By Rowan Somerville
The Chinese word for crisis, 危機, is not made up of the characters for danger and opportunity whatever Anglophone politicians and motivational speakers may tell you. Nevertheless, this crisis presents us with both. You already know about the dangers, you are probably an expert on them, but, despite the disappointing news that this inspirational prompt from Chinese characters is fake, I find myself reaching for the opportunities.
A few weeks ago I walked out from my local park in a west London suburb, usually buzzing with traffic and bang on the flight path to Heathrow airport (the world's second busiest). And I heard … a glorious silence, counterpointed by a musical standoff where a blackbird was outshining a robin. At that moment with an eye made quiet by the power of harmony (as Wordsworth put it). I felt I could see into the life of things (William again) for a moment, and like those faux-sinologists with their misunderstood characters, I basked in the opportunity of crisis.
Outside the pride and prejudice of certain governments, it's a truth universally acknowledged that our husbandry of planet earth is careless and abusive.
Thanks to the work of scientists and activists, most of us know what actions are needed; reduce toxic emissions, reduce harm to the natural world and draw down carbon from the atmosphere and lock it into the soil—to put it simply. Well, two out of three of these have been happening, and two out of three, well, it isn’t bad. Here is an opportunity to sustain. On top of this, you finally read Anna Karenina, baked your first sourdough, and now know everyone in your street. None of these ambitions are impossible, none of them are fantasy. They just happened.
I don’t work for any government, nor do I have access to privileged information. I read, listen, watch and change my mind all the time. I write books for a living and I'm not claiming any special area of expertise here. The closest call I can make to any authority is that, years ago when I used to work for the BBC and other broadcasters, my role involved deciphering trends and tides in the tastes of people. You could call it a special skill, or soothsaying. It paid the rent. What I'm picking up now, politically and socially, is that although we have the opportunity for paradigm shift, it's sadly not an opportunity that is going to be taken up. The principal ambition I can detect is to get things, as close as possible, to exactly the way they were before—with one change: no virus.
In 2019, 11,092 scientists from 153 countries put their name to an article prosaically entitled, “World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency” and published it in Bioscience. It proclaimed, “a clear and unequivocal declaration that a climate emergency exists on planet Earth.” If you believe them at all, then the ambition to get things, as close as possible, to exactly the way they were before, is analogous to checking out of hospital after a near fatal drug overdose and going straight to the dealers.
Mother Nature is not all birdsong and butterflies. In these last few months we have seen the back of her hand and the world’s governments have acknowledged and acted on it. The future of our species is under a much greater existential threat from the loss of biodiversity and the impact of polluting agents than from COVID-19. Can we face this or are we all going to trot off to the oblivion of denial?