Twilight – UN Headquarters viewed from Roosevelt Island
Neither military power nor wealth can stop the destructive global spread of COVID-19, a tiny member of the Coronavirus family. Its full human impact and economic cost will not be known for months to come. The virus is only now spreading amongst the most vulnerable populations, the millions who are cramped into refugee camps, and the hundreds of millions who live in city slums or in poverty without proper sanitation or medical support. As the pandemic is unfolding, it is revealing human vulnerabilities and showcasing the importance of good leadership and well-functioning, universal social and health care systems.
While the current focus is on responding to the pandemic and on coping with its immediate effects, the lessons we will collectively learn from this crisis are equally if not more important, as we know that the next global crisis – the climate crisis – is already well under way, building up its destructive potential around the globe. This is of particular relevance for the younger generations. They will inherit the political and economic systems that are now being reshaped in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and their future is being mortgaged with enormous debt as governments are mobilizing unprecedented stimuli packages to avoid a deep recession.
There are at least four lessons we should learn from the pandemic:
1) Human history and natural history can no longer be separated – human health and the health of the planet go together
“Mother nature is striking back, and humans are caught on their back feet,” is how a senior finance executive recently summed up the pandemic. Indeed, the pandemic should above all be a wakeup call that our wellbeing is closely tied to the health of the planet. Despite scientists’ warnings about the high risk of animal-borne infectious diseases, we continue to destroy natural habitats. The evidence of the destructive human impact on the natural environment from water to soil to the air, and its negative impact on human health and wellbeing, is overwhelming. Yet, we find it difficult to change course. Despite the many warning signs, humans have become a geophysical force as we continue to destroy, pollute and poison on a massive scale the very foundation we depend on for survival and wellbeing. Every year we dump over 30 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere. We destroy entire animal and plant species at an alarming rate. We have cut down forests everywhere. We poison the soil and the water, and our garbage covers the floors of the oceans. And yes, every year, we kill over 100 billion animals to feed our carnivorous appetites. Our industrial-era mindset of ‘growth at any cost’ has become a recipe for self-destruction.
We have long known that markets cannot succeed in failing societies. Now we must learn that healthy societies and markets depend on the health of the natural environment. We know in principle what needs to be done and we have the means to do it: shifting the goalposts and the incentives that put a premium on clean and healthy growth instead of subsidizing the destruction of the environment, and putting decarbonization of economic activity and material reuse center stage, while restoring natural habitats and forests. With the enormous stimuli packages now being rolled out, we have a unique opportunity to change course. We can respond to the current crisis while at the same time building a healthier, greener and safer future. Going back to business as usual would be short-sighted and self-destructive – we would respond to one crisis by fueling the next one. Green and inclusive growth is no longer a nice thing to have. It is the only way to prevent the next crisis which, according to scientists, could well turn out to have an even greater destructive impact than COVID-19.
2) Prevention is better than cure – we must learn to listen to science
The pandemic is a strong reminder that ignoring science carries steep costs. Scientists have long warned about infectious diseases, especially since the recent outbreaks of Ebola, SARS and the bird flu. Only last September did the WHO’s Global Preparedness Monitoring Board issue an authoritative report urging governments to better prepare. Alas, their call was widely ignored. Scientists’ consistent and overwhelming warnings about the human impact on the global climate, on soil and water, and on plant and animal diversity have equally been ignored.
In our era of deliberate misinformation, fake social news and divisive political propaganda, we now have an opportunity to rediscover science as a reliable arbitrator and a guide to informed decision making. COVID-19 has already helped to elevate trust in credible mainstream scientists and thereby reversed the decade-old trend of eroding trust in established institutions. According to a recent New York Times article, the voice of science has become indispensable to inform policymakers and the public on how to deal with the pandemic. The fact that scientists collaborate across borders, even in the light of political divides, adds further credentials to their efforts, and their pursuit of the public good often trumps narrow interests. Moving forward, scientists should be encouraged to play a greater role in public debates and policymaking and the public should be encouraged to take a greater interest in science and support their work.
3) Global threats need global collaboration
Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan referred to climate change, diseases and terrorism as ‘problems without passports’ that cannot be stopped at the border and that can only be tackled if we cooperate. The premium for cooperation is growing as global threats are becoming national security threats. A virus can’t be stopped at borders and climate change does not respect national sovereignty. Yet, sadly, international cooperation has given way to strategic rivalry and fragmenting power blocks. The Paris Agreement of 2015, which had China’s and the USA’s cooperation, seems like from another era. The United Nations’ recent call for cooperation to deal with the pandemic was hardly noticed and its most important organ, the Security Council, is “missing in action”. Some political observers fear that the pandemic may accelerate existing divergences, supercharging nationalism and undermining free trade even further, leading to a world in even greater disarray. Indeed, ancient power concepts and myths of the past still set the tone and have not evolved since Thucydides, despite the growing interdependence of humanity and the many lessons history has taught us. Policymakers seem to have no grasp of “global public goods” and their importance for national security.
Over time nature will force our hands, whether we are prepared or not. The idea of a “common enemy” may sound outlandish to many at this point, but COVID-19 demonstrates that conventional power concepts are no longer useful when dealing with global threats. The notion of “global stewardship” and the imperative to build stronger collaborative bonds across and between nations will ultimately become a necessity. Human security needs more than military deterrence: it needs a new focus on good stewardship for the life-supporting services that nature provides and a collective willingness to improve the state of affairs everywhere. No country is prepared for the next pandemic if the rest of the world is not. And no country can stop the impact of climate change alone. COVID-19 gives us an opportunity to change course in this direction. Heeding UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres’ call to better coordinate and mobilize efforts to deal with the impact of the pandemic in less developed countries would be a good first step for the better.
4) The pivotal role of the private sector
Commerce has long acted as a bridge-builder between nations by connecting cultures and people, not through military power, but by spreading knowledge, mutual understanding and economic benefits. The world will remain deeply interconnected also in the post-COVID-19 era, and economic interdependence will remain the most viable pathway to secure peaceful co-existence and prosperity. In a fragmenting world where policymakers seem to have forgotten the lessons of history and largely ignore common interests that are shared by all of humanity, the private sector is playing an ever more critical role.
While coping with the pandemic in a struggle to survive, many well-managed companies have put the health and safety of their workers first while cooperating and working with clients and customers across borders and along supply chains. Many companies have retooled their manufacturing capacities to supply medical supplies and have mobilized community-based efforts to cope with the pandemic. One such example is Volkswagen, which in late January already donated medical supplies to Hubei Province of China. China in turn is now providing massive supplies to Germany. Leading technology companies are collaborating to develop “contact apps” and pharmaceutical companies have initiated unprecedented cooperation in the race to develop vaccines.
Good corporate citizenship practices are much needed to complement government efforts. The idea and practice of corporate sustainability and its financial equivalent – sustainable investing – is now playing an important role in coping with the crisis, affirming once again that values and purpose are the enduring features of resilient organizations. Equally, if not more important, is the fact that corporate sustainability and responsible investing now also serve as counterweights to the dark forces of economic nationalism and protectionism.
The sustainability movement will gain further relevance in the post-COVID-19 era. For corporations and investors, the need to align strategies with a broader purpose that speaks to the needs of society will be the key to growing and building trust. The pandemic has put a spotlight on human vulnerability and the fact that human safety and the health of the natural environment go hand in hand. This may well reinforce existing consumer trends towards healthier and more sustainable lifestyles. Environmental priorities are bound to gain greater strategic relevance over time and far-sighted executives will use the current crisis to accelerate decarbonization and to resource-efficiency measures. And arguably most important of all, the pandemic has acted as an accelerator for everything digital. Innovation and new business models will enjoy a premium and will give a boost to automation, resource efficiency and decarbonization, touching all segments of the economy. Moreover, digitalization and better smart data analysis are the fuel that drives ESG investing. Early evidence is already suggesting that ESG investing is gaining greater relevance in the light of the pandemic. Moving forward, the convergence between corporate sustainability and sustainable investing offers unprecedented opportunities to renew markets from within.
Are we capable of learning?
While coping with the crisis, we have an opportunity to rediscover basic values of humanity and the bonds that connect us. We now have it in our hands to lay the foundation for a safer, healthier and cleaner life on planet earth. We have the technology and the means to come out stronger if we understand that human wellbeing and the health of the planet are two sides of the same coin. Now is the time to retire old dogmas and to give way to a fresh start.