A great mobility transformation

By Monika Büscher for de Gruyter

There are no passenger flights, the streets are filled with birdsong, in some countries walking and cycling has increased by 90%, and the air is clear: a silver lining at a time of great tragedy. In fact, the mass (im)mobilisation of Covid-19 is set to enable the largest ever worldwide reduction in carbon emissions. However, so far, the response to the pandemic has at best ignored this astounding achievement, at worst it seeks to reverse it. Why? How could it be otherwise?

Covid-19 is not the cause of the crisis, it is a symptom. Hypermobility, marketisation of healthcare, decades of disinvestment in resilience, inequality and the growth of precarious work worldwide have created perfect conditions for viral spread. Alongside dependence on fossil fuel and insatiable consumption, they are also implicated in the much deeper crises of climate change and environmental destruction. These energetic, political, and economic origins of our time, captured by Karl Polanyi as the mechanisms of The Great Transformation (1944), spell collapse.

Everything is connected

Writing in exile during the second World War, Polanyi foresaw that ‘to allow the market mechanism to be sole director of the fate of human beings and their natural environment … would result in the demolition of society’ (p. 76). Against the odds, societies now are rallying for survival. As governments articulate responses to the pandemic, even conservatives acknowledge that everything is connected. This has brought back the state, with intervention in how people live their lives, run their businesses, support their employees, showing leadership in wrestling the system-ness of epidemiology, economy, and everyday life.

Changing mobility systems of transport, consumption, finance, and information has been a matter of banning all but essential travel, protecting workers, blocking sales of non-essentials, borrowing billions to support struggling individuals and businesses as well as developing countries, and prompting Facebook to implement fact-checking. This has made unprecedented reduction in carbon emissions possible, and it could be for good.

Changes in everyday living are translating alternative concepts of commoning mobility, mobility justice, drift economies, virtual travel, mobile publics into the fabric of society. Virtual travel for work, socialising, e-commerce, and learning in particular, is driving a digital transformation. Before Covid-19, about 3% of US citizens regularly worked from home. Now business analysts estimate that 25-30% of the workforce will do it by the end of 2021.

These changes inspire optimism. But mobilities research shows how digital travel does not just substitute for physical journeys, but may, in fact, increase physical travel. The new mobility patterns are temporary and soon potentially subject to intense surveillant contact tracing, threatening civil liberties. At the same time, there is talk that ‘the real post-coronavirus challenge will be how to shrink the state’, coupled with determined efforts to ‘reopen economies’ with demand stimulus packages, billion dollar bail-outs and weakened environmental constraints for fossil fuel corporations. These measures could waste a precious opportunity to stop business as usual.

Looking to the future

To meet the 1.5° carbon reduction targets set in Paris, the 2019 UN Emissions Gap Report shows that emissions must drop by 7.6 % every year this decade. Covid-19 has made the impossible possible and given us a 4% reduction head start for 2020, together with a sobering sense of the enormity of the challenge. Unprecedented state intervention and new economic, social, and cultural practices have been mobilised to make it happen, inspired by a deep sense of crisis. What does it take to stretch this powerful humanity to address the threat to survival that the climate and environmental crises pose?

Air pollution currently kills 7 million people annually. From 2030 climate change is estimated to cause 250,000 additional deaths per year (WHO). The Worldbank projects that climate impacts could push 100 million more people into poverty, and internally displace 143 million. These crises are accompanied by a ‘new barbarism’ of xenophobia, inequality, poverty, and discrimination, as well as the ecological tragedy of a 6th mass extinction.

We are in the midst of societal transformation, hurtling down two forks of braiding paths. The future we choose now matters vitally. On one side people are racing to deepen Polanyi’s first great transformation, clamouring for a return to normal, propping up fossil fuel extraction and air travel, inciting competition and tolerating the collapse of developing nations. On the other, people are realising that enough is enough, supporting vital societal services, instituting socially just state intervention, global collaboration, less physical and more virtual mobility. By acting on our new visceral understanding that everything can collapse, and how the future is now, as John Urry puts it, we have a unique opportunity to make the current mobility transformation the beginning of a new great transformation that is good for humanity and the planet.

About the Author

Monika Büscher is Professor of Sociology, Director for Research at the Department for Sociology, and Associate Director at the Centre for Mobilities Research, at Lancaster University, UK. Her interdisciplinary research on mobilities explores low-carbon transport innovation, the informationalization of emergency response and risk governance, IT ethics in information sharing, and infrastructuring equitable urban futures. She leads research in range of national and international projects (DecarboN8, GREAT, BRIDGE, SecInCoRe). She has published many articles and books, including Ethnograpies of Diagnostic Work, Mobile Methods and Design Research. Synergies from Interdisciplinary Perspectives. She edits the book series Changing Mobilities (Routledge) with Peter Adey.