Outbreaks in the Anthropocene: Growth ain’t the Cure

March 12, 2020

Death rates. Infection rates. Handwashing. Hand-wringing.

May I re-frame the coronavirus conversation? Outbreaks are going to happen more often in our climate-altered world, and they highlight the fragility of our growth-or-bust industrial system. But there is a silver lining: this moment requires industrial societies to suddenly emphasize wellbeing over GDP and to witness the fragility of global, energy-intensive supply chains. Without diminishing human suffering, a few months of reduced industrial output can also demonstrate that a different mode of living is possible; even desirable.

While this outbreak will have some negative economic impacts that can’t be sustained, particularly for investments designed to require indefinite growth, it has also already cut emissions more quickly than years of climate negotiations. I’ve heard more than one colleague joke that they can’t wait for their employer to close the office so they can work from home.

Some believe the coronavirus outbreak is but one in a cascade of events that will break industrial society. Whether or not that’s true, the conversations that are catalyzed should be similar: industrial societies ought to reconsider their cultural and economic goals, especially if routine crashes are baked into the system.

The late economist Richard Douthwaite observed that in our present set of economic institutions, the choice is between growth and collapse, not growth and stability. If the growth-or-bust imperative is so clearly maladapted to deal with these kinds of consecutive crashes, and crashes are bound to hit more often, why not embrace a more stable economic system that facilitates life-affirming modes of working and being?

Why outbreaks will be more routine

Environmental breakdown — changes in land use and urbanization, population increase, rising temperatures, melting glaciers, and changing precipitation patterns — are contributing to a rise in infectious diseases.

The WHO cautions that “worldwide, there is an apparent increase in many infectious diseases… This reflects the combined impacts of rapid demographic, environmental, social, technological, and other changes in our ways-of-living. Climate change will also affect infectious disease occurrences.”

New disease carriers and evolving incubation patterns contribute to the rise in rates of infection. So, too, do changes in land use. For instance, Himalayan glaciers are melting twice as fast as they were half a century ago. One team of scientists recently found 28 novel viral groups in that 15,000-year-old melting ice, all of which were entirely new to science. And that only accounts for a small fraction of those which will be novel to 21st-century humans.

Turning towards simplicity and care

It’s hard to contextualize the present pace of social and environmental change over the long run of history. But it is short-sighted to think merely about death rates or the short-term impact of coronavirus to GDP and the stock market.

Many of the media narratives are, as required by their commercial format, recycling short-term questions. A lot of people are taking necessary, precautiounary efforts to reduce the spread of infection, though some headlines and advertisements reveal the illusion that in a growth economy, consumers can buy their way out of this mess with control mechanisms: masks; hand sanitizer. Cancelled flights and shortened holidays are framed as inconveniences. Like the headline “should I cancel my cruise holiday because of coronavirus?” The underlying assumption, of course, is that we’ll all get back to business-as-usual soon enough.

Alternatively, Richard Heinberg writes that this moment is one of the many black swan events that will accumulate and eventually take down industrial civilization [does that mean the world is indeed ending with a sustained whimper and not a bang?]. He argues that this event “could trigger a major unravelling that would leave the world substantially less networked, less wealthy, and less secure” as a global financial crisis is triggered, leaving people jobless. Others notice similar themes emerging today to those that plagued the early 20th century [yup, pun intended]. Demagoguery, a global pandemic, high debt rates in the rich world, rising political tensions. However, as Heinberg reassuringly points out, in times like these, people can turn toward one another and demonstrate caring, resilience, and cooperation.

As flights are cancelled, offices are closed, our favourite novelty items go out of stock, or the internet doesn’t quite work properly (god forbid), it’s possible that some of us will find this compulsory slower pace both humbling and life-affirming.

Social and ecological benefits – can we sustain them?

Amy Jaffe, Director of the Council on Foreign Relations’ Energy Security and Climate Change program, notes that the outbreak is shifting our work habits in ways that can have a longer-term positive effect on the society and the planet — including “working from home, video conferencing, working shorter weeks or staggering office hours to reduce traffic.”

It is heretical to point out that the broader global community of life benefits from a human slowdown. But China has reduced its carbon emissions by a quarter nearly overnight. Oil consumption will fall by, reportedly, its largest volume on record. How can we sustain the positives and also prepare for inevitable crashes and industrial slowdowns going forward?

In addition to all of the wise immediate actions encouraged by experts, we can have even more consequential conversations about buying fewer consumer goods, about the instability of our fragile debt-fuelled and crash-prone economy, about localizing supply chains, producing some of our own things, and spending more time caring for one another.

Growth ain’t always the cure for what ails us.

James Magnus-Johnston

James Magnus-Johnston is a PhD researcher at McGill University in the Leadership for the Ecozoic program. He's the Co-director of the Centre for Resilience at Canadian Mennonite University, where he teaches in the fields of business, political studies, and economics, and he serves as a board director with the Assiniboine Credit Union. James previously worked in finance, public policy, and as a social entrepreneur—helping to establish services in food, housing, and experiential learning. He completed an MPhil in Economics at the University of Cambridge, where he studied the growth requirement of the debt-based money system.

Tags: building resilient societies, coronavirus