It’s chilling enough hearing the medical forecasts for the impact of coronavirus. But the economic forecasts are almost as worrying.
Many businesses have already sent most of their staff home. At some point it seems likely that almost everyone bar essential workers such as healthcare providers will be ordered to work from home. The impact on the economy will be cataclysmic. One forecast, by the respected Centre for Economics and Business Research, suggests that London’s output would fall by £495 million a day for as long as such a state of affairs continued.
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Should it last even a week, the CEBR calculates that the London economy would lose £2.4 billion in output. Since the capital is responsible for approximately 20% of the UK’s GDP, this would mean the British economy shrinking by 6% during any lockdown. No wonder: manufacturing, for example, would simply stop if there are no workers to, as it were, manufacture anything.
You might think that such a scenario would be universally viewed as a disaster. And you would be wrong. Because there is one group — an influential group, whose influence is ever-growing — for whom such a shutdown (albeit not one caused by a pandemic) is not a disaster but a first order policy goal.
I refer, of course, to the Green movement.
The next few weeks will present many challenges, to use the fashionable phraseology. But they will also offer us the chance — force us to have the chance, I should say — to examine the consequences and popularity of many of the policies that mainstream green activists and eco-warriors have been urging us to adopt for decades.
Take travel. On Wednesday President Trump barred all EU flights from entering the US, wiping fortunes off airline shares and pushing the stock market into freefall. But to green activists, this was no disaster but the implementation of the long-cherished goal of ending international air travel.
Even the Green Party have been politically savvy enough not to dare be open in pushing for a complete end to cross-Atlantic travel, because it would be so unpopular. Their policy statement for last year’s election pledged simply to “reduce the number of journeys made by unsustainable modes of transport, particularly by car and aeroplane” and to “reduce the total distance travelled by reducing journey lengths, particularly by encouraging the development and retention of local facilities”.
It gets even better for the Greens, however. It’s not just President Trump’s administrative fiat on air travel that will road test, as it were, their transport ideals. That policy statement above could hardly be a more precise description of what is about to happen across the country. As we increasingly self-isolate, the number of car journeys will collapse. It will be green heaven.
But travel is merely one limited aspect of the extent to which we are about to test out green ideas. The central mantra of green economics is that local is good and globalisation bad, a belief that runs hand-in-hand with their view that, far from chasing economic growth, we should shrink it and reduce production.
We’re about to see how this plays out, with an imminent fall in economic growth, devastating for almost everyone — except for the Greens. Because as the party’s “philosophical basis” put it: “Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, society has expected continual increases in material affluence for the people of the world, and has therefore relentlessly pursued the goal of economic growth… The pursuit of economic growth as a force driving over-exploitation of the Earth must cease to be an automatic aim of human societies.”
That might seem vaguely sensible — almost everyone, after all, thinks there is more to life than just economic growth. But the overall Green Party programme for “a fundamental restructuring of the global economy” is proudly designed not merely to reduce growth but to shrink the economy and return us to local subsistence, so that “localisation of trade and economies is therefore a goal of the Green Party.” It wants to reverse “ever increasing trade between ever distant nations”.
As more of us stay home to deal with the coronavirus, so we will begin acting out the Green Party’s plans: “Each country and region should be more self-sufficient… Local supply of goods would be preferred… Policies will be supported which increase small-scale, local community import substitution, rather than export promotion, support local food growing in place of cash crops for the international market…”
If you think I am exaggerating, how about this? The party says it will promote “research and development into products and technologies specifically appropriate for use in the home-based economy; changing planning and building regulations to encourage home based enterprises; providing grants for re-skilling, and for the necessary tools and technology necessary for home-based enterprises.” The Green Party wants us to stay at home and, thanks to coronavirus, they are getting what they want.
But it’s not just these vague aspirations that show the overlap between green ideas and the impact of coronavirus. There’s also hard cash.
For many freelancers and those with insecure jobs, the most direct impact of the virus beyond the physical consequences will be a loss of income. The government has — in a limited fashion — offered special funding to try to alleviate this. At last December’s election, the Green Party demanded a “Basic Income” of £89 a week.
Their reasoning is that “current dependence on economic growth to cease and allow zero or negative growth to be feasible without individual hardship should this be necessary on the grounds of sustainability”. In other words, if the economy is in free fall because of our policies, don’t worry, here’s some money for you.
The causes may be different, but the logic is the same.
I’m going to take a wild guess and predict that the economic consequences of coronavirus will not be wildly popular. There is no upside. But it’s just possible that, as a result, an economic analysis that suggests collapsing the economy, working from home and putting severe limits on travel might just take a bit of a battering.