Why are these two terms in the same headline? Because a sustainable society is an inherently resilient society with a broad-based economy, making it much better equipped to face a pandemic threat than a globalised, grow-forever consumer society. Sustainable societies develop a wide technological base. They embrace biophysical and well-being metrics to illuminate both a bigger picture and a very detailed view of the physical inner workings of a society, compared to the commercial economy’s one-metric-to-rule-them-all, GDP.
Would a sustainable, resilient society be immune to the effects of a pandemic? Absolutely not, but it would be better equipped to handle them just as it would be better prepared to navigate the even larger challenges of climate change, the transition to renewable energy and environmental decline.
To this point, humanity’s response to global warming has been a muddled, ineffective patchwork of slogans ranging from the oxymoronic “clean growth” to “business-as-usual, the market will solve it.” And this, 30 years after the official and stark warnings from scientists began in earnest which are now reaching eardrum piercing levels. But here we are, scarcely eight weeks into a pandemic crisis, and politicians all over the world of every stripe are now laser-focused on minimising the human toll of COVID-19 regardless of where the economic chips may fall.
The coronavirus pandemic represents a clear and imminent threat. Its impact is an exponentially growing number of sick and dead with the sobering promise of truly epic human suffering. If there are any pandemic deniers left, their voices have faded dramatically.
Our response to the coronavirus has quickly evolved from a monetary response into one based solidly on the real economy. Governments, with their disconnected perspectives shaped by finance and media corporations, have been forced to climb down and get their hands dirty in the mechanics of the medical, energy and food sectors. Coronavirus policy decisions have not been determined by the amount of dollars we will spend but rather by the number of masks, gloves and ventilators which have to be applied to a given patient load in a given region.
Market Based Solutions
In the realms of climate change, environmental health and resource depletion, the argument has often been heard that the commercial market will automatically adjust to our changing planet and repair it, just as government budgets have been forecasted to automatically balance themselves. Market forces, it was thought, would not only deal with problems, but continue to generate ever higher levels of consumption. Clearly, despite the passage of numerous decades, market forces have not delivered the necessary results or even progress towards this goal.
Non-performance has been tolerated to this point because these issues have not been deemed by the public and political leadership to be immediate threats. It took a pandemic to show us what we really felt was an immediate threat.
In a few short weeks, virtually every government on the planet, no matter their political orientation, has gone onto a de facto wartime footing and taken control over the movement of people and the production of goods.
Tweaking the money supply and taxes is no longer seen to be enough. Not only has growth not been touted as a saviour, it has been definitively kicked to the curb. The blind pursuit of growth - expanding the commercial marketplace at all costs - is what made us much more vulnerable and unprepared than we otherwise would have been. Globalised and fragile production systems, created to produce the greatest amount of goods at the lowest possible price, are not the weapons we need to fight a pandemic. Nor climate change. Governments have recognised these key vulnerabilities and are now ramping up local capacity to produce medicine, hospital equipment and supplies to assure a secure and stable response.
Overnight, public policy formation has become be much less interested in greater dollar flows, and much more interested in public welfare. COVID-19 has made public policy real and connected again.
How far and how fast has the political system moved? Because of this crisis, Donald Trump embraced science over the dollar with even Democratic congresswoman and critic, Ilhan Omar praising his leadership. Who, in their wildest dreams, foresaw even one of those events?
Now that the threat has crystallised, one-time deniers are lining up calling for strong direct action to get ahead of the problem. We need to hold onto that clarity and resolve and apply it to the climate and environment fronts, which are far larger problems and far longer lasting.
Coronavirus as a Warmup Act
As we exit the coronavirus threat period, be it in two months or two years, we will look back and recognise that we need to be much better prepared in the future than we have been. We’ll look at the fragility of our food, health, energy and industrial systems and our finance sector’s propensity to spin debt and misallocate resources. Now that we are unconsciously moving off the globalist path in a race-to-the-bottom, the changes in our priorities can be the basis for greater preparedness to handle the challenges ahead which will continue to loom ever-larger over of us.
Can coronavirus serve as the warm-up for dealing with the existential questions of climate change and resource depletion? Will governments and society now see the advantage of early, if imperfect, engagement and find the means to directly tackle these issues? We have just proven we are capable of doing it.
Humanity needs to enter the post-coronavirus era, not looking back to the way things were but pointed towards where we need to go.
- John Erik Meyer is the President of the “Canadians for a Sustainable Society” NGO and is the owner and designer at a small medium tech manufacturing company.
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