this model accommodating and relished by those who can’t agree on what should happen after the breaking, supposing they’ve even thought that far. Along comes Covid and the dominant socio-economic model is broken whether you relish it or abhor it. Relieved of the need to make the decision to break with the old and being aware of the problems it caused we have a near-perfect opportunity to make ‘build back better’ more than a catchy slogan. At which point stupidity intervenes.
Stupid is as stupid declines to do. Stupid is being aware of the most effective way to deal with a problem, but deciding to do something else instead. Stupid is knowing the solution but opting for something other than the solution because politics or economics or both dictate. Stupid is making choices that prioritise the politics or economics or both which require you to make bad choices. Stupid is not choosing to change the politics or economics or both such as might allow better choices. There’s a lot of stupidity.
We’re told it’s complicated. Which is generally just another way of saying the simple solution is disliked. Because there’s always a simple solution. Or to be more accurate, the solution always stems from a very simple idea. Or to put it another way, even the most complex solution can be distilled down to a very simple idea. The complications tend to arise when the choice is made to go to a particular course of action without regard for the simple idea. The complications may actually be used to conceal the simple idea. Or to make the simple idea look less simple by maintaining that it is the simple idea which is giving rise to the complications. Or claiming that the simple idea, if allowed, will give rise to even worse complications than the complications that arise from eschewing the simple idea.
In the case of the pandemic, the simple idea can be expressed in one word – isolation. Anything presented as a solution (term used very loosely) which does not derive from the simple idea of isolation is not an appropriate or an effective solution. A solution is appropriate and effective only to the extent that this simple idea is not compromised by complications arising from political or economic considerations. Everybody knows (figure of speech) that the only effective way to combat a pandemic is isolation. Starve the pathogen of potential hosts and it will diminish. But the imperative of isolation must be compromised to accommodate the political and economic imperatives of our annual festival of consumption. Our political leaders make choices based, not on the fundamental concept of isolation, but on the complications created by politics and economics.
In the case of climate change, the corresponding simple idea can also be captured in a single word – circulation. It’s impossible to separate the climate issue from economics because it is the dominant economic system which has brought about the climate crisis. Luckily for us, the same simple idea applies to both climate and economy. In both cases the appropriate and effective solution must derive from the simple idea of circulation. An economic system focused on and designed for circulation rather than acquisition will tend to result in resource use that also prioritises circulation.
The system we have at the moment; the system which is so obviously and catastrophically failing, has lost its churn. We’ve been sold the idea that civilised human society is given impetus by a uni-directional flow of resources. All wealth (defined as control of resources) tends to flow towards the offshore accounts of the already wealthy. All material goods tend to flow towards a landfill – actual or metaphorical. We have been sold the idea that we need to constantly increase both the volume and the speed of this flow in order to ‘power’ the lives we have or the lives we aspire to.
The problem with this should be obvious. A system that flows rather than circulating relies on an infinite supply of resources and a landfill of infinite capacity. The laws which govern the functioning of the universe permit neither of these things.
Covid has disrupted the flow of acquisitive capitalism. Not stopped it. But disrupted it enough to allow the possibility of changing it. If we so choose. That choice is intimately bound up with the choices we make in seeking to combat the pandemic. Both require a change of mindset. Both require that we first choose to do the thing that isn’t stupid.
George Kerevan seems hopeful that we will choose not to do the stupid thing. I am markedly less hopeful. George sees the potential that is undoubtedly there. Whether we’re talking about combating Covid or correcting climate change by reordering our economy or rectifying the constitutional anomaly of the Union by restoring Scotland’s independence, it is always possible to hope that we will not do the stupid thing. History, however, would suggest that this is a forlorn hope.