Why Scotland must embrace sustainable change after Covid-19 – Joyce McMillan

The Covid crisis has offered a clear glimpse of the path to a more sustainable future, writes Joyce McMillan.

Cycling is being pushed as a mode of travel, but many have returned to the security bubble of their cars. Picture: Andrew O'Brien
Cycling is being pushed as a mode of travel, but many have returned to the security bubble of their cars. Picture: Andrew O'Brien

THE headline, back in April, was stark and clear. “Britons enjoying cleaner air, better food and stronger social bonds say they don’t want to return to ‘normal’,” said one newspaper, reporting a Yougov poll which suggested that only nine per cent of those questioned wanted their lives back exactly as they were before Britain’s lockdown in March.

With all the caveats about the stress of home schooling, risks to highly vulnerable groups, and the desperate situation facing those whose incomes vanished overnight, most people found its easy to list ways in which lockdown had improved their quality of life, at least in some respects.

The outpouring of appreciation for the natural world was palpable, for example, as people in urban areas breathed clean air and heard the birdsong around them for the first time in years.

People rediscovered lost cooking skills, spent more time with their families, and reached out, often for the first time, to their neighbours and the immediate local community, helping out, and checking on the vulnerable, many of whom noted that they felt less alone, abandoned and excluded than they had for years.

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Three months on, in July, another survey found a very similar result, with 88 per cent of people still eager not to return to the “old normal”.

And of course, social theorists could not help observing how rapidly most people had adapted to this radically changed situation; and wondering what this might mean for a future when social and economic change on this scale will certainly be needed, to combat the growing threat of climate breakdown.

All of which made it peculiarly depressing, this week, when with a colossal thunderstorm lasting several hours, followed by a day of hot sultry weather in the city, Scotland’s capital went back to school in a pea-soup of traffic congestion, noise pollution and fume-filled air actually worse than in the days before Covid.

The reasons for the intensity of the problem are in part coincidental; some areas of the city are in the throes of colossal road and building works, including the installation of the tram line to Leith, massive repair works on North Bridge, and the completion of the new St James centre, full of the kinds of shops, hotels and bars that may – for all we know – never see significant footfall again.

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More disturbing, perhaps, is the sense that since lockdown – and particularly since restrictions on car travel were lifted – for many households or individuals their car has become their essential Covid security bubble, enabling them to travel long distances without much risk to themselves. Public transport use has plummeted, while car use seems only to have increased; and there has as yet been very little public discussion about exactly how policy-makers can combat this very natural trend, which sets us back years in terms of carbon reduction targets which were already being missed.

The main answer so far seems to be to encourage more solo “active travel”, by funding local councils to create “pop-up” facilities for pedestrians and cyclists; although in Edinburgh, at least, the chaos surrounding new bike lanes that have supposedly been years in the designing inspires little faith in those that might “pop up” at short notice.

And behind these everyday woes lurks a much greater grief; a kind of despair at the sense of civilisation drifting back to its old destructive ways because it simply does not know, or can no longer imagine, any other way of running an economy. The sheer depth of the UK’s worst-in-Europe pandemic crisis only seems to increase the sense of short-term economic panic among most UK politicians, who can still be heard engaging in embarrassing either-or debates about whether we should “control the epidemic or reopen the economy”, when it is now overwhelmingly obvious that the two go hand in hand.

And even here in Scotland, where the government talks a good game on climate change and carbon reduction, the combination of Covid crisis management and the lack of major economic powers – combined with the bizarre appointment of a Chair of the Scottish government’s economic recovery committee who is openly hostile to “green new deal” thinking – adds to that sense of short-termism and drift, where there could have been a real seizing of the moment, and a much-needed paradigm shift in our relationship with both government and economy.

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For in the end, the Covid crisis has offered, to those who are interested, a clear glimpse of the path to a more sustainable future. It has shown us that we can live well in a world with less frenzied and unnecessary economic activity. It has given us a brief insight into what we might gain from such a change; and crucially, it has forced government – after years of knee-jerk small-state rhetoric – to grow the big muscles necessary to support a population through such a time of transition.

The cost of the UK’s furlough and self-employed income support schemes, this year, is calculated at about £60 billion; a colossal amount of money, to be sure, but a mere fraction – hardly more than a tenth – of what it cost a decade ago to bail out a banking system which increasingly offers benefits only to the few.

The path ahead is becoming ever clearer, in other words; wind down the old economy as fast as possible, build a new one based on sustainable “green” systems, use government funding to provide people with the basic income security to navigate the transition, and reset the global financial system so that it supports that project, rather than simply maximising short-term profit for a tiny elite.

The remarkable public response to the Covid lockdown shows that we are ready for change on that scale, provided we know that it has a purpose, and aims to deliver a kinder, more just, and more sustainable way of life. And now all of us, as citizens, have a duty to reflect on what we’ve learned this year; and to start searching out, supporting and electing a new generation of leaders with the courage and vision to make that change happen, before the scale of this century’s escalating series of crises finally defeats us all.

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