If nature has shown its real ability to quickly cleanse itself, then why did it take a terrible epidemic, and why can’t mankind achieve it otherwise? Even if we disregard environmental mysticism and eschatology, the notion that through the epidemic nature takes revenge on man, this demonstrable example the positive impact of the epidemic on nature could serve as the strongest argument for expanding the green movement, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Oleg Barabanov.
What will the brave new world be like after the coronavirus pandemic? There are a lot of forecasts on this subject; we have analysed many of them on the website of the Valdai Discussion Club. Incidentally, despite all the differences in approaches and opinions, a priori optimism is inherent in all these forecasts that, firstly, the epidemic will end (through a vaccine, herd immunity, more “lighter” virus mutations, or simply by itself), and secondly, the surviving proportion of humanity will have enough energy to recover. Very few observers decided to draw the opposite conclusions that the history of mankind (or at least the history of the current technogenic postmodern civilisation) will end with this epidemic. To assert this would be an absolutely indecent challenge to the global pandemic of fear and anxiety that we are now witnessing.
Although, perhaps, the main argument in favour of the end of the epidemic is the same trivial bromide that everything comes to an end, that “this too shall pass.” And all the various mathematical and statistical models (together with the real “statistical wars” between adherents of different models that have already unfolded on the Internet) are based on the basic limiter that the effect of a completely novel virus cannot be predicted on the basis of past experience and related past patterns. Who in mid-February could have predicted an outbreak in Italy and Europe, and a new global wave of disease? Who could have predicted not the expected “lighter”, but, in fact, much “more severe” mutation of the virus in Europe with a cytokine storm and a much higher mortality rate in relation to China? For that matter, who can guarantee that the new mutations will be “easier” and not “harder” than the current one?
The psychological basis for the aforementioned optimism is understandable. Although in literature and cinema you can find examples of dystopias of this kind, when a pandemic or other catastrophe does not stop halfway, but almost completely destroys civilisation. Michel Houellebecq’s novel The Possibility of an Island
is an example of this. There are others. But, having pointed out the possibility of a radically pessimistic outcome, we will not tear ourselves away from ideological optimism. All debates on the theme of “the world after the epidemic” stem from the basic consensus that this “world after” will continue to exist. We will also stick to it.
One of the very few objectively noted positive consequences of the epidemic was the purification of nature. Air pollution levels over China, Europe and India have fallen sharply according to the meteorological monitoring network. The first data on the expansion of the habitat of wild animals has already appeared; they are entering deserted cities, etc. This phenomenon, by the way, very clearly echoes the situation that followed the Chernobyl disaster. There, the resettlement of people from the infected zone very quickly led to a practical renaissance of wildlife and a very rapid increase in the number of wild animals there, despite all the radiation. The decrease of the anthropogenic pressure on nature turned out to be a much more significant factor for the fauna of Chernobyl than radiation pollution. The same logic is already beginning to take root now.
It is true and more. The revival of economic activity in China, which just began in April, has led to an increase in air pollution. Therefore, the “clean world” of the epidemic may not stay with us for a long time and can be destroyed just as quickly as it emerged. That is why this phenomenon of rapid self-purification of nature due to the removal of anthropogenic pressure, on the one hand, is a fact of the most important environmental significance. On the other hand, its effect, in time, is also limited by man.
In this context, in the “world after”, in addition to many other tasks, a new environmental imperative may arise. If nature has shown its real ability to quickly cleanse itself, then why did it take a terrible epidemic, and why can’t mankind achieve it otherwise? Even if we disregard environmental mysticism and eschatology, the notion that through the epidemic “nature takes revenge on man” (such interpretations have been made), this demonstrable example the positive impact of the epidemic on nature could serve as the strongest argument for expanding the green movement (in its various forms) and environmental values in the “world after.”
It is clear that here the main counterargument is that in the “world after”, especially in the first months and years, there will be no time for ecology. The scale of the tasks of economic recovery, maintaining living standards, combating unemployment and poverty, the unprecedented amount of resources needed for all this, simply will not leave room for the environmentalist picture, beautiful, but completely redundant, according to this logic, for the first stages of recovery.
Green activists themselves understand this logic, and already now they are beginning to oppose it. And here the first conceptual texts are already appearing with an emphasis on the priority of the environmental imperative from the very first days of the “world after” against the background of all other tasks. One of these texts was the recently published report of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). It is called the Global Renewables Outlook: Energy Transformation 2050.
The essence of this report is simple. According to the authors, to restore the entire global economy after the epidemic, the world will need $95 trillion under the “business as usual” model, without special attention being paid to the environment. And 110 trillion under the Green Recovery model. So, against the background of the overall vastness of the numbers, the difference of 15 trillion is not so big. But the “reen recovery” and priority attention to renewable energy sources will allow us, according to the authors, in 2050 to reduce the cost of production and energy consumption (from 50 to 142 trillion dollars), provide an additional 2.4% increase in global GDP, and create an additional 42 million jobs in the field of green energy and related industries.
As for the numbers, of course, one can argue. But the model itself is understandable and quite attractive. Immediately after the epidemic, humanity needs to think not only about today, but also about the future, and here environmental values and a new development imperative should become the key. To do this, in the first most difficult months and years of the “world after”, humanity must spend “a little” more, but then all this will pay off handsomely. And nature will remain pure.
It is hard to say how this appeal will be correlated with the real economic practice of the “world after”. Obviously, amid the conditions of ultra-low oil prices, turning to more expensive (at least in the short term) renewable energy sources will be a kind of challenge for both states and economic actors. The temptation to act very differently will be very great. Let's look at how things play out in practice when (and if) the epidemic ends.