In recent days and weeks, and even recent months for some around the world, the novel coronavirus has offered a challenge to humanity not seen in recent times. Of course, there have been many other epidemics, economic crashes, supply chain breakdowns, wars and other calamities throughout history, but perhaps never at such sweeping omnipresence and speed.
The COVID-19 virus has affected virtually every aspect of the economy, our social lives, as well as our systems of government, but this type of a crisis has never happened at a time when the planet was so globalized. We have never been more interconnected or reliant upon one another, which is why this situation is so unlike others in the past. It feels like it affects everyone simultaneously and on a deeply personal level, be it financially, educationally, logistically, emotionally, physically or otherwise.
Global conglomerates with international customers, shipping infrastructure and mass collection of data have turned our planet of 195 nations largely into one giant society, by which social media, goods, services, communications, news, pop culture and other sectors of daily life have become almost completely enmeshed. In fact it is this very phenomenon that made possible the invention of the first borderless cryptocurrency, Bitcoin.
While COVID-19 has spread extremely quickly around the world, this situation can teach us a lot about another disaster which has occured much more slowly and has recently moved away from the spotlight it so deserves, and that is the climate crisis. Some also call it global systems breakdown or ecocide as well.
Ironically, COVID-19 has mostly made a positive impact on the environment, and I don’t just mean rainforests or ice caps or places that an average person has almost no contact with during quarantine, or any other time of the year. I’m talking about the environment that supplies us with clean air, safe drinking water, quality food, and the resources to make furniture, homes and of course — toilet paper.
The environment is what sustains us. It gives us everything that we need, and luckily, it has gotten a bit of a break due to the widespread quarantine and social distancing efforts that are happening all around the globe. Planes and cruise ships are being used less frequently if at all, and commercial tourism, another huge polluter, has also been largely halted. COVID-19 and the climate crisis are both serious threats to human health and resources, but as mentioned before, these two disasters have moved at very different paces. One took just three months to infect over half a million people, and the other has taken decades to truly devastate the planet (in fact, this report shows that Exxon understood the potential devastation of the climate crisis in 1977).
However, they do have one thing in common, and that is their ability to teach us about the importance of coordination. This does not just mean social coordination, but also resource coordination, government coordination, and technological coordination. It could also mean creative and spiritual coordination as well, as the morale of a people is tested very heavily during a crisis.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, many people have learned the importance of social distancing, which is a mass coordination strategy by which even healthy and seemingly uninfected people stay home so as to protect the millions of others who may be at risk (including yourself). While there have been very few laws in place to truly enforce this, and most of the directions from the government (in the United States) have been mere suggestions, the public has, in many places, taken this very seriously.
This kind of coordination is rare in modern societies, where an “every man or woman for yourself” mentality is the one that is often most prevalent. In recent weeks, this attitude has lessened because we have learned that even one person carrying the virus with no symptoms can infect up to a staggering 59,000 others (compared to 14 with a normal flu which is far less contagious).
Countless videos about flattening the curve have circulated the internet and people have begun to learn how their potentially innocent but self-serving actions can have life and death repercussions for others, including their own loved ones and friends, but also for themselves.
During this crisis, we are also learning about how other countries around the world coordinate in an emergency. Thailand, China, and Italy have all coordinated in very different ways which can also be contrasted to the United States’ effort and other countries’ efforts as they struggle to keep cases below or at the healthcare system capacity.
In China for example, mobile apps were used to monitor temperatures, and tests were used extremely often throughout the nation. Flu clinics and hospitals were built so that patients with the virus were not treated in the same spaces as people with broken bones or Cancer. China is an authoritarian country and there was an enormous amount of personal data collected during this time. While fair criticisms can be made about that, nevertheless, China was able to get its infections under control effectively.
In The United States, tests have been extremely difficult to obtain (even for celebrities like comedian Kathy Griffin), and medical supplies are having to be donated, made by private companies and volunteers, or made out of items like garbage bags. We will see the outcome of these different approaches in the coming weeks and months, but the prognosis is not good for the United States as of now.
One cannot deny that even though different countries have had wildly different approaches to slowing the spread of the virus, there has been an incredibly effective focus on the virus around the world. Print media, the news, social media and even private companies like Google and Instagram have made this crisis known and helped keep people safe and informed. The same cannot be said for climate change, unfortunately, even though it threatens our ability to simply survive — just like COVID-19 does.
While Earth is getting a bit of a break from the slow of the economy, ice caps are still melting at an accelerating rate, the wildfires will come back, and we are still drilling for oil at obscenely high capacities. It’s important to note that a habitable planet and a healthy economy are not mutually exclusive ideas.
We know how to recycle materials, grow food more efficiently, travel using less fuel or no fuel, create and store energy using clean methods, and so on and so forth. I believe the question is whether or not we want to have an economy that destroys us or sustains us. Saving the planet (and ourselves) is not a plot to destroy the economy. In fact it is the opposite.
Similar to COVID-19, the climate crisis also poses huge financial risk in virtually every sector, in addition to the obvious risk of mortality for millions of people around the world. Our ability to live on a habitable, stable planet is our foundation for maintaining government, supplying resources, scaling technology, building homes, and so forth. If you think this virus has disrupted our global way of life, wait until you see what the climate crisis will do and has already done.
What would happen if we understood the lessons of this virus as a society, and learned to coordinate on a similar level for the climate? What if we learned, finally, that one global society which is inextricably linked must work together to prevent the whole thing from going under in a disaster like the climate crisis?
Did we not learn this in 2008, when fraud, greed, and the gross mismanagement of the American housing market plunged the entire world into financial catastrophe? And when will we learn these lessons if not now, when the entire world has weeks to reflect on how we got here?
I believe that we can learn to coordinate in time to save ourselves from not only these present challenges, but from future challenges as well. There will likely be more wars, and more pandemics, and other disasters that will require global cooperation and the selfless knowledge that the actions that we take do indeed impact other people around us. These actions could be political, or environmental, or even biological, in the case of the virus.
Hopefully, we, as inhabitants of planet Earth, are learning these lessons now, while we are under the immense psychological, economic and human pressure of this awful virus — but if we emerge from this with a stronger sense of community and faith in one another, we will have taken an important step toward preparing ourselves for what is coming next.