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Citizens of the World, Coronavirus Should Make You Reconsider Your Approach to the Environment

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A traffic jam in Tel Aviv.
A traffic jam in Tel Aviv.Credit: Moti Milrod

“Health Ministry calls on Israelis to reconsider all trips abroad amid coronavirus outbreak” (Haaretz, Feb. 26). “Heathrow third runway ruled illegal over climate change” (The Guardian, Feb. 27). The fantasy is for these two headlines to add up to a third: “Finance, tourism, energy and environmental protection ministries of all countries call on the citizens of the world to reconsider the necessity of flying. Until there are passenger planes with electric engines powered by batteries charged using renewable energy or by hydrogen fuel cells, all inhabitants of planet Earth are kindly asked to reduce the number of flights they take.”

Transportation is among the greatest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. Technologies already exist for land and sea travel without these emissions or burning fossil fuels. Electric cars are already being sold, including in Israel. The source of the electricity used to charge the vehicles is still an issue – here, it’s still usually fossil fuels – but the technology is here. Air travel, however, still lags behind on this score. While there has been investment in developing suitable technology, clean energy solutions on a large-enough scale for this industry are not yet on the horizon.

Under these circumstances, the call to reconsider the necessity of air travel makes excellent sense. To take it a step further, the announcement could say: “The health, defense, industry, finance, agriculture, environmental protection, tourism, foreign affairs, energy and so on – in short, all the world’s governments – call on the inhabitants of planet Earth to reconsider unnecessary flights, unnecessary travel, unnecessary purchases, unnecessary wars over unnecessary territory, unnecessary beliefs, unnecessary preoccupations, basically to reconsider many, many unnecessary things.”

Of course, the chance of this happening is lower than low, for it seems as if the main thing governments do these days is to worry about unnecessary things and to keep their citizens busy running after unnecessary things; but the mere presence of the phrase “Such-and-such ministry calls on citizens to reconsider the necessity of such-and-such” in a headline stirs the hope that maybe there is at least a glimmer of possibility.

When could it happen? When it is recognized and defined as an emergency. , rightly or not, is defined as such a situation. In Europe, as seen by the British court ruling, for example, there is growing recognition of the importance of the Paris and of the climate crisis as an emergency. This is when the call “to reconsider” is raised. And in this instance the British decided the runway expansion was not a necessity after all.

Some may see the coronavirus epidemic as an opportunity for a limited lesson: The Chinese should reexamine their culinary habits and stop eating bats and other wild animals. I believe there is a broader lesson here. It is a lesson about the limits of mankind’s ability and the need to reconsider what we consider “necessary.” There’s a good reason why tourism and financial officials accustomed to beating the drum of steady economic growth were up in arms over the Health Ministry’s call to reconsider unnecessary travel.

To the culture of consumption, calls to “reconsider the necessity” are the biggest red flag imaginable. If it were just about eating bat meat, that would be one thing. Many would easily agree that this is unnecessary. But in terms of “business as usual,” on a fundamental level – if a government ministry is calling on people to reconsider the necessity of air travel, this could mark an opening to some terribly heretical thinking: If we’re going to start reconsidering the necessity of flying, why not reconsider the necessity of many other things?

To standard economics, that routinely ignores environmental limitations and presumes the possibility and the necessity of endless growth, such a headline about such a call from a government ministry is about as scary as it gets.

The broader outlook being proposed here is that the coronavirus situation is telling us to go back to basics. To reconsider what is truly necessary. Everyone should do this. And since the climate situation does genuinely appear to be highly worrisome, perhaps the most worrisome, as with the coronavirus epidemic, here too – with even greater urgency – there are grounds for a call to reconsider flying and other types of travel. And it is vital to add – to reconsider the consumption of imported products that are flown in, to reconsider eating meat, to reconsider excessive consumption of fashion, to rethink excessive consumption in general, which translates into excessive use of nonrenewable energy and more and more greenhouse gas emissions.

Ittai Hacohen is a teacher and an activist with Extinction Rebellion Israel.