The global pandemic: An opportunity to rethink our economic setup

Main points:

  1. The cause of the pandemic lies in habitat and biodiversity loss.
  2. The crisis shows us once again how extractive our current economic system is and what a burden it is on planetary health.
  3. The feedback loop is closing on our economy: as a result of planetary health loss our economies are suffering worldwide.
  4. We need to use this opportunity to draw attention to biodiversity as a planetary boundary of utmost importance, and to think which alternative economic solutions we can introduce to restructure our economic system.

As the globalised society goes into a standby mode, and as we are trying to land in the new reality, many are starting to contemplate: What does all of this mean? Why did it happen, and where are we heading?

There are of course no answers. There are speculations and perspectives, and we offer one such perspective-speculation, looking at things from the angle where society and environment meet.

The cause: The severest breach of a planetary boundary

As our countries immerse into the chaos and uncertainty, as we close our borders and convert school chemistry labs into disinfectant factories, it is tempting to think: What if there was no bat?

But the poor bat is not to blame. And neither the illegal market where it is rumoured to have been traded, allegedly sparking off the spread of the virus. Let’s look at the problem from a wider perspective – and the culprit here is habitat loss.

Zoonosis, a process by which viruses are transferred from animals to humans, is very common – and, according to the UN, one of the reasons behind it is the loss and fragmentation of animal habitats. It is this habitat loss through industrialisation and urban expansion that causes microbes and viruses, often harmless to animals, migrate to human bodies where they become deadly pathogens. The Nation gives an excellent account of many deadly diseases, including HIV and Ebola, which occurred by means of zoonosis, and as a result of habitat destruction. Scientific American claims that this issue is an increasing threat, due to the pressure we humans put on wildlife globally.

Biodiversity is much less on the news than, for example, climate change. However, those of us who work with sustainability issues and are aware of the concept of planetary boundaries also know that biodiversity is a planetary boundary scoring highest on the risk scale, according to Stockholm Resilience Centre, matched only by the disruption of nitrogen and phosphorus cycles. According to WWF, human actions have created disruptions in 75% of land and 66% of marine ecologies. “Healthy ecosystems are the foundation of our societies, our economies, our food production, our health – and yet, we are destroying them at an alarming rate”, says Ester Asin, Director of the WWF European Policy Office.

The tragedy we are witnessing as a result of the corona crisis may be too high a price to pay for the increased awareness of the importance of biodiversity. But the price has been paid, and we must leverage the situation: we must raise the importance of biodiversity on our society’s agenda.

The consequence: The closing of a feedback loop

You do not have to accept the Gaia hypothesis to imagine that we, an invasive species, are now reaping what we sowed. The crisis which has its roots in the harm we have done to nature has now put us in a lockdown, while nature is taking a moment to take a deep breath.

Rachel’s Carson ‘Silent spring’ is a book many cite as the beginning of the environmental movement. Today we are experiencing a kind of ‘reverse silent spring’, with our factories and motorways falling silent – and other species claiming their space in this lull. There is a blue sky over Delhi, the fish have returned to Venice canals, the global carbon emissions have currently fallen.

Human beings’ history is a blink in the history of this planet, and we are newbies compared to millions of other species. In the 4.5-billion-year timeline of planet Earth homo sapiens appeared about only two hundred thousand years ago. We struggled hard to survive, and in the last one hundred and fifty years we have almost tripled in our population. This has come at a cost of the planet’s global ecosystem. In our lifetimes we have seen rivers becoming drains, forests turning into shopping malls, and green hills becoming deep mines. Depending on different calculations, we may be globally consuming the resources of one and a half planets; this figure may be as big as four planets if everyone on Earth was consuming as much as the average person in a country like the US.

What we are witnessing today is the economic halt caused by a virus which was a result of our extractive approach to nature. If we look at it from a system’s perspective, it is the closing of a feedback loop: we create economy which is harmful to nature; nature in turn creates something harmful to us; the economy shuts down; nature takes its chance to recover. There is no need to imagine a revengeful Gaia though: this is just statistics, probabilities, a complex system at work. It wasn’t the question of if, it was the question of how, and it has already happened many times, but less globally and less massively. What we are witnessing today is a massive-scale, global closing of a feedback loop.

However, the worst and the most heart-breaking economic effect of this crisis is that it doesn’t affect all of us equally. We often hear rhetoric in the media that the crisis unites us, it doesn’t discriminate and so on – unfortunately, this is just what it is – rhetoric. The virus doesn’t discriminate, perhaps, but our socioeconomic systems are built for discrimination. The ones who are affected most are the poor and the marginalised. The crisis, like many other crises of a similar kind, serves to redistribute wealth, once again, from the poor to the rich.

The pandemic has shown us a new way to live. Most of us are flying less, travelling to the minimum, eating home and spending time with family. We are forced to look at the essentials of life, and we enjoy a minimalist life – those of us who can afford this pleasure. It comes as no surprise that inequality grows as a result of the crisis, and exacerbates it further. In countries like Sweden, with relatively high social security, people can afford to go into a voluntary isolation; in some countries even official lockdown is not observed by those who have to work because they simply have no other sources of income. People who live hand-to-mouth have everything to lose during the crisis, and nothing to gain. People who have savings and assets they can fall back on will do so, and perhaps even use the crisis to make some smart investments and secure even higher income in the present or the future.

So what does it mean? It is tempting to draw the conclusion that the crisis exemplifies once again the conflict between economy and environment. This plays into the hand of those who may want to present this conflict as a zero-sum game: what is good for the environment is bad for the economy, and vice-versa. But of course by now we all have realised that this is not true. The problem is that the current economic system is unsustainable – but it doesn’t mean that we cannot make it more sustainable, or that we as a species cannot find ways to live without destroying our own global habitat.

The challenge with humanity is that we lack a systemic view. The military industry complex has been violently pushing for ravishing growth of GDP, even though we have known since the 1980s that it is an inaccurate way of measuring wellbeing of a population. It is obvious that our wellbeing depends on a clean and healthy environment, however we have been destroying our own defence system. After transforming our living systems into an enormous material wealth which is valued at more than 80 trillion USD, we as a species are still hollow and empty, we lack the meaning and purpose, living with high rates of stress, anxiety and depression.

The response: Editing the blueprint

As we are taking a pause, it is a good time to rethink our economic model. And perhaps we could try to do it in a way different from the usual polemics between left-and-right which has been fuelled by the crisis. We might consider a toolbox of alternative economic models which, during this crisis, may seem to make a lot more sense.

The current situation, in which a country like Sweden spends about six percent of its GDP in a desperate attempt to boost the economy (and Sweden didn’t even introduce an official lockdown, and had high levels of social security to begin with!), could perhaps be eased by one tool – the basic income.

When we began writing this article, there was not so much written about it – and it was amazing to see (as we have been somewhat relaxed in our writing tempo…) how much discussion the idea of a basic income has sparked off in the last few days and weeks. You can follow this discussion in Wired, on World Economic Forum’s website, in The Conversation, The Brussels Times, The Guardian. Although we are doubtful that a basic income introduced now, in the midst of chaos, would make a significant difference, we agree with the Belgian political philosopher Philippe Van Parijs who suggests that if we had the system of basic income in place, our economies would be much better fit to cope with the current crisis.

We believe that in the long run the universal basic income would help us to transition to a new paradigm in which we could build a caring and sharing economy. Today with a stimulus package of 5 trillion USD, the G20 leaders propose to bring stability to global economy. Unfortunately, very little of that package is going to reach the people for whom it would make the greatest difference. According to the World Bank, about four billion people live on less than than 2.50 USD a day, or about 900 USD a year. What if the G20 created a universal basic income (UBI) fund, which would serve as a safety net for the four billion people? The UBI fund could be financed through a combination of an impact bond, data dividend tax on big data and AI companies, and a financial transaction tax – for example. In local communities the basic income could also be packaged in an immunity package, in which people all over the world receive a basic kit consisting of vitamin C, local herbs and other such nutritious supplements that guard them against diseases.

When it comes to biodiversity, the people who are dependent on killing animals or destroying their habitats need to have alternative sources of income. In the Sundarbans (Eastern India) programmes have been implemented which allowed tiger poachers to start producing honey. Currently IUCN (International Union of Conservation of Nature) together with Earthbanc is looking at similar incentive based mechanisms to stop overfishing in South Asia. However, there is a high probability that a basic income scheme would have largely taken care of these issues.

The hope

We would like to see these times as an opportunity for reconnection rather than isolation. For the most privileged of us, the crisis is shining the light on a new way of living. Hopefully we will have the humility to realise that SARS-CoV-2, the next in line of similar occurrences which we didn’t pay as much attention to, is a wake-up call for us to redesign our lives and societies. At best, our forced reflection time will allow us to transform our economic system and make a new step in our evolution as a species, towards a symbiosis with our habitat. At the very least, we hope that we will make enough incremental changes in order to become healthier, humbler, and more resilient.

Text: Tatiana Sokolova and Rishab Khanna

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash


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