“We are living in an unusual time, a time of real social history – history that you will be able to tell your children about…. The History department would like you to keep a diary of your experiences of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.”
This is my 12-year-old daughter’s history homework for the weeks or months she and her brother will be home schooling (as I attempt to home work in the next room…). I like the understatement of “unusual time”. The four years from the EU referendum to December’s general election were addictive for the 24-hour news obsessives, but they were, so it seems now, mere politics. This is history, and not in a good way.
It is a ghastly time. People worry about losing their jobs or finding food to eat or – apparently a major preoccupation – having enough loo roll. Most of us, I suspect, seeing the rising death count in Italy, sense that the UK is only a couple of weeks behind. The story of the “huge” temporary mortuary in the Horseferry Road, round the corner from Green Alliance’s office, did little to cheer me up.
How do we stay relevant?
What can a think tank like Green Alliance do in these troubled times? How do we stay relevant when the attention of those we seek to influence is (rightly) focused on the immediate crisis? And how do we stay cohesive as an organisation when we are dispersed across thirty-odd home offices, never meeting face-to-face?
We are not alone in facing difficulties. Every business or charity is facing a world that is very different from the one we are used to. Funders recognise this, which is great. But COVID-19 will have a severe impact on many environmental charities, particularly those who depend on visitors, consultancy or other face to face income. They need rapid government support.
In the coming weeks, Green Alliance will use this blog and other means to reflect and give practical guidance on the implications of COVID-19 for organisations and the people who work in them. We will be covering issues such as well-being and mental health; how coalitions can stay cohesive when they cannot meet; and how the government can help the sector survive the current crisis and contribute to the recovery.
What of politics? Right now, no one questions the government’s priority: tackling the pandemic and its consequences. Even the language of crisis and emergency we often use seems tin-eared in the current context. Climate change is an emergency, but it’s a relatively slow-burning emergency.
Thinking about how to ‘build back better’
None of this is to argue for quiescence or thumb twiddling in the coming months. We need to stay well and support loved ones and our communities. But we also need to think about how to ‘build back better’ when the pandemic has passed. It seems that we are all Keynesians now and when the immediate crisis is over, vast sums of money will be invested to revive the global economy. How can we ensure that this investment brings about a safer, greener world, rather that exacerbating climate change and ecological breakdown? South Korea’s ruling party is standing for re-election on a green deal manifesto. The UK has been a world leader of climate action and it is vital that the government builds the recovery on tomorrow green technologies, not on fossil fuels.
The big question swirling around the Brexit debate will not go away: what sort of country do we want to be, a ‘high standards’ or a ‘bargain basement’ UK? The passage through parliament of the environment, agriculture and fisheries bills will help answer that question, as will the future relationship we agree with the EU and the trade deals we strike with other countries. But the bills are on hold; trade negotiations are likely to be paused; and it seems inevitable that the Brexit transition period will be extended beyond 31 December. Everyone has more pressing concerns.
There are other questions, large and small, to explore. Will coronavirus put paid to populism and usher in a more grown up politics? This certainly seems a time for grown up politics. What do the supermarkets’ empty shelves tell us about our food system? As we get used to communicating digitally, will we return to our before-coronavirus (BC) hyperactivity? There are countless more.
This is a sombre, worrying time. To a large extent, green campaigning has been put on hold and will, for the immediate future, need to be conducted in innovative ways and with great sensitivity. But we should not stop thinking hard about the world we will face when this awful time is over.
Please send us your thoughts, concerns and ideas, either through the comments on this blog, or directly to us. Our staff are all contactable on their numbers and emails shown on our website.