On International Earth Day 2020:
The social enterprise and changemakers tour of Hackney was always dealing with big issues, I knew that. That’s why I did it: to talk about things like food and energy sustainability, community resilience and mental health – and then showcase some local Hackney responses to these national and global problems.
But I hadn’t realised just how quickly some of those issues would become unavoidably pressing.
Food security is not normally an issue on most people’s lips. We take for granted the extensive global networks that mean we can source pretty much anything any time. But as supermarkets look to their supply chains and begin to worry about the effect the Corona Virus might have on the production of food, the time may still come when we are all forced to think about where and how our food is produced.
Growing Communities and Organic Lea are two East London networks of urban farms producing food to be consumed locally in order to reduce the carbon footprint of what we eat. But these organisations are not just about reducing the emissions attached to our food – they’re also about the resilience of local networks when external events threaten the massive global ones that run on ‘just in time’ logistics, with supply lines that straddle the oceans.
When this works well – and if we allow ourselves to forget the all too real environmental cost, as well as the inherent post-colonial issues of Global North v South inequality – then we get cheap food to our table day in day out. But these extended systems are vulnerable to shocks.
The “unprecedented” phenomenon of the Corona Virus was actually anything but; a pandemic has been expected for a long time by various experts in various fields from medicine to Civil Defence. Obama even had a special government department looking into disaster planning, which was disbanded by Trump.
Here in the UK, the NHS practiced for such a scenario in 2016 with Exercise Cygnus which simulated an Influenza outbreak. Now we’ve got the real thing, the public enquiry will be interesting, especially regarding protective kit (PPE) for health professionals…
We’ve barely started here with the virus, but some are already thinking ahead to the next ‘Corona’. Others are comparing our initial slowness to react to this with our similarly slow response to global warming, an ongoing disaster that is happening at a slower pace but which has bigger ramifications. (NB: you’re probably used to hearing ‘Climate Change’ – but ask yourself when and how the debate was manipulated so we started using this much less innocuous phrase?)
The way we grow food is unsustainable, says Growing Communities. We put in, according to the Hackney-based social enterprise, 8 or 9 times as much energy as we take out (calorific value etc). Another thing they say at GC is: “If it’s cheap, someone else is paying for it.” As Wetherspoons staff found themselves all dropped like hot Zero-Hours stones, this was perhaps clearer than ever: economics is a constant sum game. The desire for things cheap, easy and fast means that something has to give somewhere.
Maybe it’s the peasant farmer or the garment worker, paid less than £3 per day (see Steve Coogan in ‘Greed’, a parody of Philip Green)? Maybe it’s the Philippino sailors on the ships that bring our stuff? Maybe it’s the big emissions of sulphurous fuel they emit as those monsters endlessly circumnavigate the globe? Some things on board might be essential, but others are luxuries.
Some might even be ubiquitous but that can be sold for a small percentage in another country because the shipping is so cheap and someone has spotted a small differential in local market price. We don’t pay the real price of shipping; in business-speak things like the environmental damage are ‘externalities’. (You can discover more about this at my side-project Container Cult here).
Flat-out systems running at minimum cost, extended supply chains, precarious worker situations: suddenly these things are our problems too. If there is to be any silver lining to the current situation – which is about to get much worse before it gets better – then it may be that there’ll be some learning. At-capacity systems, staffed by only-just surviving people? They don’t make for what planners call resilience.
Resilience has also been one of the topics on the Changemaker walks I’ve led. Resilience applies to the supply chain but it also applies to community. That has been, until now, about issues like Gentrification and the displacement of of the existing population and how we might counter that. Resilience is sometimes defined as how you respond to shocks.
The sustained economic pressure of Gentrification is more like an ongoing ache than the sudden shock we are about to experience with the Corona Virus, but our community networks will be more important than ever if it is not to descend into dog eat dog selfishness as an economic crash looms.
At this point in time, worrying about Gentrification – with its all too real impact on existing families and its deleterious effects on the stability of locals’ lives and community resilience – does feel like a luxury. But when we were looking at ways to maintain community cohesion and networks, we were inadvertently planning for the scenario we find ourselves in now.
And the good news is that there are solutions. Just as an unforeseen drop in emissions will be one positive spin-off of the crisis, there will be other opportunities to implement positive change as we realise that it was always so much more possible that we imagined. Witness the overnight ‘nationalisation of pay’ by a government ideologically opposed to it.
It has been forced upon us and now we realise that it can happen – indeed it has to. So as we look to the people who, like the Hackney Social Enterprise innovators, don’t wait for the mainstream to provide answers but create trailblazing solutions themselves, we will need to be ready to face the next challenge.
Because it won’t end with Corona. It might sound like a luxury to talk about climate issues at a time when many of us worry we might never see our parents and vulnerable friends again, but systems change and resilient communities are omnipresent topics. The Corona Virus comes after forest fires, floods and geopolitical rumblings that hint at the reemergence of old international frictions.
Disaster planning will be increasingly in the spotlight. How we cope in times of tension and how our communities respond to shocks is not always on our minds. Now, we might not have any choice but to face up these questions so that we are ready for the next impact.
Non-human threats will be certainly be on minds at the next defence and security review. Mental health – already stretched in the ‘running to stand still’ culture of precarity in the megacity – is something we’re all aware can fray in situations like this one, as social isolation and fear erode our sense of wellbeing.
Long term trends like the ongoing depletion of the very topsoil we grow our food in are not going away. So, do we learn to address these issues? Or will we find ourselves again, knocked sideways by events that we call “unprecedented” even though we saw them coming like a slo-mo car crash? The Black Elephant, as opposed to the Black Swan?
In our jubilation when the worst of this is past, we must remember that sustainable energy, food security and resilient inclusive communities will be as relevant as ever. When the mourning is over, perhaps there’ll be some learning?
If you’re interested in being part of the next wave, come on a walk (they’re actually very upbeat and fun, despite the serious nature of the topics) or get in touch and I’ll connect you with some other people already looking to what comes next. Join the mailing list here.