There’s a famous quote of oft-disputed origin that frequently gets attributed to Winston Churchill that goes: ‘Never let a good crisis go to waste.’ The quote is also often applied to the doctrines of hard-right economic shock therapy which were famously espoused by economist and modern-day originator of neoliberalism Milton Friedman and his ideological bedmates at the University Chicago. These doctrines are the ones that were infamously tested out in the field by the savage economic war waged on Chile by Augusto Pinochet and the CIA following the coup in 1973. The implications of the phrase when ascribed to either Churchill or the Friedmanite Chicago Boys are clear: In times of crisis, use the confusion and the disarray to reshape society as you see fit; while the people are panicked, let the powerful jerk the needle to the right. As Naomi Klein described it in her seminal 2007 book, ‘The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism’:
It was in 1982 that Milton Friedman wrote the highly influential passage that best summarizes the shock doctrine: ‘Only a crisis - actual or perceived - produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.’ It was to become a kind of mantra for his movement in the new democratic era. Allan Meltzer elaborated on the philosophy: ‘Ideas are alternatives waiting on a crisis to serve as the catalyst of change. Friedman’s model of influence was to legitimize ideas, to make them bearable, and worth trying when the opportunity comes.”
One of the most striking modern-day examples of the violence in which American Friedmanite neoliberalism imposes itself upon the world was, of course, the destruction of Iraq that started under George W. Bush. Klein describes this succinctly in ‘The Shock Doctrine’, painting a picture of the state of the occupation post-invasion:
Iraq under Bremer was the logical conclusion of Chicago School theory: a public sector reduced to a minimal number of employees, mostly contract workers, living in a Halliburton city state, tasked with signing corporate-friendly laws drafted by KPMG and handing out duffle bags of cash to Western contractors protected by mercenary soldiers, themselves shielded by full legal immunity.
‘Never let a good crisis go to waste,’ has another possible origin however. In his 1971 book ‘Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals’, community activist and political theorist Saul D. Alinsky wrote that, ‘in the arena of action, a threat or a crisis becomes almost a precondition to communication.’ Alinsky’s point came at things from entirely the opposite side of the spectrum: When there is a crack in the armour of the status quo—a disruption to the corrupt, sleepy norms—use it to shatter that status quo, and attempt to build a better world by uniting grassroots campaigns into a powerful unit. In other words, a strikingly opposing worldview to the likes of Churchill and Friedman. Others picture yet another figure when they think of the crisis quote: one Rahm Emmanuel, former Mayor of Chicago, then-President Obama’s Chief of Staff, and perennial burst pustule on the face of this green Earth. Emmanuel, naturally aligning himself with the high priests of neoliberalism who hailed from his hometown, is said to have expressed a ‘Never let a good crisis go to waste,’ sentiment in response to the great crash of 2007/8. The more classically inclined point towards another likely candidate as the source of the saying: Niccolò Machiavelli himself, who said: ‘Never waste the opportunity offered by a good crisis.’
In terms of pure chronology, then, it would seem pretty clear that Machiavelli could most likely lay claim to being the originator of the quote. Of course, just as interesting as whatever the actual origin of a saying might be is the way the saying is taken and morphed and amplified, and by whom, down the ages.
As the global lockdowns from Covid-19 begin to be eased—in many places directly against the advice of science and common sense—environmentalists have been sounding the alarm, and pleading for a divergence from the path of madness. Covid-19 is the biggest, most structure-shaking crisis the world has seen in a lifetime. Within the space of a few weeks, entire systems previously taken for granted were dismantled, ground to a halt, or were reconfigured. Air travel came to a virtual standstill. Capitalist factories and chains of production and distribution were repurposed to serve the greater human good by producing hand sanitiser or PPE. And, most tellingly, CO2 emissions plummeted by a global average of 17% in April as compared to 2019. That kind of paradigm-stalling judder has the potential to be seized on by forces both malign, and progressive. Scientists and environmentalists have been issuing stark warnings against not using the opportunity afforded by this crisis to dramatically reconfigure our approach to global energy production and carbon emission. They have been stressing the need for a green recovery, and highlighting the madness of rebounding back to business as usual. A few days ago, Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, told The Guardian:
The next three years will determine the course of the next 30 years and beyond. […] If we do not [take action] we will surely see a rebound in emissions. If emissions rebound, it is very difficult to see how they will be brought down in future. This is why we are urging governments to have sustainable recovery packages.
The IEA’s own calculations show that governments are set to spend about $9tn in the next few months on rescuing their economies from the coronavirus crisis. If this is not done in a dramatically greener, more sustainable way going forward than has been the case up until before the crisis, then we are likely past the point of no return. The three years timescale to avert catastrophe given above may also seem like a dramatic tightening of the noose from the oft-touted figure of a decade or so, but in fact in the same Guardian report the IEA representative refines that figure to a more realistic, and far more depressing, six months. According to a report in Media Lens, a UK-based corporate media watchdog:
[T]he crucial window for action is likely much shorter than that. And it is not just the ‘usual suspects’ of Greens and wild-eyed radicals who claim so. According to Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, the world has just six months to avert climate crisis. This is the timescale required to ‘prevent a post-lockdown rebound in greenhouse gas emissions that would overwhelm efforts to stave off climate catastrophe’.
Do we need reminding of what that catastrophe would look like? It feels like we shouldn’t need it. For one because it’s already happening, especially in the Global South, and also because it will be the THE issue that determines our fate as a species. I personally have been struggling with an at times quite crippling climate anxiety for a few years. If this was a disaster movie and we the audience had been witness to a montage of all the warnings already issued by scientists of where we are on the timeline of the coming apocalypse, we’d all be screaming at the screen at the corrupt and complicit and willfully ignorant politicians and systems responsible for what’s about to happen. In a sane world, the forecasts would be front page news every single day, and there would be mass uprisings against the capitalist establishment that has paved the way to the disaster. Uprisings are, of course, happening. Yet on a scale nowhere near commensurate to the crisis. Worse still, there’s barely a peep from the mainstream media on the matter, with the occasional dry bit of context-less data buried somewhere in the back in the ‘science’ section being the usual case—no surprise, considering the mainstream media’s function within the capitalist ecology, but it nevertheless all adds to the feeling of complete hopeless bewilderment that those who pay attention to the crisis feel.
The Media Lens report above is written in a way that looks like what every single media report on climate change should look like; detailing starkly the cascade of death that has already begun and the urgency that the situation demands:
Scientists have been sounding the alarm for some time that we are in the midst of a sixth mass extinction in Earth’s long biological history. But this time the cause is not a natural calamity, such as a huge volcanism event or an asteroid strike, but human ‘civilisation’. Worse still, the careful evidence accrued by biologists in study after study indicates that the global mass loss of species is accelerating. In 2017, a study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reported that billions of populations of animals have disappeared from the Earth amidst what they called a ‘biological annihilation.’ They said the findings were worse than previously thought.
Earlier this month, a new study revealed that five hundred species of land animals are likely to become extinct over the next two decades. Gerardo Ceballos, an ecologist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico and lead author of the paper, declared: ‘We’re eroding the capabilities of the planet to maintain human life and life in general.’
Last November, the world’s most prestigious science journal, Nature, published a study by eminent climate scientists warning that nine major ‘tipping points’ which regulate global climate stability are dangerously close to being triggered. These include the slowing down of ocean circulation in the North Atlantic, massive deforestation of the Amazon, and accelerating ice loss from the West Antarctic ice sheet. Any one of these nine tipping points, if exceeded, could push the Earth’s climate into catastrophic runaway global warming. There could even be a ‘domino effect’ whereby one tipping point triggers another tipping point which, in turn, triggers the next one and so on, in a devastating cascade.
Given the normal custom of academics to use sober language, the warning statements in the pages of Nature were stark: ‘The growing threat of abrupt and irreversible climate changes must compel [our emphasis] political and economic action on emissions.’
The researchers are clear that: ‘we are in a climate emergency and [our study of tipping points] strengthens this year’s chorus of calls for urgent climate action — from schoolchildren to scientists, cities and countries.’
In short, there is ‘an existential threat to civilization’ and ‘no amount of economic cost-benefit analysis is going to help us.
In his book, ‘The Uninhabitable Earth’, which I reviewed here, David Wallace-Wells described just one of the effects of a warming planet:
Humans, like all mammals, are heat engines; surviving means having to continually cool off, as panting dogs do. For that, the temperature needs to be low enough for the air to act as a kind of refrigerant, drawing heat off the skin so the engine can keep pumping. At seven degrees of warming, that would become impossible for portions of the planet’s equatorial band, and especially the tropics, where humidity adds to the problem. And the effect would be fast: after a few hours, a human body would be cooked to death from both inside and out. At eleven or twelve degrees Celsius of warming, more than half the world’s population, as distributed today, would die of direct heat. Things almost certainly won’t get that hot anytime soon, though some models of unabated emissions do bring us that far eventually, over centuries. But at just five degrees, according to some calculations, whole parts of the globe would be literally unsurvivable for humans. At six, summer labor of any kind would become impossible in the lower Mississippi Valley, and everybody in the United States east of the Rockies would suffer more from heat than anyone, anywhere, in the world today. New York City would be hotter than present-day Bahrain, one of the planet’s hottest spots, and the temperature in Bahrain “would induce hyperthermia in even sleeping humans.
Heat is just a part of the equation of course (and the increases Wallace-Wells mentions there are the worst case scenarios though even the mid-range increases that we are currently heading for are already catastrophic). The planet is an infinitely complex system of feedback loops, interrelated ecologies, and fragile balances. We are in all likelihood heading for a full spectrum decimation of life as we understand it. Mass extinction of both land and ocean fauna. Super-extreme weather events. Temperatures and humidities rendering entire sections of the planet simply unfit for human life. Wars over fresh water. Wars over billions of climate refugees seeking a safe haven from unliveable conditions. Soil degradation impacting food production. If the systems that govern us are not dramatically altered now, civilization as we know it will likely cease to exist, with the most vulnerable communities in the Global South—who have also had the least to do with the historical emissions that have gotten us to this tipping point—suffering first and suffering the worst. A quote from the Media Lens article gets to the gravity of the situation:
Graham Turner, a former senior Australian government research scientist, observed: ‘I think if we all manage to live a simpler and arguably more fulfilling life then it would be possible still with some technological advances to have a sustainable future, but it would seem that it’s more likely … that we are headed towards or perhaps on the cusp of a sort of global collapse.’
A global collapse is what is coming. And this is not something that is far off in the future. This is what’s coming within the next few decades. This is our lives and it is our children’s lives. It may nip the lives of our grandchildren in the bud before they are even a twinkle in our children’s eyes. The Covid crisis has provided a glimpse of how possible it is to change things, on the kind of mass scale needed to avert the biggest catastrophe our species has ever known. The question is: Will we be able to seize that crisis, and use it to save what we can, or will the next six months or a year or ten be just the same as all the ones that have come before? Will we use this crisis to radically diverge from the neoliberal order that has brought us to the brink of extinction, or will we double down and leap off the edge? The public are by and large aware of the threat we face, and we are desperate for salvation, but those who rule over us will refuse to give any—not as long as they can keep their snout at the trough.
Image sources (in order of posting): Getty Images, EPA