The virus, the ecosphere, and air travel

Are air lines too big to fail? No, they are going to fail anyway. But if the rest of us are to avoid failing with them they need our help in managing their contraction. Air lines are demanding to be reinstated as they were pre-virus. This assessment of the problem is fairly comprehensive, but it does not mention The Tragedy of the Commons.

Many sectors of the economy have taken serious hits due to the sudden downturn caused by the pandemic, but not only are the airlines one of the most seriously affected, but they have, or think they have the power to enforce their demands. After all. their preposterous exemption from fuel duty has remained sacrosanct through a series of COP conferences purporting to solve the ecological crisis.

The Tragedy logic is that any one player pulling out would merely lose market share to the rest. That did not seem to matter when it was possible to take expansion for granted. But contraction has happened due to something unforeseen, and the sharp improvement in symptoms of environmental damage will be hard to ignore.

Historically problems were usually solved by warfare, but even bloodless conflict would leave many losers at a serious permanent disadvantage. At the end of the second world war there was a culture of fairness. But now the dominant ethos is neoliberalism.

Global decisions are now in the hands of transnational companies rather than democratically elected governments. At the London Launch of Extinction Rebellion in October 2018, Greta Thunberg said:

“If climate breakdown is an existential threat, why is no one talking about it?”

I can think of two reasons. No democratically elected government dare offer anything other than economic growth. Anything less has always meant hardship for the majority.

Underpinned by something (a basic income?) to guarantee security, a gentle. adjustable reduction of economic activity to what the ecosphere can cope with could have been lubricating a way past this formidable blockage for 40 years. But the growth culture was too strong. The pandemic has given us a glimpse of what the COP Conferences aim to achieve, but the political will to implement them is still missing. At least it was prior to the pandemic. How often must I say that if humans do not switch to a sustainable economy, it will happen anyway.

But the second reason why no one was talking about the danger to the ecosphere is that the transnationals would have foregone years, even decades of profit, so they funded the effective climate denial campaign. Moreover a very difficult aspect of the Tragedy is that no competitor can allow themselves to be at a disadvantage. This remains true even when downsizing becomes necessary to safeguard the ecosphere. Which nation state or business will pull out voluntarily, or cede control to others?

I can see the basic income offering a relatively civilized way out, but I do not see it as the most probable. A culture which used to be able to take growth for granted will not like what ‘system change’ will mean in practice,, but the alternative is a large scale repeat of what happened when the Easter Islanders trashed their Garden of Eden. (Some claim that the fate of Easter Island was caused by rats. Here is Jared Diamond’s own response to that theory, but even if true, it is still a classic example of the temporary but catastrophic advantage of unfettered growth.)

In 1837 former British slave owners were paid £20 million in compensation. The 2020 equivalent would be £2.2 billion. Lack of transparency was not a problem in 1837.  And the airlines are only one of many (powerful?) losers who will demand compensation when, not if there is a depression.

Downsizing must no longer be capitalists v workers  It will have to be negotiated. Like the slave owners, the airlines think they are in a position of strength, but neither they nor any of the other transnationals ever did figure out exactly when was the right time to stop damaging the ecosphere.

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