It has the potential to become the word of the year: "social distancing". Even if the term is actually misleading in the age of digitalization, because we should definitely intensify social contacts via media or virtual encounters on the screen, especially in the weeks of physical distancing from each other, it has become the most visible sign of the current corona pandemic worldwide in form of deserted cities and streets.
And even if the strategy for flattening the curve is not without controversy and there are always voices questioning it – triggered by understandable concern about the future of our global economy, which is currently in a state of shock, or even just out of individual detox symptoms because our global consumption party ended so abruptly – everyone is now familiar with the simple graphic underlying it, which has become the global warning sign of the pandemic:
And it is very easy to understand: The goal of social distancing is to slow down the spread of the viral disease through Covid-19 in such a way that the sum of acute cases of disease does not exceed the capacities of the health care system. However, it is interesting to ask how it has been possible in such an unbelievably short time to persuade a large part of the world’s population to follow this call without much discussion, regardless of the form of government or culture. For the fact that this year at Easter not only St. Peter’s, but also worldwide, regardless of denomination, the places of worship have remained just as empty as the motorways, is not due to draconian punishments for violation or threat of violence by a dictatorial regime, but predominantly to a fascinatingly fast spreading recognition that it is important – for our own survival.
In view of the fact that more than 180,000 people have now died worldwide as a result of the Covid-19 virus, the fear of ending up in a hospital without adequate care is perfectly understandable – even if the economic price of the measures we have to pay for this in the future will eclipse everything we have known up to now.
However, the question arises whether Covid-19 is really the only acute threat to our vital systems, or whether there are currently other risks to which the same graph could be applied and to which we should react just as consistently. And soberly, the virus is certainly not the only sword of Damocles above our future – and probably not even the most threatening.
In 2009 alone, for example, around 315,000 people died as a result of global warming, another 5 million people worldwide fell ill as a result, and it was already foreseeable at that time that the number of deaths alone would rise to over ½ million per year by 2030. At the latest since the last IPCC climate report from October 2018, we have known that we urgently need to slow down CO2 emissions in order not to irreparably exceed the capacity of our ecological (and thus also social) systems by 2050.
Nevertheless, the world’s response to this issue – unlike Corona – is hesitant and economic reasons are repeatedly brought up that prevent a consistent slowdown in the use of fossil fuels. There has never been any talk here of leaving 95% of the world’s aircraft fleets on the ground, forcing the industry almost to a standstill and completely stopping global tourism – as is currently the case. It was merely a question of a controlled process of “carbon distancing“, which would have to be intensified over several decades.
We should therefore urgently ask ourselves two questions in the current crisis:
What are, objectively speaking, other emerging crises, the spread of which we need to slow down promptly so as not to jeopardize the capacity of existing (social or environmental) systems?
And what must we do so that we start to act collectively in these comparable situations?
The most important fields of action are actually obvious – and even the elite of our economic and political leadership, represented by the World Economic Forum, has long admitted them: climate change, loss of biodiversity, waste mountains, water shortage, persistent chemistry, social injustice … .
In fact, all we need to do now is to develop a willingness to accept scientific facts and then take joint action. Compared to Covid-19, we will probably have to learn to look a little closer, because many of these developments are more insidious and therefore do not dominate the evening news. They all have in common, however, that they are constantly moving closer to a critical state, do not stop at national borders and cannot be chased away via Twitter.
The current pandemic at least belies all previous pessimists about the future on two points: we now know that in a crisis situation we are capable of insight and collective action as a global society. And the clean air above our industrial cities as well as the dolphins in previously orphaned canals off Venice show us that it is still worth acting because it is not too late.
At the same time, we are now realizing that much of what we thought indispensable yesterday is not so existential for our personal satisfaction – at least not to the extent that we had implicitly assumed in our intoxication chasing constant increase. And even if we still have no idea how we can bring our economy back to a sustainable level or pay back the fantasy billions that governments are currently making available, we should not let the opportunity that current experience with social distancing has taught us pass us by: We can also change the course of global challenges together – it’s in our hands.
Climate change, the increasing pollution of landscapes and oceans through waste, the unrestrained industrial water consumption in arid countries … all these things can be brought under control if we would practice adequate collective “distancing”. This does not mean a renunciation of consumption, but only a willingness to exercise a sense of proportion. If such “climate distancing”, “waste distancing” and “over-consumption distancing” is the result of insight rather than compulsion, it is not a threat to our freedom, but the manifestation of human maturity.
So we should not allow this pandemic to be just a stop button for our economy, which we want to turn on again as soon as possible – but rather it should become a reset, with which we begin to respect the global system boundaries and begin controlled “distancing” where we risk exceeding the available capacities of vital systems.
We should use the current period of standstill and think about how the textile industry can become a pioneer in this respect – by consistently implementing the UNFCCC Climate Charter, closing the loop in synthetic materials to a circular raw materials economy, avoiding any “forever chemicals” (PFASs), slowing down fashion cycles while increasing longevity, water-protective dyeing processes and all the other measures whose necessity we have long been aware of. And then, together with the consumers, we collectively commit to “Collateral Damage Distancing“.