Corona and its clear blue skies

[Asma Atique] Friday, April 3, 2020

“Did you see that article about how blue the clouds are now in China because of corona?” asked my friend on a virtual hangout. As an environmental justice scholar, I found something deeply troubling about all the news stories and posts celebrating clear, blue skies – all with some flavor of “hey, at least we are giving mother nature a break.” Firstly, surely reduction in traffic and industrial activity explains the dramatic fall in No2, but climate science is much more complex. A few months of lockdown cannot undo three decades of unequivocal anthropogenic warming. The hoarding of toilet paper and panic-buying show that our consumerism and overconsumption reflexes are much more deeply entrenched.

And at what cost? Do the clear skies outweigh the scale of human suffering – an isolating death and a funeral on Facebook live? The 25 million jobs that are expected to be lost? Implicit in these stories touting silver linings is that the lives lost are perhaps a reasonable price to pay for clear skies and more breathable air. As environmental justice scholars and activists would urge, we have to ask who is at more risk and how these environmental benefits and burdens are actually distributed. We know that the “disease does not discriminate” but indeed certain groups face greater risks – this includes not only the elderly and immunocompromised, those working in health care and care work but also all those working in grocery stores, the gig economy, restaurants doing take-outs, agriculture, cleaning services so on and so forth. It is often racialized marginalized groups that are more likely to be the ‘flexible labor’ working these precarious jobs. Indeed there is already evidence that Covid-19 is hitting low-income communities of color the hardest. And for migrant workers who are now stuck in overcrowded ‘camps’ in industrial areas, the unpaid salaries, lack of healthcare and exclusions from states’ Covid-19 welfare initiatives make them particularly vulnerable.  

Environmental burdens such as lack of access to clean water and adequate housing disproportionately negatively affect already disadvantaged marginalized racialized populations. From indigenous communities in the North, to daily-wage earners living in urban slums in the South and the migrant workers and refugees stuck in between, the subaltern are yet again most vulnerable. Indeed many commentators have repeated that Covid-19 and the measures that have been put in place highlight the cracks in today’s fragile neoliberal, profit-driven, growth-hungry socioeconomic system. “In crisis,” as John Fabian writes “the fault lines of ordinary politics reappear, only deeper.” Physical distancing and working from home are luxuries that only some can afford. And yet if the recent Amazon, Wholefoods, and General Electric strikes are any indication, the need to resist persists. As Naomi Klein urges now more than ever we ought to learn how to “disrupt from a distance.”

Also, most of the stories that highlight these clear skies also presuppose human and nonhuman/more than human worlds are separate, often competing spheres. They reinforce the problematic construction of nature as, to quote Arturo Escobar, an “[object] of science preexisting in purity.” What we need, as critical environmental law and critical development scholars urge, are new ontologies that challenge some of these very assumptions. We are not at war with nature and nature is not the enemy that is taking back what belongs to itself. The very conception of nature as something that exists outside, out there is what reifies unfettered capitalist accumulation. We need better ways of understanding the anthropocentric human exceptionalism that managers subscribe to and the oneness that deep ecologists push for.

This is all not to say that there are no parallels whatsoever between coronavirus and climate change. Indeed both have been referred to as crises, met with skepticism, and deal with risk and uncertainty. It took numerous models and back-of-the-envelope calculations to understand and try to convince governments and the public of the potential scale of the problem – the usual methodological debates followed, the science questioned, many questions left unanswered and public distrust persisted while the urgency to act grew and continues to grow. There is for both climate change and Covid-19, undoubtedly a need for collective action and (for some) not enough disincentives to free-ride. There is also an offloading of responsibility to individuals, particularly women in households and in care work. Furthermore, there is an opportunity for some states to hoard power under the guise of an emergency be it through, as it has been for Covid-19, tightening borders, surveillance mechanisms, deploying military to enforce measures or simply re-rehearsing exclusionary racist nationalist mantras. Both the ‘problems’ and ‘solutions’ have important implications on debates on justice.

One may pause to ask if this is all just routine skepticism from academics or is there at all a silver lining? Historically, pushes for government action on environmental protection often through environmental legislation have been instigated by public health concerns (smog, asthma, DDTs etc). These circumstances have certainly highlighted the need for more social protection, and policies like universal basic income and prioritizing healthcare and education. Perhaps the looming economic crisis, low oil prices, and the postponed COP26 global climate summit will undermine international climate change negotiations and work done toward Green New Deals. Perhaps this offers an opportunity to garner political will, imagine different ways of organizing labor, capital and the world of work. Perhaps it offers an opportunity for a clearer understanding of our relationship with a changing climate.

Asma Atique | Toronto | April 3, 2020

Published by pzumbansen

law professor.

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