Like many people, in 2020 I’m currently spending more time with my family than I expected. One of my small son’s current obsessions is the Lego Movie. In this cinematic masterpiece the evil Lord Business hates disorder. He builds walls between the various Lego worlds and employs a crooked policeman to crack down on the ‘master builders’ who won’t follow instructions. Finally, he deploys the Kragle, a doomsday weapon that literally glues everyone in their place.
I suspect you can see an analogy coming on. Yes, that’s how the world feels to me at the moment – we’ve all been Kraggled. Our physical lives have been fixed in place where they were last Monday, whilst health and financial fears for both ourselves and our loved ones start, at best, to nag at the back of our minds.
Planning to move house? Tough, you’re Kraggled. A holiday or wedding come up? Tough, you’re Kraggled. Single and want to meet someone? Tough, you’re Kraggled. Want to go for a nice long walk in the countryside? Well, you might get away with that, but officially you’re Kraggled.
Meanwhile a textbook example of how recessions are made plays out in from of us as the economy is Kraggled to a standstill. Companies and individuals fear for their economic future and cancel all non-essential expenditure. And of course, one person’s expenditure is another person’s income. Money usually flows like water through the economy, but now it’s more like glue.
Of course eventually we’ll be un-Kraggled, and this is meant to be a blog about environmental policy rather than the ramblings of a stuck-at-home Dad. So the questions is, what will the world look like when we’re all free again?
This is something that commentators from across the political rainbow are trying to address right now. And - surprise, surprise - it would appear that coronavirus means that the time has come for whatever idea they’ve been banging a drum for over recent years.
So the left think it’s time for universal basic income, greens advocate action on climate change, nationalists believe we should be closing borders and increasing national self-reliance whilst tech-utopians think we won’t even emerge out of our virus shelters and all just communicate online.
Me? My view is that we're stunningly bad at predicting the future. We tend to overestimate the impact of major events and new technologies in the short term and underestimate in the long. I’d prefer to focus on what’s happening now, and that’s two things.
The first is that people are frightened. You’d have to be well into your 80s to remember a time where food was in short supply and death could rain out of a bright blue sky. We’ve grown up in an age of safety and abundance, and the idea that we’d be jumping out of the way of fellow shoppers in a supermarket stocked like Soviet Russia would have seemed laughable only a month ago. But those of us in wealthy countries now know that bad things can indeed happen to all of us.
The second is that we’ve seen the power of big Government. The last time the UK Government forcibly interfered with the liberty of otherwise law-abiding people was national service, which ended in 1960. Prior to this crisis the idea that the Government could, for example, tell us get out of cars and use public transport was hotly contested, but now we’ve learnt that the Government can do something as extreme as keeping us all housebound and we’ll all (mostly) comply.
We’ve also seen the mass mobilisation of physical and financial resources to help tackle a major crisis, doing “whatever it takes” to get the job done. The usual policy making language of cost-benefit, statistical values of lives and expected economic impacts have been thrown out of the window.
From this you can pretty much guarantee pressure on the Government to do all it can to keep us safe from future pandemics. Medical research is likely to receive a shot in the arm, and continued underfunding of the NHS is unlikely to be tolerated. Beyond this the big question is whether our heightened threat radar is expanded beyond pandemics. This is by no means a given - as the saying goes, our leaders are always fighting the last war.
For climate change some may say that a healthy dose of fear will help shift things along, maybe more of the apocalyptic scenarios that Extinction Rebellion are so keen on. And, as I’ve suggested, fear can be a powerful motivator. But over time fear becomes normalised; it won’t motivate change over the decades long effort needed to address climate change.
But we’re not all just staying at home right now because we’re scared; we’re also staying at home because we have hope for the future. A time when we can hug our parents, watch our children play with their friends and enjoy a drink in a city pub.
To my mind, the challenge for those of us working in climate change is to paint a similar picture of hope alongside the gloom, to show that a low carbon world can be cleaner, healthier and more humane place to live. This world might not be better in every area that it is now – we might, for example, have to travel a bit less. But on the whole, it could be a downright nicer world for us all to live in.
Last year the Lego Movie gained a sequel, where the happy Lego world was thrown into chaos by destructive Duplo invaders. It gave the first movie’s theme tune a melancholic twist in the song “Everything’s Not Awesome”. Here the characters conclude there’s no hope, that awesomeness was a pipe dream and proclaim their newfound understanding of Radiohead and Eliot Smith. So far, so gloomy.
But hold the hankies, the song isn’t as downbeat as it first appears. Because, as the Lego heroes conclude, whilst we might want things to be awesome all of the time, it's an unrealistic expectation. If they work together they can make things awesome some of the time, and that’s good enough.
In real life we’re learning that the safety and abundance we’ve experienced over the past 70 years is much more awesome than the latest gee-whiz gadget - it isn’t something that should be taken for granted. The glimmers of hope we’re seeing now are communities pulling together to help the vulnerable, teams of NHS staff working to save lives and scientists from across the globe coming together to understand and treat the disease.
Wherever you are, I hope you’re healthy and your lock-down is proving not so bad.