In a month of dire warnings of our potential to destroy our civilisation and planet, Andrew Rigby draws hope from the self-interested mobilisation that moved Victorian Britain beyond a public health crisis comparable to Covid-19.

Over the past few weeks a number of eminent specialists and opinion-leaders have voiced their concern about current crises facing humanity in words that might have come straight out of a Rethinking Security mission statement.

Until we are all safe

At the end of January Jeremy Farrar, the head of the Wellcome Trust and a world expert on infectious diseases, expressed his concern about the mounting levels of what he termed ‘vaccine nationalism’ and urged the UK to share its knowledge and expertise with other countries, particularly those in the global south, and to ensure that there is equitable access to vaccination in the battle against Covid. He emphasised that he was not making this call out of charitable impulse but out of enlightened self-interest.

The world needs to know where new variants are appearing. If they appear, they will end up in the UK in the end. Yes, we can close our borders and buy ourselves time. But at some point, if a variant has sufficient biological advantages, it will spread around the world and into every nation.

Jeremy Farrar, 31 Jan 2021

The lesson to be absorbed is that “until we are all safe, no one is safe. We’ve got to understand this is a global problem that must be dealt with globally.”

Worst case scenarios

Then, on 22 February James Bevan, the head of the UK government’s Environment Agency delivered a stark warning to the annual conference of the Association of British Insurers:

Much more extreme weather will kill more people through drought, flooding, wildfires and heat-waves than most wars have. The net effects will collapse ecosystems, slash crop yields, take out the infrastructure that our civilisation depends on, and destroy the basis of the modern economy and modern society.

Sir James Bevan, 22 Feb 2021

In a speech delivered a couple of years ago he had been equally direct when he asked attendees at a low carbon cities conference: “What keeps you awake at night? Fear of terrorism? Nuclear war? Economic collapse? If so, you’re worrying about the wrong thing. […] The biggest risk now facing the world … is none of the above – it’s climate change.”

Bevan told his audience of leading insurers and actuaries this month that in recent years extreme weather events in the UK had already reached or exceeded his agency’s reasonable worst case scenarios on several occasions.

Cooperate or collapse

A day later, David Attenborough repeated the same warning that climate change could, within a lifetime, destroy ‘entire cities and societies’, in an address to the UN Security Council:

If we continue on our current path we will face the collapse of everything that gives us our security – food production, access to fresh water, habitable ambient temperature and ocean food-chains.

And if the natural world can no longer support the most basic of our needs, then much of the rest of civilisation will quickly break down.

Please make no mistake – climate change is the biggest threat to security that modern humans have ever faced.

Sir David Attenborough, 23 Feb 2021

He went on to make an impassioned plea for global cooperation for the sake of our common future: “We are a single truly global species, whose greatest threats are shared and whose security must ultimately come from acting together in the interests of us all.”

That is the dream and the vision that inspires those of us who feel a commitment not only to each other but also to future generations.

Sir David Attenborough addresses the UN Security Council, 23 Feb 2021.

Cholera and common security

At times like this, with such prognostications of our imminent doom so prevalent, it becomes very difficult for folk like me to hold on to the hope and belief in a better tomorrow. Sometimes it becomes virtually impossible to detect any substantive grounds for hope, and with a loss of faith in the future comes that debilitating sense of despair – a prism through which all action for change and a better world can seem pointless.

But maybe history has a lesson for us – maybe, just maybe, there are grounds for hope. (I have on my wall an aphorism I came across years ago – ‘To despair is to betray the future’ – and I don’t want my grandkids to accuse me of that!) Here goes.

During the first decades of the 19th century the urban population in Britain rocketed, but what was also noted was that as the numbers of the urban poor increased, so life expectancy declined.

In 1831 cholera first reached the UK and the incidence of epidemics of the water-borne disease and the loss of thousands of lives fed into a growing movement for sanitary reform. Support came not just out of humanitarian concern for the victims. There were a number of other ‘drivers’:

1. There was a growing awareness that cholera did not respect class boundaries – disease caused by water-borne bacteria could affect anyone. All were potential victims, not just the urban poor. It was in the self-interest of the rich and privileged to support change. 

2. Ill-health impacted on economic activity resulting in the loss of key workers. There were significant economic benefits to be derived from a healthy and fit workforce. Once again it was enlightened self-interest rather than humanitarianism that came into play.

3. The escalating numbers of sick and bereaved led to a rapid rise in the level of poverty, which resulted in a significantly increased financial burden on poor relief – there was an undeniable linkage between insanitary living conditions, disease, poverty and hence the cost of poor relief. Money spent on clean water and sanitation made economic sense for those with most to lose.

These factors fed into a growing conviction that preventative measures needed to be introduced and eventually led to a preparedness on the part of political leaders to respond positively to the proposals of the sanitary reform movement (to which emerging trade unions also added their voice on behalf of their members).

The result was the 1848 Public Health Act which, despite its limitations, marked a significant change in the public health paradigm. It was the start of central government taking on a level of responsibility for the provision of clean water and sanitary drainage/sewage treatment services.

Coming together for the common good

In some ways it is possible to view the changes that took place in public health reform in 19th century Britain as a template for the kind of process necessary to realise the vision of security as a common good. Enlightened self-interest (alongside prophetic vision) is the necessary condition to force political elites to the realisation that territorial borders and weapons of death and destruction are no defence against the common threats facing humanity in the here-and-now.

The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.

Image Credit: Image by Shameer Pk from Pixabay.