This story is of its time. In a year, maybe less, events may have passed it by. But it’s important for all our futures, nonetheless.
A few days ago, UK prime minister Boris Johnson announced that by mid-June, most restrictions on personal behaviour, imposed to help stem the global pandemic, would be lifted. For people who have endured a year of staying at home (most of the time), avoiding meeting friends and family, this was gold dust. I get it, really.
The immediate result was, according to newspaper headlines, that airlines and travel companies experienced uplifts in bookings of well over 300%, in some cases. In other words, a rush for normality. Again, I get it.
But what I don’t get is the idea that suddenly life can resume as if the pandemic had never happened. That we can resume life as it was. Because we must not.
The roots of the pandemic are in human behaviour today. The wealthy of the world, those in the so-called developed countries, jet around the globe as if it were their personal paradise. And why not? They have the time, the money and air fares are cheap. Astonishingly cheap.
Part of the reason they are cheap is that there is no tax on aviation fuel, which is by far the industry’s biggest single expense. The lack of tax emanates from an international agreement in 1944 that the nascent commercial aviation industry needed a kick start, and the best action was not to tax fuel. This policy has been adhered to ever since. Part of the reason can be found in the encapsulating statement by Bill Hemmings, of Brussels-based campaign group Transport and Environment, that “there aren’t any votes in making trips to Malaga more expensive”.
Yet as he points out, people who drive to France or Spain pay tax on their fuel so why shouldn’t those who fly. And people who don’t fly effectively subsidise those who do. Even if there were tax on aviation fuel at the same rate as road vehicle fuel, it would probably add about €15 per flight. Not onerous – and possibly not onerous enough.
The point? The global pandemic was spread worldwide amazingly quickly by casual aviation. The ability to jump on a plane without considering the real cost. Because aviation contributes 3% of human carbon dioxide emissions, and there is no greater danger facing us right now than the climate emergency.
And this is where it ties into the pandemic. Within the hegemony of ever-expanding growth, seemingly ad infinitum, together with the rocketing human population, there are almost no areas of the planet that humans have not touched in our insatiable demand for food and resources.
We plunder the seas as if they were infinite, we chop down tropical rainforests at a growing rate. Between 1990 and 2016, the world lost 1.3 million square kilometres of forest, according to the World Bank – an area larger than South Africa. Farming, grazing of livestock, mining, and drilling combined account for more than half of all deforestation.
With the disappearing rainforests and the growth of CO2 emissions comes an acidification of the oceans and a huge and a devastating effect on marine life. And a reduction in the rainforests’ uniquely huge ability to soak up CO2.
And as we destroy the rainforests and other habitats around the world to grow food and wrench raw materials from the earth, we destroy the habitats of the plants and creatures that live there.
Evolution has equipped those lifeforms with unique adaptations tailored to their environments. When their world is desecrated, they have to go somewhere. And as human populations grow, the demand for food, products and land grows commensurately. This brings us increasingly into contact with creatures who previously lived in their ecological niches – niches that are being destroyed by human activity.
Those creatures, be they bats, pangolins or whatever, may carry bacteria and viruses that evolution has equipped them to survive with – otherwise they wouldn’t still exist. You can see where I’m going with this: greater contact with humans means a greater opportunity for a virus to jump to another species.
Most of the time it probably won’t. But occasionally, it will, and this is one theory for the origin of SARS-CoV-2 (Covid-19) in homo sapiens.
Once established in one or more humans, pandemics used to stay where they were. Yes, the Black Death in the Middle Ages spread across Europe by ship but it was a slow spread, and had there been modern communications and modern understanding of disease transmission, it could have been stopped very quickly.
The modern pandemic on the other hand spreads around the world before vaccine makers have got their boots on. Thanks largely to global and overly cheap aviation.
So before we all jump for joy at the lifting of pandemic restrictions, my suggestion is that first we think about the impact on the planet that our lifestyles are having. That we think more than twice before jumping on a plane. And most of all, that refuse to vote for politicians who promise growth at all costs – because the planet that has sustained us so far, cannot do so for much longer.
Growth has to stop – or at the very least, the true costs of raw materials, including water, the air, and land, known as externalities and deemed to be free, need to be added to the balance book.
Imagine the age of the Earth as a year’s calendar. Humans arrived sometime in the last 30 seconds or so. We have done all this damage in the last 0.2 seconds. Let’s just stop.