Embracing Transitions- Making Improvements
“The difficulty is in the order of magnitude of change that is required of us.” – Thomas Berry
During this unprecedented global pandemic, important lessons confront humanity that demand our reflection. Many of us have been staying at home to help prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, and all of us have changed our social behavior with physical distancing and face coverings. The sudden shift in norms for everyday life demonstrates that we are capable of rapidly changing our ways for a common cause. While the unusual challenges of this time are difficult to confront, it is clear that this is a pivotal moment in history and the road ahead is uncharted. We suffer losses now, but there is an opportunity to rebuild and improve fundamental systems we usually take for granted. Social, environmental, and economic gains can all be made if we harness our collective will to achieve a healthy society. Recent events demonstrate that we have this collective will and our local leaders can be effective in actualizing change.
When the year 2020 began, the world was already wrestling with dramatic technological, social, political, and environmental changes. After of a century of hustling to scale production systems, we found ourselves overwhelmed by an attention economy (Allcott et al. 2020, Odell 2019), buried in the waste of material consumption (Waters et al. 2018), and sacrificing a resilient future for short-term gains. Despite intergovernmental agreements forged after 30 years of debate (e.g. Paris Agreement), scientific consensus on global problems (e.g. de Coninck et al. 2018), and a shift in corporate social responsibility in the US, it was still not realistic to expect swift progress in addressing grand challenges. Then, almost overnight, the threat of a virus brought the economy to a grinding halt and demonstrated that human institutionalized behavior can change suddenly with compelling motivators.
Dramatic change in social behavior is possible, and it can bring ecological improvements that benefit human health. Localized environmental improvements in water and air quality became evident as stay-at-home practices persisted (e.g. cleaner water in the canals of Venice, air quality improvements with reduced travel). There have also been economic costs, but these negative consequences occurred because the sudden shifts in lifestyles and spending occurred without any planning. Both social and ecological gains can be furthered during economic recovery by harnessing the same political will that altered behavior for the sake of community health during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Our collective will is strong enough to build new institutions and behaviors that promote ecological prosperity, a more holistic goal for humanity than economic prosperity alone. While economic prosperity of the industrial age came with bitter environmental consequences and social inequities, strategies that benefit ecological prosperity can lead to economic development that also enhances quality of life and social inclusion. The goal of ecological prosperity would make use of natural capital, provide new job opportunities, improve social equity, and bolster food security (e.g. Bonnie et al. 2020; Fargione et al. 2018). Working towards ecological prosperity is an inclusive task; if we work for healthy prosperous ecosystems, we can unlearn our economy of scarcity that encourages inequities.
This moment in history provides a valuable opportunity to reflect on the institutions we take for granted and conveniences that give us a false sense of security. In this time of reflection, we may find that some of the changes we thought impossible are actually more achievable and more necessary than we realized.
Many barriers to achieving ecological prosperity are rooted in institutional norms that are not always intentional, but the inertia associated with these norms is difficult to overcome. This moment of disruption is an opportunity to reshape conventions and begin to leave a legacy that heals the social and environmental damages of the past.
As our communities begin recovering from the pandemic, and after we mourn our losses, we can also be ready to rebuild with fresh approaches to economic development that prioritize sustained natural resources and diversity. We have an opportunity to celebrate state and local leaders, the first in many cases to take effective action to address the pandemic. Now is a time to prepare to work together with these leaders to restore strong communities. We can put people back to work under healthier conditions with cleaner water and air. We can grow and build, rather than extract, resources to advance commerce. This moment of disruption can be a catalyst to build lasting healthy communities.
Allcott H, Braghieri L, Eichmeyer S, Gentzkow M. 2020. The welfare effects of social media. American Economic Review, 110: 629-676.
Bonnie r, Vujic T, Plushack V, Arata S. 2020. Rural Investment: Building a Natural Climate Solutions Policy Agenda that Works for Rural America and the Climate. Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, Duke University. 66 pgs.
de Coninck H, Revi A, Babiker M, et al. 2018: Strengthening and Implementing the Global Response. In: Global Warming of 1.5°C. An IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty [MassonDelmotte V, Zhai P, Pörtner HO, et al. (eds.)]. World Meteorological Organization, Geneva, Switzerland, pgs 313-443.
Fargione JE, Bassett S, Boucher T, et al. 2018. Natural climate solutions for the United States. Science Advances, 4: 1-14.
Odell J. 2019. How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. Melville House Publishing, Brooklyn, NY. 222 pgs.
Waters CN, Zalasiewicz J, Summerhayes C, et al. 2018. Global Boundary Stratotype Section and Point (GSSP) for the Anthropocene Series: Where and how to look for potential candidates. Earth-Science Reviews, 178: 379-429.