DebateThe coronavirus can cost us our freedom

The coronavirus can cost us our freedom

Reading time: 5:30 min | Thesis: Health is becoming part of the sustainability concept and the top priority of political action. This could cost us our freedom.

More than 7 billion people today and about 10 billion people in 2050 want to live safely on earth under the natural law of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

The current model of private wealth creates general wealth has produced many harmful excesses that severely affect our health, global climate, nature, and environment. They threaten a future worth living. These excesses arise primarily from the economic sectors of mobility, energy, food, and industry. The behaviour of these sectors is controlled by our consumption. Our consumption is therefore mainly responsible for the future prospects of humanity and the planet in general.

If we want to secure our future, we have to change our consumption behaviour. To achieve this, we first need to identify what triggers consumption and what types of consumption have what effects.

Basically, rich people have a much greater consumption potential than poor people. Therefore, wealthy people’s climate footprint is significantly higher than that of less affluent or poor people. Furthermore, the consumption of goods with a high climate footprint is more damaging to the future than the consumption of climate and environmentally friendly goods.

But what actually triggers consumption? Everyday goods such as toilet paper, water, and bread are consumed because we need them to live. Goods such as skiing holidays or visits to museums are consumed because we enjoy them. We note that consumption can be divided into fun-induced and survival-induced. Of course, there are overlaps, i.e. consumption that is survival-induced but fun and fun consumption that we consider relevant for survival.

Obviously, fun-induced consumption is less critical for survival than survival-induced consumption. Following this logic, consumption for fun would have to be reduced first, i.e. travel, holidays, hobbies. But consumption for survival, which in addition to food also includes energy for heating homes, building them, etc…, would also have to be optimised to be not harmful to the climate. We are already trying to do the latter on a relatively modest scale so far, e.g., supporting renewables or increasing the supply of locally produced organic food.

In this mixed situation, humanity is being attacked by a virus that has no respect for rich and poor but differentiates between healthy and young versus sick and elderly — all this in a life-threatening way (health, however, stands and falls with income). To protect the elderly and the ill, we have globally decided to quarantine ourselves or to reduce social contacts as much as possible. This has had a dramatic impact on the economy, which in many sectors has been significantly downsized. But we do this because we feel our health and life are more important than economic prosperity. The question here is, why are we doing this? Do we experience a new kind of philanthropy, a fresh anti-capitalist attitude to life that has always sustained society and is now manifesting itself in the crisis? Or is it because the virus is somewhat prosperity-agnostic and influential people are equally affected?

No matter how we assess the reasons for our actions, the effects, in any case, allow a glimpse into a possible future because, for the first time in history, global emissions of climate-damaging gases have dropped significantly in a short time. This means that we are, so to speak, involuntarily anticipating the Paris Agreement’s climate goals. The reason for this decline is drastically reduced consumption. We now know from practical experience that social gathering triggers consumption or, on the flip side, social distance reduces consumption. We know that we can live without heavy consumption of mobility. Likewise, we experience that personal presence is, in many cases, less necessary than we commonly assumed.

In summary, we can conclude that reducing consumption is the most effective measure for climate gas avoidance available to us, and it can be done immediately. We have also learned that we can be caught by a pandemic at any time. And we learned that the coronavirus is probably a relatively harmless representative but still turns the world upside down. How will we behave in the future with the experiences we are having now?

Possible future from a liberal point of view.

We will significantly expand our health care systems, much like we expanded our military during the Cold War. However, the money for this has to come from somewhere. Lower military spending, for example, is a good source for this.

Mobility will have to become more expensive. We have known that for a long time. For example, the upcoming shakeout of the market, especially in aviation, and cruises, will transform mass tourism into a more sustainable form of tourism. Business travel will become less and more replaced by digital exchange.

By experiencing social distancing as a forced measure against the spread of the virus, the principle of quality over quantity will also prevail in people’s time management after the virus crisis. Millennials have been demanding this for a long time and are increasingly putting it into practice as a work-life balance. Working hours are becoming less but more effective.

In the process of active climate protection and the experiences made now, freedom of consumption as a lived expression of freedom in the sense of people’s fundamental rights will lose importance. We will have to discuss how to transfer the concept of consumption as the primary expression of liberty to a social, cultural context.

The upcoming nationalisation to save global corporations and large enterprises from the pandemic’s economic hardships can also be seen from this perspective. Systemically important companies are being returned to state custody. And not from an ideological, but from a pragmatic point of view. That makes capitalism more socially responsible worldwide. The Scandinavian-German-French model of the social market economy is becoming increasingly relevant for a sustainable economy.

Dystopia from a populist point of view

Populists do not have opinions fed by scientific knowledge and facts but look the people in the mouth and promote policies that the people supposedly want and serve their own power interests. If most people are afraid of a virus, the populist will do everything to defeat the supposed enemy of the people if the previous talking-down does not bear fruit. The health system will then be upgraded, even if it was condemned as a socialist measure a week earlier, supposedly restricting the individual’s freedom. The same could apply to climate change. When populists realise that they can score points and increase their wealth with the war on climate change, they will do so, like the war they wage on refugees and immigrants.

If health becomes an issue similar to defence (against whomever, including refugees or alleged criminals with dark skin), populists would have no problem ballooning the health sector identical to the Cold War’s military-industrial complex. That will be turning it into a capitalist mega-pressure machine and the most influential stakeholder in politics and society.

But where does this leave national pride as the unifying element between populists and the regular joe? Where it already is today. Doctors will then be what military officers are today, colonels, majors, and generals. They will be the national pride and heroes, going into the world and saving countries, colonising them in the process, as we already do with the military. On the way, the health system and the military will finally merge.

The result will be a military-pharmaceutical complex that dominates the economy and society. But that will not be all because even populists can only survive in a somewhat intact climate. Thus, the spectre of eco-dictatorship may manifest itself as a xenophobic, racist and authoritarian-nationalist regime where freedom of consumption will be a privilege of the wealthy few. Because freedom will continue to be defined primarily in terms of consumption, freedom will then be a commodity.

This scenario is not that unlikely. Populists learn that a fitting narrative makes free citizens pulling their children out of school, quarantining themselves for weeks, abandoning travel and their pub, and going for a walk alone.

We are all prepared to give up a large part of our freedom. The narrative just has to be convincing enough. That is why the liberal forces of society are needed more than ever.