Covid-19: start of a brighter future?

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By Gord Stewart

First we must acknowledge the devastation Covid-19 has caused – here at home and around the world. Death, suffering and heartache top the list. Lost incomes, lost jobs and closed businesses come next. Stress, dislocation, isolation and loneliness are there too.

We have many more challenges ahead but, at the moment, New Zealand is the envy of the world for the way in which we have handled the virus outbreak. Kudos for political leaders, for our health and science specialists, and for all of us!

Now we must tackle unemployment and get the economy moving again. To this end, there’s much talk about getting on with ‘shovel ready’ projects. Yet wise minds warn against this rush to conclusions. Inspiration-ready, future-thinking-ready projects are what they’re calling for.

Gary Taylor, CEO of the Environmental Defence Society (EDS), notes, “This is an historical opportunity to fix our infrastructure deficit and create a modern, low carbon economy that delivers essential services for all New Zealanders.”

Greenpeace’s Russel Norman says, “Right now, we have a chance to add value to the ecological and social support systems that we rely on to be safe and to thrive, rather than to undermine it.”

Dame Anne Salmond
Dame Anne Salmond: ‘we must anticpate
the future and not echo the past.’

Author, academic and environmentalist Dame Anne Salmond concurs, cautioning that infrastructure investment “must anticipate the future, and not echo the past.”

Suggestions include significant funding for home insulation, solar, batteries, and electric transport. Time to boost renewable electricity generation to 100%, ramp up our commitment to public transportation, and provide support for sustainable agricultural production. Time also to upgrade water and wastewater systems where necessary.

EDS is all for a massive house-building programme – much like what occurred in the 1930s they note – to get every New Zealander into quality, warm, healthy housing. “The kind that would provide resilience for any future pandemic shocks,” says Taylor.

As one stopgap measure, here’s an idea: Tie up all the cruise ships at ports around the world and turn them into warm, temporary housing for the homeless (including refugees). As floating pleasure palaces, where eating and shopping appear to top the activity list, could they be any more unsustainable?

This would be one small way to help look after the country’s less fortunate. Another way, of course, is to revisit our tax regime in the interest of securing greater funds for health, education, and social services. Recent efforts on behalf of a capital gains tax went down in flames. Surely now is an “historical opportunity” to take another look at it. This along with a modest wealth tax, and a transaction fee on currency trading and on the buying and selling of equities.

These changes could do much to alleviate inequality. Done fairly and properly, it would hardly be noticed by the wealthy and better off, while providing inestimable benefit to those most in need.

Which brings us to the question of a universal basic income (UBI). One learned commentator recently wrote that a UBI would be too expensive and wouldn’t make enough difference to those who need it most. Thomas Piketty, author of Capital in the Twenty-first Century and now Capital and Ideology fame, would disagree. Bet we could provide a UBI with the tax revisions suggested above. Piketty, for his part, says inequality calls for radical remedies.    

But back to cruise ships for a minute. In time, when onshore housing stock adequately serves demand, these tied-up vessels could cater to an increased level of domestic tourism. I say ‘domestic’ since international air travel is not likely to return to its former levels anytime soon. Nor should it, given the climate crisis. If we are to have any chance of achieving a zero carbon economy, then our remaining fossil fuel budget should be used more for a just transition and less for personal pleasure.

This, of course, is not good news for those in the airline industry, tourism, and related sectors. It may mean retraining and certainly a rethinking of one’s future. With an open mind, however, and a flourishing green economy, it could lead to opportunities – and job satisfaction – never dreamt possible.  

The Government must lead the way in needed change to be realised at the national and community levels. But what about at a personal level?

Dame Anne Salmond says, “It has taken a global pandemic to get us all off the treadmill of everyday life, and give us time to see what really matters.”

More people are out and about, walking and running and cycling, looking after themselves. Families are at play. We’re grocery shopping, then cooking and eating at home, and together. We’re putting in vege gardens, and chatting more with our neighbours (at a distance of course!).

Some of this is bound to stick. Perhaps, then, a future where we value having fewer things, but more time; less filled, but fuller lives.  

  • Gord Stewart is a sustainability consultant with a background in environmental management and economics

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