Coronavirus, Degrowth and Self Isolation

March 18, 2020


“Degrowth” is a word to describe the contraction of the economy either seen as a policy choice or as making the best of what will be an involuntary process because the economy hits the limits to growth and degrades the carrying capacity of the ecological system until a point where there is a collapse. Degrowth in this latter context means managing the process as best as we can so as few people get hurt as possible and so the ecological damage stops – or that is my alternative understanding. As it happens there is an international conference on degrowth planned to be held at Manchester University on the 1st – 5th September and I have planned to go. Whether it will now happen or not remains to be seen. (Maybe it will happen but people like myself, over 70, will not be allowed to travel). In the meantime these are draft reflections, written for the Feasta blog, on the coronavirus crisis as a limits to growth issue.


SARS-Cov-2 has put “Degrowth” in a new perspective and in a different and a necessarily more rapid time scale. Previously, when arguing the case for degrowth I have been thinking and writing about a contraction of economic activity to be achieved in years or decades. But now the global pandemic is requiring action to curb dangerous connectivity and thus dangerous activities in days, weeks and months.

The steps to quarantine, self isolation or social distancing in order to suppress a dangerous virus pandemic is a public health motivated strategy and it inevitably brings economic degrowth with it.

It means staying at home – and thus not using fossil fuel powered transport (including public transport infrastructures and aeroplanes). It means minimal shopping – only for essentials. It means not going to restaurants or on holidays. It means, while it is happening, the closing down of many production processes, a reduction in the transport of many goods and a large proportion of world trade. Some of these production processes, some of the trade and transport will never re-start and the economic organisations associated are likely to go bust.

Essential and inessential production

As it happens, where such production is inessential and only exists to allow rich people in an incredibly unequal world to preen and celebrate themselves, this is no bad thing considered from an ecological point of view. The economy has overshot the carrying capacity of the biosphere and this reduction is what is needed. So when I read that the luxury good sector, which has largely been producing goods in China, has been damaged by the coronavirus I regard this as a reduction of ecological overshoot. From the point of view of getting control over carbon emissions the reported collapse of the hotel, hospitality and air travel sectors is not a tragedy. Of course, one issue is: if and when this is all over, will inessential and ecologically toxic activities restart? Some might but I doubt it for most of them – this kind of historical process is not reversible. When businesses are liquidated one cannot just start them up again – unless there is a real need there.

The deaths and suffering brought about by the coronavirus, the frosted glass in the lungs of vulnerable people is a tragedy – the inability to buy Gucci and other luxury fashion lines together with a demand shock for luxury goods is not. It is to be welcomed.

What is true is that the workers in this sector will be worried about their jobs, paying their debts and their future – I do not wish to make light of their fear and distress. But from the point of view of the environment and public health it is good if this is a process in which people start looking for a change in direction in life. It is important that they are encouraged to do so. It will not be possible to degrow the economy without a lot of people having to change their jobs and retrain. At the right time they should be helped through the stress and financial turmoil up to the extent possible. But these are changes that have to happen. When looking and supporting people in fundamental occupational changes, the jobs that they should be encouraged to retrain for should be in fields where ecology and economy are not in conflict.

Land use change and food production in the growth economy is where the problem originates

Above all it is the food sector that needs to change because this is where the health risks are originating. We will need a massive transformation in sectors like food growing, food processing and marketing focused on locations local to farmers.

Hitherto much of the case for re-localisation and degrowth has been motivated by the greenhouse gases arising in transport. The health risks of food have been about obesity and eating enough fruit and vegetables. There has also been an issue about food poverty. However, what this crisis is also trying to teach us are frightening truths about the ecological consequences of land use changes that have emerged as threats to our health.

If we are to slow down the generation of new diseases like Covid 19 then we need to acknowledge that they are emerging from the ways that industrial, agricultural and urban expansion have brought land use changes which have disrupted ecological systems.

The pathogens did not come out of nowhere, they came out of the disruptions to ecological systems caused by types of economic development that encroach on previous land use patterns.

Pathogens previously boxed into niches of ecological systems are now interacting with monocultural farming systems and human food chains. One study about vector born diseases explains how:

“Our study shows that industrial activities may be coupled with significant changes to human demographics that can potentially increase contact between pathogens, vectors and hosts, and produce a shift of parasites and susceptible populations between low and high disease endemic areas. Indeed, where vector-borne diseases and industrial activities intersect, large numbers of potentially immunologically naïve people may be exposed to infection and lack the knowledge and means to protect themselves from infection.” Robert T. Jones et. al. “The impact of industrial activities on vector-borne disease transmission”

Another study focuses on cross species viral infections between mammalian species including humans. According to this study

“Between 10,000 and 600,000 species of mammal virus are estimated to have the potential to spread in human populations, but the vast majority are currently circulating in wildlife, largely undescribed and undetected by disease outbreak surveillance. In addition, changing climate and land use drive geographic range shifts in wildlife, producing novel species assemblages and opportunities for viral sharing between previously isolated species. In some cases, this will inevitably facilitate spillover into humans—a possible mechanistic link between global environmental change and emerging zoonotic disease……Most projected viral sharing is driven by diverse hyperreservoirs (rodents and bats) and large-bodied predators (carnivores). Because of their unique dispersal capacity, bats account for the majority of novel viral sharing, and are likely to share viruses along evolutionary pathways that could facilitate future emergence in humans….. zoonoses.” Colin J Carlson et al “Climate change will drive novel cross-species viral transmission” (January 2020 )

Bats are not just associated with Covid-19 but also Ebola. Once again we must look to the ecological disruption when forests are displaced by plantations:

“Palm oil plantations …make a great home for fruit bats or Pteropodidae……“Bats migrate to oil palm for food and shelter from the heat while the plantations’ wide trails permit easy movement between roosting and foraging sites.”

Several species of these fruit bats are documented “reservoirs” for Ebola, which could then be transmitted to plantation workers and locals in nearby villages….. intact native ecosystems usually contain pathogens like Ebola, but that clear cutting vast areas of forest can make the pathogen spread out of control……“clear-cutting Forested Guinea may have lowered the ecosystemic ‘temperature’ below which Ebola can be ‘sterilized’ and controlled.”

That’s not all – the real estate markets of cities are extending suburbia into the surrounding countryside. This has consequences too – increased Lyme disease spread by ticks:

“Thanks to increasing urban and suburban sprawl, forests are being parceled into smaller pockets of vegetation, said Northeastern University Distinguished Professor of Biology Kim Lewis, who directs Northeastern’s Antimicrobial Discovery Center. Parks and backyards in the suburbs are now the perfect size to sustain mice, but not quite large enough to sustain foxes. That means mice can run rampant with no natural predators to keep their population at bay. And with mice, come ticks.

“The sprawling of suburbia is a fairly recent phenomenon,” Lewis said. “You get more hosts for the ticks, and of course, you get more ticks.”

Climate change and economic development that has now gone too far has changed weather patterns and wild animals – insects, birds, mammals – have been forced to adapt too – bringing about new kinds of interaction with humans in which humans get infected by “novel” diseases.

“As industrial production–hog, poultry, and the like–expand into primary forest, it places pressure on wild food operators to dredge further into the forest for source populations, increasing the interface with, and spillover of, new pathogens, including Covid-19.” (Source: Rob Wallace)

Meanwhile the Industrial farming of animals – the mass production of meat – has entailed fundamentally unhealthy (and thus cruel) ways of raising and treating animals. To prevent them getting sick antibiotics have been routinely used to the point that they are losing their effectiveness as a medicine for humans.

An ideal of degrowth is superceded by real life events

Self isolation and distancing is the beginning. It will bring the economy down and is already doing so. It is not an ideal model for degrowth. Renegade economists like me had hoped that economic contraction might be accompanied by increasing well being. But let us remember that the current contraction is being forced by the ecological crisis brought about by an economy that is illiterate and indifferent to its impacts on the natural world. Normally it is other people and other communities and other species that carry the so called “external costs” of economic development while the corporate magnates reap the profits – this time round though a virus is unleashed that destroys the very foundations of economic activity and the corporations too. Economists and central bankers could ignore the ecological crisis until now – but now they find that the ecological disruption imposed on the biosphere is unleashing a Pandora’s pox of problems for which they have no response.

The contraction involved in retreating to what we hope will be the safety of our homes is so that we can survive – in the long run policies of social isolation and quarantine we hope will prevent a lot of people from dying before they need to. But this is merely a temporary expedient and is pulling the global economy down. In the demolition site we will have to start again with something very different that is not just going to take us back to the same place.

In the meantime we need to try to survive the collapse. If the process is badly managed and the production of essentials goods and services collapse altogether then a lot of people will die anyway. Managing this process both at the policy level and at the personal level will be not be easy to judge. People will have to work together to produce food – how much they will need to come together to frequent restaurants and pubs is another matter.

In an article in the blog “Naked Capitalism” Yves Smith writes of the US economy but much of what she says applies also in the UK and other “developed” economies:

“The US economy is 70% services. Travel, tourism, theme parks, casinos, cruises, restaurants, hotels, and restaurants are already in meltdown mode. Due to the market perturbations, people are likely to cut back on all sorts of discretionary spending, from home redos (and purchases), to donations to charities to plastic surgery and shrink visits. Anyone who can stand to wait won’t have surgery. And who would go to a nail salon, or get a massage, or go to a doctor’s or dentist’s office unless they thought it couldn’t wait? And remember, 40% of Americans don’t have enough money or slack on their credit card to handle a $400 emergency. Many workers will be hit with hours cutbacks or job losses. They need assistance pronto or the economic damage will cascade: defaults on rent or mortgages, delinquencies on credit cards, defaults on car payments. And you have societal consequences like hunger, homelessness and suicides.”

But here’s the thing – from the point of view of the ecological crisis do most of us really need “travel, tourism, theme parks, casinoes, cruises, hotels and restaurants?” Many of these are non essential. What we clearly need is hospitals and places for the homeless which could be converted from re-purposed hotels. Instead of plastic surgery and shrinks we need medical assistance with the virus. We don’t need the cars if we are going to be staying at home for the time being. A major priority will be available food. We can do without restaurants but we cannot do without food and many of those who survive will find they have to grow more of it themselves – where their lawns used to be – or up the walls of their houses. In the Northern Hemisphere it is spring time. It is time to be planting seeds.

Taking some risks of human contact in essential joint economic activities is unavoidable – particularly for younger and fitter people – there will be a balancing act of risk taking and it will not be easy. However non essential activity which brings people together risks transmission of the virus with no gain. During a transitional period many many things will have to be transacted on the internet and by “working at home” rather than during face to face human contact. At the same time the internet itself will be under pressure due to difficulty in maintenance because delivering and re-installing replacement components may also be compromised. Over time it may degrade.

How this is to be done is something that all of us individually and as households will have to work out as we go along. It is a time for improvising and making careful and “distanced” arrangements with ones neighbours.

The Mental Health Challenge – the Great Unpatterning

This will be an extremely challenging time for millions and possibly billions of people. It has profound implications for mass mental health. One author who gets this and writes about it very well is Caitlin Johnstone. Her usual articles are about how the media constructs a faux narrative of events that suits what the elite wants ordinary people to believe. Recently, however, Johnson has written about what she calls “the Great Unpatterning”. Here’s a quote:

“The human mind is conditioned to look for patterns in order to establish a baseline of normal expectations upon which to plan out future actions. This perceptual framework exists to give us safety and security, so disruptions in the patterns upon which it is based often feel weird, threatening, and scary. They make us feel insecure, because our cognitive tool for staying in control of our wellbeing has a glitch in it.

“When you’re talking about a species that has been consistently patterned towards its own destruction, though, a disruption of patterns is a good thing. Our ecocidal, warmongering tendencies have brought us to a point that now has us staring down the barrel of our own extinction, and that is where we are surely headed if we continue patterning along the behavioral trajectory that we have been on. Only a drastic change of patterns can change that trajectory. And we are seeing a change of patterns.

This great unpatterning is going to continue, in many wild and unexpected ways. And things are going to keep getting stranger.

All of humanity’s problems are the result of our collective conditioning patterns throughout history. Where there is pattern disruption, there is the opportunity for pattern divergence. Where there is movement, there are gaps. Where there are gaps, there is an opportunity for light to get through.”

The point is well made. Although marooned in our own homes, we are all on a journey. For many of us older people it will end in our deaths. For other, mainly younger people it will lead to radical shifts in life direction and purposes. Hopefully support can be found through the internet during this time – giving assistance to think about the new life and career options that younger and healthy people will need to embark on – as well as learning practicalities like growing and cooking for ourselves.

For others people, those who cannot manage the practicalities and the mental transition, it may end in insanity – though for many people this may be temporary. Many people will prove unable to adjust to the way the world is changing around us and thus becoming completely dysfunctional, disorientated, confused and frightened. It will be particularly difficult for people who are homeless and destitute – who can manage with a door between them and the world but not on the street. (There will be plenty of hotels with vacant capacity. I doubt that the occupancy in the Trump empire is very high at this time. He is not supposed to have any anyway ).

The mental health problems will not be helped because of the isolation and social distancing. Distancing will limit the ability of millions of frightened people to interpret what is happening around them and find support. It may make them them susceptible to paranoias and impulsive actions. The emotions of the situation are likely to be experienced by many as overwhelming and terrifying. The absence of an explanatory framework of what is happening together with the absence of close friends will be an awful combination.

Who and what brought us to this situation?

I have already started to self isolate. It is not easy. When I lie in bed at night, under a type of self imposed house arrest, my anger and frustration is felt at the managers of the food economy and big agriculture, the mainstream economists and small minded politicians who are ignorant about what have become the fundamental issues requiring attention in e thcurrent world.

The process of deliberate social isolation and distancing will be a painful one and evoke powerful emotions. Inevitably thoughts turn not just to what has gone wrong but to who is responsible?

This is the result of a growth economy, and big agriculture, overstepping the limits to growth and degrading the biospheric capacity of the planet. It is the business practices of the agricultural corporations that have brought us to this. They have made extra profits by stealing land from indigenous peoples and degrading the biosphere. Now everyone in the world threatened by Covid 19 are paying the price many times over.

My anger is greater still at those rich people who are retreating to “bunkers” with well stocked wine cellars. Yet it is as well to remember that the world of the super rich is also collapsing. The world is full of experts – but experts in tiny specialisms – like how to make money on financial markets. What is collapsing for the elite are not just arrangements for economic activity – but ways of making sense of the world – and the reasons they regard themselves as different from and superior to other people. They are clearly not…

In conclusion – forget about a return to normal

Following the ideas of the so called “Resilience Alliance” and theorists of “Panarchy” human and natural systems evolve in 3 dimensions. One dimension is in productive capacity. This is what mainstream economists have recklessly celebrated in their worship of economic growth. They have seen that growth as arising in high levels of interdependency and interconnectedness – and underestimated the dangers. This is the second dimension. The third dimension is the degree of resilience or vulnerability. In recent years the economy, society and ecological system has become more vulnerable to collapse. The interconnectedness is manifested in systems which are susceptible to domino chains of cascading collapse.

Over more than two centuries the high level of complexity and connectivity in the economy has increased productive capacity. However the high level of connectivity – where products are assembled from components from supply chains spanning the globe – is very vulnerable and has been collapsing. The finance system is another highly connected system that is very vulnerable which can collapse in a situation like the coronavirus crisis. This throws people back, in extremis, to the resources of their own household and its immediate environment.

Outside the household people will have and need different levels of engagement with other people whether they want to or not. However social support mechanisms and economic relationships and activities will be under pressure to minimalise. To take a trivial example – we can still take deliveries at home which can be left outside the door for collection (inclusive of arrangements for disinfection). As already mentioned the internet will help.

This is not the place to make recommendations as to how people can minimise social contact. In any case the specific conditions of every person’s life is always unique and each of us must manage risk according to their own judgement. The point to make in this article is of the need to self isolate and/or practice social distancing, at the same time as maintaining economic activity as best we can. There will be no one size fits all ways of doing it and each person will have to improvise during this crisis. At the same time the ideal outcome is that improvisations will lead to fundamental changes that start the re-localisation of economic activity, changes in the food system and land use – and in general “degrowth”.  Forget about a “return to normal” – the normal was unsustainable and this is the result.

Brian Davey

I now live in Nottingham in semi-retirement. This means doing much the same as when I was 64 but with a state pension and tiny private pension as well. In 1970 I got a 1st in Economics at Nottingham University – and then in 1974 an M.Phil. for a thesis on a Marxist approach to the economic development of India. This led to a varied career working with mainly community projects both in the UK and abroad. In 2003 John Jopling of Feasta followed a suggestion of Richard Douthwaite's and invited me to a yearly group discussion by the sea – at Rossbeigh in Kerry. I have been going virtually every year since then and have spent much of my spare time involved in the ecological and economics discussions of Feasta, particularly in its climate work. After Richard's passing I stepped into part of a teaching role that he had had at Dublin City University teaching on a degree in Religion and Ecology. This teaching led, in turn, to this book.

Tags: building resilient economies, coronavirus, degrowth, new economy