Covid-19 and the entelechy of rapid transition

By David Powell on 3 April 2020

Last year governments around the world declared a ‘climate emergency’ and then did pretty much nothing to act as if it is one. Now here’s Covid-19, and this is what an emergency response looks like.

Rightly so: arresting the spread of coronavirus needs all the attention we can muster.  But it is no doubt to the frustration of many who have called for years for an organised and focused government climate emergency investment plan that the (lack of) political will to properly do something about climate compares so starkly with that being pointed at Covid-19.

There are reasons for that. Now is a good time to think about them honestly.

I found myself thinking the other day that one of the most remarkable things about the Covid-19 lockdown in the UK is that we are, in the main, policing it ourselves and going along with it (how long for is another question). Effectively overnight, an entire country has tacitly agreed to turn its way of life upside down following the requests – note, not orders – of politicians they didn’t necessarily vote for.  It’s true what they say about people deferring to their leaders in times of crisis, isn’t it. But there’s more at work than happy subservience to people in suits telling us to do things.

I learned a new word recently, ‘entelechy’: the force that makes an person or a group of people work in the distinct way that it does – the “difference between mere matter and a living body”. Organisations have their own entelechy, as do households, as do each of us; a complex web of ideas, institutions, biological impulses, and stories that are the real motive force behind things being more than the mechanical sum of their parts.  Sussing out how to get things done in the workplace, for example, is often the delicate intuitive art of working out how things really get done around here.

What’s the entelechy at work with the broad – no doubt often grudging – social consent to the lockdown?  Part of it feels like a propulsive moral force – what Jonathan Haidt would call a “moral community”, a group bound together by a commonly understood (new) set of social norms and perceived rights and wrongs.  While we’re doing this to save lives, and to save the NHS, we’re also doing it because it has quickly become what you do. The Facebook forums for where I live are mostly full of people tutting at joggers or other people for not following social distancing properly.

It’s worth noting though that there’s something strangely enriching about the self-depriving actions that we are all taking. Annoying though it is, there is a nobility in staying at home, something useful about it: sacrifice in pursuit of a compelling moral case, and as part of group belonging.  Each of us understands that we are the spread of the virus; our actions genuinely do have a material impact on the success of the bigger project.  This is a consensual lockdown of rich purpose, the opposite of what Charles Eisenstein saw as neoliberalism’s “paralysing cynicism”.

That sense of galvanising agency is essential to mobilise on climate change. We know that’s hard. It is true that one of the most refreshing things about 2019 was the (re)emergence of impactful activism in the form of the school strikers and Extinction Rebellion, which put the shock effect that had been lacking for so long.  Activism generated political will to be seen to be taking the problem seriously (although disrupting the economy in the name of climate change already feels like yesterday’s tactic, as Alex Randall argues).  

But that doesn’t mean politicians are yet ready to risk making themselves unpopular by doing some of the more invasive and fiddly stuff that rapid climate action necessarily entails: changes to people’s behaviour, choices, and everyday lives.  You need to make damn sure you’ve got a public mandate for that, one driven by an entelechy of some fairly essential emotional, moral and cultural stuff.

In a democracy a pre-requisite for rapid transition of any kind is public consent. There already was and still remains one overriding strategic imperative for the next five years of UK climate action: avoid, at all costs, a climate culture war. We simply don’t have time.

The UK does not have the USA’s ruinous partisanship on climate change and nor does it yet have its own Gilet Jaunes movement. Tiresomely the last fortnight has already flushed out people like television personality Jeremy Clarkson happily suggesting that this kind of disruption to everyone’s lives is exactly what climate activists want to see. It doesn’t matter whether that’s obviously wrong or not; that’s not how culture wars work.  We have to be so, so careful in how we talk about stopping things we do not like in the name of climate change, right now more than ever.  Broad public consent for sweeping changes is not optional.

The last obvious lesson hammered home by the current moment is that while climate change is urgent, it remains not urgent urgent in the way that Covid-19 is – politically speaking. That isn’t because politicians are all evil, but because they’re humans. Psychologist Daniel Gilbert says that for humans to take threats seriously they need to meet at least some of four criteria he acronymises as PAIN: the threat is Personal to me; it’s Abrupt and marks a sudden change in business as usual; it’s Immoral and I react to it with moral force; and it’s happening Now, as in this second.

The coronavirus ticks all of those boxes. Indeed the abruptness of the lockdown, relatively speaking, is perhaps in itself one of the reasons we are taking it so seriously.  As George Marshall notes, climate change as an abstract phenomenon is about as far from PAIN – again, politically speaking – as it gets, in the comfortable West at least.  We have to do better at making climate action genuinely urgent; we were getting there, but strategies may need to feel different as the bruised nation recovers.

None of this is stuff we didn’t know, but sometimes in the rush to point out the policies that should be put in place to deal with the climate crisis it feels like we forget how important it is that we make acting on that crisis feel vibrant, essential, inclusive, and if it entails any whiff of a sense of sacrifice or change to people’s lives, morally compelling.  Now – when it probably isn’t the best time, communications-wise, to be seen to be talking about slapping down bits of the economy in the name of the climate fight – is a good moment to make sure we get our messages and strategies right.


David Powell

David Powell is a researcher, writer and consultant. He’s the co-host of Sustainababble, a comedy podcast about climate change, nature and the environment.