This Pandemic Bears Gifts – new possibilities for economic transition

It’s a precious gift to be alive as a sentient human being whatever the circumstances, my Buddhist friends remind me. Yes, of course, I say. And the global pandemic is awful, causing premature deaths, suffering and loss for survivors, financial disaster for households and business owners. My Buddhist friends also remind me that there has always been suffering. Perhaps, making clear these fundamental truths of the human condition are the first two gifts of this pandemic.

For the longer-term praxis of living together and all that entails – politics, economics, sociologics, ecologics – this pandemic brings additional practical blessings. First, let’s acknowledge the critiques of globalised ‘capitalism’ and political duplicity, the warnings of impending authoritarianism and austerity, and the near certainty of massively disruptive and sustained economic contraction. These are foreboding stories told by very serious people coming through louder and clearer than before in a now more amenable mediasphere. (If you haven’t yet seen them, then please search for them.) We must give them thoughtful attention and act accordingly. But they’re not the only possible stories about an as yet unconstructed future – in fact, they’re incomplete.

There is a new openness for change. The zeitgeist clear to me, (and maybe everyone), from conversations on the street and in my networks, as well as what’s in the media, is that this crisis offers opportunities to start doing things differently, that we can’t go ‘back to normal’ but must go forward to create something new. Hope has new sensual qualities. It’s audible, visible, smellable, if that’s a word. Destructive economic activity screeched to a halt but what many notice is bird song, clean air, simpler patterns of life. Citizens now see in the glaring light of day evidence of several generations of political lies about money and it’s apparent lack for things like healthcare, education, housing, energy transformation. There’s plenty of money, it’s just that there’s been a dearth of leadership, honesty and justice. Most importantly, we all now see and have experienced that the kind of change required to address climate and ecological crises is, in fact, possible and affordable. Perhaps this will bring new political expectations backed by a greater willingness across all parts of society to act; to hold those in power accountable or depose them. We shall see.

While potential government action on the climate and ecological crisis remains in the background, it’s clear their urgent priority is action on the economy. A major economic contraction is in process  – a shock greater than the ‘Great Recession’ a decade ago and, according to the IMF and others, maybe on the scale of the Great Depression in the 1930s. We learned two important lessons from both of those periods. One: large-scale government spending can alleviate suffering, put people to work on socially and economically productive projects, and create the conditions for positive economic change. Two: government reductions in spending – austerity – fails to do all of these things, while making the downturn worse and prolonging the suffering. We owe it to our recent ancestors to understand the lessons of history, and we owe it to our young people and their descendents to apply these lessons wisely, while we have the chance.

The UK has pledged billions of pounds for various kinds of relief, support, bailouts, etc. – over £300 billion and it may not be the end of government support – but it doesn’t come close to grasping the opportunity to transform the economy, to wisely apply the lessons we should have learned and to make up for decades of negligence. We’re facing not just another great depression but more profound challenges with climate breakdown, biospheric destruction, poverty and inequality. We have to find ways of meeting everyone’s needs while dramatically reducing our carbon and ecological footprints over the next decade – unprecedented but possible. Per the wise counsel of economist Mariana Mazzucato, the response must be ambitious, inspiring and equal to this historic task.

Our work – myself and numerous colleagues, collaborators and fellow travelers in dozens of countries – has been focused on building local and regional economic transition which is fair and inclusive, ecologically wise and socially regenerative, resilient and diverse. These goals and the imperative of economic resilience and relocalisation have become crystal clear during this crisis, gaining new advocates across the political spectrum. So, what would an ambitious, inspiring, transformative response look like from this point of view? We offer a few ideas to complement the many sensible proposals already out there – Degrowth, Green New Deal, and so on. (Please search for these and other proposals on the interwebs, discover and evaluate them for yourself – it is an exhilarating act of citizenship.)

Our recommendations for government action:

1) ‘Just Transition’ Programmes for specific industries. Fossil fuel industries, airlines and cruise ships, industrial agriculture – all need to be transformed in order for the UK to meet it’s carbon reduction obligations. Bailouts without a requirement for transformation is a dereliction of duty. But until there is a clear and fair roadmap for downsizing and transforming these industries, with minimal disruption to the families that depend upon them, political opposition will be fierce. A ‘just transition’ programme would help to resolve this issue by providing displaced workers a basic income for 24-36 months, fund re-training and education, and support ‘transition-oriented’ entrepreneurial projects. Workers could be empowered to transition entire companies, as well, through “Lucas Plan” processes, for example. And the banking industry might even play a role.

2) Civilian Climate and Countryside Corps to restore local ecosystems and transition farmers. The UK was already looking at prolonged economic stagnation as a consequence of leaving the EU. The pandemic recession will be worse, potentially throwing many hundreds of thousands out of work, not unlike the 1930s. The model for the Civilian Climate and Countryside Corps is the Civilian Conservation Corps, part of FDR’s New Deal. It put hundreds of thousands of unemployed people to work – dignified, important, paid work – building trails in national parks, planting trees, restoring ecosystems. (Incidentally, many in the US are already working on this.) The Civilian Climate and Countryside Corps could put hundreds of thousands on the land doing similar things. It could put young people – and older people – to work restoring ecosystems, rewilding moors, liberating urban rivers, building bicycle routes. It could include working with farmers to help them transition to regenerative and agro-ecological methods, as well as starting up community gardens and municipal farms. In fact, the CCCC could include a Young Farmer Accelerator programme to train and help young people to acquire farms from retiring farmers.

3) Economic Transition and Resilience Programme – the need for building economic resilience literally hit home with this pandemic and it will continue to be a foreground issue in the months and years ahead. This represents both an imperative and an opportunity to intentionally transition our economy to meet everyone’s needs, dramatically shrink our ecological footprint, and increase resilience to future pandemics, recessions, extreme weather, and other shocks. Achieving this will require greater decentralisation, diversity, modularity, and redundancy, implying more local and bioregionally appropriate methods, more local and regionally-based ownership and accountability. This programme must be ambitious, with an audacious goal for 2030 inspiring popular support and participation – like the climate economy version of  ‘the Moonshot’, perhaps.

Elements of this programme would include:

Expanding regional mutual bank network. The banking industry in the UK is an oligopoly, isn’t resilient, and doesn’t serve SMEs, nor local and regional economies. There are a small number of startup banks of this kind, such as the South West Mutual, which are part of the Community Savings Bank Association, a kind of community bank franchisor. With proper government support this could easily be expanded by orders of magnitude within a decade. These banks would be essential financial services providers to a vibrant and growing relocalised and resilient economic system.

Regional Transition Enterprise Ecosystem Fund to accelerate the development of bioregionally-appropriate local and regional enterprises. In the UK, Local Enterprise Partnerships have proven to be problematic, with governance being one important issue. LEPs, like many ‘regional economic development’ agencies in other countries, are often stocked with vested interests. Therefore, this fund could be managed at county and unitary level with abundant participation of elected local councillors and citizens in governance and oversight, perhaps appointed by sortition. The fund would offer grants, patient and flexible credit, and equity investments for building out ‘infrastructure’ for rapid place-based economic tranformation. This includes developing 10,000 co-working and incubation spaces across the country; funding for accelerator and entrepreneurial training programmes, seed funding for entrepreneurial projects and growth funding for young companies, networks, ‘fab labs’, research and ‘enabler’ organisations.

Farming Regeneration Programme to increase adoption of ‘agro-ecological’ methods and quantity of food produced. An island country importing nearly half its food supply is a vulnerable island country. We must produce more of our food domestically in ways that build soil, ecosystem health and food security. This will mean producing less meat, more vegetables, helping existing farms to make the transition, and attracting new farmers to the field, so to speak. It will mean supporting all aspects of the food system, including startups. The programme would provide technical assistance, research and funding.

NHS Resilient Provisioning Network would create a robust and resilient supplier ecosystem for essential goods and services for the NHS. This would be another ambitious ‘moonshot’ transformation, but strategically and ethically a priority. This would require ‘re-shoring’ production of vital supplies and equipment, for a start. But crucially, it would facilitate a decentralised and resilient network of producer social/green/cooperative enterprises able to produce a range of goods and services, as well as being flexible, adaptable, mutually supportive. Perhaps the Community Savings Bank Association offers some interesting learning and a potential model to follow.

These practical programmes, or something like them, would help the UK meet the imperative delivered by the IPCC 1.5° report to reduce emission 45% by 2030. They would further position this country for long term economic resilience and a new kind of prosperity, one fit for the challenges of the 21st century. They complement and are synergistic with each other, and they complement other proposals, such as the Green New Deal. Clearly, more needs to be done. A just overhaul of the tax system would repatriate the tax revenue lost from corporate offshoring domestic profits and domestic billionaires offshoring avoided tax, both of which could easily pay for the above proposals. Reforming planning systems to put more power in the hands of local elected councils and allow for more innovative building in town and city centres could help create the conditions for solving the affordable housing crisis. Liberating urban and agricultural land from aristocratic and royal families would reduce wealth inequality and allow better use of agricultural land. And so on… reinventing education, massive ‘net zero’ affordable housing construction, massive investment in public transport, massive investment in renewable energy, etc. But what we learned in the last election is that the party political system is anachronistic and dysfunctional. These and other sensible proposals for economic transformation are unlikely to become part of the national political discourse without the backing of a strong, credible movement.

This pandemic brings many gifts but especially the opportunity to transform our politics, economy and society to meet the challenges of this decade and this century. It’s created intellectual openings for new possibilities and maybe the possibility for the robust and comprehensive practice of democracy. But this rare opportunity requires action and energy to grasp it. Citizens can and should play a leading role, engaged and organised, acting as if they knew they were the source of sovereign power. Organisations and networks working for change of various kinds, promoting this or that model or approach, also need to come together in common purpose. I know many are already thinking this way, organising and educating, hopping from zoom call to zoom call, trying to weave greater connectivity, preparing for what’s next. Online organising seems a necessary step toward creating the conditions for just the kind of movement we need in this moment. Maybe that, fresh air and birdsong, too.

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