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Post-coronavirus economy – why we are currently squandering all opportunities for real change

Published June 1st, 2020

While there is plenty of talk about possible changes during the coronavirus crisis, we are still reaching for the economic instruments of the past. Can’t we do any better than that? And what exactly are we trying to achieve?

Crises can be admirable opportunities for change. With this hope and first-hand experience of what can be achieved when the political will is there, we are at least able to take some sort of comfort during the trials and tribulations of recent weeks. Maybe we can use the coronavirus crisis to learn something as a society and maybe also find the courage to do things differently in economic and ecological matters and to bring about real change. After all, it is currently clear – more painfully clear than ever before – what problems we are dealing with. It seems like only common sense to try to learn from this. As well as being urgently necessary.

In spite of all the optimism, there are no great changes in the pipeline. For instance, the solution for kick-starting the beleaguered automotive sector is to reintroduce the car scrappage premium that was no help at all during the last economic crisis back in 2009. But all this does is use everyone’s tax revenue to finance a small number of people who want to buy a new car and can afford to do so. It merely postpones the problem, bringing forward car purchases that will inevitably leave a hole of more or less the same size the following year – not to mention the obvious ecological aspect. How often do we want to (and will we have to) save this sector before we are willing to explore new avenues?

Government assistance without any real environmental demands

Lufthansa is also set to receive a whopping nine billion euros from the German government in the form of various assistance and equity capital measures to help it get back on its feet again. But what conditions are tied in with this? No environmental targets have been stipulated, unless you count assurances that the fleet will be a little more environmentally friendly. In France, for example, government assistance for Air France was provided on condition that internal flights be discontinued. French finance minister Bruno Le Maire said that Air France would have to become an airline “that has the greatest respect for the environment”.

These are all developments we would like to see in Germany. But instead we are hurtling past possible solutions with our eyes wide open. And we need these political demands right now in order to be able to bring about positive changes for the environment and new mobility concepts. One regular argument in favour of government aid is that it helps to protect jobs, which is a very good argument for using taxpayers’ money – but even though it would have been possible to do so, this money was not tied to a stipulation that jobs be retained. Instead, as always, this is to be regulated by the market. And no one seems willing to suggest that we can regulate the market instead.

Rather than shaping the future, we are repeating the same mistakes

So why are jobs not being safeguarded in the long term by funding innovations? Why are we focusing mainly – or at all – on trying to make drive technology more environmentally friendly rather than transitioning to a more environmentally friendly form of mobility? Why did nobody consider using this opportunity to get rid of inland flights here in Germany as well? Why are bicycles not being subsidised, why is the rail network not being extended and why are we not planning free public transport? Why are we not rethinking cities and mobility, like they are doing in Brussels or London, where large car-free zones have been planned or are already in place? And why do large German cities not have projects along the lines of the “superblocks” in Barcelona? Where are we headed with such a strategy?

If you consider that the Datteln 4 power plant resumed operation at the end of May, you would be forgiven for wondering whether the decision-makers are for real. Here we are in 2020 with a coal-fired power station that even the German government’s “Coal Commission” advised against connecting to the grid. Does this look like the kind of policymaking that wants to move towards renewable energy? Assuredly not. Even former miners have joined the protest against the power plant initiated by environmental activists such as Fridays For Future.

Economic change: formative or forced?

Rather than being used to shape the future through policymaking, much government aid is awarded based on the size of the respective lobby, thus wasting possible opportunities for changing our economic system. This is instead of awarding aid based on innovation. Or future viability. Or positive change.

This is the usual head-in-the-sand tactics. Just because you close your eyes to the next crisis doesn’t mean it won’t happen. Or that it won’t be worse still – because we are fanning the flames of a fire that we should be trying to put out. Or as entrepreneur Joana Breidenbrach put it in our first Zebra Talk: “The leading paradigm in our society is still profit. What we need here is a cultural change. Otherwise the economy will be forced to change at some stage, which will be a very painful process.” Do we really want to wait for such a painful process rather than rethinking things now?

What better time than now to make those big plans?

It certainly looks like it. So why we are constantly tinkering around with little ideas rather than planning big ones? Why do we constantly try to treat complex problems as if all we need to do is give them a quick oiling before they’re good to go again? This is not how complex problems work. Here, we need to think holistically, to examine all areas, to break out the big guns – and to see money as part of the solution. After all, money can be a formative force if it is used properly. And here at Tomorrow we are playing our part as well.

If not now, then when? If not seriously, then how? We are paralysing ourselves by perpetuating the “it’ll never work now” myth. Not being active is also an active decision. The road to a healthier tomorrow needs to be a new one. The road more travelled is pointing in the wrong direction. How long are we going to allow ourselves to keep taking the same step backwards?