We will emerge from this emergency. When we do, what kind of a world do we want to create?
COVID-19 is killing hundreds of thousands of us. The lockdown that governments hope will stem its spread has revealed the fragility of the global economy with devastating impacts on vulnerable populations. The unfolding tragedy for millions of people is far from over. Yet several things are clear:
• This will hurt the poorest among us worst, and
• We will emerge from this emergency.
When we do, we will have to answer several urgent questions: What has the pandemic taught us about the structural failures of our prior world? And can we now build a better one? People will be desperate to “return to normal” but normal was a horrible world for many people. In the west, levels of teen suicide are high and rising. Deforestation, biodiversity loss, and climate change are already killing people. Vulnerable populations across the developing world already suffer the ravages of climate change, ecosystem destruction, chronic diseases and epidemics from Ebola to HIV-AIDS. The UN Global Environmental Outlook Six estimates “nearly one quarter of all deaths globally in 2012 could be attributed to modifiable environmental risks, with a greater portion occurring in populations in a vulnerable situation and in developing countries.” The systematic trashing of our home planet makes pandemics more likely. Deforestation drives wild animals closer to human populations, increasing the likelihood that zoonotic viruses will make the cross-species leap and infect us. Industrial agriculture likely created the conditions that enabled COVID-19 to flourish. Likewise, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that global warming will likely accelerate the emergence of new viruses. The inequality created by industrial capitalism already causes appalling death rates among the millions of slum-dwellers in the mega-cities of Asia, Africa and Latin America.
We need a new normal. But whose ideas will lead the creation of the new world? And most importantly, what kind of a world do we want to craft?
Arundhati Roy, describing the impact of COVID_19 on India, observed:
Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.
We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.
Our challenge is to emerge from this emergency with new social and economic systems that will deliver a world that works for everyone. If, in a rush to return to business as usual, we paper over the inadequate systems of yesterday and try to muddle on, we will be confronted by crisis after crisis until our ability to cope will be exhausted. If we try to maintain the same failed economic model that got us here, future shocks will exceed the capacity of governments, financial institutions, and corporate crisis managers to respond. Indeed, the “coronacrisis” has already done so.
The Club of Rome warned of this in its famous 1972 report, The Limits to Growth, and again in 1992 in Beyond the Limits. As lead author, Donella Meadows, noted back then, unless we shift to dramatically more sustainable systems, humanity’s future will be defined not by a single emergency but by compounding separate crises stemming from our failure to live sustainably. These, she warned, will overwhelm us.
This echoes the description by historian Patrick Wyman of how empires fail. He observes:
“When the real issues come up, healthy states, the ones capable of handling and minimizing everyday dysfunction, have a great deal more capacity to respond than those happily waltzing toward their end. But by the time the obvious, glaring crisis arrives and the true scale of the problem becomes clear, it’s far too late. The disaster—a major crisis of political legitimacy, a coronavirus pandemic, a climate catastrophe—doesn’t so much break the system as show just how broken the system already was.” He concludes, “The pull of the past is strong. The mental frameworks through which we understand the world are durable, far more so than its actual fabric….We don’t have to wait decades for all this to sink in. The nature of the problem and its scale are clear now, right now, on the cusp of the disaster.”
The coronavirus pandemic is a wake-up call. We simply must stop exceeding the planet’s limits. We must rebuild, not by bailing out oil companies and real estate moguls, but by investing in shared prosperity on a healthy planet. The world of yesterday wasn’t working,
The full force of the current catastrophe has only begun to hit. Roy describes how the lockdown unemployed many of the 460 million Indian workers, and turned them out of the work camps:
“They knew they were going home potentially to slow starvation. Perhaps they even knew they could be carrying the virus with them, and would infect their families, their parents and grandparents back home, but they desperately needed a shred of familiarity, shelter and dignity, as well as food, if not love.”
Rounded up, beaten for violating curfews, they huddle now by the roads, or try to return to the cities because there is nowhere else for them to go. Roy describes how broken supply chains have left thousands of truckers idle on the highways as food rots unharvested in fields.
Roy suggests that Prime Minister Modi request the French prime minister to allow India to renege on Its plan to buy fighter jet and use the €7.8bn to feed a few million hungry people. “Surely,” she says, “The French will understand.”
Dr. Jacqueline McGlade, former Chief Scientist of UNEP describes a similar if somewhat less dire situation in Kenya, as anyone who can flees back to the bush. Lockdowns are hard to enforce if there is no food. More than half of Africa regularly faces food insecurity, and COVID-19 will make this worse. Many in urban areas depend on the informal economy for their food and other necessities. The report, “Why Africa is at risk of a coronavirus catastrophe,” noted:
If – or when – a broader outbreak develops, the continent does not have anything approaching the resources necessary to fight it on a broad scale.
African nations have some of the least developed health systems in the world, both because of extreme poverty across the continent and because of fraught relations between federal governments and traditional tribal groups drawn together by European cartographers who cared about little more than their colonistic enterprises a century ago.
“The pandemic is testing the health systems in Africa especially around the readiness to handle public health emergencies. The capabilities of handling a large number of critically ill patients would be the most challenging especially in countries with poor health systems,” said David Meya, an infectious disease expert at the College of Health Sciences at Makerere University in Uganda.
On our little planet, all species, countries, and geopolitical issues are ultimately interconnected. We are witnessing how the outbreak of a virus in China can wreak havoc on the whole world. The other looming crises, climate change, biodiversity loss, and financial collapses, like COVID-19 do not observe national or even physical borders. These problems can be managed only through collective action that starts well before the crisis is upon us.
Three things are obvious:
• We’re all in this together. The virus respects no border, no class, no racial category. Perhaps for the first time in our existence, humanity is united in a struggle for our future. In any emergency it is natural to think first of yourself, your family. But our globalized world demands that we think next of everyone else. This crisis will hit poorer people, developing countries far harder than it will impact the wealthy in the Global North. Humanity must come together now to ensure that everyone is as protected as possible, and has the same ability to rebuild, or the virus will resurge and we will be right back into the mess.
• Second, now is the time to dream big, to envision the finest future we can co-create. If we are going to rebuild everything from scratch, now is the time to do it right the first time. We have all of the technologies we need, all the resources to craft a world that works for everyone. Although the tragedy is still unfolding, now is the time to put in place the policies to ensure that we do not repeat the mistakes that brought this catastrophe on us, and that we do not create far worse challenges like dictatorships. Governments are spending trillions of dollars, and transforming human societies more or less overnight. We now all know that power will act forcefully when it is motivated. We can do this again. We must do it, if we are to avoid far worse crises to come.
• Third, the crises to come, like this one, are global, but they will be worse. The pandemic is only a symptom. Had the world listened to the warnings of the scientists, had leaders acted on the best medical advice, the pandemic could have been mitigated. The world’s scientists have been warning of such pandemics for years, and yet countries like the US dismantled its pandemic early warning systems. Similarly, scientists are warning us about the climate crisis, the loss of biodiversity, the dangers of extreme inequality. They have been warning us for years. Unless we act fast, these still looming threats will wreck everything, even perhaps ending civilization as we know it. Now is the time to learn from today’s experience and implement systemic economic change, both to build shared prosperity, and to forestall the worst of the crises to come.
COVID-19 forced entire countries into lockdown, terrified citizens, and unleashed a financial-market meltdown. Forceful, immediate responses will be needed for months. But crises end. We will emerge. As we do, it is essential that we harvest the learnings from this experience, and prepare for the even worse crises to come. The pandemic has exposed the broken nature of many of our systems. Arundhati Roy warns:
Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to “normal”, trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality.
Lessons to be learned:
The global economy is incredibly efficient at flowing money to the richest people but this has left us dangerously vulnerable: eight men have as much wealth as the bottom half of humanity. At the same time, we allow half of the world’s population to live below the minimums necessary to sustain dignity and a quality of life. It is time for us to institute what Kate Raworth calls Doughnut Economics. This is the only way to create a “safe and just operating space for all of humanity.” We have the chance now to inhabit the sweet circle within the planet’s natural limits (the outer boundary of the doughnut) while ensuring that marginalized communities do not fall behind (into the doughnut hole). Interestingly, both Amsterdam and Costa Rica are using Doughnut Economics as the basis of their COVID recovery.
The crushing inequality of today, warns Thomas Piketty and many others put the economic system at risk of collapse long before the virus struck. Modern supply chains are efficient servants of the capital-owning class. They badly serve ordinary people in the communities from which the raw materials are sourced, or even poorer residents of the consuming communities. We achieved the unlimited ability to buy cheap pink fuzzy slippers from China by trading away the resilience to source our own surgical masks, ventilators, food, and the basics of life. This fixation on consumption placed us far beyond the planetary boundaries, but failed to include everyone. By using the Earth’s resources faster than they can be restored, and by releasing wastes and pollutants faster than they can be absorbed, we set ourselves up for disaster. Well, it’s here. Now let’s fix it.
Governments that contain epidemics all tacitly follow the same mantra: “Follow the science and prepare for the future.” Now is the time to do just that, and then to do much better. Rather than simply reacting to disasters, we can use science to design economies that will mitigate the threats of pandemics, climate change, biodiversity loss, and inequality. We start investing in what matters, by laying the foundation for a green, circular economy that is anchored in nature-based solutions and geared toward the public good. It will be based on renewable energy, regenerative agriculture, a circular economy and fair and inclusive development.
A regenerative economy moves beyond exploitation of fossil energy to use solar, wind, responsible biomass and the other clean sources to deliver the electricity, heat, industrial power and mobility we desire. It accepts the science that we can power the entire world abundantly on renewable energy by 2030, and the market economics that such sources are now cheaper than coal, gas and oil.
This is what the market is doing, anyway. In the first three months of 2020, Germany got more than half of its power from renewables. In the United States over the same time frame, utility-scale renewables delivered more power than coal. Renewable energy now surpasses fossil energy in developing countries, as well. South Africa’s Eskom utility is finding it increasingly hard to offload power from its coal plants, as its neighbors turn to lower cost solar. Botswana, Namibia and Zambia are all installing utility scale solar. In recognition, the African Development Bank has announced that it will no longer finance coal plants. India recently cancelled 14 large coal plants because they could not compete with solar. China, the country long thought to be the salvation of the global coal market is shifting to renewable energy as rapidly as it can. President Xi recently reiterated that the
economy should not be developed at the cost of destroying the environment. In the first three months of 2018, China installed 10 nuclear plants worth of solar. It’s coal fleet, though growing, is increasingly uneconomic, with half of its capacity losing money in 2019. Globally coal generation fell by 3% in 2019.
California’s Climate Center has laid out the playbook to displace all fossil energy with renewables:
1. Accelerate the phase-out of fossil fuel development, production, and use, by moving to 100 percent renewable energy by 2030. Mobility must be affordable and zero emission. Buildings must be electrified.
2. Invest in community resilience, using the principles outlined by Michael Shuman and others
3. Supplying sufficient funding to ensure the transition, using proceeds from carbon markets.
4. Sequester carbon using nature-based solutions like regenerative agriculture.
The global regenerative agriculture movement has shown how to nourish the soil on which all life depends, especially the microbial life that sequesters carbon in the earth. Shifting from industrial to regenerative agriculture is immediately feasible, and would allow us to sequester enough carbon in the soil to reverse the climate crisis. Moreover, doing so would increase farm profits, enhance economic and environmental resilience, create jobs, and improve nutrition and wellbeing in both rural and urban communities.
Both the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in 2013, and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in 2015 published reports concluding that only organic, smallholder farms could feed the world. The FAO report found that protecting and empowering such bottom-of-the-pyramid growers who produce most of world’s food has enabled half of the world’s countries to meet the Millennium Development goal of cutting malnutrition in half.
Soil health is the key to this vision. It is key to rural prosperity, to food security, to community health, and nutrition for a growing population. It is also essential to solving the climate emergency. Yet agriculture as currently practiced is losing soil to the point that UN FAO estimates we may have only 60 more harvests.
Examples abound across the world. In North Dakota, in the U.S, Gabe Brown switched from producing commodity corn and soybeans to eight different crops and livestock, grown using regenerative agriculture practices. This shift cut his costs and enabled him to transition from going broke to comfortably profitable. Gabe and other regenerative producers who sell direct to consumers are now experiencing increased demand in the virus lockdown. But more important, the shift turned his 2,500-acre farm from an eroding sink for fertilizer and pesticides, to a massive carbon sink. Over ten years’ time, =Gabe increased the soil organic matter on his farm: from 1.7% to more than 11%. Gabe is rolling climate change backwards at a profit. Every 1% increase equates to roughly five tons of carbon, durably sequestered in the soil. In healthy soil mycorrhizal fungi mineralize the carbon that comes from animal manure and other biomass. This is why Microsoft just committed a billion dollars to nature-based solutions to enable the company to sequester as much carbon as it has emitted over its lifetime.
A diversified farm in Zambia, using pigs and other grazing animals has increased soil organic matter from approximately 0.5%, typical for that part of Zambia, to 2.5%, which represents an increase of 24 tons of carbon per hectare. Sequestering that amount of carbon across Zambia would remove 1.8 gigatons of carbon from the atmosphere. Each additional percent soil organic matter added to the soil also increases water holding capacity by 50,000 gallons per hectare.
In India, Dr. Vandana Shiva’s Navdanya Center is expanding its Gardens of Hope program across India to help mitigate the looming food crisis in the pandemic. In Kenya, goatherding children with slingshots and hot air ballooners are using charcoal-wrapped seed balls to plant trees and counter deforestation. Marc Barasch’s Green World Campaign is finalizing negotiations with the Kenyan government to plant Moringa trees. Moringa is considered by many as a superfood, loaded with protein, vitamins, minerals that some believe will strengthen immune systems. Barasch’s Regenerative Kenya Moringa Moonshot would combine reforestation, agro-ecology education complementary currencies and elders’ biocultural knowledge. These community-based value/supply chains will seek to provide food security, smallholder income, and carbon sequestration in trees and soil organic matter.
In the South Bronx, one of America’s poorest communities, school teacher, Stephen Ritz’s Green Bronx Machine has pivoted from creating gardens to facilitate classroom teaching to use his gardens to feed inner city people in the food deserts of New York City in the COVID crisis. Stephen has just returned from Dubai, where the Emirates are interested in helping to spread this model to schools and cities around the world.
Regenerative agriculture features prominently in many of the new economic models that are now being explored by governments around the world.
The necessary policy blueprints all are based on the principle of meeting basic human needs while living within our planetary boundaries. These include the European Commission’s European Green Deal, the similar Green New Deal in the United States, South Korea’s Green New Deal, and Costa Rica’s Green New Deal. Such policies support the communities and businesses most at risk from the current crisis. These proposals, some supported by all political parties, show that policies addressing environmental and social wellbeing are not ideological footballs. They are recognized as essential ways to deliver climate protection, resilience, jobs creation and health. They offer the way to rebuild from COVID, and insulate ourselves from the other looming crises.
A regenerative economy may seem unobtainable, a dream. Don’t believe it. What is unrealistic is the fantasy that the status quo can endure. Our current degenerative system is destroying life on earth, endangering the stability of our life support systems, and creating the conditions for collapse.
It is not easy to envision a new system. William Allen, former Chancellor of the Delaware Court of Chancellery, notes, “One of the marks of a truly dominant intellectual paradigm is the difficulty people have in even imagining an alternative view.” The current crisis has shown, however, that we really do not have a choice.
Policymakers responding to the current crisis must pivot from war, environmental destruction and corrupt economics to support citizens’ livelihoods. Now is the time to start redirecting subsidies toward green infrastructure, reforestation, and investments in a more circular, shared, regenerative, low-carbon economy. With the recent oil-price plunge (oil prices just went negative, as extractors pay users to take oil of their hands), the $5.2 trillion of perverse annual fossil-fuel subsidies can and should be eliminated. The G7 and many European countries have pledged to eliminate perverse energy subsidies by 2025; they should do it now. To power the recovery, it makes more sense to use such largesse to deploy the renewable energy technologies that are now globally available and cheaper everywhere than fossil fuels. The $1 million a minute in subsidies to industrial agriculture could help a lot of farmers transition to regenerative practices.
We know what we need to do. Books from Regenerative Urban Development to A Finer Future describe the measures that need to be implemented to solve the interlinked crises facing us and deliver shared prosperity on a healthy planet. Now is clearly the time to do this. There is grave concern that the race to return to normal will focus on restoring the old system. This would be bad policy and bad business. There is a strong business case for using this crisis to usher in global systemic change.
As investment companies from Domini Impact Investments to Change Finance have shown, the companies and communities that shift to resilient, regenerative practices will be the first to the future. More than 1,800 global companies, representing one quarter of global GDP with market capitalization exceeding $24 trillion have already committed to take bold climate action. One sixth of the global economy is now covered by net-zero commitments. These will be the companies that young people want to work for. They will have lower costs, better brand recognition, fewer risks and higher employee engagement. Statistics from OECD, Gallup Healthways, and numerous other entities show that these companies are more profitable, perform better in the market and are best prepared for the future we want to create.
In the global North, we worry about the politics of ventilators and unavailability of toilet paper. It is time to realize that COVID-19 is a global crisis. The sooner we act as humanity to solve it, the sooner we can implement the solutions that are in our hands. The COVID-19 crisis shows us that it is possible to make transformational changes overnight. We suddenly entered a different world with a different economy.
Humans are resilient and entrepreneurial. We are perfectly capable of beginning again. If we learn from our failings, we can build a brighter future than the present tragedy that is afflicting us. Let us embrace this moment of upheaval as an opportunity to start investing in resilience, shared prosperity, wellbeing, and planetary health. We have long since exceeded our natural limits; we have allowed far too many of our fellow humans to suffer. it is time to build a Finer Future.
Authors are all members of the Club of Rome.
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