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XR York Co-ordinator Merry Dickinson explores the complex relationship between COVID-19 and the climate emergency.

“We are living in an emergency”: this statement constitutes a core part of Extinction Rebellion messaging and it’s true. We are living in many emergencies. The latest to grip the news and take thousands of lives is COVID-19. I’m sure by now you’ve heard of it, and if you’re reading this you’ve probably heard of the climate crisis. But are the two related? And what’s the problem with much of the discourse floating around linking them together?

Have they both taken many lives? Yes. Do they affect the most vulnerable the most? Yes. Have our governments largely failed to act in any way sufficient to tackle either of them? Undeniably yes. But why? And why are some of the views going around so dangerous?

There are various definitions and aspects to what is known as ‘ecofascism’, including racism, nationalism, anti-multiculturalism, anti-population growth and neo-Malthusian discourse to name a few. As an ideology ecofascism has been growing in recent times, but its logic often pervades our society in ways that go unnoticed – and people saying them might not even realise what they’re promoting. But it’s dangerous, and we must fight it.  

This has only become more explicit during this global pandemic. Numerous people have made links between coronavirus and the reduction of emissions and ‘humans being the virus’. Many might mean this in a positive way, but it is dangerous and categorically untrue. Any so-called ‘environmental good’ that comes at the price of people’s lives is to be disavowed without hesitation. We must reject it with our words, our actions, and our own beliefs.

Humans are not the virus; our systems of production and the prioritisation of profit over all else is what have caused these emergencies. The refusal of governments to listen to the science, prioritising shareholders and profit over literal life, is actually why we’re in an emergency. 

A banner held by XR protesters in Edinburgh last summer… Are we?

What this pandemic does show us is that it is possible to live another way. Things that have previously been thought unthinkable are happening. Governments are capable of supporting those most vulnerable, it is a political choice to leave those people to suffer. But this is not the way we achieve them – any shift in our society towards an ecologically sustainable way of living, one where we live in harmony with the planet and provide for all, cannot ever be based on the suffering of people. These systems of living already exist and people around the world, most notably Indigenous Peoples, have been living this reality for many years. We must learn from this as we go forward and use this to form our understanding of what climate justice means.

The climate crisis is not a problem of population density or individual pollutants, it’s a problem of capitalism, of colonialism, of the structures of domination that have pervaded our societies for hundreds of years. It’s a problem of treating the planet as an inexhaustible resource that exists for us to plunder and use to generate the most profit for a few – while the rest suffer.

A system based on infinite economic growth, the exploitation of the most vulnerable, of our planet: this is why we’re living in a state of emergency.

We have seen communities come together in this time of need, with mutual aid groups springing up all around the world and people coming together to challenge governments lack of action and support those most vulnerable around them. This is the logic we need to apply to the climate crisis – without it we are all doomed to suffer whilst a few continue to profit.

When we do this, we must remember that the climate crisis is already causing the deaths and suffering of millions, and although that isn’t at the top of our news headlines everyday – it’s happening. We must learn from this pandemic; we must learn to come together and challenge those who prioritise profit over our lives and the lives of those all around the world. It’s time to look after one another, to recognise the suffering that pervades the lives of many around the world, and it’s essential that we keep this in mind when reacting to and understanding the COVID-19 crisis.

Join us on Tuesdays at 7.30pm for our weekly meeting, hosted on Zoom. (7.00pm for new members):
Meeting ID: 940 151 6315

Further reading

This Changes Everything – Naomi Klein

Measuring the Ecological Impact of the Wealthy: Excessive Consumption, Ecological Disorganization, Green Crime, and Justice – Lynch, M., Long, M., Stretesky, P. and Barrett, K. (2019)

Wealth and Pollution Inequalities of Global Trade: A Network and Input-Output Approach – C. Prell (2016)

Unequal Carbon Exchanges: Understanding Pollution Embodied in Global Trade – Prell, C, Sun, L. (2015)


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