By Prof Amitav Mallik 4th June 2020
Everyone agrees that things will not be the same as before after this Corona virus crisis but there is not much clarity on what all will change and how things may change. While physical distancing and wearing masks etc. will be the new social norm, actually what is really new is the fear of individual level vulnerability to invisible impending danger and that will underscore the human behavior in times of stress in future.
Everyone knows that this is not the last pandemic or the last crisis and future global crisis situations could be more frequent and more intense. Climate crisis is also invisible like pandemic and growing silently. But it will have a twist — there will be no Vaccine!
Unlike the Covid 19 that is affecting less than 1 % of the population and killing about 3% of that 1 %; Climate catastrophe may affect a larger population at specific geographical regions, and it may kill over 10% of those directly affected by the crisis.
The Economic set-back is actually a roll-on consequences and how deep it may be will depend on the resilience of the economic structure. Already weak economies or those linked to nonviable choices like the fossil-fuel or unmindful destruction of the ecosystem will suffer much more. Climate change impact will differ for different regions, triggering regional tensions; but in the end, all will be affected in this inter-connected world.
Clearly preventing the next crisis situations like extreme weather events or shrinking of coastlines due to global warming must be prevented or at least delayed, so that precious energies and funds can be put to productive and constructive use. This must be the real top priority for any economic recovery exercise anywhere on this planet. One must note that ‘Economic stability’ now stands to be one of chief beneficiaries of climate action. Averting climate impact is no longer a distant human welfare issue, but it is now very much an urgent economic survival issue as we get down to rebuild the new economy from the ravages of the pandemic crisis.
This calls for a fundamental policy level shift to recognize that economy and the environment are two faces of the same coin. The days of seeing environmental protection laws as impediment to economic growth, are truly over.
Another major policy level change must be to recognize GDP as a false indicator of human progress. GDP was devised around 1930 as a measure of economic activity and that was indeed the priority at the time. But unfortunately, modern society got hooked on to the elixir of ‘Purchasing Power’ and did not look-back to the consequences of the decades of so-called economic progress based on ever-increasing consumerism.
As Kate Raworth, the author of ‘Doughnut Economy’ says, a healthy economy should be designed to thrive, not just grow perpetually. She asks, ‘What does one do when income increase losses its charm and becomes just a commodity that no longer adds any value to life?’ Mankind may be reaching that point of diminishing returns from money.Past many decades have been an era of mass consumerism when the feel-good sense was about acquiring new discretionary products for comfort and convenience.
GDP as a consumer activity index remained unrelated to human values or ecosystem quality or stability. This has led to human consumption crossing the planetary boundaries and causing destruction of the earth- ecosystem, often quite unseen by the masses!
Economics has become degenerative in chasing unlimited growth, the ‘Take-Make-Use- Discard’ model, that adds little value to the well-being of humans or the nature. Recovery from the failing economies offers us the opportunity for a more holistic model and this awareness is growing! Over 160 cities across the world are already generating part of their energy needs from the sun, wind and waste; and trying to shift to circular economy methods of ‘Make-Reduce- Reuse-Recycle’. That economy will be far more resilient to disruptions and sustainable for the future.
To avoid future disruptions, the economies must become distributive and work towards spreading the benefits of progress to many. This can reduce the potential dangers of escalating social tensions. Knowledge, power and wealth can be more distributive if our technology and institutions become more participative. Instead of Fossil-Fuel dependence and mass manufacture model of the 20th century, we now have distributed solar power, digital platforms and 3-D printing that can be far more resilient in future.
Corporates that are still fixated on maximum returns for their shareholders are getting outdated and no longer competitive. Now social enterprises that are designed to generate multiple forms of values and share it across the networks are the new winners. They integrate human development with preserving natural assets for optimum benefits to both. There is new realization that such designs can create extraordinary opportunities for the 21st Century. This is what economic recovery must do to bring us safely back to within the planetary boundaries.
Growth is indeed good when it necessary to grow, but unlimited growth is like a cancer because nothing in nature keeps growing forever. Hence human addiction to growth must plateau at some point and the time is ripe for that qualitative change for humanity to thrive and ensure that nature can also thrive.
This is the story of the 21st century for most of the progressive world that must coexist with Nature. We need financial, political and social innovations that can enable us to achieve this transition. Only then we can focus on thriving within the social and ecological boundaries and unleash the creativity for real qualitative upgrade to life. It is time to unshackle the old dogmas and bring-in all the ingenuity to design the future. That will be the best way to mark the World Environment Day 2020.
Prof Amitav Mallik is Former Member of the National Security Advisory Board, and Hon. Trustee & Founder Member of Pune International Centre.