By Nela Porobić Isaković

The consequences of COVID-19 and the lockdown of countries across the world are yet to be fully understood, but one thing that was immediately noticeable, and welcomed, was that nature benefited from us slowing down. Most exciting of all, countries experienced a temporary fall in carbon dioxide and nitrogen dioxide of as much as 40%. So, we started hoping. Maybe we could create societies in symbiosis with the ecosystem? But while some dared to dream, others went back to business as usual.

Research shows that the air pollution in China is now at higher levels than in the same period last year because the country prioritises burning coal and other dirty projects to jumpstart the economy. But it is not just China. As environmental activist Greta Thunberg recently wrote on social media: “Germany is opening a new coal power plant this summer. It’s run by Finnish state-owned Fortum. Swedish state-owned Vattenfall is already operating new coal plants in Germany. Everyone involved claims to be “climate leaders” but this is the opposite of leadership. This is failure.”

And she is absolutely right. Going back to business as usual is a failure in leadership; and to be frank, it is a demonstration of the lack of ability of those in power to radically shift towards greener economies. And in the wake of COVID-19 that is not leadership. That is capitulation and a cowardly retreat to an agenda where a relentless pursuit of profit stands above anything else.

We cannot go on like this

In its COVID-19 blog series, WILPF has explored at length why we cannot continue as before, and why change must happen now. This also holds true when we talk about the crisis we were facing long before COVID-19: namely, environmental degradation and subsequent climate change. The spread of COVID-19, as well as our governments’ responses to it, is not unrelated to how we behave towards the environment, nature, and other species with which we share this planet.

And we are killing the planet. There is no need to support this claim with evidence in this blog. There is an abundance of it – everything from high-level scientific reports, documentation provided by environmental activists, academic research, journalistic coverage of environmental destruction, and not least our own experiences within our communities. The destroyed rivers and wildlife in our vicinity; the recurring flooding; the droughts; the polluted air; among others.

No, the planet is not retaliating

Some have suggested that COVID-19 is the planet’s way of retaliating against us, but the fact is that this is a result of our own actions. If we look at the level of destruction of biodiversity caused by our way of life, we can see that the emergence of new viruses and diseases like COVID-19 is directly linked to how we as humans interact with other living things and entire ecosystems.

Human activity plays a huge role in releasing viruses. It is the extractive industries, the political economy of oil and gas; it is the mega (and mini) power dams; the roadbuilding to support industrial transportation needs; it is deforestation; it the invasion of tropical forests and wild landscapes; it is our treatment of animals and invasion of their habitats; it is the political economy of militarism, of nuclear bombs; it is the wars and the pollution in their wake; it is the industries that promote our excessive consumerism; it is our use of energy. It is all of that, embedded in our way of life.

It is the capitalist system

The basis for this deeply illogical behaviour is the capitalist system with its ideas of perpetual growth and its relation to the nature and humans. Within capitalism, nature is merely a resource on which to capitalise. Something to put into its production line and spit out, for fast consumption and disposal. Profits are reinvested in new production, new consumer items, cheaper goods, systematic exploitation of workers through undervaluing of their labour, and extraction from nature — and so it goes on forever. Laying brick after brick into a house that has no foundation and is bound to crash. And its chase for profit is relentless, even in times of crisis. The environmental activists who dare to protest and stand up in defence of natural resources, do so with their life at stake. These are often women, indigenous people, or other marginalised local communities. Capitalism does not tolerate anybody standing in the way of its chase for profit.

The convergence of progressive environmental and feminist thinking

Like feminist political economy, studies in ecological economics, in particular the ideas around degrowth (how to downscale resource and energy demands in our society) point to the dysfunctionalities of systems based on perpetual growth. Feminist political economy goes a step further with its idea that structural changes and sustainable societies cannot happen without radically replacing the structures that uphold our unhealthy relationship with both nature and with each other.

Capitalism exploits, many times violently, the patriarchal norm of men’s domination over women. It relies on structural subordination and oppression of women in its effort to control social reproduction, understood as a sum of all labour that goes into reproducing social life, including biological reproduction and unpaid care work. It benefits from the subordination of women within the so-called productive economy, where women are disproportionately found as cheap and undervalued work force. The patriarchal feminisation of a certain type of work considered particularly “suitable” for women such as childcare, textile industry, manufacturing, teaching, elderly care and the subsequent devaluation of it, enables capitalism to increase its profits based on endless supplies of cheap labour, at the bottom of which are women.

Gender is not the only system of exploitation capitalism sustains. Colonialism is an inseparable feature of capitalism. The plundering, the exploitation of people, the extraction of natural resources and the political and economic oppression of conquered territories and peoples is part of capitalist policy to expand profits through exerting economic and political dominance over countries, resources, peoples, and cultures. That influence remains in many countries, even years after the decolonisation.

As capitalism subordinates human beings and their labour to the idea of profit, so too does it subordinate other species and ecosystems, treating nature and animals as means for value accumulation. The dominance over human relationships and the extraction of resources go hand in hand. Feminists see a very clear link between the need to get rid of capitalism for the sake of our environment and getting rid of capitalism for the sake of our equality and social justice.

Getting rid of the growth imperative

Our planet has finite resources, but the capitalist economic system sustains an idea that not only are the resources infinite, they can also be privatised, commercialised, and withheld from people and animals. Natural resources are a commodity over which control is violently asserted through wars and oppression.

The growth imperative dominates every aspect of our lives. It is articulated and performed on a daily basis by our governments, international financial institutions and neoliberal think tanks. It is presented to us as common sense, to the detriment of other opinions, models and views. It is how mainstream economics measure how well we are doing. The story goes that the bigger the Gross Domestic Products (GDP) is, the better off we are. According to the International Monetary Fund, GDP is a “reference point for the health of national and global economies”. But measuring how well we are doing in terms of the GDP provides no context. It says nothing about how the ‘health’ it captures is distributed; how well it takes care of our environment; or how many of us benefit from the wealth produced by all of our work combined. It speaks even less about the possible costs of, and limits to growth. Because in a capitalist economic system, capital accumulation is everything and there is no such thing as growth limits.

Fetishization of individual responsibility

It was just matter of time before people outside of environmentalist circles started noticing that our environment is not doing well. That our way of life is not sustainable for the planet nor for its peoples. So how does capitalism preempt any changes that would affect its unfettered pursuit of the accumulation of capital? It finds a way to co-opt environmental and ecological awareness and response. It is now possible to buy carbon offsets; energy-efficient lightbulbs; expensive ecological food; to recycle; and adhere to a variety of useful and nature-friendly ways of living. While these are all important efforts to make, individualising the responsibility for climate change obscures the reality, and the reality is that the biggest polluters are not the households but the military, and the industrial sector.

We need more than technical solutions — we need systemic changes. Taking care of the environment and stopping the destruction has to be about much more than changes in our individual behaviour. Capitalism is an inherently flawed system, so saving our environment, and dealing with the mess we have created depends on us rallying around ideas that have up until now been considered outside of the mainstream political and economic thinking. These ideas have thus far been successfully oppressed by the capitalist elite, which stands to gain – even if temporarily – where humanity and the planet stand to lose. 

Reversing destruction through structural changes

Humanity, as a collective, has very little to gain from the endless pursuit of increasing GDP. Instead, our measurement of how well we are doing should be about sustainability, human security, and equality. Feminist perspectives on sustainable development are deeply ingrained in our ideas of peace, based on human dignity, eradication of poverty, equality and justice, full demilitarisation, and solidarity within and between nations and people. That should be the starting point of our recovery from COVID-19; that should be the basis of our plans for dealing with the climate change; and that should be our strategy for the future.

Making our recovery green, feminist and just

To make our post COVID-19 recovery green, we need investments and stimulus in renewable energy. But we also need to downscale the overall use of our energy. The degrowth economy movement conceptualises post-growth economies as based in radical reduction of total energy and material use. It aims to bring the economy in line with planetary boundaries and equal distribution of income and resources, ultimately leading to an improvement in people’s lives. This strongly converges with feminist goals.

The Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C states that our global carbon dioxide emissions must be cut in half by 2030 and reach zero by 2050. That is not going to happen if we continue investing in coal. It can only happen if we design mechanisms that drastically reduce energy demand and make a shift towards clean energy sources. Abandoning GDP as a policy objective is a good place to start. Other options are putting in place robust legal frameworks for reducing pollution and waste emissions; working on conserving biodiversity; banning profit-making from natural resources and moving towards responsible use of resources within the realm of public and community needs; respecting science; and building robust public health infrastructure.

Our moving forward also needs to be grounded in the recognition that countries emitting the most carbon dioxide are the richest ones. They stand for 86% of global emissions, while the world’s poorest have contributed to less than 1%, at the same time as they are most vulnerable to the climate change. Our strategies need to reflect that reality when adopting policies that are necessary to reach the targets for global emissions, and factor in the existing economic and political imbalance and inequality between countries. We also need to think about reparations – through inter alia prioritising investments in communities affected by climate changes and by ensuring community control over new green energy projects.

Colonialism’s role in the destruction of the environment, displacement and genocide of indigenous populations cannot be left behind in our strategies for the future. Our recovery is inseparable from ensuring an equal and just relationship with all the people on the planet, starting with what some of the indigenous activists have outlined in what they call the Red Deal: indigenous treaty rights, land restoration, sovereignty, self-determination, decolonisation, and liberation.

Our post COVID-19 recovery also needs to upfront investments in social infrastructure, making sure that public institutions and services that provide care do so with human dignity, rather than profit in mind. Among other things, this means putting in place mechanisms that work towards a redistribution of unpaid care work that takes place within households and communities; it means a fundamental rethink around what type of work and whose labour is valued, and how we value it; it means strengthening the public sectors’ role as a provider of social and economic rights, justice, social well-being, education, and a redistributor of resources.

A feminist, green recovery, also means breaking away from the militarised way of thinking, and demilitarising and divesting from the military, moving the $1.9 trillion we invest in false ideas of security into real human security. It also means a fundamental rethink in how resources are used and by whom, redistributing not just resources but also the decision-making space. The redistribution of decision-making and influence means inclusion of all people in the planning of our green and feminist future so nobody is left behind.