This article is part of the Independent’s ongoing series, Thinking Outside the Crisis. Read Robin Whitaker’s introduction here.
If the major threats now facing the world were turned into a computer game, COVID-19 would be the tutorial level.
This is not to downplay the suffering and lasting effects of the pandemic, but to emphasize the bigger, more complex problems on the horizon. We have been dealing with pandemics for millennia, and have a history of finding solutions to them. Beyond the tutorial level, though, the threats are both novel and of a type that our current institutions are not equipped to deal with.
Let us start with a little perspective, something humans often lack. Because our lives are short, we tend to assume that the way we live now is normal and stable. There is also creeping normalcy: our failure to see change because, in our limited time perspective, it happens too slowly for us to notice. Like many people, for example, I failed to notice the decline of insect populations over my lifetime. Only when a German report came out did I realize that the bug-splattered windscreens of my youth did not happen anymore. Insects play a major role in our ecosystem, and if the pandemic can give us a better appreciation of non-human actors in our world, then an important lesson will have been learnt.
Level Zero: History
This insect biomass loss is one symptom of an epoch-defining rapid change. This change has occurred in two stages, with the second even more rapid than the first. The scale and the effects of this two-stage change have turned human civilization upside down.
From the mid-nineteenth century, industrialization and the use of coal revolutionized the global political economy. Human societies went from relying on annual solar energy, transformed and harvested as food each year to feed human and animal muscle, to digging up buried sunshine accumulated over millennia as hydrocarbon deposits that could be burnt for its energy. The result was a leap in the amount of energy per capita used by societies. With the later addition of oil and natural gas, humans—to greater and lesser degrees—became a new high growth and high energy consuming ‘hydrocarbon civilization’.
Yet, even this growth was measured compared with what has happened since 1950. Earth systems scientists call the unprecedented growth spurt over the last seventy years the Great Acceleration. Alongside spikes in energy use, urbanization, human population and other socio-economic indicators, the Great Acceleration also intensified the effects of humans on the natural world. These changes included the decline of wild animal biomass, over-fishing, changing composition of the atmosphere, release of artificial chemicals, and the spread of plastic pollution. Always a force of nature, humans were now transforming Earth systems that had been stable since the birth of agriculture 10,000 years ago.
As a consequence, we have shifted our thinking about geological timescale. Officially we still live in the Holocene epoch, a stable warm period that has lasted since the last ice age ended about 11,700 years ago. During this period, humans developed agriculture and, eventually, the complex global order we take for granted today. So great have been the recent human effects on the Earth that geologists are debating the addition of a new epoch, the Anthropocene: a new unstable era dominated by human activity.
The rapid changes associated with industrialization and the Great Acceleration have brought an age of technological marvels that is as unsustainable as it is miraculous. Crashes in biodiversity, rapid global heating, and the release of chemicals, plastics and radioactive isotopes all threaten to undermine the Holocene ecology upon which our global society relies for its survival.
Unfortunately, our thinking has not evolved as fast as our societies. Usually human cultures have centuries to adjust their politics to new realities. We still culturally think as though we live in a stable agrarian Holocene. Our politics is organized around an imagined timeless and stable 2-dimensional world, where wealth came from land, state boundaries are clear, and perceptions of space could be contained in a well-drawn map. Variations, whether seasonal or in a business cycle, are assumed to follow a pattern.
Yet, industrialization has forced us to think vertically. Deep mines, trans-oceanic cables, submarines, aircraft, vertical cities, and wireless broadcasting added a third dimension to our lives. Since this third dimension includes the oceans, atmosphere and the subterranean (the places where we dump our waste and pollution), a failure to think in three dimensions has allowed two dimensional thinking ideologies and institutions to ignore the build-up of problems associated with waste and emissions.
Level One: The Fourth Dimension
Yet there is a fourth dimension that has gained importance from the Great Acceleration: time. The velocity of human development has sped up the use of materials in the other three dimensions faster than they can be replaced. It has also pumped refuse and gases into the third dimension faster than they can break down. But our political culture, built around two-dimensional thinking, leaves us ill-equipped to even see the impending crisis, let alone respond to it.
We need a new politics that is four dimensional.
If the pandemic has done anything, it has forced us to think about how societies face a crisis of collapse. At one level, the unprecedented nature of the Great Acceleration makes past (agrarian) collapses poor guides. For one thing, the rapid increase of energy available through hydrocarbons has staved off one form of collapse: the scarcity of sources of energy. As Joseph Tainter argues, complex societies solve problems though even more complex solutions that, in turn, require increasingly large amounts of energy. Since, in the past, energy sources were limited, diminishing returns soon set in, and collapse (defined as a rapid loss of complexity) was the inevitable result.
Yet, with our rapid increase in energy use, thanks to fossil fuels, our global society has managed to put in place increasingly complex and energy-intensive solutions without the threat of societal collapse, giving our global society a strong sense of its own permanence. Yet, these advances have brought their own unique problems by increasing the use of carbon dioxide emitting fuels. We have solved one cause of collapse, only to become prey to another.
Historically, human societies have been remarkably good at fending off threats one at a time. Collapses tend to follow a perfect storm of multiple challenges. Thus Eric H. Cline observes that the Late Bronze Age Collapse in the Eastern Mediterranean and Western Asia involved a combination of famines, earthquakes, invasions, revolts, and climate change. These fed into each other and overwhelmed the coping strategies of the interdependent Late Bronze Age societies.
Level Two: The Perfect Storm
In this sense the current pandemic might be less important as a crisis-in-itself, than as one amongst many. A pandemic—occurring alongside climate change, biomass loss, and chemical pollutions—could exacerbate weaknesses caused by inequality, debt (both public and private), and existing political tensions between nuclear powers. The result could be a perfect storm where the pandemic is the trigger.
A bigger problem lies in the quality of leadership and decision-making. Arthur Demarest, in his study of the late classical Maya collapse, noticed that, faced with a novel threat, elites do not necessarily find solutions that fit the nature of the crisis. Rather, they double down on what they do best. Thus, Maya theatre-state god-kings, when faced with famine, doubled down on warfare and monumental building. In this sense, our ability to solve a crisis rests on the tools our political institutions can give us. If you have a hammer then all problems look like a nail.
Perhaps the only positive thing about pandemics is that they represent the kind of problem many elites are equipped to handle, particularly where they can marshal public health institutions as effective tools. Unfortunately, as Brett Favaro recently argued elsewhere in this series, the same is not true for the climate emergency, where the temptation is to resort to comfortable political arts, such as accountancy tricks (reclassifying emissions to hide them from official tallies), or public relations (selling your oil as ‘ethical’ or ‘clean’). All too many leaders, including here in this Province, show a worrying affinity to Mayan leaders’ fondness for building spectacular stone pyramids while famine ravished their lands unchecked—or, in our case, claiming to have acted on the climate emergency while simultaneously increasing greenhouse gas emissions.
Which brings us back to the pandemic.
A tutorial level is meant to help you to play the game, and in certain respects the pandemic may do that. It has shaken us out of our complacency by revealing the fragility of the status quo. The sudden dissolution of our seemingly solid reality may help us to understand that, when we take the fourth dimension of time seriously, what we think is solid reality is a slow-moving liquid. It also shows us that human institutions, given the will to do so, can react quickly.
But tutorials also leave things out, and it is important not to be Pollyannaish about the pandemic. An accompanying global depression may distract from the slower moving (but greater) threats such as climate change.
The pandemic has also revealed the inequalities both within and between societies. The relative insolation of the better off could lead to inertia among those policy makers more in tune with powerful elites. This is also analogous to one of the political problems at the heart of climate change: while the global rich are disproportionately responsible for the problem, the global poor disproportionately suffer the consequences.
Underlying this is our need to escape the Holocene delusion. We need: 1) a four-dimensional politics that takes the game-changing nature of industrialization and the Great Acceleration seriously; 2) an appreciation of the mounting multiple threats that would likely overwhelm our institutions; and 3) acute awareness of the danger of our elites doubling down on policies they are familiar with but that only defer the pressing problems.
Welcome to the Anthropocene.
Lucian M. Ashworth is a professor of political science at the Memorial University of Newfoundland. He teaches POSC 3230 The Global Politics of the End of the World (As We Know It).
Image: Alessandro Sanquirico’s set design depicting the eruption of Vesuvius, the climactic scene of Giovanni Pacini’s opera, L’ultimo giorno di Pompei. 1827.
The Independent is 100% funded by its readers. Your pay-what-you-can subscription or one-time donation provides a base of revenue to keep our bills paid and our contributors writing. For as little as $5 a month, you can fund the future of journalism in Newfoundland and Labrador.