Signs of new beginnings

This spring is a very different one to the last. Not only can you hear the birds sing, but since they no longer have to stretch their voices above the sound of the planes and the road traffic, they can also hear each other better than before. The birds seem happier. I expect a chick baby boom.

And the skies are blue. The poor air quality and smogs that beset almost every major city have disappeared as a result of the reduction in traffic and business activity. Satellite images of NO2 pollution, comparing the situation before and after lockdown, show that the veil of nitrogen dioxide has largely vanished across Europe (1). Even more dramatic are the changes that have been seen in Asia (2). In China, C02 levels dropped by more than 20% during the six weeks from mid-February. In Delhi the contrast is like the difference between night and day. For the first time in decades, there is day after day of bright blue sky in India’s capital. The same is no doubt true elsewhere.

But it is not just nature that shows renewal. Money trees are sprouting across the world. After years of austerity following the financial crisis of 2007-08, suddenly governments have found the money to embark on almost unlimited spending.

New priorities require drastic action. I have watched with wonder as the British government, in particular, has show great creativity in finding ways to support its citizens and its businesses in these unprecedented times. Many things once deemed unthinkable, or beyond the pale, are now found to be possible. Desperation, pragmatism, realism, all mean that there is most definitely new thinking afoot. This deserves appreciation.

This new thinking intrudes into the world of commerce. Private hospitals have been co-opted into the NHS, railway franchise agreements have been suspended, the Bank of England has extended its credit facility to the Government, providing it with an unlimited overdraft facility. In short, the distance between the Treasury and the Bank has been reduced to zero. In effect, the Bank of England is under Treasury control . . . once again. And none of this has been called Marxism or Corbynism. Amazing!

Things are also changing in unexpected ways. Driven by the desperate nature of the present situation, manufacturing and construction have suddenly unleashed new creativity. Nightingale hospitals are springing up like mushrooms, in record time – rather than the ten years it normally takes just to get to the planning stage. Businesses all around the country have suddenly a new-found entrepreneurial flair and – horror of horrors! – are working in cooperation with each other, with scientists and technologists, and with the government to produce everything from PPE to ventilators. This is new.

The present crisis is showing us that, once the shackles of neoliberal dogmatism are thrown off, there are other, maybe better ways of doing things. Innovation isn’t something that has to take years “to come down the pipeline” but can be conjured almost on demand. This is not to say that it is easy, or cheap, merely that it is possible.

The present situation illustrates that once we take a crisis seriously, it not only focuses the mind but also the resources, organisation and finance to drive innovation. We can do it if we wish to.

And this underlines the point that we have not yet devoted the same focus and attention to the climate crisis and species extinction. We could, if we wished to.

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