COVID’s economic lockdown should be grasped as an opportunity to build a sustainable, environment-conscious capitalist model.
With a third of the world’s population in indefinite hibernation and with economies set to shrink by up to 30%, governments are beginning to focus on ending the lockdowns while continuing to suppress the infectiousness of COVID-19. What specifically caused the pandemic is unclear; its original pathogen is most probably inside a bat inside a pangolin in China, now currently lost among international blame-gaming conspiracy theories and political propaganda.
While COVID-19 shines a light on the excesses of Chinese centralised suppression and American capitalism, COVID is but a syndrome of a greater contagion. The process of just-in-time, industrialised manufacturing – from meat production to the making of electronics, vehicles, packaging, plastics, textiles and buildings – anchored in linear, carbon-intensive supply chains that are continually replacing natural ecosystems with man-made toxicity.
Annual global extraction of finite natural resources has tripled in the last forty years, and today’s economic growth is conjoined to the overload of noxious waste, environmental degradation and human encroachment on dwindling biodiversity. Just 23% of the planet remains in its natural state.
Humans, in their domination over all planetary life, are in competition not just with each other, but with their surroundings; ignoring, to their detriment, nature’s template of rich, self-sustaining life cycles.
Bill Gates urges that we prepare more resilient systems for the next pandemic. But healthcare systems are only as resilient as the environment in which they operate.
Humanity aside, all land and ocean organisms consume, repurpose, recycle, and reabsorb raw material into new material with minimal waste. Every animal footprint, insect wingspan and fish-fin contributes to a chain of food production and consumption that builds systemic resilience. Whales sequester carbon better than a million trees; beavers help prevent floods, droughts and forest fires; butterflies pollinate and regulate pests; and the maligned bat, when not mixed into a lethal cocktail of pathogens by humans, fertilises and offers potential cures, not maladies, for human diseases.
Animal and insect behaviour is not that different to its human counterpart; It is Darwinian-y capitalist; built on competitiveness, adaptability and innovation, division of labour and reward. But it is also interdependent on the health of all its own members as well as other species to ensure its own survival.
In contrast, humans living in industrialised societies have yet to align their own global capitalism with these natural principles of sustainable wealth creation.
We chuck tons of plastic, from cups to nappies, into recycling bins, and televisions, mattresses, or sofas into skips, the equivalent of pushing it off the nearest cliff. 91% of plastic never gets re-used and up to 80% of household goods that could be recycled end up in landfills, or illegally dumped and openly burned somewhere else in the world.
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COVID’s socio-economic lockdown is an important portal of opportunity to think hard and act decisively on how to move in a different direction.
The good news is that today’s technology can help make this pivot happen. Machine learning can already examine every angle of production from halfway across the world, and robotics or new bio-organisms can break down hazardous materials, which could also include deep-cleaning the tons of COVID or Ebola-infected plastic.
Digitised supply systems can tag standardised production lines; track harmful material and waste; ensure oversight, operations accountability; and educate the consumer.
But technology alone will be insufficient. For real change to happen, all human commercial activity will need to price in the environmental cost of its energy, water and land usage and its carbon emissions. Only at that point can waste become the new humus, a more valued, less expensive, higher-quality resource than virgin material, recycled and re-used through industrial processes that are re-tooled for carbon capture.
And only then can governments develop the complex network of harmonised regulations between countries that have to rethink land use and tax profitability and trade effectively.
So, against a backdrop of clear-coloured waterways and whales returning to quieter waters, will governments step up and heed today’s scientists, economists, NGO’s, civil society organisations and sustainably-minded companies on how to build environmental resilience?
The likely answer is not immediately. A world in post-COVID crisis mode will find it especially difficult to overhaul nearly two centuries of human industrialisation. After all, citizens will only realistically care if living sustainably with gainful employment is affordable.
But governments today have already pledged some four trillion dollars to stem the pandemic and prop up national economies. And yet COVID is far from killing the 12.5 million who die of diseases from toxic environments and pollution across the world every year. Can politicians in developed countries then balk at the expense of greening every household at £100,000 a pop?
Bill Gates urges that we prepare more resilient systems for the next pandemic. But healthcare systems are only as resilient as the environment in which they operate. Building our countries’ wealth-creating capacity inside a green policy framework that encourages durable, reusable, upgradable and reparable products is as important as supporting universal public healthcare.
In the end, there is no such thing as a sustainable product, only sustainable systems. Globalisation can deliver prosperity through its circularity. Without the industrialisation of sustainability, billion-pound plasters will not be enough to beat the next pandemic, and it won’t be China’s fault, nor America’s, but ours.