For a Fairer & More Sustainable World.

Lessons from Covid-19

For many people Covid-19 is causing hardship and misery – with reduced incomes, businesses destroyed and of course loved ones taken from us before their time. But there have also been some positive outcomes. Reduced road traffic has encouraged cyclists to get their bikes out, greenhouse gas emissions have plummeted, and wildlife is quickly moving back into habitats previously dominated by people. It would be a great shame if, as things go back to a new normal, we are unable to hold onto these gains – so maybe the lessons of the Covid-19 experience can be used to create a better future, rather than just go back to what we had.

One rather surprising outcome is that we have all seen how exponential growth takes a small number, and increases it slowly and then VERY quickly. Many of us will have heard the story of the grains of rice and the chess board, but there’s nothing like first-hand experience to appreciate how quickly a manageable situation can become a crisis. A good approximation of exponential growth is that, if the rate of increase is x%, the time taken for the amount to double is 72/x. With the coronavirus the doubling rate was at one point about 3 days – implying a growth rate of about 24% per day – which is pretty fast. But other things in our lives also grow exponentially – GDP, for instance. According to the World Bank, the average annual growth in world GDP between 1961 and 2018 was a shade under 3.5% – so if that was sustained (and more about sustainability later!) the world’s economy would double in just over 20 years. As we now know, that means the economy would be 4 times the current size after 40 years, 8 times after 60 years, 16 times after 80 years and an astonishing 32 times after 100 years. Now if we thought a doubling in size meant a doubling in resource use, that would clearly be disastrous, but there is some evidence that the resource-intensity of the economy reduces as it grows – because people start paying for yoga lessons and concert tickets, rather than houses and cars. But we haven’t yet seen an example of economic growth without any increase at all in resource use, and we can’t seem to maintain our current standard of life without catastrophic damage to the environment, so what hope is there that we or the rest of the planet could survive a 32-fold increase in economic activity?

Most governments are pursuing two conflicting objectives – to grow the economy as quickly as possible, but also to avoid the worst effects of climate change and wider environmental damage – and the imperative to keep consuming always seems to take precedence over the environment. In most of the Pebble Trust’s activities we see similar contradictions – small local initiatives to improve resilience and sustainability are welcomed and encouraged, but they are working against much bigger and more powerful mainstream developments. We’d like to hear from others with examples of the way things will need to change as we reach for a new normality in the wake of Covid-19. What are the contradictions in policy that need to be straightened out if we are to get serious about sustainability? We hope some contributions will identify practical local issues, but equally some may be more global.

To kick things off at the global end of the spectrum, it’s clear that our 3.5% growth rate is fundamentally unsustainable. If we reduced the annual increase to 1%, after 100 years the global economy would be 2.6 times its current size. Even that will make it difficult to solve our current problems of climate change and biodiversity loss. It’s beginning to look as if there is really no sustainable rate of economic growth – so maybe we should be aiming for stability (or as economists say, stagnation – language makes a difference!) or maybe even “de-growth”. This is scary, because our economic systems rely on growth – if businesses don’t grow, they can’t pay interest on loans or dividends to shareholders, and the whole system breaks down.

But in the wake of Covid-19 we are heading for a very substantial economic contraction, and the signs are that is going to hit the poorest nations hardest, and the poorest in any nation harder than the rich. Is that a sign of even worse inequality to come, when we finally realise we can’t have exponential economic growth?

My hope is that the lessons we learn from Covid-19 are:

  • That exponential growth is scary;
  • That exponential economic growth is clearly unsustainable;
  • That we need to plan a reduction in global economic growth to zero, or maybe a small de-growth, in ways that minimise human suffering; and crucially
  • That we find a way to reduce inequality, both at a national and supra-national level, as we bring our economic activity to a level consistent with a healthy planet.

And it would be really nice to keep most of those cars off the roads too!

1536 864 Martin Sherring
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