When historians look back at the impact of Covid-19, will they record only a temporary diversion in the world’s direction of travel, or a moment when our way of life changed fundamentally and forever?
Futurists, as is their wont, are racing to proclaim that “coronavirus will change the world permanently,” as a recent headline in Politico put it. But does the coronavirus really have “the potential to break [the world] out of the 50-plus-year pattern of escalating political and cultural polarization we have been trapped in,” or signal “the end of our romance with market society and hyper-individualism”?
Of course not. Such predictions, made by “30 smart, macro thinkers,” stem from a kind of wishful thinking.
Compare the coronavirus crisis to the big events of the past century – from the First World War, the flu pandemic that was its deadly finale and the Great Depression of the 1930s, to the Second World War, the atomic bomb and … well, pick your own catastrophic moment.
Did any one of them fundamentally and permanently change the way we live?
The September 11 attacks and their aftermath, for example, certainly triggered two decades of costly conflict. But are international relations any more nuanced as a result of the lessons that ought to have been learned since 2001? It might be temporarily overshadowed by the coronavirus, but the festering standoff between the US and Iran suggests nations are as eager as ever to put chest-thumping nationalistic pride before broader human concerns.
The message that history sends us is that, no matter how apocalyptic any particular period of time might seem to be to those living through it, when seen through the lens of hindsight, the path of human progress is relatively straight and smooth and climbing ever upwards.
This is not to say that the current pandemic does not conceal a danger with potentially catastrophic long-term consequences for the human race but it is a danger born of a confluence of two events. Either one of them would have been a challenge; together they pose perhaps the most serious threat the world has ever faced.
Until Covid-19 struck, our main preoccupation was the existential threat of global warming. To the despair of UN Secretary-General António Guterres, who has warned that “all the attention that needs to be given to fight this disease [must] not distract us from the need to defeat climate change,” there is a very real danger that the consequences of the former may fatally delay the action necessary to achieve the latter.
We all know that massive and global adoption of renewable energy is essential if we are to avoid tipping the world over into irreversible climate change, a development that would disrupt human society for ever and claim far more lives than any virus.
Focusing international efforts on achieving this was to be the purpose of the COP26 Conference of the Parties, scheduled to be held in Glasgow in November, at which delegates from around the world are expected to unveil their plans for achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. Now, however, the existence of the conference, like every other mass gathering from the Tokyo Olympics to Dubai’s Expo 2020, has been postponed.
As a consequence of reduced industrial production and economic activity, with the latter influencing the former, and reduced factory output turning into higher unemployment, our global need for energy has been vastly lowered. Oil is cheaper now than it has been in more than a decade. A new trading range is being established for oil that is lower than ranges in the past 10 years.
It isn’t hard to see where this might lead. Why invest in expensive sustainable power plants and solar and wind generation, or invest in vital renewables research, when oil suddenly is so cheap and predicted to remain so for some time to come? Indeed, proponents of the status quo have already sensed the opportunity to reverse government policies that support the fight against climate change but add costs for businesses. Expect to see more industries given greater latitude in emissions control, under the guise of balance sheet stimulus.
From the consumer’s perspective, why buy an expensive electric car when prices at the garage pump are so low? And in the current economic downturn will governments and companies have the appetite, or the funds, to invest in the necessary networks of charging stations?
As we know from history, none of this will be permanent. When the virus has been defeated, as it will be, we will recover our wits and get back to the business of saving the planet. The only problem is that by then it could be too late.
Never before in history have we lived under the shadow of a doomsday scenario of the type confronting us now. Covid-19 won’t finish us off, or even permanently change the way we live our lives. This too shall pass. But by the time it does, our distracted governments may wake up to the fact that we have slipped over the climate-change precipice, and that there is no way back.
Jonathan Gornall is a British journalist, formerly with The Times, who has lived and worked in the Middle East and is now based in the UK.