Inspiration   |    September 3, 2021

A greater concern for the environment, more trust in science, and greater faith in mainstream media are among the more positive outcomes of the coronavirus pandemic. Our collective response to the COVID-19 crisis shows what can be done. Will this finally spur us into action in the far more serious long-term crisis of climate change?

By Herb Bentz
Will life ever return to normal? It depends on what is meant by the term normal. The economy will bounce back — perhaps not a “V-shape” though. A “square root”, “W-shape,” and even a “bathtub-shape,” indicating a long depression and eventual recovery, are predicted by economists. This is not a conventional recession. This is a disruption where the normal demands of the economy are paused, not necessarily eliminated forever. In the best-case scenario, when the economy resumes, pent-up demands will drive a symmetrically shaped growth to match the plunge we are now experiencing.

But this is not what is expected to happen. The disruption will change people’s habits, business practices, and overall expectations, in the short term, and perhaps even in the relatively long term.There will be a bounce-back but not necessarily to where we were before.

The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the dangers of delayed action due to not listening to scientists. A newfound trust in mainstream media has started to gain ground. There may finally be a reaction against fake news and the misinformation on the internet. Greater trust in science may also foster a greater concern for the environment and a new sense of urgency to combat manmade climate change.

Concern for the environment will return

The pandemic has highlighted the dangers of pollution: areas with the highest pollution levels also had the highest death rates from the new coronavirus. Hopefully, after the pandemic is over, concern for the environment and the dangers of climate change will return with a vengeance and this will, with the right government incentives, direct future economic growth away from dying fossil fuel industries.

While the pandemic lockdown has resulted in clearer skies and a slight pause of global warming, the resulting economy has nothing in common with the type of economy we need to combat climate change. Rather, the lockdown has provided a glimpse of how much better life could be if we switched away from pollution-causing fossil fuels. We need a massive stimulus to return the economy back to normal; a new green economy is needed to create many millions of jobs. This will require more government involvement.

Larger government with more comprehensive income protection

I argued in my book Rationing Earth that the size of government may grow because of a crisis but the root cause is actually technological change — the crisis is the catalyst, not the cause. During normal times, conservative political movements prevent change despite hardships that slowly develop. At the start of the 20th century, increasing the social safety net was essential because of increasing job insecurity brought about by the reduced need for workers in agriculture and the relative uncertainty of employment in new industries. However, it took the drastic events of the Great Depression and two world wars to provide the political opportunity to make these changes.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, there was already increasing under-employment and an increase in what David Graeber has called “bullshit jobs” — jobs that provide livelihood but don’t really have to be done. Artificial Intelligence-enabled technologies are widely predicted to reduce the need for productive work. This will further increase the size of the leisure industries. An increase in craft-based production may provide more personal fulfilment as AI removes some of the drudgeries in our lives. But this can only happen in a more socialized economy with more income support.

More trust in Science

Getting accurate information during the pandemic has become extremely important. The huge winners are the mainstream media sources and by extension — science. The BBC in Britain has emerged as a critical resource to combat false information about COVID-19.

In 1988, Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky in their book Manufacturing Consent, worried about the effect of propaganda in the mainstream media. They argued for a more independent and free press to provide more balanced coverage of world events. In the past 20 years, the internet has seemed a positive development to counteract mainstream media propaganda. There are now many thousands of independent publications, blogs, and articles. However, misinformation and fake news have emerged as far greater problems than a propensity for media outlets to be politically or corporately biased.

Some of the mainstream media may veer towards propaganda but, as the pandemic has aptly and effectively demonstrated, there is objectivity and accuracy in reporting that is nonetheless valuable. What has the independent blog universe really achieved — besides highly polarized views on every subject, with no objective conclusion ever reached?

People are starting to learn about the dangers of relying on obscure and opinionated news sources. Partly because of the positive role that the mainstream has played, a backlash against the fake news and misinformation on social media has already started.

The difference between propaganda and fake news

Propaganda is generally based on information that is true. Users of propaganda rely on the positive presentation of information that supports their case while being careful to avoid revealing any information that would hurt their case. An advertisement for Coca Cola will not reveal that it has no nutritional value and that it contributes to obesity and diabetes, for example. It will simply state, in the most entertaining way possible, that it tastes great.

Fake news is generally false information and the intention is usually to deceive, often for financial gain. Misinformation also emerges from biased beliefs and sloppy research. Certain facts are believed, irrespective of scientific consensus, by groups of people because of pre-existing beliefs and socio-economic preferences. Once a belief is ingrained, it is difficult to change. Opinions and unverified facts that support long-held beliefs, or support membership in politicized groups, trump expert analysis and scientific consensus.

Whereas the use of propaganda reveals a right-left bias, the use of fake news and misinformation lies on a populist spectrum of values. This leads to a social problem that is arguably worse than propaganda. We have learned not to be unduly swayed by propaganda, especially marketing hype. We simply don’t take it seriously. Biases of the mainstream media are often overstated. The BBC in Britain is often accused of being left-leaning but objective analysis confirms that it sits close to the centre of the political spectrum. The same is true of publications like the Economist and the New York Times. These publications go to great lengths to ensure that news items are not slanted in any way and are verified by at least two independent sources. Biases exist but are generally quite obvious and explicitly stated in editorial comments.

Fake news and distorted popular opinions, on the other hand, are an enormous problem, probably responsible for large errors of democratic decision making such as the election of Donald Trump and delays in fighting climate change.

Social media doesn’t really change popular views; it legitimizes and organizes them into discrete political movements that can be more easily exploited by powerful interests. Misinformation on the internet does not so much change people’s minds as it unites those with similar prejudices. In this respect, it is far more successful than propaganda. Hugo Mercier in his book Not Born Yesterday, demonstrates how attempts at mass persuasion tend to fail. People are more likely to hold onto their beliefs and these are reinforced with fake news rather than changed.

Spreaders of misinformation can gain converts at the margins by creating doubt of mainstream views in the minds of those more trusting in their local group consensus. Those with loosely held opinions easily shift or maintain their beliefs without the need for corroboration, on the basis of apparently legitimate but false facts already believed by their friends and political affiliations.

The speed of the coronavirus crisis, the obvious failure of some governments, including the United States, to take appropriate action, and the success of the mainstream media at imparting useful statistics and recommendations, is a body blow to fake news sources and misinformation on the internet. There is an equivalent — but more slowly unfolding — crisis of climate change overwhelmingly accepted by the mainstream media and a majority of the population. However, false news and persistent “denier” campaigns have solidified enough doubt to entrench political campaigns — even at the scale of the Republican Party of the United States — to delay actions that should be occurring now. Hopefully, this will start to change.