In what feels like an age of crisis, we seem to be constantly barraged by urgent, unprecedented and potentially disastrous events. Not only is this overwhelming. Simplified media presentations can also encourage us to see them as separate or even in tension, competing for our attention and resources.
In a two-hour interactive session, held as part of the ESRC Festival of Social Sciences in November 2021, I had the pleasure of challenging such superficial depictions by examining the links between two contemporary crises – the climate and ecological crisis and the crisis of care – with an enthusiastic and engaged audience at the fantastic Firstsite in Colchester.
The aim was to use this knowledge to critically imagine what effective, interconnected solutions might look like.
In the first hour we took a whistle-stop tour of the two crises.
Firstly, we examined the proposed ‘Anthropocene’ thesis to make sense of the ‘unprecedented’ changes highlighted by the latest report from the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change. Earth System Scientists have theorised that human action has pushed us outside the stable conditions enjoyed for the past 12,000 years. We have entered a new, unknown and unpredictable geological era known as the Anthropocene, which amounts to an intensely risky experiment with our own life support systems.
Social scientists and humanities scholars have added crucial critical insights to the Anthropocene thesis. In particular, by recognising huge disparities amongst humans in causing and suffering from climate change, they prompt us to ask who the ‘anthropos’ (human) of the Anthropocene really is.
We paused in particular over a fascinating graph released for COP26 showing the inequalities of household lifestyle consumption emissions.
We then turned to the ‘crisis in care’ unravelling in the wake of the pandemic. This phrase is currently widely used, for example in peak-time documentaries, particularly by those looking at the crisis in care homes.But the crisis in care extends well beyond care homes. It impacts a huge range of care receivers and caregivers – paid and unpaid. We focused on just one example: initial findings from a recent study of the effects of the pandemic on ‘indispensable and disposable’ early years workers.
The gendered effect of the pandemic on the huge amounts of unpaid labour performed was also discussed. Here, participants added insightful perspectives on how queer couples split gender roles and unpaid work at home.
Members of the group were keen to highlight how public attention to home working has not sufficiently acknowledged those who could not work from home, the risks they were forced to take and the price many have paid.
Taking a step back, we then sought to briefly situate today’s crisis in care in a longer-term context, exploring how the pandemic revealed and exacerbated a far wider ‘crisis of social reproduction’ in its contemporary, neoliberal form. This is epitomised by the dismantling of the welfare state, the responsibilisation of individuals, the privatisation of care and development of neo-colonial care chains. We recognised how the burdens have fallen disproportionately on women, particularly women of colour, and other already disadvantaged groups.
In the second hour, we sought to draw links between these two apparently disconnected crises. We examined how they are both gendered and rest on intersectional inequalities. This allows us to emphasise how solutions to either crisis which do not recognise and address existing inequalities would leave these inequalities untouched or even intensify them.
We also discussed the need to recognise our interdependencies on each other and on the world which is our home. This involves contesting mainstream views which consider unpaid labour and environmental degradation as unfortunate or unseen ‘externalities’.
Finally, participants were asked to comment in groups on three potential solutions for tackling both crises: investing not only in male-dominated green jobs but also low-carbon care jobs1; creating and scaling up caring communities2; and reducing the working week3.
This prompted some interesting discussion and there was healthy scepticism about how effective and how realistic the three proposals are.
In particular, members of the group perceptively highlighted that the important role of capitalism in perpetuating these crises had been under-emphasised. They were sceptical that any solution could address either crisis without also fundamentally addressing the current shape of our economic system.
I am hugely grateful to those who attended on a cold, dark Tuesday evening in November, engaged in a productive and fruitful discussion from which I learnt a lot, and joined us afterwards to continue the discussion over a beer.
Reflecting since the session, I can see that understanding the scale and complexity of these issues might have left us feeling disempowered or overwhelmed. But I see it as a call to action which I feel more strongly than ever.
I hope others agree: There is much to do.
1 Cohen, M. and MacGregor, S. (2021) Towards a Feminist Green New Deal for the UK. Available at: https://www.wen.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/FEM-GND-POLICY-PAPER-2.pdf; De Heneu, J. and Himmelweit, S. (2020). A Care-Led Recovery from Coronavirus
The case for investment in care as a better post-pandemic economic stimulus than investment in construction. Available at: https://wbg.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Care-led-recovery-final.pdf
2 The Care Collective (2020). The Care Manifesto. Verso: London, pp. 45-51
3 Four Day Working Week (2021). Stop the Clock. The environmental benefits of a shorter working week. Available at: https://6a142ff6-85bd-4a7b-bb3b-476b07b8f08d.usrfiles.com/ugd/6a142f_5061c06b240e4776bf31dfac2543746b.pdf