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The Times They Are A Changin'

March 25, 2020 11:10 PM
By Keith Melton

The Times They Are A Changin' [Part 1...] From the Chair

The Bob Dylan song from the early 1960s sprang to mind earlier when I was thinking about coronavirus and its consequences, many of which are unprecedented.

Unprecedented… so, I looked this word up on a word analyser and discovered it was thought to be the 7,753rd most common word in the English language, but I am guessing its position will have changed recently, jumping a few hundred positions lately in the context of the coronavirus pandemic.

In particular, it has been used to describe the social distancing measures taken by many, many countries around the world. It has been used to describe the economic consequences of the health crisis and will no doubt continue to be used for some considerable time to come. It has also been used to describe the UK government`s huge financial packages released in responding to the economic impact. In fact, the societal changes have been so severe that I believe it is possible that there will have been unprecedented changes over the period of this health crisis in the human impact upon Climate Change, too.

There have been "pictures from space" showing the huge reduction in air pollution measured over China as a consequence of the societal lockdown imposed there. Animated maps show the results of the consequences of economic shutdowns in Northern China and northern Italy over the last few months. Nitrogen-dioxide emissions over the infected areas were extremely marked and researchers have also discovered that has been a 20%-30% reduction in particulate matter over a similar period.

The evidence now suggests that emission levels have begun to increase again as restrictions are removed in China, now that the level of new Covid 19 cases has shrunk to almost zero in China.

Politics and News

Inevitably, virtually all the news bulletins now are (almost) entirely focused on Coronavirus and its immediate implications for the NHS and the immediate economic implication - and that is how it should be. However, the pause this gives us also represents an opportunity to think about the longer-term implications.

So, in my role as Chair of the Green Liberal Democrats, I believe we have a real opportunity to start a debate on these wider consequences and how we can utilize these to change the world for the better. Perhaps it is to the economic effects we might look first.

I have already written about the (unprecedented!) economic measures introduced recently by the Conservative Chancellor Rishi Sunak and whether these should have been targeted at individuals with an Unconditional Basic Income rather than at businesses through grants and loans. However, I wish now to talk about even wider implications than UBI.

It is a truism to say that coronavirus has been a "shock to the system". But, sometimes, a shock is required to re-evaluate what is important to us - as individuals AND as a society. Perhaps the most immediately obvious shock has been to the food supply chain. Retailers and manufacturers keep reassuring the public that supplies of food and other essentials are not under threat, but that, rather sadly, has not prevented panic buying and empty shelves.

It has even raised the spectre of "rationing" which was last used during and after WWll - even I can remember being sent to our local shop as a small child to fetch our ration of butter and two ounces of sweets! I can also remember my mum`s delight at being able to buy oranges again.

Despite the industry`s reassurances, it is clear that the supply chain, for reasons of "efficiency" and "profits" relies on "just-in-time" deliveries. This means that the supply chain only has 24-36 hours` worth of goods immediately available to restock the shelves. This compares with 10-12 days` worth of supplies that would have been available, say, 20 years ago.

It is also clear that the supply chain extends globally for such supplies and that we are less than 10% self-sufficient in this country. Ironically, as an aside, I was just reading that Iran, which has been so badly hit by the virus, is much more self-sufficient than we are - because it had to become self-sufficient when the country was blockaded internationally. One of the issues that we do need to think about, both strategically and for environmental reasons, is whether we should revert to much greater self-sufficiency as a country.

This may have wide-ranging repercussions for the farming industry in broadening the base for agricultural variety away from mono-cultural pressures. It has the potential, therefore, for being beneficial to wildlife and biodiversity, as well, perhaps, as being beneficial to farm incomes as the balance of power in the supply chain is forced away from retailers and back to growers. However, this will not happen if things are allowed, or encouraged, to "go back to normal". We need to look for a new, safer, "normal" as we emerge from the crisis.


One of the other areas where we might see societal changes is the psychological and societal pressures to accumulate "things". A lot of people seem to be motivated in their lives by making enough money to buy the things they associate with a good lifestyle, influenced as that so often is by advertising and marketing pressures. At the moment we do not know how long we are going to be "locked down", so it is difficult to gauge just how much of a culture shock the lockdown will be. However, I suspect that the longer it goes on, the more likely it is that people will begin to think of wellbeing in a far greater, far wider context than in the ownership of "things".

The fact of missing social contact by being confined to home for a long period, may also cause a re-evaluation of the real benefits of social networks. This may happen due to successful local re-grouping of social contacts. Just one example at a personal level - just recently I received a Whats App message from a telephone number I didn`t recognise. It turned out to be from a neighbour, in the village where I live, establishing a village WhatsApp group to ensure we all had a local contact we could use to keep a neighbourly watch out for local people who may need assistance in this crisis. As someone over 70 that might turn out to be me of course!

This re-evaluation of wellbeing will, I hope and trust, also include the enhanced importance we attribute to our National Health Service. Despite the mouthing of platitudes, politicians have too long taken the NHS for granted. We have seen from the examples in China and Italy and Spain that it really does not take long for even world-class Health services to be overwhelmed in a crisis. We need to value the NHS more and, therefore, we need to support the NHS more.

Additionally, we need to make appropriate provision for Social Care to be more closely linked to the NHS, especially for vulnerable people - either the elderly, or those with log-term illnesses, or children with special needs. In other words, for all of those people who have been identified as being at greater risk of harm from the virus. My argument is that people are much more important than "things".

Travel, pollution and climate change - Polluter Pays Principle

Another area where I think we should pause for a while before allowing things to "go back to normal" is the issue of travel and transport. We have become entirely hooked on the ease of travel these days and large proportions of people in the highly developed (over-developed?) world assume easy travel is a human right. So much so that many of those who think nothing of catching airplanes or hopping on cruise ships, have never really considered their responsibilities for the pollution such trips create. For a long time, Liberal Democrats (and Liberals before them) have adopted the fundamental position that there should be a responsibility that the "polluter should pay".

In other words, if, by our actions, we cause pollution of some kind somewhere, then it should be our responsibility to ensure that pollution is cleaned up. The fact that we don`t and that most business models do not allow for such responsibilities, leads to what economists call the cost of "externalities". A truly circular economy - or, better yet, a truly doughnut economy - would treat the non-payment for externalised costs as "selfishness" and penalise accordingly.

Rishi SunakJust as a matter of interest, it struck me that the chancellor was being rather brave, for a Conservative, when he said that airlines should "... find other forms of funding and not turn first to the government for help getting through the coronavirus crisis." He may just have been being a Conservative free-marketeer (?) or he may have seen the kudos he might garner from the Green Lobby (including GLD, of course!) by seeming to be green as well as careful with our tax monies!

Sooner rather than later!

And this brings me back to the start of this article and the visualisation of pollution from space. The stark fact that we can see the implications of economic activities (or, actually the lack of such activities) so easily from space, should mean that we ought to take them more into account in our economic thinking. So far, however, I do not detect a willingness to do that, so this is something we should be campaigning about sooner rather than later. It is a debate we need to have sooner rather than later. And I hope we Green Liberal Democrats can mobilise to bring about that debate sooner rather than later!

Part 2 of this article will follow next week. I will look further at some transport issues and... [actually, why don`t you write in and let me know what YOU think I should also write about under the heading "The times they are a`changin`"...? - Chair@greenlibdems.org.uk ] ... and there is a Part 3 article as well.