Trevor Hancock: Vital lessons from the pandemic for the future

I suggested in recent columns we should use the pause in our society and economy resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic to re-evaluate what we want and how we want to live. Here are eight important lessons we might learn if we pay attention to what is happening.

First, having less and being less busy may not be so bad, maybe we can have a better quality of life — as long as we can meet our basic needs, of course. Normally we are too embedded in our way of life, and too busy leading that life, to step outside of it and reflect upon it.

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As a former student of my friend and colleague Rick Kool at Royal Roads University wrote from Kathmandu, Nepal: “The air quality is SO much better here (it is usually the WORST!) and I can hear so many more songbirds in the morning. I’m loving it.”

Second, there is the high price we pay for our way of life. The BBC reported this week that as a result of the pandemic air pollution emissions fell 25 per cent overall in China. Meanwhile “levels of pollution in New York have reduced by nearly 50 per cent” compared to the same time last year, and cleaner air has also been reported in Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom.

So it was timely that in a March 3 press release the European Society of Cardiology, pointing to a new study, declared: “The world faces an air pollution ‘pandemic.’ ” The study found outdoor human-made air pollution, mainly from fossil fuel use, caused massive health problems, estimating that “five and a half million deaths worldwide a year are potentially avoidable.”

This vast toll of death and disease — and there are many other forms of death and disease that can be attributed to our economic and societal systems — is just shrugged off as the cost of doing business. But is that acceptable?

Third, we are seeing very clearly that social solidarity matters, that we are all in it together, while the neoliberal cult of individualism, the notion that “you are on your own,” is toxic. You can’t face this all on your own, it takes a whole village, a whole society and a whole global community working together to manage this.

Fourth, a related lesson, is that local matters a lot, whether it be local community organizations, businesses or governments.

Fifth, we are learning that government matters, and that the Canadian notion of “peace, order and good government” completely outperforms the U.S. model, which some, such as Derek Thompson, writing in The Atlantic on March 14, are likening to a failed state.

Sixth, exponential growth — whether it be COVID-19 cases or carbon dioxide levels — is a really bad idea. As Elizabeth Sawin, co-director of the think tank Climate Interactive, puts it in an article in Yale Environment 360 by Beth Morgan last week, “if you wait until you can see the impact, it is too late to stop it.”

Seventh, nature bats last, and we should not rely upon outwitting and out-performing nature. A Chicago Tribune editorial (excerpted last week in the Times Colonist) noted: “We learn anew that in nature we’re but temporary components of perpetual systems much bigger than ourselves.”

Finally, hopefully we are learning that if we can act swiftly and massively on COVID-19, we could act just as massively, but with a bit more time for thought and planning, on the even greater but slower crisis of human-induced global ecological change, including climate change.

As Eric Doherty, a local transportation and land use planner, writes in the Canadian independent online news outlet Ricochet: “If we can change everything for one kind of emergency, why not do it for another?”

I am not saying all these shifts in perspective will happen, but they might happen. And if realizations of this sort come together, they could create a social tipping point, perhaps even set off the sort of “virtuous cascade” of change that the new Cascade Institute at Royal Roads University has been set up to study and understand.

That same process at a local level might lead to the creation of the “One Planet Region” that we need.

thancock@uvic.ca

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.

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