Perhaps, as noted writer and activist Arundhati Roy suggested recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has thrust us into “a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.” We know the one world we were in, although we each experience it differently. It seemed, for all of its flaws and problems, that it had a predictability about it, like our notion of the arrival of the coming season. It feels like that predictability has evaporated and that certainty of nearly anything seems a fiction.
I don’t pretend to have a strong sense of what the ‘next world’ on the other side of this portal looks like. I waffle between visions of an unimaginable disaster and an opportunity to reimagine our future together on this singular planet we share. Even if we only focus on the two immediate challenges confronting us — health and economic collapse — it’s easy to see disaster internal and external to every nation. Even before COVID-19 the United Nations reported more than 70 million refugees fleeing their homes because of climate, political turmoil, violence, and economic austerity. Increasing predictions of food crises by the FAO as well as growing concerns over plastics pollution, decline of fisheries and coral reefs, etc., pile up in headlines.
In 2015, all 193 member nations of the United Nations, including the U.S., agreed to direct our attention to addressing the 17 Sustainable Development Goals(SDGs) by 2030: eliminate poverty, end hunger, provide access to clean water and sanitation, good health, quality education, gender equity, affordable and clean energy, decent work, innovation and infrastructure, peace and justice, reduce inequality, responsible production and consumption, climate action, life on the land and below the water, and build strong partnerships.
The SDGs, with targets and indicators, preceded the pandemic and offered a globally agreed upon framework and direction. The challenges were daunting then; they are absolutely essential now. A tiny virus has made our interdependence on this singular planet palpable. The pandemic has shown us but two facets of the greater challenge the authors of the SDGs could foresee, if the ‘business as usual’ approach was to continue.
Health and economic prosperity must not be our only two concerns, especially in the long run. While we certainly need to address them in ways that lift us all up, (in the spirit of the SDGs, “leave no one behind,”) failure to address the many other issues, foremost being the unraveling of our underlying ecological systems, will hasten further global collapse. Our challenge is to see the connections between all 17 of those goals and work on solutions that address many at the same time. That’s clearly the intent behind proposals like the Green New Deal. While climate change has gotten the majority of our attention in recent years, the 2003 U.N. Millenium Ecosystem Assessment showed that many if not most ecological systems were already in decline. Meanwhile increasing income inequality both domestic and global causes rips in our social fabric.
The bottom line is that our growing human population cannot consume as too many of us have become accustomed to doing without further destabilizing those systems upon which we depend. There will be ongoing calls from every corner of society as quarantines lift for us to “grow our economy” to consume more and more. But such calls fail to recognize the limits of nature.
No one is capable of figuring out how to steer us out of this potential route to the abyss alone. What we need is a way to unleash our collective knowledge and wisdom. This shouldn’t be a competition, to show some are superior to others. We need to recognize we all — including those in the natural world — are in this together. The current economic system that has delivered us to this state of affairs is a human designed one. We can and must clearly reimagine a different economic system that builds into it more of the values we cherish: more democracy, more fairness, more cooperation. Perhaps one of the few blessings this pandemic has brought us is a plethora of possibilities, one example being the decision to give everyone in the U.S. a “basic income,” unthinkable even months ago. But which possibilities will emerge, and which will we work build, community by community remains our choice. Arundhati Roy offers a clarion call at the end of her piece on the portal.
“We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”
(Terry Link was the founding director of the Office of Sustainability at Michigan State University.)