We are headed for a paradigm-changing economic collapse. COVID-19 is exacting a massive toll on human life and it will devastate our economies, but this tragic turn of events may also augur hope. It may very well prove to be the catalyst that helps us to avert even bigger crises.
Wildlife Conservation Society’s Joe Walston explained it this way: “It actually, sadly, takes people to die on people’s doorsteps, for people to die in people’s families, for that wake-up call to happen, which is always inevitably later than it should be. But I believe that the world is realizing now that these are environmental problems, that they are going to happen again unless we take action.” The coronavirus will cost hundreds of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars. It reveals the unconscionable immorality of wealth inequality and lays bare the need for universal health care. According to a new report by researchers at King’s College London and the Australian National University, this pandemic is expected to increase global poverty for the first time in 30 years pushing up to 580 million people into poverty. Although people of the global south are the most vulnerable, this pandemic also exposes racial injustice in some of the world’s wealthiest nations.
Although this modern-day plague will inflict terrible suffering it may help us to find the resolve to stave off climate change which is a far greater threat to human life and economic well-being. The emotional resonance of COVID-19 may even help us to challenge some deeply entrenched views that detract from the common good. The myopic focus on short term profits is incapable of producing the change we need in the time we have.
The coronavirus highlights the importance of science and evidence-based policy. A rational reassessment of our economy makes an irrefutable case for prioritizing climate action. Failure to do so will cost trillions of dollars not to mention pose a significant threat to civilization as we know it. According to one study, these costs could be as high as $160 trillion over the next 30 years. Whereas acting on climate change will yield trillions of dollars in net economic benefits.
The logic of climate action is overwhelming and yet this logic has not augured the action we need. We must face the reality that we are ebbing ever closer to
tipping points from which we may not be able to recover. We have not been able to galvanize the popular will or garner the political support required to move us decisively in the direction we need to go. Despite a plethora of scientific warnings, governments have not done what they must address climate change.
The biodiversity crisis and climate change are tragedies of the global commons. The core of the problem is an economic system that rewards and incentivizes plundering our planet and destroying our climate. This has led Canadian sustainability strategist and the Founder of the Toronto Sustainability Speaker Series (TSSS) Brad Zarnett to say:
“The path towards a stable climate will need to run through some kind of economic collapse. It will have nothing to do with a more sustainable business model or more progressive government action — both of those approaches have failed. Let’s face it — people just don’t feel the urgency to change how they live their lives and government is too weak and/or corrupt to lead the way…For real change to occur there needs to be a trigger, something has to jolt us out of our familiar ways. Something has to alter our expectations about what the future will look like if we follow our current path. That is to say, we perceive a greater level of risk with our old behaviour as compared to trying something new. And that’s where a perfect dose of fear comes into the equation — that’s the activation button for us to collectively realize that it’s time to take the medicine that science tells us is necessary…covid-19 is like nature reasserting itself, turning on a switch that says enough is enough — if you won’t make the economic system more climate friendly then we’ll just shut the whole thing down.”
The fact is our current economic reality is untenable. We need to come to terms with the perils of an economy that is premised on endless growth. Instead of GDP and stock market valuations, we need to emphasize metrics that reward efforts to conserve biodiversity and preserve ecosystem health. One noteworthy measure was proposed by statistician Nic Marks. He has suggested that nations measure their success with an altogether different metric called HPI.
The ways we assess success are important because these measurements frame our responses. We already have data that indicates COVID-19 has accomplished more in a matter of weeks than we have seen in decades. Global emissions are going down and support for climate action is increasing. This pandemic is even eroding the infrastructure responsible for climate change. The oil price crash is bankrupting thousands of extraction and production companies and contributing to the demise of the industry.
Depending on an economic collapse to address the world’s most serious challenges is indeed extreme. But more reasonable warnings have fallen on deaf ears. We must find a way to radically slash our emissions and sustainably manage our resource consumption. The alternative is suicide.