by umair haque
Here’s a tiny question. What is the lesson Covid is trying to teach us? As we settle in to a new normal, where Covid is going permanent, and there’s not much anyone can do about it except the billionaires who could vaccinate the world, but won’t — what should we be learning?
I think of Covid as a message backwards, from the future. And it says something like this. Life as you knew it is now over. The future is now going to become a bitter and bruising battle for the basics. The basics. Air, water, food, medicine, energy. Things that many of us once took for granted, and assumed would simply be around, as if by magic.
That age is now coming to an end. Did you ever think that breathable air would be in short supply? Where you have to wear a mask, because the air could infect you with a respiratory virus? That is what the future looks like, except for all the basics.
Another way to say that is that a certain way of life is now coming to an end.
To make that point, let me ask the question: why have Eastern countries done better on Covid than Western ones? What does that teach us about the future? Well, the first thing it teaches us that money and power and history are no guarantee of success in this battle for basics that the future is now about. Maybe the rich can buy clean air — but a whole society? Forget it.
People have to work together to provide one another the basics. And that is where the Western response to Covid has fallen down. Western nations are still fixated on illusory notions of freedom. But freedom itself is what is going to change radically in this age — if not by choice, then by the force of nature’s revenge.
Consider the example, as usual, of America. Americans wouldn’t cooperate with lockdowns. Governors revolted, and made it illegal to make people wear masks. Meanwhile, the Red States became the world’s worst Covid Belt, because people refused to stop…going to bars…having barbecues…eating at restaurants. Then the vaccine arrived, and too many Americans fought against having to take it. Meanwhile, the President simply gave away patents for the vaccines, allowing them to be privatised, even though they were made with public money. So the world is now unable to vaccinate people faster than they’re being infected, which means Covid will likely keep on spreading, and mutating, and becoming even more vaccine resistant. The result is that Covid has probably become a permanent fact of life — even air itself will be a luxury for the rich.
Americans, in other words, were obsessed with “freedom.” One certain idea of it. Freedom as an individualistic exercise in consumerism, in status and pleasure seeking. What Americans don’t tend to understand is that that old list of American “freedoms” is now badly obsolete. What good is it carrying a gun…when a tsunami or a megafire is approaching? What good is it being able to battle over whose God is stronger…when you can’t breathe the air anymore? What good is the “freedom” for corporations to maximise profits… if it means people die preventable deaths?
Life as the American set of freedoms is over now. Let me enumerate a few of those. The freedom to waste and squander. The freedom to believe in any old malarkey you like, no matter how ignorant. The freedom to abuse and exploit. The freedom to make the point of your life as shallow and foolish and stupid as you may want to, like just making more money.
None of these things were ever really “freedom.”
What such freedoms really were and are is the toxic hangover of centuries of brutality. Americans think they should be free to waste — while half the world still goes without decent food, water, or sanitation. They imagine they should be free to carry guns to Starbucks — while much of the world has been enslaved to pick those coffee beans. I’m not trying to moralize, just making a point. The world largely thinks of the American idea of freedom as a folly and a bewildering form of self-destruction.
Covid is trying to teach us, in no uncertain terms, that we are not really free in these old ways — and never were. They’re just paths to self-destruction. When we waste and squander, we pollute the skies, and the planet heats up. When we abuse the natural world, it bites back in the form of everything from pandemics to wildfires to floods.
Let me summarise what I am trying to say. The economist in me will put it this way. The global economy has been predicated on one simple transaction. The West and North — and particularly America — overconsumes, and the East and South is who and what is exploited to make that possible. That transaction is now over. The age of Western overconsumption is now at an end. Even the West is starting to suffer shortages of the basics — beginning with air. By the next decade, water, food, and energy will be in shortage, there, too.
The West can continue to pretend it can overconsume — by which I mean spend too much on consumerist toys which cost the reefs, rivers, forests, animals, skies, not to mention the human potential of people in the East, who are mostly stuck on assembly lines making stuff for it. Since that stuff is artificially cheap, those in the East are exploited — could you live on $3 an hour? — and by and large they stay poor. Because they stay poor, they don’t, in turn, have enough to invest in fighting climate change, mass extinction, ecological collapse themselves — or even to give themselves decent food, water, sanitation, and medicine, which means pandemics that then affect the globe erupt at an increasing pace now.
That is why the whole world is coming to a standstill. This fatal bargain is now coming to an end. One great economic age is ending — the age of Western overconsumption. In hard terms, that means the West consuming more than the entire planet can provide sustainably, which is precisely why catastrophes from climate change to mass extinction to pandemics are now ripping our lives apart.
So where do we go from here? Well, we must ask the question: how did that age come to be, the age of Western overconsumption? If we want to fix it, that is. The answer, though, is ugly and difficult, and many people don’t want to hear it, much less understand it.
The age of Western overconsumption is really a consequence of a simple, brutal, dismal truth: 20% of the world is rich and white, and 80% is poor and not white. The 20% of the world that is rich and white is precisely that portion which enslaved, brutalised, and colonized the part that is 80% poor and not white.
Those centuries of abuse and exploitation led the rich and white societies to enjoy a generous surplus. You can think of that as everything from gold in bank vaults to all those hundreds of kinds of coffee and tea and sugar that you can find today in the aisles at a Walmart. The age of Western overconsumption is a product of the previous age of Western slavery, colonialism, and empire. That age allowed the West to get rich — and the West then spent its riches on consumption.
Economists once upon a time argued all this was a good thing. That buying stuff from poor countries would allow those countries to prosper, too. And that has been the case, to a minor degree — there have been some successes, like South Korea and Japan, and some half-successes, like China and Malaysia. But “externalities” dominated even this effect. What that means in plain English is that while rich Westerners buying stuff from poor Easterners might have balanced back the scales of empire and slavery — hey, at least they were being paid now, right? — nobody much noticed the effects on the planet.
This central transaction of the global economy, rich Westerners buying stuff from poor Easterners, was flawed in one central way. It was artificially cheap. Because it was still OK to exploit poor Easterners — to pay them the least that rich Westerners could get away with, instead of enough, say, to have decent water, food, sanitation, medicine, income — why wouldn’t it then be perfectly OK to abuse and exploit nature, too?
The East lost wars, and ended up enslaved. Nature has never really fought back at all — until now. And finally we are seeing how terrible its fury can be. Even the West can’t outrun an age of catastrophe like the one we face now — like I said, it’s already doing worse than the East when it comes to Covid.
So how do we fix all this? Well, the truth is that “we” probably can’t. I can tell you how, but Westerners by and large aren’t interested. What they seem to be interested in is never changing. In ways to be able to go on living in wasteful, harmful, toxic, abusive, exploitative ways, like Americans are — if you tell them how do that, they will admire and respect you. Gentle and wise Europe has made some progress, it’s true. But mostly, when you tell people like Americans that they must change now, and change fast, they give you the look: their eyes go dead and their jaws tighten. They’re holding in the anger of having to hear something that they don’t want to, aren’t equipped to, can’t handle.
“We” aren’t going to fix the age of Western overconsumption. What it would take is something like this: the rich West agreeing to pay nature. After all, nature works hard for us — it provides us everything from water to air to food to medicine. If the rich West were ready to agree to pay nature for the work it does — instead of exploit and abuse it — then treaties could be made to compensate Eastern countries and their people. To pay them living wages for doing things like caring for rivers, reefs, forests, oceans, animals, and so forth, instead of just toiling away on assembly lines to make cheap junk for rich Westerners.
But that is not going to happen, probably. I say that for a very simple reason. I have millions of readers, and the one topic nobody much in the West wants to hear about is fixing the future. They say they want to hear about it. They are constantly asking me what to do about the state of things. But when I write about it, only a handful truly listen. Not even a handful. So what I think the majority of Westerners mean when they ask me what to do is: “tell me a way to never have to change.”
Having a serious discussion with Westerners, with Americans in particular, about fixing the future has become impossible. That should be self-evident, though. Too many aren’t willing to change their lives even when a lethal pandemic is ripping through their societies.
And yet the rich West is the only part of the world with the money to really allow the future to be fixed. What does that tell you? It tells me it won’t be. And so what will happen, probably, is this. The world will go on spiralling headlong into the new Dark Age it’s entered. The fools and fanatics and extremists will go on rising to power, because the average person is incapable of change, but the old way of life is collapsing, and in that vacuum is where every fascism is really born.
Life as you know it really is coming to an end, my friend. If it hasn’t already.
The problem? Not enough of us can face that simple fact with courage, grace, truth, kindness, love, and goodness.
And so what do you expect to happen?
If change can’t, then only collapse is left.