Living in the centre of the UK’s second largest city, I am forever moaning about air quality, traffic, and noise. In the middle of winter the stench is often unbearable. Thick cloud, which often descends for weeks on end, traps the diesel fumes and makes the city feel very oppressive. Summer is no better, and hot still days in the middle of a heatwave are particularly sticky and acrid. Working from home, I keep the windows closed during the morning and evening rush hours because it coats windowsills, curtains, and no doubt my lungs, too, with a thick layer of diesel dust. The noise I don’t mind so much. After fifteen years in Birmingham I’m used to it and have found ways to drown it out. That said, the constant police sirens, honking of horns as cars drive the wrong way down my one way street, and the hum of idling engines outside my flat during rush hour is a kind of background noise I would be quite happy to do without.
For noise and air quality reasons, I have been looking forward to the introduction of a Clean Air Zone in Birmingham for the past couple of years, but delay after delay – the government didn’t develop the number plate recognition software in time for a 2019 roll out – means it doesn’t come into force until the end of July this year. It’s got to the stage where I’m very cynical about the government’s and Birmingham City Council’s intentions, and I’ll believe they mean to introduce the Clean Air Zone when I look out of my window and see it in action.
Just as I was about to give up hope though, change has come from unexpected quarters, and it has been swift. The arrival of COVID-19 in the UK combined with our government’s inadequate response to the virus has sent the nation into panic. Out of city centres commuters and shoppers have fled, and into every suburban supermarket to stockpile toilet paper to sustain themselves through the fits of diarrhoea they inexplicably seem to believe they’ll come down with should they contract the dreaded lurgee.
While I worry for the elderly and those with weak immune systems, and I fret about the arts, sport, and the impact on my work as a self-employed filmmaker and photographer, I have been thoroughly enjoying the unexpected consequences of a slowdown in capitalism. With almost everyone who can working from home, there’s no traffic. Every day smells and sounds like December 25th, minus the forced family fun, turkey and Wham. In other words, it’s the kind of everyday Christmas I can get behind.
For years now our leaders have refused to take meaningful action on climate change. The economy is sacrosanct, to hell with environmental standards. When I graduated with my first degree in environmental science back in 2008, the only jobs that were available using my qualification were mitigation roles, using my knowledge to help companies do the bare minimum to achieve the environmental standards imposed on them not by our government, but by the EU. Forever the stubborn idealist and in the middle of a huge recession, I accepted a grant to do a PhD instead, kicking the can down the road to its inevitable resting point in 2014. Twelve years have passed since I was a new graduate, I’m five years out from academia and environmental science due to a lack of jobs and funding in our universities, and we’ve now left the EU and are about to unpick and discard as much of this ‘business blocking’ legislation as possible. I despair.
While we seem incapable of taking action when the environmental threats we face include catastrophic floods, wildfires, hurricanes and terrible air and water quality, an airborne virus has in three short months thrown a spanner in the works, and we’ve come to a screeching halt. My cynical take on this change of heart is that our leaders across the globe recognise that there’s less of a wealth advantage when it comes to COVID-19 and therefore there’s more of a personal reason for them to sit up and take notice. Whilst those with the financial means to do so can escape from or mitigate the impact of flood, fire and famine, airborne viruses are great levellers. It doesn’t matter how much money you have in the bank when your healthcare systems are overstretched and you’re elderly, infirm, or have a pre-existing health condition. With a few exceptions – Finland, New Zealand, France and Canada spring to mind – our leaders are increasingly elderly, infirm, and afflicted by pre-existing health conditions.
Following China’s lead, country after country has closed borders, grounded planes, encouraged homeworking, and reduced economic output. The aerial images of air quality in China before and during the February 2020 shut down are startling. Closer to home, I’ve noticed a big change too. As fewer people drive into and out of the city centre each day, the air smells cleaner. I usually head straight for the rabbit warren of side streets or the canal as soon as I step outside my front door, but at the moment even the Middleway – Birmingham’s dual carriageway ring road – is quiet and clear.
Yesterday morning I woke at 6am to heavy rain. I could hear the rain beating down, dripping through to our balcony from the floors above. A flock of Canada geese in flight passed overhead on their way to or from the canal or Edgbaston Reservoir, and I could make out the distinct sound of their wings beating the air, and their jubilant voices as they called out to one another. Meanwhile, the little birds who are just starting to return for spring sounded the dawn chorus. I heard all of this because of the distinct absence of the usual soundtrack to Sunday mornings in the city; a constant stream of taxi cabs heading back to the suburbs, the wail of police sirens, and drunken students singing on their way home from the clubs. I left the window cracked open and drifted back to sleep for a few more hours, waking naturally rather than because the traffic outside had become too loud to sleep through.
Without traffic, I can hear the residents in the block of flats across the road from me open their windows. I can hear people talking in the street, and the sound of a skateboard being rolled across tarmac as a local teenager re-enacts the 1990s. I can hear those little sounds that every dwelling makes as pipes expand and contract, and I can hear the tap of Minou’s claws on the wooden floors as she approaches my desk for a cuddle.
Life will eventually go back to normal, this is just an interlude, but for the first time in a long time I am feeling hopeful. We have proven that we can scale back the economy at short notice and take action when humanity is threatened. While COVID-19 is serious, it is catastrophic climate change that should have triggered these actions long before the virus made the jump from bats to humans. When we return from our ‘self-isolation’ and ‘social-distancing’ – no doubt the buzzwords of the year – I hope that we can give a little more thought to what we consider to be the ‘essential’ components of twenty-first century life, now that we’ve had a test run. Whilst we don’t need to lock down our cities in normal times, I would argue that we also don’t need to fly everywhere, holiday on floating cities, or concentrate the performance of white collar labour into centralised, strip lit, open plan offices. There is an alternative if we’re brave enough to dream it.
Edited 21st September 2020 to add:
I wrote this essay before the UK shutdown was announced, and before hundreds of thousands of people lost their jobs across the UK. A lot has happened in six months. There have been approximately 60,000 excess deaths, and the impact of the pandemic on society, the economy, and the environment, is much greater than I first anticipated. A big part of this can be attributed to the UK government’s mishandling of the crisis, the mixed messaging, and the rise of misinformation which has filled the gap as communities lose trust in government and seek answers elsewhere, undermining the already problematic and confusing public health messaging – “do go to work, but don’t go see your family, but do eat out to help out, and do go on holiday, but stay one metre, no two metres, from everyone, but do go to the shops, and don’t forget to get back to the office, and don’t get a test, you bloody hypochondriacs, but if you don’t self-isolate we’ll fine you £10,000 even though you barely earn that in a year.”
I want to make note of the fact that there is, in fact, a wealth advantage. Whilst many white-collar workers have been put on furlough or lost their jobs and livelihoods as their employers scale to meet the reduced demand for services, it is those who work in low paid roles such as in social care, as couriers and Uber drivers, and on the tills in supermarkets – amongst many other jobs – that have borne the brunt of the crisis. Unable to work from home, they have had to shoulder the risk of contracting the virus throughout the pandemic as they continued in their public facing roles.
Furthermore, the gap between supply and demand on the testing front as schools, workplaces and universities reopen for the autumn has laid bare the wealth advantage of private healthcare or a workplace covering the cost of private testing. The picture is far more complex than I appreciated back in the middle of March as I sat down to write.
In terms of the environment, the initial signs of progress – clean air, clear skies – have dissipated. Public transport has been cast aside by the masses in favour of private cars, and plastic waste from single use pandemic related paraphernalia – gloves, masks, plastic wrap – has increased dramatically. Whilst all eyes have been on the pandemic, policies such as Birmingham’s Clean Air Zone have been put on hold once more so as not to cause further stress to the economy.
Whereas twelve months ago public discourse was focused on the environment, as we head into the fourth quarter of 2020 stories reporting the wildfires, hurricanes, and one of the hottest summers in the northern hemisphere on record are dwarfed by headlines of rising case numbers and hospital admissions. All eyes are focused on extinguishing the pandemic whilst the environment continues to smoulder away in the background. When we come through the other side of this pandemic, we are going to be in an even more precarious position than we were at the start of it.
All this to say, I don’t feel hopeful. I feel afraid for the future, because it feels like we’re hurtling blindfolded towards an abyss.