It is clear to ecologists, and many others that this COVID-19 pandemic is not a one off ‘bolt from the blue’. Rather it is a symptom of our over-exploitation of the life-supporting-capacity of the planet. It is a warning sign of our overshoot in the same way that climate change, biodiversity loss, antimicrobial resistance and many more incipient crises are.
It is crucial to understand that as bad as this pandemic is, it could have been so much worse. The only way to make sure it doesn’t happen again is to radically change how we live. This is our wake-up call, a real-life manifestation of the limits to growth we were warned about decades ago.
We human beings and the domestic animals we farm to eat now make up more than 96% the biomass of all animals on the planet. Humans alone are 10 times the biomass of all wild animals, but our true ecological footprint is larger: our domesticated animals make up 20 times the biomass of humans.
This human domination has happened in just a few centuries but mostly since the middle of last century. Go back a few hundred years and humans and domesticated animals were a tiny proportion of wild animal biomass, but even by 1900 the biomass of domesticated animals was three times that of all wild mammals. Now their mass is 25 times that of all wild animals. Knowing that wild animals are just a few percent of the biomass of all animals and humans on the planet it’s not hard to imagine why we have a biodiversity crisis.
During the 20th century, the world human population increased nearly four-fold. Crop area grew by only 40%, but we increased the harvest of food six-fold. The catch was that to achieve this six-fold output we used ninety times more energy. Instead of using just sunlight to produce food we used fossil energy. We are now literally eating oil.
This mind-blowing human population growth is the result of our recently found ability to exploit cheap fossil fuel, which is just solar energy captured by plants over millennia. In a mad rush over less than two centuries we squandered this irreplaceable endowment of high-density energy. This energy boost enabled the incredible population growth and an even faster growth in consumption. It also enabled climate change, globalisation, and the rapid spread of Covid-19.
“We have committed to a carbon zero future so we must totally realign our food and energy production away from fossil fuels.”
In the last few months, government responses to COVID-19 have drastically slowed economic growth. Hopefully we will take the opportunity to make a sustainable new world that will give a hope of a future for humanity.
Here in New Zealand if we get the response right we can have much better lives than we would have had without this wake-up-call, crucially we must make the right changes because if we go back to how we were, we are doomed to something much worse than this pandemic, like the extreme harm predicted from climate change and more viruses.
There will clearly be a need for government job creation on a massive scale, but we must ensure that the projects we choose increase our resilience and avoid those that make us more vulnerable.
To guide us in decisions about what to do we have a blueprint, based on simple and obvious principles. They are ecological economist Herman Daly’s three principles of sustainable resource management: (1) resources must not be used at a pace faster than the rate at which they regenerate, (2) use of non-renewable resources must not be used faster than the rate at which their renewable substitutes can be put in place and (3) the emission of pollution and wastes must not be faster than the rate at which natural systems can absorb them, recycle them, or render them harmless.
Using this blueprint, alongside a wealth of indigenous knowledge known as Mātauranga Māori I have some suggestions for our future:
The major new government funded infrastructure projects must only include those that strengthen our resilience. For example, we need to massively upgrade and renew drinking water, wastewater and stormwater infrastructure. Also, projects to retrofit all existing housing stock to much higher energy conservation standards requiring the use of locally grown materials. Then require all new building construction to use locally grown timber and be built to much higher energy conservation standards.
Our reliance on globalisation must be drastically reduced, while ramping up our local food and energy production and supply systems would radically improve our situation. In the short term just keeping this virus out must be a priority but long term to keep new ones away. We must relearn how to produce food without fossil fuel-derived fertilisers. We must match the food we grow to climatic conditions and not vice versa avoiding large scale irrigation, and to once again match our eating choices with natural seasonal growth peaks. Any large-scale water storage must for drought use only not to ramp up water use and intensification leading to fragility in drought.
We must boost local engineering and manufacturing, in the process building our capability to repurpose what we have, to build things with long product life and make them repairable, built-in obsolescence prohibited. Waste-stream diversion and responsibility for packaging products must be that of the producer for everything sold.
Transport of freight and people must be based only on renewable energy, electrified local and long-distance rail. We need to stop spending money on upgrading and expanding roads, only maintaining what we have. New transport spending must be reserved for public transport, local shipping and rail.
Finally, we need to rethink education, with an emphasis on how to create a sustainable world. This will mean accentuating the importance of deep and wide learning. We must make a long overdue move away from seeing schools as day-care for children and universities as degree-granting businesses.
We need a post Covid-19 paradigm that switches from wealth-affirming to life-affirming. This is our only chance for a flourishing future for humanity and a living Earth.