What Do We Mean by a Crisis?

Massive social lock down has closely followed the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic crisis. Like many I’m struggling with how this is being communicated and, more importantly, how the required actions are being implemented. More than ever we need clarity and understanding from everyone. Yet we continue to see pictures of breaches to the government mandate to socially distance when we shop or walk for exercise. We all face difficult decisions and painful dilemmas as we begin to understand the implications of the crisis we face. As one commentator recently suggested, we are in a kind of stasis, shrouded by deep anxiety, as the scale and urgency of the crisis unfolds.  And, we cannot fathom the transformative change we face, much of which is unknowable. ‘Experts’ have no access to infallible truths to guide us towards a safer and more sustainable future. Yet our political leadership continue to repeat the mantra that their actions are based on the best scientific evidence! Perhaps, it would be wiser to say based on the “best available evidence?”

The word “crisis ” is derived from the Greek “krisis” which means a decision or judgement. This derivation also includes a critical state or condition such as a medical state, which can develop positively towards a cure or, negatively and lead to long term ill health or premature death. Hence, the outcomes of a crisis are unpredictable and unknowable. 

Those of us who are deeply concerned about another crisis – the climate emergency, will inevitably look at Covid-19 and draw comparisons. But this is ultimately a flawed exercise because Climate Change does not have the same dynamic as that we are currently experiencing.  It is much slower to develop and so does not pose an immediate threat to our very existence. It doesn’t have the same imminent sense of threat that Britain faced as German troops massed on the other side of the channel, ready to invade. Therefore, it has less influence on our collective social consciences to initiate rapid behavioural change.

What does an emergency mean when we face a crisis?

An emergency is a situation where the normal ways we manage society and the economy cannot adequately deal with the risk we face. It implies, therefore, a change to what we do, commensurate with both the scale and urgency of the risk.

Declaring an emergency should result in the development of a plan, underpinned by strong leadership, that communicates, coordinates and deploys the practical capacity and financing to protect communities from the threat, including the most vulnerable. In most emergencies, only the state has the authority and capacity to act  in this way. All of us rely on the state  to do so.

As a result of Covid-19 we now better understand  the basic characteristics of an emergency response. As the Breakthrough Climate Centre describes it:

“In emergency mode we stop ‘business-as-usual’ because nothing  else matters as much as the crisis. We don’t  rush thoughtlessly in, but focus on a plan of action, which we implement with thought, and  all possible care and speed, to protect others  and get to safety.”

Could the devastating impact of the new coronavirus pandemic destroy the momentum that the climate movement has built up over the last year? Some say so, believing that the economic fallout will push climate down the list of priorities for governments. But rather than seeing the solutions to Climate Change and Covid-19 as independent, we should recognise that appropriate behaviour changes can  mitigate both risks concurrently. For example, good air quality improves people’s health and mitigates climate change.

In fact, I believe the last few weeks, as terrible as they have been for so many people, have taught us crucial lessons that we needed to learn in order to enter a new era of radical, collaborative action not only to plan for further disease outbreaks but also to cut emissions and slow climate change. Like everyone else, I can’t believe we’ve learned  so many devastating lessons in a matter of days. Once we are freed from this cruel threat we should face up to the absurdity of our unsustainable lifestyles and the precariousness of the human condition.

Published by Steve Martin

Steve is a passionate advocate for learning for sustainability and has spent nearly 40 years facilitating and supporting organisations and governments in ways they can contribute towards a more sustainable future. Over the past 15 years he has been a sustainability change consultant for some of the largest FTSE100 companies and Government Agencies such as the Environment Agency and the Learning and Skills Council. He was formerly Director of Learning at Forum for the Future and has served as a trustee for WWF(UK). He is an Honorary Professor at the University of Worcester and President of the sustainability charity Change Agents UK. He is currently a member of the Access Forum for the Peak District National Park and is supporting the local district council on its Climate emergency programme.

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