‘The unthinkable has to be thought’ 

The Idea of an Eco-state

The wretchedness of Covid has gifted one important good. It is easier to *think the unthinkable* as the unthinkable has already happened. The revelation I’m referring to is not the pandemic (that was extensively pre-mediated) but rather to the extraordinary degree of latent human agency exhibited in the response.

The trouble is that we are in immediate danger of frittering this new knowledge away in our rush to snap back the old normal. I don’t want to sentimentalise the plague but it has radically opened up our sense of what we are collectively capable of.

If any serious individual in late February had argued that under conditions, other than war, that wealthy technologically advanced states were capable of shutting down 80% of the global economy, furloughing large swathes of the workforce along with 1.4 billion students and in the process bringing mass air transportation to a grinding halt, the proposition would not just have been dismissed it would simply not even have been heard.

As the usually sober and measured political economist Helen Thomas declared in a recent podcast “We have to face up to the fact that we have been through something, as a world,.. that in some sense was beyond our imaginations in the west at the beginning of this year.” The appearance of this degree of agency lead the other participant in the discussion, Adam Tooze to declare this to be -THE shock discovery of 2020- “hands down, flat out, the most extraordinary thing that has ever happened in modern economic history.”

All of which forces us to ask whether or rather how the same level of agency can be made available to address the far more profound and existential threat of the climate emergency? And why is it that in comparison with Covid the ecological crisis yields little more than a collective shrug of the shoulders ?

On the surface the reason for this is obvious. Covid is an imminent threat of death. Everyone rich and poor alike has been touched by the virus in some way. In comparison the threat to life through climate damage appears diffuse and distant with the gravest risks in the short term likely to be bourn by others. But its clear that this explanation is flawed when we recall that it is equally hard to make the argument that we are neglecting treatments and diagnosis of other fatal diseases likely to claim more lives than Covid. It seems that for reasons we don’t fully understand we remain uniquely hypnotised by this virus. Perhaps its partly the element of surprise. “Its just not something we ever imagined dying from”.

At least some aspects of the problem will be related to how knowledge circulates and delivered in the media sphere which in this case appears to have resolved into that most reductive of metrics; the ritual of the nightly Covid death toll.

So must we conclude that only fear of imminent death provides the communicative apparatus able to create the appropriate level of urgency ? What would that look like? Nightly briefings on the increasing number of wild fires, floods and famines delivered from behind lecterns by worried looking ministers flanked by climate scientists.? Merely describing the scenario renders it immediately laughable but as we seek to rise to Brian Holmes’ challenge of creating an ‘eco state’ what would the alternatives look like ?

Just a month ago the scientific consensus was there was no way back to the pre- Covid life.  The best we could hope for was a combination of increasingly effective treatments combined with partially effective vaccines (like annual flu jabs) all of which would mitigate but not eliminate the virus. The oft-repeated mantra was ‘there is no silver bullet’.  But for once it appears scientific consensus was wrong. The vaccines look like being closer to being a ‘silver bullet’ that we had a right to expect. The ubiquitous cliché “the new normal” has been excitedly replaced by simply “getting back to normal” albeit darkly laced with the likelihood of mass unemployment.

We already see the ‘snap back” has begun as the major cities in China are roaring back into frenetic production encouraged by the regime’s rampant state managed capitalism. The likelihood is that we will not be far behind. But we must not forget that what we have learned means the terms of reference for these arguments have changed and radical action harder to dismiss

Nothing should detract from an extraordinary scientific and humanitarian achievement of creating effective vaccines and treatments. But amidst the triumphalism we should not forget that we are in danger of losing the social and psychological apparatus that learning to live with the virus provided to help us make the sacrifices and the investment needed to begin mending climate damage and building an eco-state.