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/ 20 May 2020

What do we know?

Our environment, the beach and the sea

We live in a world of “radical uncertainty”. Mervyn King has co-written a new book with that title. He was Governor of the Bank of England at the time of the financial crisis. Now we’re in an even worse crisis. Both of these crises were predicted, yet still caught everyone by surprise.

Our impressions are fleeting and often mistaken. In an article I wrote for this website only a month ago, I opined that “The coronavirus seems to be bringing humanity together as never before”. Sadly that looks like wishful thinking now.

Isaac Newton, in a humble moment, said he felt like a child playing with shells and pebbles on the beach, faced with the “great ocean of truth” stretching out before him.

Nevertheless, to plan our lives we do need knowledge of the world. We can build a different future from things we know about the present, even if we have to rely on models and scenarios to some extent.

More and more we are seeing agreement that we don’t want to go back to where we were before the crisis. We want to “Build Back Better”. How can we do that?

The future starts with the present. How can we live differently now, in order to make a greener, healthier, safer world to live in?

Even among the grief and tragedy, there are gains that we can bank. I remarked on how animals are venturing out of their hiding places and enjoying the respite while we are absent. How can we avoid disturbing them anew, after we sally forth again?

Well, for a start, by flying and driving less. I heard an aeroplane coming in at 1:30 am a couple of nights ago. The uproar was amplified by the contrast of background calm, which we have become used to. Ah well, that flight must have been an emergency, to justify permission during the night even in “normal” circumstances.

But we don’t want to threaten jobs in aviation or tourism. Compromise solutions will need to be carefully designed – to radically reduce noise, pollution, emissions. We mustn’t just let rip over again.

James Fawcett reminded us in a recent article of children’s rightly indignant demands for the climate emergency to be taken seriously.

At least now we are benefitting from less air pollution. Councils are busy creating barriers and safe spaces for pedestrians and cyclists in our cities, to permit “social distancing” – hopefully, this will help keep pollution down, as will the reinstatement of the congestion charge.

How will supply vehicles get to the shops, when they reopen? Logistics will need to be carefully planned.

Not everyone seems to be following the same route-map. I have read of places where the haze of pollution has already returned to hide the clear blue skies of the last few weeks. That is sad.

I detect some ambivalence in the messages about driving and public transport. We have rightly been encouraged for years to switch to public transport. Now we are urged to walk or cycle whenever we can. What is nearest and easiest? Shops? School? Church? For most in London, probably not the journey to work.

I don’t run a car, and being semi-disabled I can’t cycle or walk long distances. I used to be reluctant to encourage others to walk or cycle – for reasons of safety and air quality. These problems may now have fallen into the background. Still, I’ll personally be using buses and the Tube, of necessity and without a conscience – not now, in a while – but most certainly with a mask. I’m convinced that’s essential for myself and others around me.

Forgive me for striking a personal note, but whatever the guidance, we are personally responsible for our neighbour’s wellbeing. We should follow the rules, but also make informed and responsible personal choices. For the wellbeing of all, now and in the future.

Many people are trying local food growing, reducing food miles and reliance on extended supply chains, refrigerated transport and storage. At the same time, farmworkers need to be valued highly in the new society and economy. They are essential workers too.

Then what about the biggest challenge of all to our wellbeing – climate change – which Fridays for Future and XR demonstrated about? Arguably it’s still an even bigger threat than the pandemic. Coronavirus has made a huge dent in worldwide emissions. But not yet a big enough dent. How do we build on what was an accidental side effect of the pandemic, without needlessly prolonging the lockdown, and to generate a permanent energy revolution? I’ll leave that massive question hanging, for a later posting.

To return to my opening point, there remain huge uncertainties to navigate.

But one thing is certain. In the words of St Paul,

“Neither death, nor life … nor things present, nor things to come … shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).


About Brian Cuthbertson

Brian is the Head of Environment and Sustainability at the Diocese of London.

Read more from Brian Cuthbertson

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