Tuesday, May 5, 2020

COVID-19 and the New Normal

One of the lessons the last few weeks should have taught us is that we live in an interconnected world.

We can travel to the opposite side of the planet in hours. The internet allows dispersal of information worldwide in less than an eyeblink. Our supply chains allow goods to be created and moved across the world only when they are needed, from factories with the cheapest labor, making businesses more efficient.

This interconnectedness has a flip side. Diseases can travel from the opposite side of the world in hours. The internet allows dispersal of mis-information worldwide in less than an eyeblink. Our “just-in-time” supply chains can quickly break down when they are most needed, as crowded factories shut down.

A second lesson is that we are not as separated from nature as we like to think we are. You can live in the middle of a city and be impacted by disease-harboring wildlife on the other side of the planet.

A third lesson is that worldwide catastrophes are not only possible, they are inevitable. First world countries are not invulnerable. WE are not invulnerable.

The impact of the COVID-19 catastrophe is defined by the loss of human life, the disruption to our society, and the vast financial losses – probably tens of trillions of dollars worldwide, all of which will reverberate through society for many years to come.

COVID-19 ripped across this planet in weeks and showed how unprepared humanity is to deal with a worldwide calamity, regardless of ideology, race, religion or form of government.

The conditions which led to this one are still in place. Unfettered world travel, poor sanitation and health conditions, ongoing intrusion into regions of the world where these diseases are endemic, chaotic and inconsistent public health policies and response planning, and defunding of scientific research. The list goes on.

I cannot begin to predict where our country will be six months from now, but I can make this prediction – another pandemic like this one will happen if we do not get our act together. The consequences will be just as catastrophic.

Moving on - Let me ask you a question - Have you noticed the lack of contrails through blue skies?

The question leads to the pandemic’s impact on the rest of the planet, meaning the natural world. Air and water pollution decreased markedly. People in cities normally choked by pollution can now see for miles. Wildlife everywhere started walking the streets where people feared to tread.

I am willing to predict that atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations will decrease this year. In other words, the impact on the planet was positive.

COVID-19 is a fast catastrophe, occurring while the slower moving climate catastrophe continues unabated. This ongoing catastrophe is having the same impact on society, in terms of lives lost, lives disrupted and lost economic output. It’s just taking longer. Background noise. Backpage news or way-down-the-webpage news if you no longer do something as quaint as read an actual newspaper.

Unlike this pandemic – the impact of ongoing climate on the natural world, which we depend on for clean water, clean air, food, predictable weather, and stable sea level is devastating as well.

Some aspects of the climate crisis will not be slow moving. A recent paper in Nature predicts that we will reach a temperature threshold within a decade where ecosystems will rapidly collapse. Starting in the tropics then moving rapidly to more temperate regions beyond the equator by 2050. This scenario assumes we continue to do little or nothing about reining in greenhouse gas emissions. Another tipping point where the world switches to an irreversible new normal.

The rapid collapse of ecosystems will lead to starvation, loss of life, disrupted lives, all the impacts the pandemic caused. Unlike the pandemic, there will be no turning back, at least in terms of the human perspective of time. When plant and animal species disappear, they are gone for good. Increased temperatures and CO2 concentrations will take centuries to abate.

This fast-moving pandemic and the slower, but now accelerating climate crisis are both within our capacity to manage, we just need to start thinking differently about the world and our place in it. Start taking the longer view, one which spans generations, not daily changes in the S&P 500.

I will leave you with this thought.: A friend of mine wrote on Facebook about the pandemic's consequences: “We can't just ‘return to normal.’ Normal was the problem in the first place.”

Published in the Village News May 1, 2020