The outbreak of the SARS2-COVID19 has exposed both the frightening vulnerability of our technological society to unexpected disruptions and our ability to quickly respond to them by drastically altering our lifestyles.
The former is still only beginning to become evident as supply chains are broken, consumer demand collapses, entire sectors of our economy shut down and those without the ability to self-isolate and shelter in place bear the brunt of the pandemic. We are only in the very early stages of this crisis, even if the virus that caused it is quickly brought under control.
To appreciate our situation, it may be worth looking at the insights of engineers and physicists in the field of systems analysis. Systems analysts have found that as complex systems expand and approach physical limits they tend to grow inward and become more internally interconnected (“tightly coupled” to use Charles Perrow’s terminology) and thus vulnerable to unpredictable ripple effects resulting from minor disruptions or accidents. What the precise limits of our global system of industrial capitalism are has long been debated but that it is approaching these limits seems obvious. The process of globalization could be seen as part of the pattern of growing internal interconnectedness mentioned above. Suffice it to say that the rapid spread of the virus even when compared to the SARS outbreak a couple of decades earlier, demonstrates how much more interconnected our global systems have become. The adoption of “just in time” industrial strategies has increased this “tight coupling” by eliminating the need to warehouse supplies thus reducing what little slack remained in our complex economic and industrial system. This has left us all the more vulnerable to the quick spread of ripple effects.
My point in writing this is not to add to the gloom and alarm that is already evident everywhere, but to focus on the second part of my opening sentence, our ability to quickly change our lifestyles. In the negotiations leading to the Kyoto protocol, Pres. Bush famously declared that the American style of life was not up for negotiation. After the attacks of 9/11, Sec. of Defense Rumsfeld declared “We have a choice: we can change the way we live or the way they live. We choose the latter.” The threats of climate change and terrorism were not sufficient to bring about what COVID 19 has achieved in a few weeks. The skies have not been this clear of pollution in decades if not centuries. As I was walking my dog in the park this morning, not a single plane crossed the sky. In the city of Toronto, as in most major metropolises around the world, the norm until a couple of weeks ago was that at least a dozen were visible at any given moment. Streets are empty. People are cooking for themselves, entertaining themselves (esp. given the absence of professional sport, bars, theatres, clubs…). I expect that the vast majority are doing these things reluctantly in the hope that it can all go back to the way it was in a few weeks. The problem is that it won’t. As the effects of this virus ripple through our global system, the health crisis has morphed into an economic crisis, which has morphed into a social crisis, political crisis, military crisis etc. and we are far from the end of this process. The question is not when will we all return to our liberal democratic capitalist norm, the question is: will we emerge from this crisis as a collection of fascist dictatorships that preserve the privilege and lifestyles of the few, or will we use this crisis to fundamentally restructure our societies in accordance to our democratic values and the needs of the majority of humanity and the multitude of species we share this planet with.
It is easy and tempting to be pessimistic, given the incompetent response on the part of a number of governments around the world (not just Trump), but moments of crisis are also moments of opportunity. As Naomi Klein has so beautifully argued in describing what she calls “disaster capitalism” *, this has been recognized by the forces of the right for some time. The revolutionary left has likewise long understood that transformations require a crisis. In the liberal mainstream and I would argue among those in the environmental movement it is not as clear that this has been recognized but it is now vital that it is taken advantage of by precisely these sectors. This is in part the case because aside from disrupting our daily patterns of behaviour, crises, like the current one, also shatters our faith in beliefs that are rarely subjected to critical evaluation under normal circumstances. To put it differently, crises shatter myths that sustain social systems.
This crisis has so far dented some but if taken proper advantage of will shatter many. This is why it provides us with an unexpected opportunity to correct the course of human history in a direction that takes us away from the doom that the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist warned us, we were 100 seconds away from even before the outbreak of COVID19, and into the direction of greater social justice and environmental sustainability.
Among the most important of these myths that will be shattered by this crisis is the belief that the best institutions to guarantee our security are military institutions. For centuries it has been assumed by many of us (esp. scholars in the field of international relations) that states exist in order to protect their citizens and that the main threat to their security emanated from other states. To protect from these threats all states must maintain powerful military institutions of their own. To assure peace, prepare for war, as the saying goes. National boundaries and the military institutions we establish to protect them are as irrelevant to a virus as they are to hurricanes, rising and dying oceans or droughts, just to name the obvious. Not only don’t they protect us from these threats, as international vectors of transmission (it was the movement of soldiers that spread the Spanish flu around the world in1919) and substantial users of fossil fuels, they make them all worse. That of course is not to mention the threat to us all that nuclear weapons continue to pose. Although the reaction to the pandemic seems, at least initially, to have undermined cooperation between states even in places like the EU, I believe the larger lesson being taught is that we are all in this together. If the pandemic helps shatter the myth of national security and the institutions that depend on this myth to justify their budgets, these resources could be diverted to addressing what actually threatens human security, starting with poverty and environmental destruction. It should also become evident that the institutions that are really relevant to maintaining out security are those that enable cooperation among states and offer the prospect for global governance.
A second myth that will begin to look very questionable as a result of the pandemic is the idea that human development is synonymous with consumption which in turn is maximized by the expansion of global trade and the globalization of production. That this is a myth is made evident by the levels of depression and mental illness not in the poor countries of the global south but the wealthiest countries of the global north. On trade, E.F. Schumacher long ago pointed out that, in accordance to common sense, the need for a community to engage in trade represents a failure of that community to provide a good domestically. The degree to which a community engages in trade is not a sign of its success and development but a sign of its failure to adapt to the local environment. He was certainly not advocating the elimination of trade but was highlighting that it is a problematic means toward an end. The need to import certain goods necessarily implies the need to export others and thus the dependency on the stability of external markets. By shutting down commerce both locally and internationally, and thereby disrupting supply chains for everything from food to electronics, the steep cost of the dependency of our communities on trade is only beginning to make itself felt. I think there is a strong likelihood that by the time this pandemic has played itself out many will have been forced to rethink the ideal of globalization in favour of the ideal of local self-sufficiency. If this experience helps our societies become more connected to their local environments it will have achieved what decades of environmental activism have failed to accomplish.
Lastly, this pandemic will undermine the continuing belief in rugged individualism and the associated tendencies toward market fundamentalism and trickle-down economics. Neo-liberalism as it has come to be known, has generated unprecedented levels of economic inequality in those parts of the world (the U.S. in particular but certainly not exclusively) where they have been most deeply intrenched. It has pushed countless numbers into extreme poverty with its insistence on the imposition of austerity to meet the demands of the “market”. That same insistence on austerity has resulted in the underfunding of the social safety nets, including health care, that is making us all more vulnerable. Although we are still only in the beginning of this crisis, it has already become evident that, again, we’re all in this together. The rich can of course escape into their private residences and hospitals, while the poor can’t social distance, access health care or store food. It is becoming increasingly obvious however, that in the context of a pandemic virus, humanity is as strong as its weakest link. That no-one is safe unless we all manage to pull together and make everyone safe. Health care as a privilege rather than a right no longer makes any sense. There is considerable historical evidence that past crises, like the black death or for that matter the depression and world war 2, resulted in substantial social leveling. In most developed countries levels of inequality, after declining in the post war context of the welfare state began to increase with the adoption of neo-liberalism under Reagan and Thatcher, reaching unprecedented levels in the past decade. This pandemic is an opportunity to reverse that trend.
We find ourselves at a moment of bifurcation, where history could move into decidedly different directions. There is no guarantee that the opportunities I see in our current crisis will be taken advantage of. The financial and military interests that have dominated us for the past several decades are certainly going to do their best to return to business as usual as soon as possible, even if doing so is only possible under a much more authoritarian order. They and their media collaborators will try their best to convince as many of us as they can, that a return to the status quo ante is in our best interest, but their credibility has been severely damaged. So now is the time to question these myths. Now is the time to insist on universal access to health care, medication, housing, and basic income. Now is the time to fundamentally restructure our societies around the ideals of local self-sufficiency, resilience and environmental sustainability. Perhaps most importantly, now is the time to empower international institutions to establish the rule of law globally, eliminating the need for military institutions and outdated doctrines of “deterrence” and “mutually assured destruction” as the basis for human security.
Let us resist the drive to bail out the dinosaurs of the past: the fossil fuel industry, airlines, car manufacturers etc. and instead use the economic rescue packages being put together by legislators around the world to transition into a fundamentally different and more hopeful future.
* In her book of that title she explores numerous examples of corporate interests taking advantage of crises from financial meltdowns to Hurricane Katrina, to push through legislative changes they could not get passed in normal times.
Arnd Jurgensen has taught at several Universities in Canada and in faculties ranging from applied sciences and engineering to interdisciplinary studies. He is currently doing research and teaching courses on international politics at the University of Toronto. He has been involved in environmental activism for decades and until the recent shut down, was active in the Toronto music scene, performing regularly in venues around town.