This coronavirus is the wake-up call for a
By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian
25th March 2020
We have been living in a bubble: a bubble of
false comfort and denial. In the rich nations, we have begun to believe we have
transcended the material world. The wealth we’ve accumulated – often at the
expense of others – has shielded us from reality. Living behind screens,
passing between capsules – our houses, cars, offices and shopping malls – we
persuaded ourselves that contingency had retreated, that we had reached the
point all civilisations seek: insulation from natural hazard.
Now the membrane has ruptured, and we find
ourselves naked and outraged, as the biology we appeared to have banished
storms through our lives. The temptation, when this pandemic has passed, will
be to find another bubble. We cannot afford to succumb to it. From now on, we
should expose our minds to the painful realities we have denied for too long.
The planet has multiple morbidities,
some of which will make this coronavirus look, by comparison, easy to treat.
One above all others has come to obsess me in recent years: how will we feed
ourselves? Fights over toilet paper are ugly enough: I hope we never have to
witness fights over food. But it’s becoming difficult to see how we will avoid
A large body of evidence is beginning
to accumulate, showing how climate breakdown is likely to affect our food
supply. Already, farming in some parts of the world is being hammered by drought, floods, fire and locusts (whose resurgence in the past few
weeks appears to be the result of anomalous
When we call such hazards “biblical”, we mean that they are the kind of things
that happened long ago, to people whose lives we can scarcely imagine. Now,
with increasing frequency, they are happening to us.
forthcoming book, Our Final Warning, Mark
Lynas explains what is likely to happen to our food supply with every extra
degree of global heating. He finds that extreme danger kicks in somewhere between
3 and 4° above pre-industrial levels. At this point, a series of interlocking
impacts threaten to send food production into a death spiral. Outdoor
temperatures become too high for humans to tolerate, making subsistence farming impossible across Africa
and South Asia. Livestock die from heat stress. Temperatures start to exceed the lethal thresholds for crop
plants across much of the world, and major food producing regions turn into dust bowls.
Simultaneous global harvest failure – something that has never happened in the
modern world – becomes highly
combination with a rising human population, the loss of irrigation water, soil
and pollinators, this could push the world into structural famine. Even today,
when the world has a total food surplus, hundreds of millions are malnourished
as a result of the unequal distribution of wealth and power. Under food
deficit, billions could starve. Hoarding will happen, as it always has, at the
global level, as powerful people snatch food from the mouths of the poor. Yet,
even if every nation keeps its promises under the Paris Agreement, which
currently seems unlikely, global heating will amount to between 3 and 4°.
our illusion of security, we are doing almost nothing to anticipate this
catastrophe, let alone prevent it. This existential issue scarcely seems to
impinge on our consciousness. Every food producing
sector claims that its own current practices are sustainable, and don’t need to
change. When I challenge them, I’m met with a barrage of anger, abuse and
threats of the kind I haven’t experienced since I opposed the Iraq War. Sacred
cows and holy lambs are everywhere, and the thinking required to develop the new
food systems we
need is scarcely anywhere.
But this is just one of our impending
crises. Antibiotic resistance is, potentially, as deadly as any new disease.
One of the causes is the astonishingly
profligate way in
which these precious medicines are used on some livestock farms. Where vast
numbers of farm animals are packed together, antibiotics are deployed
prophylactically, to prevent otherwise-inevitable outbreaks of disease. In some
parts of the world, they are used not only to prevent disease, but also as
growth promoters. Low doses are routinely added to feed: a strategy which could
scarcely be better designed to deliver
In the US, where 27 million people
have no medical cover, some people are now treating themselves with veterinary
antibiotics, including those sold, without prescription, to medicate
Pharmaceutical companies are failing
to invest sufficiently in
the search for new drugs. If antibiotics cease to be effective, surgery becomes
almost impossible. Childbirth becomes a mortal hazard once more. Chemotherapy
can no longer be safely practised. Infectious diseases we have comfortably
forgotten become deadly threats. We should discuss this issue as often as we
talk about football. But again, it scarcely registers.
Our multiple crises, of which these
are just two, have a common root. The problem is exemplified by the response of the organisers of the Bath Half
Marathon, a massive event that took place on March 15, to the many people
begging them to cancel. “It is now too late for us to cancel or postpone the
event. The venue is built, the infrastructure is in place, the site and
our contractors are ready.” In other words, the sunk
costs of the event were judged to outweigh any future impacts – the potential
transmission of disease, and possible deaths – it might cause. The amount of time it took the International
Olympic Committee to postpone the Games could reflect similar judgements – but
at least they got there in the end. Sunk costs within the fossil fuel industry, farming, banking,
private healthcare and other sectors prevent the rapid transformations we need.
Money becomes more important than life.
two ways this could go. We could, as some people have done, double down on
denial. Some of those who have dismissed other threats, such as climate
breakdown, also seek to downplay the threat of Covid-19. Witness the Brazilian
president, Jair Bolsonaro, who claims that the
coronavirus is nothing more than “a little flu”. The media and opposition
politicians who have called for lockdown are, apparently, part of a conspiracy
could be the moment when we begin to see ourselves, once more, as governed by
biology and physics, and dependent on a habitable planet. Never again should we
listen to the liars and the deniers. Never again should we allow a comforting
falsehood to trounce a painful truth. No longer can we afford to be dominated
by those who put money ahead of life. This coronavirus reminds us that we
belong to the material world.