Image credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center
We must all have lost count of how many times recently it’s been said that we face an unprecedented crisis. It isn’t exactly true. Arguably human history contains little but precedent: the plague and the Spanish flu have been called upon the most. Perhaps what is unprecedented is our ability to manage the situation, and to analyse it in real time. There was no ZOOM in 1918, no NHS to clap for, and no Facebook to post the video on. There was no furlough for the Medieval peasantry, and one imagines that anyone in possession of a sourdough starter would have kept pretty quiet about it.
Many have also treated the crisis as an anomaly in that we are responsible not only for our own health and happiness, but for that of those around us. In this analysis, our actions have been transformed overnight from purely individual, isolated choices to an interconnected web of dependence in which one person’s frivolity is another person’s disaster. But this is at best a kind of fantasy. We have never lived in a vacuum, and our behaviour has always had consequences for the lives of others.
The nature of the pandemic makes it easier to spot. The daily tallies of cases and deaths renders the link between action and consequence visible, visceral; the threat to our own loved ones transforms what might have been an uneasy guilt into a terror. But undeniably, we are also being encouraged to see what we are usually persuaded to ignore: that our own lifestyles come at a cost to others. What has changed is only who we imagine those others to be.
At this point I feel it’s important for me to hold up my hands and admit: I am a repeat offender in the world of knowing what I should do and then, somehow, not doing it. I know full well, for instance, that the clothes on sale on our highstreets were made by people much poorer than myself, in bad conditions; I know, remotely, that there is a chance that person could be a child. I know, too, that the production of these items comes at a terrible environmental cost. And yet, every time I walk past those windows, or come across a slyly targeted ad, that knowledge seems to evaporate. Oh they’re all bloody at it, aren’t they, can’t avoid it. What’s one more shirt, eh, on top of so many others? What’s one more flight?
This is a problem born of privilege—not everyone has the luxury of idly picking up a pair of jeans, or of choice. Nobody should be ashamed of buying what they can afford to keep themselves going. But enough of us do have a choice, and we could make a difference. We are the ones who should be seriously looking at our outgoings and asking ourselves—where is that money really going? What am I supporting with this purchase?
Even beyond the circle of our own friends and families, it’s easier to care about and feel responsible for the death of the old lady down the road than for the fates of obscure people in far-flung places we’ve never heard of. It’s easier to understand the relationship between a barbeque, infections, and deaths than it is to wrap our heads around global production and supply chains, let alone what on earth we should do about them. Over-familiarity is also a problem: whilst coronavirus is a new threat, most of us have been hearing about sweatshops and climate change all our lives; they are chronic rather than acute, and largely fade into the background. But, uncomfortable as it is to acknowledge, a part of the discrepancy in our concern is surely born from xenophobia and from racism—those people are different, their lives are foreign, they are nothing to do with ‘us’.
As with so much in this pandemic, we have before us a moment of great opportunity, but also great risk. Our old habits have been broken. Having recognised the many ways in which we are connected to and dependent on each other, we could choose to carry on seeing it, and to look far beyond the narrow scope of viral transmission. The furore over poor conditions at Boohoo’s Leicester factory point to some green shoots of change. But we may also, in the coming scrabble to escape economic collapse, lose what little progress we had already made.
We shouldn’t propose unrealistic solutions. It’s human to be more concerned with the health and happiness of people we love than of those we don’t know. But to care equally for the wellbeing of strangers, no matter where they live or how different from us they appear, is a principal worth striving for, and fundamental to any properly progressive movement. Coronavirus may feel unending, but just as pandemics have come and gone before, it has come and it will go. We will all probably have to make a concerted effort to avoid falling back into our old ways—and we should fight to make sure that our own momentary panic does not materially worsen the situation of others around the globe, or of future generations.
The problem with having principles is that they tend to make us hypocrites. Sticking to them is hard, especially when everything in your environment encourages you not to. More practically, it’s essentially impossible to be a fully conscious and ethical consumer at all times, especially at an affordable price. But we shouldn’t let the fear of falling short of perfection, as we all inevitably do, prevent us from aiming at improvement; otherwise we are paralysed. There are areas where most of us can do more: whether it’s home-sewing a cloth mask or foregoing a flight, a small change made deliberately and en masse has the potential to deprive harmful systems of the funds they need to survive. This isn’t to say it’s all that’s needed—but it’s a start.
For this particular fast-fashion addict, that translates into a turn to charity shops and second-hand buys. And for any of us who might find ourselves in need of more selfish motivations, there’s this to think of: the climate crisis, which has already arrived for so many, will get to us as well. It’s not unstoppable—but it’s not going to fix itself. And we don’t have much time.