The pandemic and common sense. The chance to dismantle ‘business as usual’?

Ewa Bińczyk

As a philosopher of science and sociologist of scientific knowledge, for over a decade I have been researching climate change and the planetary environmental crisis. I have been reading about the new geological epoch — the Anthropocene, or the human epoch, which is defined by the hazardous crossing of planetary boundaries [1]. Namely, degradation of soil, the sixth mass extinction of species, destabilisation of the hydrosphere, acidification of oceans, as well as shocking destruction of ecosystems reported by the scientists. In June 2018, I published a book titled The Epoch of Man. Rhetoric and Lethargy of Anthropocene, in which I called the 21st century the epoch of lethargy, wondering, among other things, what are the multi-dimensional causes of the current impasse in the environmental and climate politics [2].

From pieces about disinformation campaigns concerning global warming and articles discussing the drama of contemporary threats to the environment, I quickly moved on to reading publications that indicate the urgent need to decarbonise economies and perform a climate-oriented correction of contemporary capitalism [3]. Numerous researchers believe that one of the reasons for the aforementioned stagnation of the Anthropocene is simply the atrophy of imagination: mental inertia and paralysis when it comes to bold theorizing about the world (culture and economies), dramatically different from what we are used to in developed countries [4].

Indeed, for over 40 years the public debate in the countries of the rich global North has continued under the conditions of such a powerful neoliberal consensus that it completely crusted our collective imagination. As we know, it would be easier to imagine the end of the world than open up to the idea of the end of capitalism, winding down growth economies, reducing overconsumption, decreasing the velocity of money in the economy, or slowing down transnational “free” trade. Meanwhile, the indolence of pro-climate policies has brought activists and climate scientists (who understand the stakes in the case of continuing with business as usual) to the brink of despair [5].

However, in March 2020, we have all found ourselves in a new, surprising pandemic reality due to the coronavirus. The COVID-19 pandemic itself is not surprising at all, considering the parameters of the Anthropocene. The coronavirus threat resembles the problem of climate change for example with regard to the fact that in both cases we are facing crises which we were, in fact, expecting — or at least the scientists were. The World Health Organisation has been preparing global networks of response to this kind of threat for a dozen years, and for the last two it has been warning of the possibility of yet another zoonotic pathogen emerging. The dramatic loss of biodiversity in the 21st century has multiple consequences [6] – one of them is precisely reduced immunity to zoonoses in homo sapiens.

Similarly, for decades the experts have been studying threats resulting from the anthropogenic destabilisation of climate, encouraging decision-makers to decarbonise economies and develop mechanisms of adaptation to the new regime of weather anomalies. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), established by the UN in 1988, regularly publishes extensive reports. For the first time in 1992, and then again in 2017, researchers formulated World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity concerning the urgency of the problem of environmental degradation and the challenges of the Anthropocene. In their appeal, they emphasised that “we are jeopardizing our future” and “soon it will be too late” [7].

The Anthropocene is an era when the agency of the homo sapiens species, which undertakes heavy transformation of the atmosphere, hydrosphere, lithosphere, and biosphere, begins to resemble powerful geological forces. Time and time again it turns out that it is a paradoxical epoch of hyperagency (migrating climate zones and wonderful communication conditions that enable the spread of the virus) and at the same time, of helplessness (of the victims of the pandemic, climate refugees, or victims of freak weather).

In the epoch of man (in 2016), the International Court of Justice in the Hague ruled that environmental degradation and illegal exploitation of natural resources is a crime against humanity [8]. Therefore, the Anthropocene is the time of irreducible interdependence of humans and nature. In March 2020, the coronavirus has become a serious player within our communities and an important element of social practices. What is human (global transport, business success, international trade, urban marketplaces, culinary traditions) and what is non-human (viruses, water resources, climate events) are deeply intertwined and define one another. Nowadays, the nature-society duality and the separation of both domains are problematised in various ways. Another probable characteristic of the Anthropocene is that it may become the age of catastrophes slipping out from under the control of social orders and insurance systems. It is possible that soon we will all feel repercussions of that ourselves. In summary: the global COVID-19 pandemic should not come as a surprise in the epoch of man.

What did come as a surprise in March 2020 was that within several dozen days, or maybe a few weeks, the realm of “impossible” (from the common-sense and business-as-usual perspective) turned out to be possible, and even relatively easy to achieve. We put societies and economies into hibernation, and we launched radical quarantine modes. Business as usual was finally, albeit temporarily, suspended. We would of course prefer that it would occur in universally beneficial, safe social circumstances… Spain almost nationalised its private hospitals, Denmark introduced solutions resembling universal basic income. The criticism of the free market fundamentalism and postgrowth postulates ceased to have a utopian ring to it. In early April, even Financial Times journalists admitted as much, to say nothing of Pope Francis. In the pandemic, what had seemed impossible, turned out to be at least acceptable. Will the time of the pandemic and recovery launch the age of great changes, or even just openness to economic and social transformation? We have waited for such a coincidence for a really long time…




Quarantine situation is a kind of hibernation, an extended freezing of practices and lifestyles to which we are used. For how long? Nobody can say for certain. It is possible that we will lose some practices irrevocably — what will be the future of mass events and festivities after the trauma of the pandemic, even after the vaccine arrives? [9] So, our prospects of a future and the capacity for making plans were (temporarily) taken away. Losing the prospect of a future is more paralysing than liberating. This is a unique existential experience in which people participate across divides, globally, in multiple countries, both in rich and less affluent homes.

But this experience does not have to be exclusively negative. The global quarantine hibernation also provides an opportunity to reinforce or expand the foundations of the planetary “we”. Politically speaking, we urgently need such a movement in the Anthropocene. A challenging, shared existential experience can enable us to build a new platform of solidarity across divides — to search for common, shared, fair answers to future difficult relations between society and nature which will undoubtedly make themselves known.

But I am slightly amazed at the existential pain which accompanies the freezing of the future for a quarantine lasting several weeks or even several months. Is this an appropriate answer? And if so, what should the reaction be to the risk of losing the future in the context of the planetary environmental crisis? What we have here is an indisputable risk of losing the future entirely, extensively documented with scientific data. [10] According to Earth sciences researchers, the Anthropocene is an epoch when, by exceeding planetary boundaries, we call into question the possibility of maintaining the civilizational order as we know it. By continuing the economic model of business as usual in the coming decades, we will deprive more species, ecosystems, coral reefs, the Arctic ice cap, as well as subsequent generations of their future. And yet, so far, we have reacted to this problem only with denial and stagnation. Perhaps the existential pain of the pandemic can allow us to comprehend the real stakes in the game of preserving planetary systems in relative balance? Perhaps it will stimulate empathy and open up imagination?

The field closest to my heart at the moment, which deals with climate-related, pro-ecological corrections of capitalism is ecologic economics. It postulates building flexible, thriving, resilient economies. In ecologically corrected economic models, the objective and the indicator of success can be found not in the velocity of money in the economy, but its resilience — the system’s capacity to adapt to crises. In the age of climate change and expected weather anomalies, i.e. increasingly difficult feedback relationship between humans and nature in the Anthropocene, economies’ resilience, as well as solidarity and flexibility of social institutions will determine the survival and maintenance of peace and preservation of democratic structures. We need economies capable of hibernating, winding down production and slowing down the speed of the circulation, but in such a way as not to endanger the survival and prosperity of citizens. The subject of ecological economics is precisely how to produce (and pollute) less while maintaining social justice and effective resource distribution mechanisms. It is very probable that regardless of how events will unfold, the COVID-19 epidemic will show us quite organoleptically that we need economies that aim at resilience, and not focused on increasing their GDP growth.

Instead of the priority of the velocity of money circulation in the economy, what we need as well is universal basic income, redistribution of wealth and reducing labour costs. The rotten fabric of society, inequalities, incoherence and washed out social capital are wrong departure points for societies that enter the period of pandemics of climate anomalies. Contemporary inequalities (both at the global level and within most societies) can be justly described as “obscene” [11]. In 2009, Roberto Korzeniewicz and Timothy Morah wrote that 40% of world population lives at a lower economic level than dogs in the United States [12]. We know that 20% of the richest people in the world, who live in developed countries, are responsible for the majority of greenhouse gases emissions. We live in the reality of deep economic divisions: the worlds of the proverbial 1% rentier-magnates, of the middle class, growing weaker since the 1980s, and of a billion starving people are completely separate from one another. These are neofeudal inequalities: 26 richest multibillionaires posses as much as 50% of the poorest people on the planet. Will a world of such enormous concentration of resources (and power!) in the hands of so few be capable of adapting? Will it be able to ensure the resilience of economies?

Instead of growing fortunes of the few and the arrogance of plutocrats, in the hard times of the Anthropocene resilient states should rely on significant social cohesion and the strong fabric of mutual trust. Even today, after only a few weeks, we can see how much we need initiatives like #empathicinnovation and #empathomats. Thanks to such grass-roots social actions we can launch vouchers for the future to help survive hibernated sectors. Beauty and hair salons or massage therapists can be paid for services which will be rendered when we finally leave the state of (this) quarantine. But today, it is the effective state that should be the biggest initiator of such solutions and sensitivity to the struggles of the weakest entities.

The state of quarantine quickly reveals new social divisions and new forms of privilege [13]. The literature of ecological economics mentions environmental exclusion, environmental elitism, and the fact that tensions and conflicts of the 21st century will always have the problem of access to (shrinking) nature in the background. Rationing access to nature (and the spring) in the new pandemic reality revealed that excluded are those who do not have their own gardens, or even a dog that would serve as an excuse for a lawful stroll. Access to state forests, beaches, parks, and leisure spaces was denied. The contemplation of nature has temporarily become a luxury unavailable to city dwellers living in apartment buildings and tenement houses.

A painful class division characteristic for the Anthropocene is also a generational division. The teenagers and twenty-somethings of today, participants of Youth Climate Strikes, will pay through the nose for the short-sightedness of current decision-makers. They will be the ones to pay off debts for the loans taken out in our times, and it is their future that is discounted in all economic models which say that “it is not profitable” to modify economies, even for the price of destabilizing conditions necessary for the survival of life as we know it.

Tendencies to capitalize on chaos could turn out to be another serious threat of the pandemic period. This was described, among others, by Razmig Keucheyan in his book Nature is a Battlefield: Towards a Political Ecology [14] and Naomi Klein in Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism [15]. Each catastrophe overemphasizes already existing ailments and becomes a threat multiplier. Ineffective neoliberal states that excessively privatize the public services sector, turn out to be completely helpless in the face of such crises as a pandemic. Free market is no protective shield for our lives and health.

Even the most ardent supporters of the free market ideas or tax exemptions expect an efficient state in an emergency. A state that does not have to be necessarily strong or authoritarian, but efficiently operating, with a rich infrastructure of well prepared and reasonably managed public services; a state sensitive to the struggles of particular groups and sectors; a resilient state. A neo-liberal state cannot handle these challenges. Like Keucheyan warns, in a neoliberal world the risk of a climate catastrophe has been securitized so far by financial markets and insurance companies. The shrinking neoliberal state has been withdrawing from caring for possible problems related to the emergence of the new climate regime and weather anomalies. The financial sector once again had the opportunity to earn. Do we want capitalizing on chaos to become the future of the Anthropocene?

The pandemic also proved to us (under duress, but very emphatically) that the civilization of hurry and nervous hypermobility has the ability to pause. We should emphasize that the global mobility regime is also a regime of inequality. Stephan Lessenich writes about it in his book Living Well at Others’ Expense [16]. An Irish citizen can travel without a visa to 95 countries of the world, while an Afghani national can visit only two. 75% of global air travel comprises flights to Europe and within the EU. The statistics show that in 2015, the number of German nationals who travelled by plane equalled the country’s population.

It is possible that working remotely and the practice of doing business through teleconferences are here to stay. This opens up space for reflection and discussion on post-work and leisure time capitalism, shorter work week and workday, as well as the remote home office deeply rooted in our work habits. It is also possible that we really do not have to import so many goods from so far-flung corners of the world. Stopping a frenzied, disproportional mobility of goods and people seems to be something we should be definitely aiming for in the age of decarbonization.

And the final question: what about consumerism? Maybe overconsumption in developed societies will also become a thing of the past? Or at least it will lose some momentum? High-emission, luxury economies of the hyper-consumerism must be sensibly wound down, not stimulated. Perhaps several weeks without shopping and a non-consumer Easter will remain with this generation not only as a bad memory, but also as a kind of (temporary) respite. How about if we imagined a world without shopping sprees? For ourselves and for future generations?

Well, we cannot rule out the possibility that after the pandemic, we will return to the status quo. Everything will be the same as always, only faster and more intense. Crusts of the so-called common sense will rebuild immediately, and what is impossible, utopian, and unthinkable, will again be beyond the horizon of our imagination. But let us consider: is it not, even if only a little, up to us to make sure that does not happen this time?


[1] See. e.g. Erle Ellis, Anthropocene: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2018.

[2] Ewa Bińczyk, Epoka człowieka. Retoryka i marazm antropocenu, Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN, Warszawa 2018;

[3] See Tim Jackson, Prosperity Without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet, Earthscan Publishing, London, New York 2011; Kate Raworth, Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist, Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction 2017; Alf Hornborg, Nature, Society, and Justice in the Anthropocene: Unraveling the Money-Energy-Technology Complex, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2019; Jonathan Symons, Ecomodernism: Technology, Politics and Climate Crisis, Polity Press, Cambridge–Medford 2019.

[4] Cf. e.g. Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work, Verso, 2016.

[5] Cf. e.g. an interview with the authors in: Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future, Columbia University Press, New York 2014.

[6] Scientists estimate that we have already processed approximately 75% of the biosphere, we use up 50% of available potable water and we use around 50% of land not covered by ice (cf. e.g. E. Ellis, Antrhropocene, op. cit.). We live in a world with shortages of sand — that is how much we have depleted Earth’s resources; there are sand mobs operating in Indonesia and Singapore.

[7] cf. William J. Ripple, Christopher Wolf, Thomas M. Newsome, Mauro Galetti, Mohammed Alamgir, Eileen Crist, Mahmoud I. Mahmoud, William F. Laurance and 15,364 scientists from 184 countries, World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice, „BioScience” 2017, vol. 67, no. 12, pp. 1026–1028;

[8] Cf. Peter Dauvergne, Will Big Business Destroy Our Planet? Polity Press, Cambridge–Medford 2018, p. 115.

[9] Awaiting the technological remedy in the form of an anti-coronavirus vaccine, which would solve all economic, social, and political problems, revealed in the course of the pandemic, is an expression of a deeply-rooted belief that (once again) technologies will liberate us and there will be no need for introducing painful social reform or make difficult political decisions to streamline healthcare, management or insurance sectors. It does not seem, however, that any invention or scientific discovery, without serious redefinition of institutions and values people hold can secure our world against subsequent challenges of the Anthropocene.

[10] Ewa Bińczyk, Utrata przyszłości w epoce antropocenu, „Stan Rzeczy” 2018, vol. 14, no. 1, pp. 109–134.

[11] Por. Stephan Lessenich, Living Well at Others’ Expense: The Hidden Costs of Western Prosperity, transl. Nick Somers, Polity Press, Cambridge–Medford 2019; Göran Therborn,The Killing Fields of Inequality, Polity Press, Cambridge–Medford 2013; A. Hornborg, Nature, Society, and Justice…, op. cit.

[12] Roberto Korzeniewicz, Timothy Morah, Unveiling Inequality: A World-Historical Perspective, Russel Sage Foundation, New York 2009; cf. S. Lessenich, Living Well…, op. cit.

[13] This applies also to new types of heroism. Social recognition in the times of pandemic is deserved by those who do their work by protecting society, risking their life and health: healthcare professionals, hospital orderlies and cleaning services, as well as providers of goods and services which we cannot do without.

[14] Razmig Keucheyan, Nature is a Battlefield: Towards a Political Ecology, Polity Press, Cambridge–Medford 2017.

[15] Naomi Klein, Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Knopf Canada, 2009.

[16] S. Lessenich, Living Well…, op. cit.