Making changes to save the planet
Emerging, we hope, from the largest pandemic in 100 years, we are faced with a decision of how to approach our future. We are looking at what happened and why, and we are totting up the damage of COVID-19. The loss of life, the disruption of our work and home lives, the enormous cost of tackling the pandemic, the long-term economic consequences for acting too slowly or failing to act at all. Yet, the discourse seems to be changing from ‘how do we reduce the risk that this happens again?’ to ‘we must be ready for the next one and able to mitigate its impact’. This shouldn’t be either-or. It needs to be both, and far better to put in place a response that reduces the risk we face than wait for it to happen again. For it will if we continue on the path we are on now.
To the scientific community, it was crystal clear for some time that pandemic risk was increasing, that a One Health model (planet/people/animals) would be key to our ability to thrive, and that there had been near misses in the 21st century already. The evidence was already there and available to governments worldwide that our activity as humans was placing us in a dangerous position. We already knew that the illegal wildlife trade could lead to new viruses jumping from animals to humans, resulting in new infectious diseases. We already knew that climate change was altering disease dynamics. We already knew that deforestation was leading to increased contact between people and wild animals, increasing the likelihood of disease transmission. I hope that in the last year, we now all understand how this risk is manifesting itself.
From the Atlantic Forest in Brazil, we learned that as forests are destroyed, animals left in smaller and smaller fragments suffer stress, leading to compromised immune systems and are therefore more likely to shed viruses. From Southeast Asia, we see that the removal of vibrant rainforest to be replaced with vast swathes of monoculture plantation, particularly palm oil, leads to an increased risk of pandemics. More and more research is emerging that biodiversity loss and climate change are the drivers of pandemic risk.
We hear much about ‘building back better’, green recoveries and so on. There is also increasing dialogue about the role of the public in changing our behaviours. We know that individual actions can make a difference. However, it is clear that we need large scale societal change led by governments and corporations, including a huge responsibility from the finance sector and therefore particularly relevant to Jersey.
In the summer of 2019, what we can look back on as an unscarred, carefree time, I stood in the bat house at Jersey Zoo and had a long conversation with a British MP about what needed to happen if we were truly to protect life on Earth. Although there is much debate about what to do at the detail level, we already know the answer, and it is simple – protect nature. I pressed him on the need for the governments of the world to set in place legal frameworks and policies that would make a real difference. It would mean changing the current economic model of chasing growth as an end goal to one of chasing a circular, sustainable model that places importance on our ability to live an equitable, healthy life and protect our planet. We should remember that the societal, economic model we currently use didn’t arise spontaneously, it is one we designed. It means we can design another, and we should because our lives depend upon it.
He very plainly told me that he would not advocate for the kind of changes needed as it would be ‘unpalatable’ to the public and difficult for him in terms of election cycles as it might make him unpopular with the electorate. I really want to ask him now, how ‘unpalatable’ has what we have just experienced been? Does he want this to happen again, but next time with a more infectious, more fatal disease?
Perhaps the reluctance comes from the reality that a significant change may lead to corporations currently making huge profits and individuals accumulating vast wealth having to accept responsibility. To accept this means accepting mitigation costs for the destruction they cause instead of passing on the buck to the public by suggesting we recycle more. It is incredibly hard for the public to be able to fully understand the supply chains that result in loss of nature, and neither do they have control of those supply chains. Structural change is required. The biggest and often repeated lie of the pandemic is that we have all been in this together.
No. No, we have not.
Some have made an awful lot of money out of this misery. On an individual level, it is very different to be able to work from home, rather than the front lines, from a large house with a garden, rather than a cramped studio flat. There is also a huge difference from country to country, not least the unequal access to vaccines globally. We are definitely not ‘all in this together’.
Fast forward to early 2021, and the Dasgupta Review on the Economics of Biodiversity is published. It calls for a fundamental change in how we economically think about nature. Natural capital, the world’s stock of natural resources, is being diminished at an alarming rate, declining by 40% between 1992 and 2014. This natural capital completely underpins all human life and economic activity. If we continue to erode our natural capital and the system changes this sets in train, then ultimately system-level collapse becomes a real possibility within our lifetimes.
Dasgupta suggests that instead of GDP (gross domestic product) and the like, we transition to ‘inclusive wealth’ as a measure of success. This assesses human wellbeing and if it is being sustained by looking at natural capital, human capital, and produced capital combined, with a view that natural capital not only has to be protected but increased. Our current GDP-based system incentivises the destruction of nature and is propped up by banks and other financial bodies subsidising and loaning to destructive industries. This huge issue is described in a 2020 report called ‘Bankrolling Extinction’. Dasgupta calls for new accounting systems to be developed that measure biodiversity and climate as part of company and country balance sheets.
The review is not without controversy as it talks of nature only in economic terms, and of course, we know it is far more than this. Nature’s spiritual and cultural value, as well as its fundamental role in supporting life, should sit parallel to any discussion of extrinsic worth because, of course, if we truly valued its intrinsic worth would we be in the situation we are now?
And so, we turn to government and corporations, those who have the power to change lives, who actively hold the future of the planet in the balance. We are seeing some encouraging signs from the financial sector that change is coming. Whether that is because they see ESG (environmental, social and governance) funds as the next big thing to drive business and growth (the same old issue) or a true values-led change that we cannot keep doing what we are doing now. We can now see which banks are the most destructive. Some are household names, so perhaps in taking back a little control, we, the public, change where we keep our money if banks continue to lend it to nature destructive practices.
Our role as the public is to understand the consequences of the current system, speak up against inequity across our societies, and actively support political leaders advocating for circular and sustainable economies. Let’s take a long hard look over the next few years to see if real change emerges and use our votes and our wallets to drive those changes where we can.
Posted 10 November 2021