by Paul Edmunds
Two things happened on my way here. Firstly, the coronavirus pandemic hit, and secondly, I started reading Bill McKibben’s 2019 book Falter: Has the human game begun to play itself out. It’s not an optimistic book, and I encountered a line there which, with uncanny prescience, talks about the current moment – ‘There are many ways to be poorer, and we’re going to find out all of them.’
It may not be useful – it may not even be accurate – to understand the coronavirus and climate crises as separate. Certainly, neither heeds the sovereignty of borders, and both lay bare our vulnerabilities while training a lens on the systemic and structural inequalities of runaway growth-based capitalism.
Even if you do regard the two crises as separate, you’d be hard-pressed to deny that they are driven by similar factors: the growing urbanisation of the world’s population and consequent expansion of human habitation into wilderness areas; the pollution of our environment, and the domination of our landscapes and nutrition by industrial agriculture, as well as increased global transport and travel.
In South Africa, climate change typically finds itself near the back of a long line of social and economic ills, positioned there by a simplistic and false dichotomy pitching the economy against the environment. And the new kid in town – Covid-19 – bumps the climate crisis even further back, throwing into even sharper contrast our societal inequality. No one is immune to the virus and yet some are more immune than others.
Here, where we appear to be warming at twice the average global rate and with the current economic picture not inviting much optimism, it’s fair to conclude that with increased climate stress, this inequality will only grow. The pandemic has revealed how close to the breadline so many South Africans live, and how vulnerable our health systems and supply chains are.
So, while many of us seem comfortable ignoring the small arms fire gathering in the background, we’d be ill-advised not to see the coronavirus pandemic for what it is: a shot across our bows.