BY – Allan Maynard – July 24, 2020
The international CoVid-19 crisis demonstrates – in real, fast forward time, stark lessons about the consequences of unsustainable development, the limitations of our economic systems and the critical need for informed, evidence based leadership. We have learned the harsh lesson that our dependence on animal protein has placed humans and animals (farmed and in some cases wild) in close proximity allowing viruses to jump from animals to humans who have limited immunity to the new (novel) infections. We have also learned that air pollution is an important contributor to deaths from respiratory viruses such as Covid-19.
On the positive side, we did observe, for short time – that the tragic pandemic that is causing so much human misery did indeed give Planet Earth a much-needed “breather”. Air pollution levels, especially oxides of nitrogen and fine particulates, were drastically reduced around the world. In Beijing, residents were able see the stars at night, an impossibility for the past number of years.
We also have seen how rapidly some governments were able to mobilize human resources, infrastructure and financial measures in response to a crisis whilst simultaneously gaining the confidence of their citizens to ensure full cooperation. But, unfortunately we have also seen the dire consequences of bad leadership that has resulted in deadly delays and muddled communications.
RECOVERY – BUSINESS AS USUAL IS NOT AN OPTION –It is clear that we cannot, in recovering from this pandemic, go back to ‘business as usual”. It was business as usual that got us into this mess.
The ever changing nature of the CoVid crisis and the politics involved has, for the past number of months, pushed news about a host of environmental crises (climate change, accelerated extinctions, toxic exposure, micro-plastic pollution and more) off the front pages. This is understandable but also unfortunate. Environmental issues are, and will continue to be, orders of magnitude greater in terms of overall human cost. For example, the combined effects of ambient (outdoor) and household air pollution cause about 7 million premature deaths every year, largely as a result of increased mortality from stroke, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer and acute respiratory infections (WHO – 2019 report). The numbers associated with climate change due to drought, hurricanes, wild fires, land use degradation and massive human migrations and more are even more worrying but harder to quantify.
Some facts re climate change:
|Carbon Dioxide||280 PPM in 1970 // 420 ppm in 2020|
|Temperature||1 degree C higher globally since 1900 / over 7 degrees warmer in parts of the Arctic|
|Sea Ice||Shrunk by over 1,000,000 sq. miles (2.6 million sq. km)|
|Sea levels||Have risen over 20 cm since 1900 – flooding in many cities|
|Fires||2019 – tens of millions hectors lost – unprecedented – each year is worse|
|Heat waves||Each year – more days of extreme heat and more deaths due to the heat|
|Ocean acidity||Increasing due to carbon dioxide dissolving – threats to sea life / coral bleaching|
There are many more stark examples. The main point – we are seeing dramatic levels of damage and health consequences due to environmental degradation and it’s getting worse each year.
Despite the mountains of evidence, there is still significant denial and/or ignorance of climate change and environmental degradation. In fact we are seeing some governments moving 180 degrees in the wrong direction. In Brazil, President Bolsonaro has decided that it’s a good idea to burn precious Amazon forests to make way for beef farming. In the US, the Trump administration is weakening a host of air, water, land-use and climate change regulations. Around the world, many industries are advocating for even more reductions in health, safety and environmental regulations citing economic “emergency factors” due to the lockdowns. Moreover, the fossil fuel industry is lobbying for significant portions of economic stimulus funds despite having been heavily subsidized and raking in enormous profits for decades. Unfortunately, some poorly led governments will comply without a consideration for more sustainable options. It does not have to be this way.
A SUSTAINABLE RECOVERY IS POSSIBLE – I am not an economist, but as an environmental scientist, it is clear to me that our conventional economic orthodoxy is failing us in so many ways in terms of addressing the environment (climate change, mass extinctions, water quality and quantity, habitat loss, air quality, etc.), human wellness (health, equality, access to healthy food, happiness), and a sustainable use of resources.
Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is the monetary value of all finished goods and services made within a country during a specific period. GDP provides an economic snapshot of a country and thus used to estimate the size of an economy and growth rate. However, GDP does not provide information about the overall wellbeing of a country since activities that are detrimental (like deforestation, strip mining, over-fishing, prison populations, terrorism) actually and strangely increase today’s GDP.
Jonathan Aldred, an economist from Cambridge states that “conventional economic theories have had little to offer. On the contrary, they have acted like a cage around our thinking, vetoing a range of progressive policy ideas as unaffordable, counter-productive, incompatible with free markets, and so on. Worse than that, economics has led us, in a subtle, insidious way, to internalise a set of values and ways of seeing the world that prevents us even imagining various forms of radical change.
Since economic orthodoxy is so completely embedded in our thinking, escape from it demands more than a short-term spending splurge to prevent immediate economic collapse, vital though that is. We must dig deeper to uncover the economic roots of the mess we’re in. Putting it more positively, what do we want from post-coronavirus economics?”
Fortunately – there are many economic thinkers proposing sustainable ways of moving forward. A circular economy is an alternative to a traditional linear economy (make, use, dispose) in which we keep resources in use for as long as possible, extract the maximum value from them whilst in use, then recover and regenerate products and materials at the end of each service life.
A related but even more progressive concept is the doughnut economy described by Kate Raworth, an English economist working for the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge. Doughnut economics, is a visual framework for sustainable development – shaped like a doughnut or lifebelt – combining the concept of planetary boundaries with the complementary concept of social boundaries. The name derives from the shape of the diagram, i.e. a disc with a hole in the middle. The centre hole of the model depicts the proportion of people that lack access to life’s essentials (healthcare, education, equality, etc.) while the outer crust represents the ecological ceilings or planetary boundaries that life depends on and must not be overshot. See visual below.
The framework was proposed to regard the performance of an economy by the extent to which the needs of people are met without overshooting Earth’s ecological ceiling. In this model, an economy is considered prosperous when all social foundations are met without overshooting any of the ecological ceilings. This situation is represented by the area between the two rings, as the safe and just space for humanity.
These types of progressive concepts are not “pie in the sky’. A growing body of technological achievements along with associated financial undertakings underpins them. However there is predictable pushback from those entrenched in the traditional linear economy. The upcoming US election is providing a clear case study about the opposing forces. A ‘New Green Deal’ however it might be finally laid out, is already being branded as ‘socialist’. It is a false narrative as is commonly the case when progressive programs are initially proposed.
Make no mistake – despite ill-informed pushback, progress on many fronts is already occurring. The price of solar modules has plummeted 99% since the 1970s thanks to forward thinking research, public policy and increasing demand. According to the US Bureau of Labour Statistics, the fastest growing occupation over the next 10 years will be solar panel installer. The second: wind turbine technician. Major financial institutions have taken note with investments in renewables growing each year accompanied by decreasing investments in fossil fuels.
Despite these good news stories, sustainability is nonetheless a political issue. Unfortunately, this is stalling progress. We have observed this exact outcome with the CoVid crisis. Politics lead to a denial followed by a delay in needed action with a deadly outcome.
Policy shifts at all levels of government are needed to speed our transition to clean energy, sustainable and safe food production, proper use of resources and greater equality. Political will and informed planning are needed more than ever now. These goals though can be met. We have the knowledge and the financial resources. Moreover, people can adapt quickly to change once convinced that the change is necessary and even useful.