Our world is shrinking and expanding at the same time. While we heed the instruction to isolate, businesses shut down and borders close, a thousand points of light emerge from the current darkness. Newly formed neighbourhood groups breathe life into empty places and people respond to the calling to serve others on a scale thought unimaginable only a few weeks ago. Consider the NHS Volunteer Responders recruitment initiative, that recruited 750,000 people just two days after the target was increased by another half a million volunteers. Or the highly praised NHS Nightingale Hospital in east London, built in just nine days, with similar field hospitals prepared at high speed around the country. Or the acts of charity and donations made by countless individuals to alleviate the hardship of others. When we start to act, hope is everywhere. So instead of looking for hope, look for action.
The ethic of sharing and co-operation is deeply ingrained in all of us. In understanding human nature, the notion of each individual as selfish and competitive simply does not ring true. As social creatures, we live in communities and within larger networks, our instinct to behave co-operatively. In taking action for our collective wellbeing, we recognise and value altruism at a visceral level. Remember how you felt as you stood on your doorstep or by your front window recently, taking part in the national applause for those in our communities who are in the frontline fighting against coronavirus. Hundreds of thousands of us, up and down the country, saluted their service and courage. Mostly likely, none of the people we applauded saw us; they were either too busy or too tired. That is why we stood in the night air and thanked them.
If we dare to look ahead, it’s not difficult to see that the pandemic has ripped up more than we could have imagined. All of us will be impacted by current events, because none of us can go back to how things were. The old economy has stopped breathing. Resilience can be understood as our capacity to recover from a disaster, but recovery doesn't necessarily mean remaining the same. Safeguard measures will continue; economic and financial disruption will persist; solidarity will strengthen. No one wants to return to the past at any cost: austerity with a vengeance is no way forward when we are on the cusp of building something new instead of attempting to rebuild something old.
We foresaw the risk of a pandemic, even though it didn’t know its name and underestimated its pervasiveness. Indeed, the government’s assessment of the likelihood and potential impact of a range of different risks that may affect the U.K. is captured in the National Risk Register. Previously held confidentially within government, this register is intended to encourage more public debate on security and help communities and organisations to prepare for such emergencies. Unsurprisingly, the most likely and potentially devastating risks are from pandemic influenza; attacks on transport and in crowded places; and extreme weather and flooding from climate change. Community Risk Registers foretell a similar story – even closer to home – of these present and real risks. Nothing changes and everything changes.
Some environmentalists are leaning into the government’s leadership and restrictions in the current crisis, pointing to the unintended benefits of the massive disruption to our society. It is becoming clearer every day that fossil fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions are sharply declining as a result of our collective efforts to halt the spread of the virus and save lives. Clearly, this planetary breather is not something to celebrate; it is a temporary effect and not the result of deliberate, widespread climate action. Nonetheless, as we endure extended weeks of personal isolation and national hibernation, new habits will be created and old ones broken; we reflect, and the seeds are sown for a different path to recovery.
Whether we wear the badge with pride or consider it with disdain, COVID-19 has taught us that we are all environmentalists. There is no “us” versus “them” in thinking about the importance of our surroundings and our agency within it. We are all susceptible to invisible microbes that can travel not two metres but thousands of miles. We are all acutely aware of the growing risks from climate change and are prone to its symptoms where we live. We remember something that we had simply forgotten: we are part of nature, not apart from it.
As part of a complex and dynamic system composed of living entities from minuscule microbes to vast ecosystems, the relationship between things is often more important than the things themselves. In thinking about our collective actions from a systems perspective, we are forced to admit that we cannot fully predict the intended outcomes. Tiny changes in initial conditions can lead to very different and large-scale consequences. It may take a very long time, but the connection is real between the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil and a tornado in Texas. Human social systems behave in similar, non-linear ways. Political scientists have discovered that it takes only three resolute people in every hundred to reach a tipping point that can result in transformative change across an entire society. In our networked world, local actions are connected and emergent.
When we get past this crisis and meet again, we will face a choice. We can try vainly to go back to the world as it was before, or deal decisively with the root causes that make us all vulnerable to such risks. Inevitably, perhaps, now that we feel so exposed we may be unwilling to face up to the looming climate crisis and shy away from embracing profound change. In truth, we have no choice. By seeing ourselves before as essentially separate from nature and in competition with each other, we have found ourselves on a path to collapse. In responding to the current spread of COVID-19, here and around the world, the brutal work of breaking the old system has already taken place; the creative work of mending our society and healing rifts lies ahead. The collective action we take in the aftermath of the pandemic leads to hope and recovery – through our connectedness to each other and to the natural world.