In a crisis, we are reminded of what really matters: the people we love and care for, our communities and the society of which we are all a part. We discover who the people are that we really depend on, the very people dismissed by ministers as “low skilled” just a few weeks ago. Supermarket workers, carers, cleaners, and delivery drivers are actually those who have kept our society going during lockdown.
We also find out a lot about what works, and what does not. The coronavirus pandemic has laid bare some profound weaknesses in our society. We have learned how much more prepared we would be to respond to shocks if our public services had not been decimated and our local authorities and economies drained of resources. We have seen how a decade of politically motivated austerity has eroded our collective social immune system and left us perilously exposed and vulnerable.
Things we have long been told were impossible or unrealistic are, in fact, possible. There is after all a “magic money tree” when it is needed. The government can find the money to house homeless people, put resources into our healthcare system, provide an income to millions who cannot work and write off billions of pounds in public debt overnight.
The coronavirus crisis has forced government to make political choices it has been avoiding for decades. As ministers turn their minds towards restarting the economy, we have the opportunity to create something different and better, a society which is fairer, greener and more resilient to the other even graver crises we face, the climate emergency and biodiversity loss. If we get it right, we may also emerge in a much better position to face the next pandemic, as Covid-19 is unlikely to be the last. So our response to the coronavirus crisis could and must change everything.
But it is not guaranteed. There are already rumblings on Tory backbenches arguing that the fastest way to “bounce back” is to de-regulate and abandon what David Cameron reportedly dismissed as “all that green crap”, rushing headlong back to business-as-before with the same climate-wrecking industries and deep inequalities. In other words, turbo-charging the de-regulation and protections-free Britain promised by the Brexit zealots.
The first way to resist this is by rejecting the false choice between restarting our economy or protecting our planet. The way we restart our economy is also the way we tackle the climate crisis. As both the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) and an Oxford University report last week have shown: investing in green projects creates more jobs and leads to increased long-term cost savings compared with traditional stimulus programmes.
We could start by insulating the UK’s 29 million homes – that are among the leakiest in Europe – to provide warmer houses while driving down energy bills and emissions, while creating hundreds of thousands of jobs across the country.
As the CCC’s chairman, Lord Deben, said: “There is every advantage in doing this in a clean, green, resilient way and every disadvantage in trying to go back to a world which we know is not sustainable.”
It is possible to build back greener and more resilient. Restrictions on travel are likely to last for some time and with the renewed appetite for video meetings, it is no wonder that voices inside the airline industry are talking about a permanent reset with the industry possibly being halved in the next few years. Even legendary investor Warren Buffett has sold all his airline stock and said “the airline business … has changed in a very major way”.
Do we want to prop up the existing airline industry, or use the opportunity to transform it? Making sure that companies adopt climate targets in line with the Paris Agreement, with specific plans on how to meet those targets, might mean we come through this pandemic with industries fit for the future rather than ones which are steadily destroying all our futures.
There must clearly be conditions for any bailout packages, among them a requirement that companies pay their share of taxes and protect workers’ rights, as well as climate conditions on any bailout package for carbon intensive industries. But we need to look further than this. Covid-19 has revealed just how vulnerable our food system is to shocks, and just how many people in the UK cannot afford to eat. Farmers have been pouring unsold milk down the drain, or ploughing crops back into the field, while demand for foodbanks has rocketed. Our food system is broken, focused on unhealthy food produced in a way that is steadily destroying the land from which it comes.
Everyone should have a right to food, and that should go hand in hand with a shift to a resilient, re-localised food and farming system that prioritises public health and sustainability. Smaller farmers and food businesses should be prioritised for emergency business support and long-term backing, with a focus on the adoption of agro-ecological production as the norm.
The experience of lockdown has reminded us all of the importance of green open spaces and the value of city streets where it’s safe to walk or cycle, free of traffic fumes. We are discovering what fresh, unpolluted air is like – sometimes it takes a sudden change to make you realise how bad things were before. We must hold on to this and reclaim public spaces for people and improve access to public parks.
There are many other things that we will want to hold onto and expand: our capacity to care for one another, our understanding of who really makes a difference in society, our ability to innovate, the real value of well-being. That is why we need to break with a past that was working so badly for so many people while at the same time destroying the natural world on which we all depend.
We must use this moment to redesign our economy and society. The actions we take now will shape the future. So, let us choose to meet the needs of everyone for food, shelter, care, health, and dignity, guaranteeing a basic income and secure housing for all. Let us transform and rebalance society with a Green New Deal, tackling the climate emergency, protecting the natural world, creating hundreds of thousands of skilled jobs and improving the lives of people across the country.
Political failure is, at root, a failure of imagination. It has just been too easy in the past to dismiss ideas as impossible or too difficult. The events of a few short months have stretched our collective imagination in ways we could not have dreamed of and our challenge now is to make what for so long seemed politically impossible, instead politically inevitable.
It starts with small green steps – what I am calling Green Steps to Better. The ideas I have set out here are the start of a conversation, not the end, but I hope they set us on the road to a new and better normal.
Caroline Lucas is the Green Party MP for Brighton Pavillion.