The pandemic, racism and climate change: Let's fix everything

Finally, daycare is open for our children again! But why don’t I feel like things should go back to normal?

The pandemic, racism and climate change. The first has been screaming for attention and the latter two finally are getting some of that too. After 100 days at home, I’ve come to realize that these three problems are not only hard to solve, but have a lot in common. Bear with me.

The populations most vulnerable to the pandemic are the poorest. Sneers towards the USA aside, the poorest countries often have the worst healthcare. Poor people often can’t work from home and distancing is often not an option either. Countries with many people of color are often poor; the way healthcare and disease prevention is distributed in the world is racist.

I don’t want to reinforce stereotypes with that last sentence. But systemic racism has its roots in European colonisation. And that heritage continues to benefit the descendants of those who put themselves above others and dominating them: the capital that white people accrued keeps them rich and makes them richer.

That brings us to climate change. Because rich people consume more products and consumption is directly linked to CO₂ emissions. Which cause climate change. Which coincidentally affects people of color the most, because—put simply—they live in the areas that are the hottest already and get most of the (sidenote: I grew up in an area below sea level in The Netherlands. Water management is a fundamental part of the country’s existence and thus I’ve never had to experience floods. Floods are a strong part of my countries collective memory, so I don’t know why the Dutch state isn’t doing more to avoid its existential threat. ) coming with rising sea levels. It’s not only the racist aspect that climate change has in common with the pandemic. Global supply chains and the travel required to them up are the cause of the pandemic and an aggravating vector.

So why are the pandemic, racism and climate change still related when the days of the European empires are long past? I already mentioned that capitalism made the descendants of the white colonists rich. According to this article recently published by Nature, capitalism is a big driver of CO₂ emissions. Yeah, obviously consumption is linked to emissions. But it also shows that because of the inequality capitalism requires and humanity’s deep-rooted status seeking behavior, we consume more than we need. Rich people show off their wealth with stuff they own. And the rest imitates them. Circling back to the pandemic: it’s hard to imagine capitalism not being a driving factor behind globalization, intercontinental travel and thus the spread of the coronavirus.

Why I don’t want to go back to normal

I like traveling. I love talking about the things I experienced abroad. So when introducing myself to others, I often mention the places that I’ve lived in before coming to Berlin:

  • Chennai
  • Cape Town
  • Oslo
  • Amsterdam
  • Cupertino

Here are all the places I’ve visited in the last hundred days:

  • Home
  • Three shops
  • Four parks

Although I didn’t know it till last April, pandemics like the current one have been predicted for decades. We have to recognize that, unless we change our behavior, many more pandemics will follow. But without air travel, disease can’t spread like covid. If it would avoid a next pandemic, or even only the next waves of covid, I’d be happy to exchange in long distance vacations for short trips by train.

So no: I no longer want things to back to normal.

Normal was when humanity was continuously at risk for pandemics. Normal was when too few people spoke up against racism. Normal was when we knew we were destroying our climate and eco systems, robbing our own habitat and instead of doing something to stop that, we made it worse.

Then what should come?

Like everyone WFH I had some thoughts about what makes live worth living. I pressume you did too and that were not very different from mine:

  • Health
  • Food
  • The people I love
  • A nice environment to escape from them occasionally
  • Enjoying art and entertainment

I think very few people consciously would want to add status symbols to such a list. Like I really can’t live without showing off that awesome yacht. (Those who would are well underway recognizing their craziness anyway.)

So presumably, we can live very nicely without a lot of wealth. To bad capitalism has taken control of us. As the aforementioned Nature article shows, capitalism requires wealth inequality. It takes that inequality to the extremes. Money is power and power gives status. People are even willing to take on debt to buy status symbols and pretend they have such status.

So: let’s get rid of capitalism and the racism, injustice and ecological disasters that come with it.

Humans being humans, we’d still need ways to show off status. It’s time to move on (or back) to other ways. Show of with skills and wisdom, with being cool and funny or playing music. Stuff like that. You think this is unrealistic? These things change all the time. Read a book from a hundred years ago or watch Downton Abbey and get confused about all their funny manners. Driving a big car today is what dressing up for dinner was back then.

What to do

If you’re still with me, here’s the plan. The least you can do is reduce and (sidenote: If you’re looking for the most effective way to offset emissions, check out ForTomorrow. They’re good. I built their website. ) . I’m saying ‘the least’, because it doesn’t change anything about the racist, unsustainable economic system we’re in. Neither does it change the impact you make through your work, which—if you’re worth your salary—is likely bigger.

Be anti racist. Challenge the use of stereotypes. Speak up against injustice. Doing that at work is essential. When it comes to design specifically (this is a design blog after all): stop the glorification of power and consumption. No more styling with muscles, no more single-use rubbish. This glorification has rooted deep into culture and styling, but everything referring to glamour and luxury ultimately supports injustice.

Design largely happens in a commercial context and with that ultimately supports capitalism. There may be no quick way out of that right now. Try not to be part of the problem. Don’t support companies that are in the business of extracting fossil fuels from the earth. Don’t support companies whose business models require fossil fuels. If there’s no way around it, at least help such companies transition to become sustainable. Don’t support projects that encourage behaviour that involves travel. I’m not saying all travel should stop forever, but we really don’t need to promote it right now.

And support political movements for a sustainable future.