Returning to ‘Normal’ Would Be Suicide

We cannot go back to a world in which corporate profits take priority over planetary survival.

Find more of our Covid-19 coverage.

As the global surge of Covid-19 cases begins to show hopeful signs of a slowdown, more people are asking: “When can life go back to ‘normal’?” Understandably, months of stay-at-home orders and “social distancing” have taken a crushing toll on our collective psyche — testing the resilience of our families, communities, and local economies. The desire to reconnect, in-person, with friends, loved ones, and colleagues is only natural. As testing and contact tracing improves, proven therapies emerge, and hospitals get a handle on caseloads, we can relax more social restrictions and return to some semblance of “normal” human interaction again, albeit with far greater safeguards.

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It’s too soon to tell just how far-reaching the economic impacts will be from the current crisis. But if the cascading problems we are now witnessing are any indication, the glory days of corporate globalization are numbered. Photo by Tim Dennel.

But returning to our old growth-obsessed, consumption-driven economy would be nothing short of suicide. To be clear: the tens of millions who have lost their jobs and the countless small- to medium-sized businesses that have been forced to close need all the support we can muster right now. But we cannot go back to a world in which corporate profits take priority over planetary survival, where they run roughshod over community needs, where they compromise public health and safety for short-term gain, or where they pit us against each other into deeply divided classes, masking our common humanity.

Our Pre-Covid-19 Economy Was Lethal

It’s worth recalling that our old economy had us on the following trajectories:

Biological Annihilation: That’s how the authors of a recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences described our modern economy’s “assault on the foundations of human civilization.” Due to the constant destruction of natural habitats, climate instability, resource overexploitation, and toxic pollution, as much as 50 percent of the animals that once roamed the Earth are already gone. According to a 2019 United Nations Report on biodiversity, around 1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades. That’s more than ever before in human history. Lest we forget, biological diversity is essential to maintaining a vibrant, resilient environment, and mounting threats to endangered species — caused by habitat loss, hunting, and the wildlife trade — is helping novel viruses like Covid-19 “spill over” into human populations and become deadly outbreaks.

Climate Chaos: With global economic activity massively scaled back due to the pandemic, carbon emissions across the planet have temporarily nosedived. In China alone, emissions fell by 25 percent at the start of the year as its people were instructed to stay home, factories shuttered and coal use fell by 40 percent. With most of the world on lockdown, daily oil consumption has dropped by nearly one-quarter from its “normal” level of 100 million barrels per day. Were we to return to sky-high levels of fossil fuel burning, we would blow through the roof of the remaining carbon budget that scientists say we have to avoid climate catastrophe.

On the other hand, if we refuse to go back to normal, we would still have a fighting chance of preventing billions of people from being flooded out of their homes and cities from rising sea levels, and maybe, just maybe, we could stave off the runaway rise in global temperatures that would otherwise lock in a chaotic future of hyper-storms, ravaging wildfires, and deserted landscapes.

Soaring Inequality: Americans have been “social distancing” far longer than the shelter-in-place orders began. Since the 1970s, America has become one of the most divided nations on Earth, with US income inequality now the highest among G7 nations. Over the past 50 years, the top 20 percent of US households have raked in ever-greater shares of total income, despite a dramatic rise in overall worker productivity, erecting a massive paywall between the classes. In 2018, the top-fifth of households brought in 52 percent of total US income, more than the lower four-fifths combined. And despite hard-won civil rights gains, the racial income and wealth divide in America remains shamefully wide. White households on average boast 6.5 times the wealth of black households, having had their ancestors’ labor stolen and never compensated, and their access to capital, fair housing, quality education, or a healthy environment systematically denied.

As Covid-19 wrought havoc across the country, hitting the most vulnerable the worst, America’s racial divide was put into stark relief: according to reports from Chicago, for example, blacks accounted for more than 70 percent of all Covid-19-related deaths and more than 50 percent of total cases, even though they make up less than 1/3 of the city’s population.

Is this the “normal” world we want to return to? That world was killing us, along with the natural support systems that make human life possible.

Reopen the Old Economy? Or Prop It Up?

As stock values have plummeted and consumer demand has faltered, pressure has mounted on President Trump and local government officials to “reopen” the economy. Indeed, several states have now witnessed protests by right-wing activists clamoring for governors to reopen their economies. But since America’s major economic hubs are also the very same areas suffering from the greatest number of Covid-19 cases, it’s unlikely that US cities will simply “snap back” to normal, even as shutdown orders relax.

Although more Americans are shifting away from strict social distancing, most of us will not be flocking to huge concerts or sports arenas, or swarming shopping malls with abandon anytime soon.

We are going to ensure that our families, friendships, support networks, and communities are made whole again — safely and thoughtfully, at a pace of our own choosing.

Meanwhile, the federal government has sought to cushion the blow caused by Covid-19, doling out roughly $2 trillion to businesses, nonprofits, health care providers, local governments, and low-income citizens. Trillions more in aid is on the way. Despite decades of unheeded pleas to bolster funding for America’s fraying social safety net and patchwork health system, suddenly Congress was able to deploy massive sums of money in a matter of weeks. We should sear this moment into our collective memory, and greet future claims that “we simply don’t have the money,” with utter disbelief, if not contempt.

Renewed Possibilities for a Just & Resilient Future

It’s too soon to tell just how far-reaching the economic impacts will be from the current crisis. But if the cascading problems we are now witnessing are any indication, the glory days of corporate globalization are numbered. By discouraging countries from maintaining their own productive capacity for essential goods (think masks and other protective equipment) — while simultaneously enabling a deadly virus to travel quickly to every corner of the globe — unfettered globalization is beginning to lose its luster. This pandemic has exposed for all to see the deep vulnerabilities and savage inequities of the US economy, particularly our hollowed out manufacturing base, our dysfunctional private health insurance system, and our disastrous oil and gas sector.

From Corporate Globalization to Locally Resilient Economies
walkable street
Cities and towns can also encourage the rebirth of local restaurants, small manufacturing, and neighborhood retail by easing permit fee requirements, helping to moderate rents, allowing more mixed-use development, and investing in public spaces that promote walkable, vibrant centers of community life and commerce. Photo by Bernard Spragg. NZ.

A recent assessment by Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch reveals how the trend toward “hyperglobalization” has undermined America’s resilience in the fight against Covid-19. As corporations have scoured the globe, setting up shop in countries with cheap labor and lax environmental rules, the US has lost its own domestic capacity to produce, much less secure critical supplies of masks, ventilators, gowns, and other protective gear.

“More than 60,000 manufacturing facilities have been lost to 25 years of corporate-rigged trade policies that made it easier and less risky to move production overseas to pay workers less and trash the environment,” note the authors. Shockingly, even months into this pandemic, American doctors and nurses still lack the critical equipment they need to protect themselves, their families, or their patients. Future trade agreements will have to allow for the rebuilding of domestic manufacturing, ensure greater pay equity between partnering nations, and lift up environmental and public health standards to truly harness the potential benefits of trade.

Another deeply disturbing trend has been the near-collapse of the small business sector. A recent survey by Main Street America found that nearly 7.5 million small businesses are at risk of closing permanently over the next several months if the pandemic persists. To ensure that we don’t emerge from this crisis with a handful of large corporations like Amazon and Wal-Mart, Big Tech, and major food chains controlling the lion’s share of economic activity, we will need far more than a slap-dash, under-funded small business loan program. We’ll need a wholesale reimagining of our economy that re-centers communities and neighborhoods as the proper locus of commerce and development.

In past crises, the US recognized the dangers of allowing corporate power to dominate the economy, and by extension, our government. In response, America implemented strong anti-trust actions that broke up major monopolies like the railroads, Big Oil, and telecom giants, ensuring a more diverse and competitive market in key sectors. Given the mega-consolidation now plaguing the food, banking, telecommunications, energy, and online retail sectors, similar actions may become necessary again.

Other models like worker, housing, and consumer coops, community trusts, public banks, and mutual aid networks will likely become critical as traditional sources of capital dry up and corporations retrench from unprofitable areas. Cities and towns can also encourage the rebirth of local restaurants and food outlets, small manufacturing, and neighborhood retail by easing permit fee requirements, helping to moderate rents, allowing more mixed-use development, and investing in public spaces that promote walkable, vibrant centers of community life and commerce. For the legions of others who will be unemployed or underemployed for some time, polices like Universal Basic Income, a reduced work week, and public programs that help employ people to meet critical care, education and infrastructure needs will also be needed.

From Private Health Insurance to Comprehensive Care for All

Long before the Covid-19 pandemic had entered public consciousness, Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign had made a powerful case that America’s employer-based, private health insurance system was woefully dysfunctional, unjust, and needlessly expensive. The coronavirus only underscored Sanders’ critique by exposing painful deficiencies in the US healthcare system, as millions who lack coverage or access to primary physicians are left scrambling for care as they develop symptoms, or as those requiring intensive care find that hospital beds are often unavailable, much less the equipment or personnel needed. Even if you are fortunate enough to have private insurance, the high cost of premiums and deductibles still deter many from taking advantage of their plans. That means even more people will choose not to see their doctor, encouraging the spread of Covid-19 even farther. “The reality is, there are a lot of people that are thinking, ‘I don’t want a couple-thousand-dollar bill to get tested or to get treated,’” Rep. Ro Khanna told Huffington Post. “That’s going to hurt all of us.”

It’s worth noting that strong social distancing measures and shelter-in-place directives have been made all the more necessary due to our system’s lack of full coverage for all, its lack of reserve capacity to handle patient surges, and an overall lack of critically needed supplies. If we had a universal healthcare system, not only would everyone feel comfortable about seeing their doctor, we could better coordinate the fair distribution of personnel and equipment where it’s needed most. Instead, in our free-wheeling for-profit system, hospitals and local governments have waged “bidding wars” over critical supplies and ventilators. We deserve better than this. Especially now.

At its core, universal “single-payer” healthcare would be a nonprofit system in which everyone pays into a single financing agency, leaving the actual delivery of care to local hospitals, clinics, and medical professionals. According to Physicians for a National Health Program, a single-payer system could save more than $500 billion per year, while providing comprehensive coverage to everyone in the country without increasing overall spending. With universal coverage, patients would no longer fear huge out-of-pocket costs, and doctors would regain control of decisions around patient care from profit-focused insurance gatekeepers. Moreover, by ensuring comprehensive coverage and continuity of care, U.S. health providers could strengthen primary care practice and redesign how they operate to become more accessible, promote prevention, and proactively support those with chronic illnesses, according to an analysis by the American Academy of Family Physicians. Nearly every other major economy in the world has a variation of single-payer healthcare. It’s high time we joined them.

From Fossil Foolishness to a Green New Deal

As noted above, our “normal” rate of oil consumption was hovering around 100 million barrels a day worldwide, with US consumption at 20.46 million barrels per day as of 2019. Despite the rapid pace of renewable energy development in recent years, fossil fuels like oil and gas still supply about 80 percent of America’s energy demand. Unfortunately, such enormous volumes of carbon burning have placed the US. in a commanding lead among nations most responsible for the destabilization of our global climate, with US total historic emissions reaching nearly 400 gigatons at the start of last year.

Thankfully, such levels of oil and gas consumption may soon become a thing of the past. A recent glut in global production combined with tepid demand had already brought prices crashing in early 2020. Adding insult to injury, Covid-19 wrought devastation to the US oil industry, pummeling consumer demand just as markets were in oversupply. The fracking sector has been hit especially hard, now that it costs more to produce a barrel of oil than it sells for. As of April, oil and gas industry finances had become so dire that the big banks that funded the US fracking boom are now considering seizing the assets of oil firms that cannot make good on their loans. The consequences of the collapse of the American oil industry have yet to be fully felt, but they will surely add urgency to the need to reduce domestic fossil fuel consumption — not to mention energy use overall — and transition quickly to a clean, energy-powered economy.

Unfortunately, the clean power sector has also suffered punishing losses during this period. According to a new analysis by E2 Environmental Entrepreneurs, more than 106,000 clean energy workers lost their jobs in March — nearly 70,000 of whom were energy efficiency workers — with hundreds of thousands more projected to lose their jobs in the months ahead. Rather than spending hundreds of billions of dollars on bailouts for the oil industry or highly polluting transportation systems like airlines and cruise lines, we should be investing in America’s clean energy infrastructure, building distributed solar grids, wind farms, and geothermal plants. And since no amount of renewables can possibly replace all the concentrated energy flow we were using from fossil fuels, we will also need to dramatically redesign our cities to require less automobile travel, shorten the distance food travels from farm to table, build out high-speed rail and more reliable transit systems, and retrofit our buildings and manufacturing infrastructure to use far less energy overall.

To do all that, America needs nothing short of a robust Green New Deal, along the lines of the plan envisioned by Senator Bernie Sanders, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and a growing number of congressional leaders. In the words of the youth-led Sunrise Movement, the Deal is a “10-year plan to mobilize every aspect of American society to 100% clean and renewable energy by 2030, a guaranteed living-wage job for anyone who needs one, and a just transition for both workers and frontline communities.” Critics of the Deal warn that its costs are simply too great. But a host of analyses by climate and energy researchers counter that the costs of inaction would greatly outweigh the costs of bold action now, and could generate trillions in additional savings, along with tens of millions of new low-carbon jobs. With unemployment skyrocketing, why not ensure that those who need work most are matched with the work that most needs doing?

Embracing a New World

None of this visioning is meant to diminish the sheer trauma, economic dislocation, or heart-wrenching losses that people across the country and around the world are now experiencing. These are sorrowful, stressful times, especially for those with little or no protection from the gathering storms. But they’re also pregnant with possibility for a different tomorrow. If this crisis has demonstrated anything, it’s that old ways of doing things can change in an instant. We would be wise to harness the creative power and potential that will emanate from its destructive wake.

In a recent essay on the possibilities for new thinking that Covid-19 has offered us, author and activist Arundhati Roy writes: “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”

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