Tipping the Scale of Good and Bad Outcomes of the Pandemic. By Katie Kish
Degrowth Vienna 2020 has moved online with free registration now opened. Looking at the program, one question caught my eye: Advancing a Degrowth Agenda in the Corona Crisis: window missed?
As the event hasn’t yet happened, I don’t know how those involved will answer this question. However, reflecting on it in advance, it is likely the wrong question to be asking. Not only does it feed into the criticisms of the degrowth narrative around this tragedy, but it also inherently starts by asking what needs to be done instead of asking us to look at all the degrowth initiatives being activated all around us.
The local farmer’s markets in Guelph, Kitchener, and Waterloo, including my own farm supplier, are facing a huge surge in demand for fresh goods and early inquiries into farm shares. All along the paths of Kitchener suburbs we see raised garden beds being built while multiple balcony farming and container farming articles are circulated online.
Open source and peer-to-peer manufacturing is answering the call for retooling to support the local production of PPE for front line workers. Local stores such as Kitchener’s Gifted, which sells locally produced products, is regularly selling out of goods simply by posting availability online and doing porch drop offs.
The care-mongering fad has grown across Canada with community members stepping up to buy groceries for those at risk, giving advice to others, sharing tools/resources, and making masks for people.
Unintentionally, parents are participating in deschooling by constantly reminding themselves and others to relax, encouraging their children to play more, teaching them how to plant gardens, baking and cooking together, and taking a more relaxed approach to their education simply to save their own sanity.
And of course, consumption is down, growth indicators are down, the phrase “cheap oil” doesn’t even begin to describe the value of oil, and society is finally recognizing the real value of the care economy - teachers, health care providers, and families. Some say that now is the worst possible time for Canada’s economy ever. While others, remind us that GDP and conventional measures of success are limited and that we may be doing better than before in some areas.
Quite clearly, many people and places are experiencing degrowth in action. At the same time, we’re seeing the wicked tensions in action as each of these areas of degrowth has an equal or worse tradeoff associated with them. While many of these positive social changes are happening referring to this pandemic as an opportunity is insulting and insensitive to many. Many people are dying and suffering, there is increased inequality, huge demand on food banks, rampant mental health issues, and possibly (likely) significant abuse while locked down at home. Not to mention, it is the second once in a generation economic crisis that our generations have had to live through, decreasing confidence in our economic and social stability of the future. This suggests a surge in mental health issues rooted in deep anxiety and depression.
Peter Victor, at the Collabathon, demonstrated that the blip of the pandemic gives us some additional time to figure things out - he was very clear to say that doesn’t mean the pandemic is a good thing. Rather, it is the cause of many good and bad things that are happening in different contexts to different people. We can learn from these outcomes by looking at the good things in relation to the bad things and trying to figure out how to unbalance the equation - how to keep all the things on the good side while minimizing the bad things on the other side.
Here is a non-exhaustive list of some of the good and bad stuff happening from the pandemic. There are many many more things that could be added to this list but this is just for thought. The job of degrowth and ecological economic researchers is to pinpoint the leverage points that are making the good things possible, and how to minimize the bad things without relying on increased growth.
Readily Available Changes
Some ideas for tipping the scale toward the good side of this chart are simple. For example, rapidly improving our social safety net wouldn’t cost so much and wouldn’t be so difficult if it had been stronger in the first place. Many people are suggesting the long-term adoption of a Universal Basic Income so there isn’t this enormous dip in employment and stress surrounding income security during the next shock.
Straightforward changes surrounding work would make a big impact such as normalizing work-from-home culture and valuing previously undervalued workers with better hours, benefits, and conditions. Not only should our jobs take up fewer hours in our life, but our work should be meaningful. A 4-day work week would allow people greater flexibility in finding work that contributes to their overall self-esteem and connectedness to their life community while also reducing unemployment. This would also make time for people to slow down and focus on skill development that everyone is enjoying right now without disproportionally burdening parents.
Hobbies, such as sports, have also witnessed a huge disruption. The long heritage of the Olympics and major league sports competitions are important for their role in national unity and playful comradery between countries. This emergency has shown us that we need to rethink how these games are done, not just for safety but for the environment. More televised viewings and reductions on consumer paraphernalia are vital to meaningful sports. And, since sports were essentially cancelled with little to no major impacts on society, extreme reductions in scale and pay surrounding these hero-athletics needs to happen.
On the Right Track
Other ideas are already showing that Canada is on the right track such as the increase of prosocial behaviour and shaming of anti-social behaviour (hoarding) - the culture of kindness at play. However, there is a delicate balance here between society caring for its most vulnerable and alleviating the government of its responsibility of caring for its citizens. Some call this ‘happy-washing’.
People quickly shifting their relationships with food and recognizing the importance of our local producers is a major positive impact. However, food banks across Canada and the US are wildly underfunded and too many people rely on them for healthy and sustainable diets. Views around food have a more complicated need - instead of being seen as a commodity to equally distribute, governments need to help create systemic changes around how food is produced, traded, and distributed as a necessary basic need for life akin to air and water. People shouldn’t have to try hard, at all, to access healthy and affordable food.
Similarly, Canada’s education system was able to rapidly respond to the need for distance learning with some schools and boards doing better than others. While we may be doing our children a major service in unschooling them and letting them see what is really a priority in life, we’re also exposing the deep need for systemic change in our education systems. Again, governments need to help create these changes regarding what kids learn, and why.
The primary objective of current educational practices, in both Canada and the US, is to impose standardized norms on youth. Students are equipped with skills and competences necessary to engage effectively with the labour market. Instead, education needs to teach creativity, innovation, and adaptability for a turbulent future. Kids should be spending more time outdoors with more hands-on learning. Universities need to produce eco-conscious problem solvers, not efficient workers.
Some of these ideas are quite tricky to deal with. Can we say that this unfortunate, yet forced experiment into degrowth is improving well-being? What if there wasn’t a pandemic and we simply forced this for the sake of the environment - would we see life as better? What if it was forced for the sake of the environment alongside basic incomes, reduced work-weeks, deschooling initiatives, and care incomes? Does the crash of the stock market really matter? Has it impacted the life of the ordinary person?
While community orientation seems to have improved, there is an implicit embrace of out-group antagonism or at least a quiet acceptance of it. There is no massive call for extra PPE produced in Ontario to be shared globally, or even across Canada. Instead, we’re okay to put Ontario first. Increased out-group antagonism is expected in times of fear and scarcity, and it’s a difficult thing to counteract. We want to make sure those closest to us are safe. Is it possible that with careful planning, we won’t need to see others with less?
Also, while we encourage and celebrate this increase in rapid retooling of manufacturing to meet the needs of society, increases in these kinds of local and small productions threaten the breakdown of free trade and heightens possibilities for geopolitical stress. While I deeply support peer-to-peer production, local manufacturing, and the hand-made revolution as a strong pathway toward a low-growth society, it does put into question larger trade schemes. What do we still need from other countries? To what extent are other countries reliant on our rampant consumerism? What do we need to do to ensure our increased localized production doesn’t create global stress?
Finally, considering the stock market crash as one of the first indicators of this crisis is interesting. While I know it has crashed, I also know that the impact of that crash is felt by me and my peers very little, suggesting a need for a radical reorientation of money. Given the long-term strength of ‘money’ this is perhaps one of the most difficult areas to influence. While ideas such as income capping, limitations of wealth accumulation, and major movements toward redistribution are straightforward and would assist in ensuring an equitable shift toward a low-growth society they take away from some of the most powerful people in the world. COVID-19 has clearly demonstrated the precariousness of income but it is not due to lack of funds, rather where governments decide to put it. It is not being distributed fairly and this requires some serious lobbying efforts.
As we continue to brainstorm and think about policy changes, it would do us all good to think about the weight on the good vs. bad scale and how our changes impact each side and how we can keep some of the good degrowth initiatives that have already been activated. This pandemic isn’t an opportunity, it’s a forced shock that needs to make us consider how we can be resilient to future shocks, that will certainly continue to happen.
Make your own list of good and bad things to share. I’d love to see if the process helps illuminate anything for you.