How Covid-19 is Transforming Mobility

If the coronavirus has meant less air pollution, an increase in cycling and walking in some areas and an upsurge in birds singing in the trees, why isn’t anyone talking about the effects of this huge change?

This essay was first published in the free digital pamphlet 12 Perspectives on
the Pandemic: International Social Science Thought Leaders Reflect on Covid-19.

There are no passenger flights, the streets are filled with birdsong, in some countries walking and cycling have increased by 90%, and the air is clear: a silver lining at a time of great tragedy. In fact, the mass (im)mobilisation of Covid-19 is set to enable the largest ever worldwide reduction in carbon emissions. However, so far, the response to the pandemic has at best been to ignore this astounding achievement, at worst, it has sought to reverse it. Why? How could it be otherwise?

Karl Polanyi and the Collapse of Society

Covid-19 is not the cause of the crisis, it is a symptom. Hypermobility, the marketisation of healthcare, decades of disinvestment in resilience, inequality and the growth of precarious work worldwide have all created perfect conditions for viral spread. Alongside dependence on fossil fuel and insatiable consumption, they are also implicated in the much deeper crises of climate change and environmental destruction. These energetic political, and economic origins of our time, captured by economic historian Karl Polanyi as the mechanisms of ‘The Great Transformation’ (1944), spell collapse.

Writing in exile during the Second World War, Polanyi foresaw that ‘to allow the market mechanism to be sole director of the fate of human beings and their natural environment would result in the demolition of society’ (p. 76). Against the odds, societies now are rallying for survival. As governments articulate responses to the pandemic, even conservatives acknowledge that everything is connected. This has brought back the state, with its intervention in how people live their lives, run their businesses, support their employees. Such interventions are part of good governance in crisis and enable powerful leadership in wrestling the systemness of epidemiology, economy, and everyday life. More and more globally coordinated intervention is likely to be necessary to address climate change and environmental crises.

Changing mobility systems of transport, consumption, finance and information in response to Covid-19 has been a matter of banning all but essential travel, protecting workers, blocking sales of non-essentials, borrowing billions to support struggling individuals and businesses as well as developing countries, and prompting Facebook to implement fact-checking. This has made possible an unprecedented reduction in carbon emissions, and that could be for good.

Living Virtually

Changes in everyday living are translating alternative concepts of commoning mobility, mobility justice, drift economies, virtual travel and mobile publics into the fabric of society. Virtual forms of travel for work, socialising, e-commerce, and learning, in particular, are driving a digital transformation. Before Covid-19, about 3% of US citizens regularly worked from home. Now business analysts estimate that 25–30% of the workforce will do so by the end of 2021.

“Changes in everyday living are translating alternative concepts of commoning mobility, mobility justice, drift economies, virtual travel and mobile publics into the fabric of society.”

These changes inspire optimism. But mobilities research shows how digital travel does not just substitute for physical journeys, but may, in fact, increase physical travel. The new mobility patterns are temporary and soon potentially subject to intense surveillant contact tracing, threatening civil liberties. At the same time, there is talk that ‘the real post-coronavirus challenge will be how to shrink the state’, coupled with determined efforts to ‘reopen economies’ with demand stimulus packages, billion dollar bailouts and weakened environmental constraints for fossil fuel corporations. These measures could waste a precious opportunity to stop business as usual.

Reducing Emissions

To meet the 1.5° carbon reduction targets set in Paris, the 2019 UN Emissions Gap Report shows that emissions must drop by 7.6 % every year this decade. Covid-19 has made the impossible possible and given us a 4% reduction head start for 2020, together with a sobering sense of the enormity of the challenge. Unprecedented state intervention and new economic, social, and cultural practices have been mobilized to make this happen, inspired by a deep sense of crisis. What does it take to stretch this powerful humanity shown by political leaders and members of the public alike to address the threat to survival that the climate and environmental crises pose?

Air pollution currently kills seven million people annually. From 2030, climate change is estimated to cause 250,000 additional deaths per year (WHO). The World Bank projects that climate impacts could push 100 million more people into poverty, and internally displace 143 million. These crises are accompanied by a ‘new barbarism’ of xenophobia, inequality, poverty, and discrimination, as well as the ecological tragedy of a sixth mass extinction.

Choosing Our Future

We are in the midst of societal transformation, hurtling down two very separate forks in the road ahead. The future we choose now matters vitally. On one side, people are racing to deepen Polanyi’s first great transformation, clamouring for a return to normal, propping up fossil fuel extraction and air travel, inciting competition and tolerating the collapse of developing nations. On the other, people are realizing that enough is enough, supporting vital societal services, the importance of state intervention, global collaboration and less physical and more virtual mobility. By acting on our new visceral understanding that everything can collapse, and how the future is now, as John Urry puts it, we have a unique opportunity to make the current mobility transformation the beginning of a new, great transformation that is good for humanity and for the planet.

[Title Image via Getty Images.]

Monika Buescher

Monika Büscher is Professor of Sociology, Director for Research at the Department for Sociology, and Associate Director at the Centre for Mobilities Research, at Lancaster University, UK. Her interdisciplinary research on mobilities includes low-carbon transport innovation, and infrastructuring equitable urban futures.

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