BriefingCrisis conversations – Reset #2: learning as we go for long term transition
In the debate over the global response to Covid19 a battle of hashtags has broken out between those urging a quick return to ‘normal’, and those saying...
How quickly the brain adapts to the new normal
– Emily Maitlis, BBC Newsnight, 25/03/2020
In late 2018 the Rapid Transition Alliance launched with the purpose of building a community of interest to learn from moments of sudden change and to apply those lessons to the climate emergency. With changes in the biosphere happening faster than changes in human behaviour, the question motivating the Alliance is how to match the speed and scale of social and economic change to what the science says is necessary. Now, in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, one of the biggest and most sudden global upheavals for a generation, the Alliance is collaborating with the original Green New Deal group, and Compass, the campaign group that builds support for new ideas among social movements, decision makers and political parties.
In the first of several meetings, held online because of the pandemic lockdown, we began to sketch out a framework for how we could ‘learn as we go’ through unprecedented events. This is a brief summary of some of the range of issues and insights already emerging.
From communities under self-isolation applauding their health workers from windows and doorways, to governments effectively nationalising the wages of whole populations, there is almost universal agreement that the global coronavirus pandemic has triggered an unprecedented response. It ranges from sudden new norms in personal behaviour to the abandonment of prior ideological constraints imposed on economic policy.
The latter was illustrated by the former Member of the European Parliament (MEP) turned United Kingdom Green Party MP, Caroline Lucas, who cited the example of the Conservative MP, Edward Leigh, calling for the introduction of a Basic Income scheme during debate in Parliament, alongside the government taking control of the railways. On the global stage the pandemic triggered the United Nations to call for a ceasefire in the conflict in Yemen. Overall, politically, greater political consensus is emerging on a larger role for the state and on the need to improve the resilience of the economy at a national and local level.
Professor Paul Chatterton of the University of Leeds, and the Lilac housing cooperative drew attention to cases of free transport being made available to key workers, and Wales, for example, introducing free weekend bus services, and how this aligned with the movement for making some sections of public transport free to help aid low-carbon transition in cities. He also pointed out how the social-distancing necessary in cities due to the pandemic was easier in well-designed urban areas where less space is taken up for cars, squeezing pedestrians on potentially overcrowded and narrow pavements.
Encouragingly, support for fresh transport visions has also come from voices more conventionally associated with the car lobby. Within days of the Alliance meeting, the president of the UK Automobile Association predicted a major shift in behaviour post pandemic, “People travelling up and down motorways just to hold meetings is inefficient, expensive and not good for the environment. I think use of roads and rail and indeed bus will be reduced after this crisis.” A new awareness of how much travel might now be viewed as unnecessary and, said the AA, government funds for new transport infrastructure including roads might better be spent on improving broadband access.
Economist and former MEP, Molly Scott Cato, said that experience of the partial rationing of essential items and foods by supermarkets and pharmacies could well prefigure measures that might become common in a world where similar processes are needed to manage the impacts of the climate crisis and ensure fair access to resources.
Neal Lawson of Compass thought that if some were to experience a version of basic income as an emergency measure for the crisis, it would become more imaginable as a long-term economic underpinning and part of the conversation about what a good society and a good life are. He also saw hope and opportunity in the flowering of civil society activity, mutual aid platforms and spontaneous community action, which we should celebrate, but also question what would be needed to make it sustainable in the long-term.
As various governments move to support businesses that have been forced, to various degrees, to cease business, a weakness exposed again in the UK economy is the absence of a supportive High Street retail banking infrastructure with the capacity to administer a support scheme. The build-up to the 2007-2008 financial crisis both witnessed, and then saw the crisis accelerate, the evacuation of local banking services from the high street. Since then, another decade of hollowing out and inadequate financial sector reform has left many small businesses being offered precarious loans and being asked by banks that lack local and small business sector knowledge for unreasonable securities. The crisis is making clear that the withering on the vine of local financial infrastructure needs to be reversed and that universal, and more mutual banking services are needed to build more resilient local economies.
Former MEP Julie Ward described the example set by more progressive business models like social enterprises, which have direct community links, and the co-operative movement. Cooperative retailers, for example, intervened directly to guarantee food to the pupils of cooperatively run schools.
Robin McAlpine, director of the Scottish ‘think and do’ tank, Common Weal, said that it was vital to address the question of ‘why our economic system is collapsing through what is essentially a flu.’ He argued for specifying, ‘why it’s broken and what must change’, because the ‘fundamental economic system’ did not ‘stack up’. He proposed setting up a ‘Transition Academy’ for civil servants at all levels.
Caroline Lucas and Prof Peter Newell warned that the crisis could be used by vested interests to undermine wider efforts towards progress, such as pushing back against measures to reduce fossil fuel subsidies and polluting industries seeking priority financial support. In this context, several had already supported a civil society initiative to spell-out five core principles for economic support and a ‘just recovery’.
Frances Foley, who has been pioneering an initiative on the use of citizens’ assemblies, observed that the experience of life slowing down at the local community level was something that, compared to the often frenetic pace of normal economic life, many people felt more comfortable with. This is in keeping with one ironic description of rapid transition – that to achieve it, the challenge is to speed up the slowing down. This, though, aligns with a number of cultural shifts around slow food, slow travel and, indeed, slow work, that have already proved popular.
Managing shifts like these, said Frances, introduced an important angle around reviving democracy in which citizens’ assemblies played an important role. These could be part of the mid-term response and function to allow people a greater sense of security and control. Communities have already responded more rapidly than they might be expected to, and forums like the assemblies offer people space in which different options for coping and recovery can be explored.
Julie Ward added that there was a need to increase access to help towards greater occupational literacy, and that with enforced leisure time it was important to develop the skills that allow people to be as in control as possible of how we spend our time. This, she said, had a vital mental health perspective.
Molly Scott Cato underlined how critical was the devolution of powers and that power needed to be better distributed to address crises like this. It matters both that governments should be able to be challenged during a crisis, and recognise that where they are perceived to be not fully in control, people will decide on actions for themselves regardless. Better distribution and empowerment at the local level would therefore enable greater organisation and coordination.
Local authorities could be demonstrating a stronger movement asking for more power and resources for the crisis to be managed effectively at the local level, noted Caroline Lucas – and that there needed to be a bigger discussion about devolution. Parliament itself was behind on its own advice to others to move their work online, she said, and needed rapidly to improve.
Two overarching themes kept recurring as people focused on the challenge of ‘learning as we go’ in in the crisis: what are the essential supportive functions, resources and activities that we now know to be necessary and have rushed to establish – from medical equipment and and spare NHS beds to mechanisms for wage and small business support – that should have been prepared and set up in advance; and which among the short-term measures introduced to tackle the crisis actually reveal deeper, long-term policy and market failures and should be considered for keeping, even if in adapted form?
The first question might relate to everything from the funding and capacity of the health system and care services, and security in work and in housing (especially in vulnerable renting markets), to having more localised, resilient economies, clean reliable energy supplies, and supportive neighbourhoods in which a community’s role in delivering mutual aid is recognised and supported.
Then there are the particular short-term measures that, in fact, tacitly recognise pre-existing structural flaws and should be assessed for longer term relevance.
Ending zero hours contracts, for example, which leave workers highly vulnerable, for more secure working arrangements is one such measure, along with reform of housing and especially insecure and overpriced private rental markets. Other measures might include far greater recognition and reward of work in the public sphere, which underpins community and the economy, such as in healthcare, education, cleaning, and maintenance of public spaces.
Where big business ultimately relies on state support, as the crisis has revealed, multiple calls have been made for a different social contract, in terms of executive high pay and shareholder dividends, not to mention issues concerning tax evasion and avoidance. Where small business is concerned, a clear need has been revealed for intervention to recreate a supportive banking infrastructure with a mandate to back local economies. At the household level, the crisis has revived the debate about a more effective and fair way to guarantee basic material needs through interest in guaranteeing forms of basic income and services, as well as both the length and nature of the working week, with a revolution in home working likely.
Perhaps one of the greatest impacts of the crisis has been the demonstration effect of what governments and the broader public sphere are capable of, and the way in which they provide the fundamental foundation of the wider economy. Long downplayed, especially in more market oriented nations, where a politics critical of the public sector has dominated, the public sphere has revealed itself as a bedrock. There are many lessons to ‘learn as we go’ but one stands out, the need for a swing of the pendulum in understanding that beneath everything else, it is the public domain that holds us all together, and enables us first to survive and, when better maintained, to thrive.
Andrew Simms is Coordinator of the Rapid Transition Alliance, an author, political economist and activist. He is co-director of the NewWeather Institute, Assistant Director of Scientists for Global Responsibility, a Research Associate at the University of Sussex, and a Fellow of the New Economics Foundation (NEF). His books include The New Economics, Cancel the Apocalypse: the New Path to Prosperity, Ecological Debt and Do Good Lives Have to Cost the Earth? He tweets from @andrewsimms_uk