As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, ordinary people around the world are being advised by governments (with some exceptions such as United States President Trump) and health experts to engage in social distancing.
In some places, the advice is 1.5 metres and in others 2 metres, along with wearing masks. Australia has only recently started to move in that direction.
However, there are some economic activities in which the health standard does not apply as they do for small businesses such as restaurants, cafes, pubs and cinemas where people are likely to gather in large and cramped quarters. These include the mining industry, meat packing factories, construction industry, professional sports (at least the players who, while not necessarily performing in packed stadiums and arenas, do so for TV audiences) and the airline industry.
Within the broader umbrella of global capitalism, there are many drivers of human impact on the climate ranging from fossil fuel use; agricultural and forestry practices; steel and cement production; the construction, heating and cooling of buildings and residences; transport; and the “cloud”’ or telecommunications. The list seems endless.
Prior to the outbreak of the pandemic, one driver of anthropogenic climate that tends to be downplayed was the growing number of global aeroplane flights, even when people could travel long distances by train, coach or even a car with four or five passengers.
Prior to COVID-19, aeroplanes were contributing roughly 5-6% of greenhouse emissions and the number of flights was increasing about 5% a year.
In large part, COVID-19 was quickly disseminated around the world by aeroplane flights, along with cruise ships: it has created an economic crisis, particularly for the airline industry. In Australia, this is the case with the country’s two major carriers, Qantas and Virgin, although there are reports that the small regional carrier Rex Airlines is thriving.
To counter the huge decline in overseas flights, CEO Alan Joyce has sought to bolster Qantas’ declining revenues by shuttling passengers around Australia without social distancing and enforcing the wearing of masks.
Social distancing would greatly reduce the number of passengers on a flight, thus preventing flights from being cost-effective.
On June 16, Josh Dye reported his experiences in Traveller on a Jetstar flight from Melbourne to Sydney and a return flight with Virgin. The Jetstar flight was packed, with about half of the passengers wearing masks but the cabin crew not. The return Virgin flight was not quite as full, thus allowing Dye to have a window seat with the middle seat unoccupied. A smaller percentage of passengers wore masks and none of the cabin crew wore them.
With a touch of irony, Dye states: “So, as states begin opening their borders and air travel picks up, brace yourself for the bizarre experience of full flights. BYO snacks, wear a mask if you’re uncomfortable, and get all your coughing out of the way before you board the plane.”
On the more serious side, the slack governments and health officials have given the airlines companies in Australia regarding the regulation of social distancing and health hygiene is one more illustration of the reality that multinational corporations make and break governments and even some health officials.
The airline industry’s assertion that the cabin air is cleaned every few minutes with hospital-grade filters sounds dubious, and what might be termed “COVID-19 wash”.
While individuals may opt not to fly, or to reduce their flying, work, educational and career demands have made aeromobility central to the logic of the capitalist system and an increasingly corporatised university sector.
The high dependence of Australian universities on international students to support their research and development activities and the bloated salaries of their high-echelon administrators is a vivid illustration of the latter.
We need to move beyond aeroplanes as much as possible, but such an effort will have to be part and parcel of creating an alternative or ecosocialist world system, one that is committed to social justice and parity, deep democracy and environmental sustainability. It also has to preserve both human life and biodiversity.
Perhaps, in time, solar-power aeroplanes — beyond the small experimental ones — will become a reality. But such a scenario looms on the distant horizon, at best. In the meantime, capitalism is doing a good job of frying the planet: Australia’s Black Summer bushfires was a reminder.
The global socioeconomic, ecological and climatic crises, by-products of global capitalism, require that we re-examine much of what we do in terms of work, education, leisure, what we eat and consume in general, what sort of dwellings we reside in and how we move about our planet particularly in a (hopefully) post-COVID-19 world.
A simpler way for the affluent world would entail disposing of, or minimising, the use of aeroplanes, as well as private motor vehicles.
[Hans A Baer is author of Motor Vehicles, the Environment, and the Human Condition (Lexington Books, 2019) and Airplanes, the Environment, and the Human Condition (Routledge, 2020).]