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The pandemic is remaking who we are. It is an opening to a new world where our capacity to love each other is integral to our survival.
Within just a few weeks—faster than the blink of an eye in geological time—a tiny, microscopic entity brought the global monolith of human civilization, the captains of industry, the might of the world’s militaries, the financial juggernauts of money and manufacturing, to their knees. According to the likely, but still uncertain theory, the novel coronavirus behind the disease named COVID-19 (Coronavirus Disease 2019) whipsawed its way across East China, from wet markets in Wuhan, before becoming a global pandemic. Within months, two million people worldwide were confirmed infected—with tens of millions estimated to be the real number—and over 150,000 had died.
As everyday life ground to a halt amid social lockdowns designed to reduce the impact on flailing health care facilities, so too did the global economy. Everything has stopped. Massive, entrenched inequalities have been increasingly exposed as the most vulnerable countries, classes, and groups experience the brunt of the crisis. The pandemic has revealed a startling, dizzying array of interconnections across the entire architecture of the global system—interconnections that conjoin each of us with a tiny virus that first jumped to humans from a wild animal in Wuhan.
Although modern industrial civilization views the virus as an unequivocal biological enemy, it is an integral player in the complex web of life. Viruses have an environmental function as an evolutionary force for biological organisms. Recognizing this allows us to reframe our understanding of the pandemic—which neither comes out of the blue, nor can be simply defeated using the instruments of advanced medical science. On the contrary, the pandemic has been incubated by the very structure of our civilization. So the evolutionary pressure it brings is not merely a question of biology, but of the very sinews of our societies, culture, politics, and economics.
Since the appearance of life on earth, viruses have played a critical role in driving forward biological evolution. In 2016, a study led by Stanford University found that 30% of all protein adaptations in humans, since they diverged from chimpanzees, were driven by viruses.
As viruses can hijack key functions in a host organism’s cells to replicate and spread, they can drive cellular evolution to an even greater extent than evolutionary pressures from predation or environmental stressors. “The discovery that this constant battle with viruses has shaped us in every aspect—not just the few proteins that fight infections, but everything—is profound,” said one of the study’s authors, Professor Dmitri Petrov.
According to a paper in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the very same process of industrial expansion behind the collapse of biodiversity (the variety and abundance of life on earth)—putting a million species at risk of extinction—is also responsible for the heightened risk of major disease outbreaks.
The global expansion of human activities, the study finds, has caused escalating “losses in wildlife habitat quality,” leading to “increased opportunities for animal-human interactions.” These in turn have “facilitated zoonotic disease transmission”—that is, the jumping of diseases found in certain animals to human populations.
Scientists have warned for decades that a pandemic would be inevitable this century, and very likely within decades. Even hardened national security experts now warn that the current pandemic is “probably a dry-run” for a worse one next time.
This predicament has placed the global system—structurally hardwired for endless exponential economic growth simply to retain stability—into a state of unprecedented uncertainty: Allowing the virus to run through the population will maximize the number of deaths, cause overwhelmed health care facilities to collapse, and crash our economies; locking down to slow or stop the spread of the virus to minimize fatalities will also crash our economies.
Even in exemplary cases where mass community testing has been combined with systematic tracing and isolation—New Zealand, South Korea, Germany—societies face the prospect of permanent lifestyle changes to minimize disease resurgence through continued monitoring and rapid response capabilities.
The pandemic, triggered by the operation of the global system, has placed that system between a rock and a hard place, where every option signals the inevitability of a long-term economic contraction of some kind. The human species has hit a roadblock—a structural impasse of our own creation.
This unsustainable heyday was bound to grind to a halt.
In February, as the virus began to metastasize across the world, I reported on an extensive study by the Geological Survey of Finland. It concluded that the global economy was on the brink of another financial crash triggered by the collapse of the oil industry. Global conventional oil production has plateaued since around 2005, driving a shift to more expensive and difficult sources of energy—in particular U.S. shale oil and gas which has accounted for over 70% of global oil supply growth in recent years.
U.S. shale firms have gone billions of dollars deeper into debt as operational and production costs have rocketed. At some point, study author Simon Michaux explained, these unsustainable economics would trigger a crisis across the shale industry, undermining global oil supply and, in turn, global economic growth.
“If debt is a promised claim on the future, the total amount of goods and services has been growing, while debt levels and other kinds of promises have been growing more rapidly than their physical collateral,” concluded the Finnish report. Growth in GDP has amounted to little more than a “debtfueled mirage.” And as we have not properly planned to phase out fossil fuel energy, the contraction of energy systems, oil in particular, could bring on “the peak of industrial output per capita sometime in the next few years.”
When understood in its full global systemic context, the COVID-19 crisis reveals the fundamental limits of the paradigm that defines industrial civilization in its current form—its assumptions about human nature, conception of the natural world, economic theory of the relationship between the two, overriding value-system, and associated nexus of collective behavioral patterns.
While this paradigm has brought us this far, it has thrown us into an unprecedented crisis exposing the levels of cognitive dysfunction baked into our current system. More Americans could die from coronavirus than those who died during combat in all the wars. More than five times the number of Britons have died from coronavirus than from UK terrorism since 1970. The trillions of dollars in national security expenditures in modern times by these two countries have done nothing to protect citizens from an ecological-biological disruption flagged for decades, often by their own national security agencies.
COVID-19, then, was both a direct consequence of the paradigm of endless growth, and the pin that burst that bubble of growth. As such, its systemic consequences have been widely underestimated—largely because the true contours of that paradigm are not widely understood.
The reverberations of the COVID-19 pandemic will be far-reaching and difficult to anticipate. But a number of systems frameworks offer ways of looking at the problem that can help us better conceptualize what has happened, how it could unfold, and what role we can play.
The “adaptive cycle” framework is one such way. Developed by the late ecologist C.S. Holling, it provides powerful insights when applied to the rise and fall of human social systems. Systems tend to grow, decline, and renew themselves over four phases: growth—defining the 200 or so years of rapid industrial growth since the 19th century; conservation—encompassing a period of consolidation in which the system stabilizes; release—a period of uncertainty and chaos as the system begins to weaken and decline; and finally reorganization, when the system undergoes a fundamental re-ordering which can pave the way for a new systemic life cycle.
Industrial civilization appears to have entered the last stages of its systemic life cycle long before the pandemic. While this “release” stage reveals the alarming results of previously entrenched social, political, economic, and cultural structures collapsing under the weight of their own incoherence, it also opens up unprecedented opportunities for radical change. At this point in a system’s life cycle, the weakening of top-down structures allows small perturbations to have wider re-ordering impacts across structures within the system.
This has two major implications. The pandemic has emerged as a long-predicted symptom of a system in slow collapse. It is already rapidly accelerating the process of decline and emerging chaos. Simultaneously, it indicates that we have stepped much deeper into the release phase, opening up previously unthinkable possibilities for outsized change and systemic transformation.
Arundhati Roy described it poignantly: “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.”
More than that, the pandemic is a crucible, burning away and altering the structures that comprise the old paradigm, remaking who and what we are.
When we emerge, we will have crossed a permanent threshold, from which there is no return, because there is simply no more “normal” to which to return. The question before us is this: As we pass through the threshold, will we extinguish everything in our desperation to cling to a past that has run its course? Or will we recover the courage to embrace the strange uncertainty of a different paradigm?
A basic precondition for being able to cross the threshold is acceptance: recognizing that the system as we know it, including many established structures taken for granted, is now bound to fall away. There may well be much to salvage, but it is futile to expect that the neoliberal “normality” of endless growth from which the pandemic erupted can simply continue unimpeded. It cannot—and efforts to revive it will be systemically self-defeating.
That much is clear from the works of anthropology professor Joseph Tainter of Utah State University, whose seminal study, The Collapse of Complex Societies, showed how every new layer of complexity a civilization generates to solve its problems tends to generate its own new layer of problems, resulting in a vicious cycle of diminishing returns.
Eventually, a civilization gets too complex to sustain itself, and cannot but collapse.
Exactly how that collapse takes place—and the opportunities for renewal it brings—varies depending on the context. Professor Thomas Homer-Dixon, university research chair in the faculty of environment at the University of Waterloo, has shown how global industrial civilization is particularly vulnerable due to the tightly coupled nature of its highly complex financial, food, economic, and energy systems. This complexity heightens the probability that different “stressors” interact within the system to generate a system-wide “synchronous failure,” whereby multiple interconnected elements end up failing simultaneously.
In 2008, “synchronous failure” unleashed a perfect storm of oil price spikes, food price hikes, and climate-induced food production failures interacting with collapsing housing markets and banks. The interlocking crises paved the way for the Arab Spring, laying the groundwork for the collapse of Syria into internecine civil war, in turn driving an unprecedented mass migration crisis which played a key role in tipping over Western political systems into the mainstreaming of xenophobia (manifested in victories for Trump, Brexit, and beyond).
Today, the economic slump accompanying national lockdowns has yielded massive destruction in the fossil fuel industry. As global demand plummets, the crash in oil market prices has driven profitability to an all-time low—too low, arguably, for many U.S. shale companies previously skimming the edges of bankruptcy.
This is not a temporary blip. A dramatic contraction of economic activity will now be unavoidable over the coming 18 months at minimum—either due to relaxing restrictions and driving up death rates to a degree that collapses social and health care systems, or maintaining restrictions that keep economies flat. This means prices will likely be too low for the oil industry as we know it to survive. By the time supply constraints allow prices to rise, which would only happen when demand is able to rise substantially after the pandemic, much of the fossil fuel sector as we know it will be beyond repair.
This disruption of a global system dependent on fossil fuels poses a serious risk to food, manufacturing, and other supply chains that sustain business as usual. The devastating impacts are being experienced most acutely by the world’s most vulnerable communities. Poorer countries in Africa with health care systems debilitated by years of ill-conceived Western structural adjustment programs are caught between trying to implement lockdowns to save lives while staving off health infrastructure collapse, and the prospect of prolonged unemployment and food and water scarcity. The pandemic is exposing the massive structural inequalities in the global system that have remained invisible for so long.
Yet the only way forward is through.
Even as this process of systemic decline steepens and accelerates, we are already seeing the signals of what an adaptive, systemic reorganization might look like. Even the most laissez-faire-minded governments, overseeing incompetently catastrophic COVID-19 responses leading to the highest fatality rates, have been forced into drastic life-supporting actions.
Though inadequate, many governments are taking extraordinary measures to protect homeless people, pouring billions into welfare safety nets for disenfranchised workers, offering greater support to health care systems, and exploring fringe notions like Universal Basic Income while neoliberal financial institutions are calling for immediate debt-relief to the poorest countries.
Worldwide, a sense of communal solidarity has emerged as humans everywhere cancel everything to protect the most vulnerable. When the UK government called for 250,000 volunteers to assist the NHS, they got three quarters of a million. WhatsApp groups and tech platforms are offering people new ways to connect with and help their neighbors.
Suddenly, old rules don’t matter.
As we realize that our priority is not more material production and consumption for its own sake, but life itself, the unthinkable has not just become possible, but essential for survival.
The pandemic is wreaking unmitigated destruction on the old paradigm, and dragging us kicking and screaming into a world where our capacity to love each other has become integral to our survival.
We are peering through Arundhati Roy’s portal. But we have not yet stepped into the crucible.
To navigate and mitigate escalating societal risks while laying the foundations for the next life cycle of civilization, we will need to fundamentally transform the industries recognized as critical to global economic activity, and to restructure the deep sinews of that activity along the way.
This requires a radical reshaping of our frame of orientation, from endless material growth and the valorization of markets, to a new life-oriented system explicitly designed for the protection and flourishing of the human species and all living beings.
More than 20 years ago, former senior USAID official and Harvard Business School professor (and YES! co-founder) David Korten was offering small groups of people a profound vision to “restore democracy and create mindful market economies. We can create cultures and the institutions of the just, sustainable, and compassionate world of which we all dream,” he told his audiences. “And it is our right to do so.”
It’s taken a full-blown pandemic to snap us awake as we slide down the release stage of the current systemic life cycle. Within this threshold moment, outsized opportunities to bring such vision into the forefront of policy are rapidly emerging. To succeed, we will need to simultaneously execute multiple fundamental and interconnected transformations across the energy sector, manufacturing, transport, Big Data, agriculture, consumer culture, media, education—and beyond.
Old ways of doing things across these industries no longer work.
We will need to invest in forms of energy and manufacturing less prone to depletion, renewable in nature, and circular (recyclable) in sourcing of minerals and raw materials. We will need to ensure these are distributed and decentralized, so that households, communities, and small businesses have greater resilience as owners and producers of energy.
We will need to harness Big Data not for centralized mass surveillance, but to intelligently distribute and share resources between communities, based on supply, demand, and need. We will need to shift manufacturing from dependence on far-flung supply chains, closer to home and restructure it around material essentials—rather than fueling a pointless hunger for an unlimited array of junk gadgets.
We will need to transform just-in-time food supply chains and supermarket networks so that they are free from soil degradation, climate-induced droughts, and high fossil fuel inputs via pesticides and fertilizer; while also making them resilient, more grounded with local communities, farmers, and workers.
Banks and corporations will need to remake themselves to stop accelerating debt while offering monetary life support for what societies and businesses actually need. This will mean exploring shared ownership structures blurring the fixed divides between labor and capital, while also bringing their once hypercompetitive activities into coordination and mutuality.
Fundamentally, it is human beings across these disparate structures and organizations, particularly those in decision-making positions, that will need to reflect and reconsider what their role is at this threshold moment. Can they steer the systems they are connected with into a life-supporting configuration? Or will they remain hell-bent on protecting narrow, dislocated systems of self-maximization and material accumulation?
This is an evolutionary moment—for each of us. You and I are now faced with a pivotal life choice for what comes next, what we devote ourselves to, where our alignments lie, what our real commitments are. This choice will make history.
Only the choice that considers all and not a few will get us across the threshold, into the crucible, and through the portal to the other side. Many of us are already taking that leap. We are stronger when we take it together. I’ll meet you there.
NAFEEZ AHMED is executive director of the System Shift Lab, editor of the crowdfunded platform INSURGE intelligence, and research fellow at the Schumacher Institute for Sustainable Systems.
First published in YES! Magazine. Included in Vox Populi with permission.