There is an element of hope embedded in the act of conjuring up the post-coronavirus world. The exercise itself seems to hint that the catastrophe is nearing its end. Putting on our futurist’s glasses we begin to peer through the curtains of time. But before we do this, we need to turn our attention to the present. Most of what we see around us are surface changes—adaptations, planned or unplanned, to tide over the crisis. Sanitiser stations at shopping malls and clampdowns on non-essential commerce are all symptomatic of this superficiality. But unless there is what we will call ‘deep change’, no one can guarantee that the next disaster will not take us by surprise.
Right now economies the world over have taken a severe beating and we are in the grip of what IMF calls the Great Lockdown recession. In India and many developing nations, unemployment has soared, inequities have multiplied and the danger of social strife is proximate. Meanwhile, industry has been demanding and obtaining flexibilities, which usually translates to reduced protections for labour.
What is more worrying and which plays directly into the contradictions between the pursuit of endless growth within a neo-liberal economic order and sustainability of ecosystems are the surreptitious inroads being made by ‘disaster capitalism’—fast-tracking of major projects under the fog of a raging pandemic. This is more cause for concern, now that the links between zoonotic disease outbreaks, biodiversity loss and unsustainable production and consumption have been revealed.
Nature has been sending warning signals through climate change, species extinction and disease that unsustainable production and consumption has been doing irreversible damage. The key here is sustainability. Sustainability entails deep change, which would mean overhauling our economic engines and consumption habits to focus on essentials, quality of life and protection of the environment. A cutback on infrastructure projects especially in biodiversity hotspot areas not only decreases emissions, it also reduces the risk of ‘spillover events’ where viruses from the wild can infect humans. The Covid-19 lockdowns by stopping non-essential purchases have given us one indication of what is flawed and redundant in our system. It is as if Nature has become its own advocate.
Today, from different corners of the world we are hearing whispers of nationalisation (and delays in divestment plans) of key sectors, which provide essential public services such as transport or health. Still it is unlikely that politicians, vote-seeking or otherwise, will facilitate deep change in the long run. The push for such transformations must come from civil society through a twin process of mass awareness-building and pressure on institutions supporting the status quo. It is expected that the post-Covid world will experience more organised mass movements in support of the planet. The fellow-feeling and kinship that the novel coronavirus has kindled might very well seed the climate change movements, strengthening their common and overlapping goals of equity, social justice and sustainability.
Whether this will blossom into deep change depends on factors like the discovery of a vaccine or cure, extent of social strife, number of deaths and the ability of civil society to effectively communicate the message of sustainability. Ironically, a near-horizon vaccine discovery while saving billions of lives could breed complacency and dilute the focus on humankind’s impact on the planet.
The ecological economist Robert Costanza projected four visions of the future predicated on the development or absence of game-changing technologies with or without a role for big government. Repurposing and modifying Costanza’s framework for the post-Covid scenario, a vaccine for each outbreak would be the most desirable technological advance followed by paradigm-shifting developments in renewable energy among other things, which will allow the pursuit of moderately high levels of growth and equity with reduced emissions. This is one highly unlikely version of utopia.
If science does not deliver us quickly to that promised land, we see three different worlds emerging. The first is a deep-change scenario with strong governments instituting pro-people and pro-planet policy reforms (like nationalisation) but with worsening privacy and individual freedoms. The next deep change alternative is a Gandhian model where the role of civil society, community cooperation and sharing economies comes to the fore alongside ecological tax reform and existing renewable technologies. This is much like the solarpunk futures of fiction. A final alternative is a dystopian descent into chaos and darkness. The future is expected to be a patchwork of all three but its colours will be determined by our actions today, tomorrow and the day after.Twitter @rajatchaudhuri