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Trotsky’s lesson for dealing with Covid-19

Man must extend his mastery over nature

Artillery Row

“When this is all over” is a phrase I keep using — in emails at work and in texts to friends. Most of us hope that at some point these weeks of fear and isolation will become a bad but faint memory. Then again, most of us know that this can’t really be the case — with politicians beginning the process of replacing their “stay home” catchphrase with “the new normal” to help soften the blow that none of this is ending any time soon.

It’s this warped view of our relationship with the natural world that I’m concerned will shape our “new normal’.

There is lots to be concerned about in this new normal. Will Rishi Sunak’s much lauded bailouts for businesses justify a “we’re all in it together” period of crippling belt-tightening in the years to come? Will the sanctification of the NHS silence any constructive criticism about how to prevent further viruses? Will the big political issues we were warring over just months ago — like Brexit — ever reach the top of the government’s to-do list? But perhaps the most concerning issue of all, is how this “new normal” we’re all waiting for will be shaped by the discussion around climate change.

Listening to the Today programme last Monday, a Thought For The Day from Reverend Professor David Wilkinson pricked my ears. In praise of the physician Edward Jenner who was central to the development of vaccines, Wilkinson criticised our “arrogant sense of human mastery of nature” in our view of “the natural world as something to be conquered and subjugated and science as the only source of salvation”. Wilkinson is not alone in thinking that humans “abuse” nature by meddling too much. Extinction Rebellion’s “Alone Together” lockdown strategy urges activists “to find creative and compelling ways to critique our fragile human systems” — we are mere mortals, fragile in the face of mother nature.

It’s this warped view of our relationship with the natural world that I’m concerned will shape our “new normal’. Not because I can’t wait for the streets of London, Mumbai and Beijing to fill up with emissions again, but because what is presented as a noble concern for the environment masks reactionary tendencies. Beneath the hippy-ish exterior of climate activists’ love of nature is a misanthropic view of their fellow man — human beings are the problem, not the solution to the hurdles we might face. This kind of view becomes dangerous when faced with something like a pandemic. If left to run its course, coronavirus could have picked off millions. Thanks to human intervention in the form of plastic PPE, political strategising and medical action, lives are being saved.

But instead of celebrating human progress and our ability to intervene when nature threatens us, politicians around the world are kowtowing to the calls from climate activists to curb human influence rather than nurture it. The UK Committee on Climate Change wrote a letter to Boris Johnson this week advising him on how to build a “stronger, cleaner and more resilient economy” post-coronavirus. It suggests “new social norms that benefit wellbeing, improve productivity and reduce emissions”. Could our beloved one hour of exercise become a compulsory fixture? You don’t have to be a libertarian to find a call for state-sanctioned new social norms a little worrying. UN Secretary-General António Guterres described the coronavirus as “an unprecedented wake-up call” on Earth Day last week — a message from Gaia warning us to stop our greedy, guzzling ways. Guterres has joined calls for any economic relief via use of taxpayers money to be used to “rescue businesses . . . tied to achieving green jobs and sustainable growth”. So, no cash for the garage around the corner from me that employs 15 young blokes fixing up old bangers. No help for the 13 Thai women running a nail salon full of acrylics. No return to normal for the billions of working-class people worldwide who aren’t able to tick the sustainable box.

Coronavirus should prompt us to make big changes — a silver lining of this pandemic could be that it has prompted a period of reflection on our current way of life. In the UK, many middle-class people are waking up to the fact that the those they usually take for granted are now considered “key workers”. Now on our 57th breakfast at home with our families, many of us are starting to realise just how miserable we were running the rat race. And lots of us will have clocked that politicians can and will mobilise public funds and resources when forced. Every time the word “unprecedented” gets used, the Thatcherite “There is no alternative” mantra takes another hit. The question is, will this new normal be shaped democratically with the interests of workers? Or will it be something dictated by an elitist, fashionable deference to mother nature?

Wilkinson is wrong — our sense of mastery over nature isn’t arrogant, it’s revolutionary. Thanks to our ability to change and shape the natural world, human beings have made the planet a better place. The world only has meaning and value because we’ve created it. Calls for a halt to human activity on the planet are often blind to the consequences of us taking a back seat. The BBC’s Roger Harrabin celebrated the return of a robin to his traffic-free garden this week. Stopping production, shutting down businesses and taking away people’s cars might make the back gardens of the Islington elite a little more pleasant, but it will cripple the rest of us. There’s plenty of birds in Mozambique, for example, but not enough human intervention.

Where I do agree with Wilkinson is in looking to great men and women of the past for inspiration. I prefer the philosophical outlook of Leon Trotsky, though you’re less likely to hear him on Radio 4. In his 1938 work Their Morals and Ours, he wrote that the aim of every revolutionary action should be about “increasing the power of man over nature and the abolition of the power of man over man”. We can’t — and shouldn’t — want to go back to the normal of 2019 before coronavirus — for most working people, the old normal was pretty awful. But in trying to shape what this new way of living might look like, we should disavow any misanthropic desire to sideline humanity. From sanitation workers to surgeons, it’s human beings meddling with nature that will see us through this disaster — and human action (or mastery, if you like) that will help us shape a better one.

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