The pathway and the plank

Much commentary about the effects of this COVID crisis seem to me to be assuming too much. In particular, there is an assumption that it is both possible and desirable to return to how things were before the virus so disrupted our patterns of life.

In saying this I am not simply referring to the point that human behaviour has changed, and become more cautious, and that the damage being caused by social distancing will remain even were the legal elements of the lockdown to be lifted. (I am sympathetic to the idea that we can rely on common sense to carry us through, à la Sweden, but I am not wholly persuaded that our shared understanding is yet adequate for that task.)

No, I think there is a more fundamental challenge, and to make that clear I want to employ two contrasting images.

The first is of a pathway up a mountain. It is a good path, and as we ascend higher up the mountain, so the scenery becomes more breathtaking. In this image, the ascension up the mountain corresponds to our economic growth, which takes us ‘higher and higher’. In this image the virus is like a small landslide. There is now a blockage up ahead, and we’ll have to go a little lower in order to get around it – but then we can resume our upward path. In other words, in this image, there is nothing fundamental about our situation prior to the virus that makes it at all problematic to go back. We will get back to the pathway once this crisis is over.

My second image is different. It is of walking the plank – that is, of a wooden path being extended over the side of a ship, and walking along it until there is a catastrophic departure from the path which can never be regained.

My view is that the crisis is tipping us off a plank, not just setting us back on our path. There are lots of reasons why I think that – mostly to do with the Limits to Growth – but it’s the reflexive assumption of the pathway image that most concerns me.

Our culture has assumed that constant economic growth is the best of all possible things, and we live in the best of all possible worlds that has such economic growth within it.

This economic growth has become an idol, and worship of the idol has stored up for us a vast cornucopia of problems, ecological, sociological and financial. The virus has given this idol a huge shove, and now we are watching the idol topple.

To get through this, which will take many years yet, we need to imagine things differently. We will need to work out ways in which we can look after each other during this crisis, and develop the equivalent for our own time of rationing during World War Two (my preference is a UBI but there are other possibilities).

Most of all, I think we need to learn how to swim. There are sharks around, but also a rowing boat or two.