Joining a growing chorus demanding fundamental reform, dozens of academics in the Netherlands have released a manifesto for a sustainable post-COVID-19 society.

Khaled Diab takes stock of this mounting movement for change.

More than 170 academics in the Netherlands have signed up to a five-point manifesto for radical change intended to utilise the temporary slowdown in economic activity caused by the COVID-19 pandemic to rethink and reinvent society in such a way as to make it more sustainable, resilient and fairer.

The release of the letter has drawn significant attention in the Dutch media and sparked a public debate there, as has occurred in other parts of Europe and the world where many people no longer wish to return to business as usual once the coronavirus crisis is over.

“COVID-19 has shaken the world. It has already led to the loss or devastation of countless lives, while many people in vital professions are working day and night to attend to the sick and stop further spread,” the experts said in the letter, pointing to how the coronavirus had exposed the underlying vulnerabilities and weaknesses of what the authors call the “neoliberal growth machine”.

“All this requires drastic and integrated action and makes it critical to start planning for a post-COVID-19 world,” the academics urged. “It is, therefore, necessary to envision how this current situation could lead to a more sustainable, fair, equitable, healthy, and resilient form of (economic) development going forward.”

Outgrowing growth

One proposal made by the Dutch academics is to shift away from the current quest for endless economic growth. Instead, they propose a two-pronged approach in which polluting or unessential sectors (including fossil fuels, air travel and mining) are downsized and sustainable or vital sectors (such as clean energy, education and healthcare) are allowed to grow to satisfy society’s needs for them.

This is complemented by a focus on reducing luxury and wasteful consumption, as well as minimising air travel.

Activists around the world have been demanding a shift towards a post-growth future for years, and these calls have experienced a groundswell of popular support recently.

Image: Gemma Bowcock

“The EEB’s economic transition team has been campaigning, researching and writing about this for years,” explains the EEB’s  Policy Officer for Environmental and Economic Justice Nick Meynen. He referred, for example, to the EEB’s landmark Decoupling Debunked report, which found that ‘green growth’, which seeks to separate economic growth from resource use, has failed to produce results on anywhere near the scale required to deal with the climate crisis and environmental breakdown.

“There should be no going back to an economy that burns out people and planet alike,” adds Meynen. “Fortunately, we prepared a blueprint for positive postgrowth policies long before this crisis hit, some of which we have recently also updated in light of the COVID-19 crisis.”

Ending inequalities

Another pillar proposed in the letter revolves around creating an economic framework for wealth redistribution. Among the redistributive measures proposed are universal basic income, progressive taxation, reduced working hours and job sharing. This is complemented by a proposal to cancel the debts of workers, small business owners and poor countries.

For years, inequalities within and between countries have been widening considerably and worryingly, including within the European Union, which has long prided itself on its relative egalitarianism, solidarity and social safety net.

“Inequality is not only a fact in the Global South, it is also a problem in Europe,” said Patrizia Heidegger, Director of Global Policies and Sustainability at the EEB. “The EU is one of the wealthiest regions on the planet and prides itself on being a leader in social progress and sustainability. The reality is quite different.”

Heidegger was speaking at the launch, last year, of ‘Falling through the cracks: Exposing inequalities in the European Union and beyond’, a major report which found that the EU and its member states were failing millions of the most vulnerable and marginalised people in Europe and the wider world, as socio-economic and environmental inequalities worsened or persisted.

The report was released by SDG Watch Europe and Make Europe Sustainable for All (MESA), two Europe-wide civil society platforms which seek to raise awareness of and promote the ambitious implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Exposing existing ills

The COVID-19 crisis has laid bare and exacerbated these pre-existing inequalities, both within Europe and more so in some other parts of the world, with the poorest and most vulnerable hit disproportionately by lockdowns, while the better-off have been shielded by their wealth.

Across the Atlantic the situation has been particularly harsh, especially for the poor and ethnic minorities. Despite America being the wealthiest country in the world, millions have lost their jobs, swelling the ranks of the uninsured further. For the tens of millions who are uninsured or underinsured, hospitalisation could mean bankruptcy and ruin. One study estimated that a six-day hospital stay would cost the uninsured over $73,000 and the insured would be more than $38,000 out of pocket.

Meanwhile, some super wealthy corporations and individuals are demanding generous state bailouts while others have profited enormously from the pandemic. One example is the world’s richest man Jeff Bezos whose immense fortune grew by a staggering $24 billion, to $138 billion, as people living under lockdown or in self-isolation turned to shopping on Amazon.

For the world’s poorest countries, the situation risks becoming considerably worst. An additional 50 million people worldwide are likely to be pushed into extreme poverty this year, according to World Bank projections. For poor countries, COVID-19 is not only a public health crisis but could lead to a “hunger pandemic”, according to the World Food Programme’s David Beasley, who estimates that 265 million people are at risk of starvation.

It remains to be seen whether governments will take the necessary action to sufficiently protect those at gravest risk, nationally, regionally and internationally, let alone narrow inequalities. It is also far from clear whether they will exhibit sufficient appetite, willpower and coordinated action to introduce more progressive taxation and combat tax havens and paradises.

The Netherlands, where the academics released their letter, is illustrative of the difficult road ahead. Not only has the Hague been thwarting an EU COVID-19 rescue plan, its tax havens siphon off billions of euros of much-needed tax revenues from the hardest-hit European countries, according to the Tax Justice Network.

However, there have also been promising early signs of change. These include the decisions by EU governments to relax budgetary discipline in order to support vulnerable citizens, the refusal of some governments to offer support to companies based in tax paradises, and the growing number of countries considering the introduction of a universal basic income.

No more factory farming

Another of the manifesto’s five pillars is to transform the current model of industrial farming and shift towards “regenerative agriculture” based on biodiversity conservation, sustainable food production, and fair agricultural employment conditions.

Experts are linking the emergence of COVID-19 to global habitat and biodiversity loss, and researchers at University College London have found that species in degraded habitats are likely to carry more viruses which can infect humans.

One sustainable approach advocated by the EEB which protects biodiversity and habitats is what is known as agroecology. This is a multifaceted approach which applies “ecological concepts and principles to optimise interactions between plants, animals, humans and the environment”, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

Agroecology is not a specific production system but an approach that relies on and maximises ecological processes to support production systems. It is a way of thinking holistically about agronomy, ecology and biology. To produce food in harmony with nature, not against it. 

In the EU, the main instrument for supporting farming and also the most powerful tool for transforming it is the Common Agricultural Policy. However, the CAP reforms proposed to date are not sufficient to shift Europe away from its dominant and destructive factory farming model.

“Our precious soil, water, biodiversity, and climate can’t afford to lose this bet,” emphasised Célia Nyssens, the EEB’s Policy Officer for Agriculture. “There is no Planet B, so the CAP must become a force for good so that EU farming works with nature, protects our finite soil and water resources, and helps solve the climate crisis.”

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