Disclaimer: The following science-based philosophical commentary is intended to spark contemplation about the current pandemic and not in any way intended to discount or dismiss the tragedies that are resulting, including economic hardship and loss of life.
Virus, Part II: Sociopolitical
In 2016 (most recent data available), the World Health Organization (WHO) recorded almost 9.5 million deaths world-wide from heart disease, while the U.S recorded over half a million for that same period. So far, COVID-19 has killed 62,784 people globally (WHO) and 18,559 domestically (U.S. CDC). This means that for the 2-month period from mid-February through today, COVID-19 represents only 17% of heart-failure-related deaths in the U.S. and 4% world-wide.
According to the CDC and WHO, respectively, noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) and injuries such as heart disease, stroke, COPD, cancer, diabetes, dementia, and suicide account for 9 of the top 10 causes of death in the U.S. and 7 of the top 10 globally. These health problems collectively account for over 23.5M deaths globally (WHO) and over 1.8M deaths in the U.S. (CDC) every year. Compared to these, COVID-19 makes up only 6% of deaths in the U.S. and 2% world-wide over this 2-month period.
In mid-March, the Federal Reserve released a statement that it would be providing $500B in relief money to the U.S. Treasury (Fed) and just a few days ago approved a second disbursement of $2.3T in loan funds (Fed), adding to the emergency funding of $2T from the CARES Act (U.S. Treasury). In total, the money being injected into the U.S. economy amounts to nearly $5T, about enough money to buy Switzerland seven times over (IMF). So, the U.S. government has shut down about 80% of the country’s economy and, together with the Federal Reserve, has provided an historically unprecedented economic relief package that is around 100 times larger than the cost of the recovery stimulus of the 1930’s New Deal (Forbes), all in response to a health threat that so far accounts for less than 10% of deaths relative to what the U.S. experiences every year, and has been experiencing regularly for many years now. Furthermore, whereas the New Deal of the 1930’s and the economic boom following WWII were in response to socio-economic collapse and catastrophe, the current social retreat and economic shut-down is in preparation for a perceived threat, the implications and impacts of which remain largely unknown.
So, what exactly is the known threat? Spread rate, mortality rate, and total potential death toll remain at least partially unknown at this point. The only known threat that is catalyzing action is the potential for catastrophic loss of life. According to researchers at Imperial College London, a partner to WHO, if the coronavirus were allowed to spread unchecked we could experience somewhere around 40 million deaths worldwide (Walker et al., 2020), approximately as many civilians as were killed during WWII. So, yes, a major response to that sort of threat is appropriate. However, many well-qualified scientists and researchers from institutions such as MIT (LTG), NASA (Climate), the U.N. (Brundtland), and a hundred other prominent universities and institutions have predictions of their own: that the death toll resulting from unsustainable lifestyles fostered under socio-political systems that do not appropriately manage and account for natural resources and respect natural processes will likely climb into the billions, substantially eclipsing the death toll of COVID-19…and all other causes of death, combined.
Thus, logic supports the conclusion that if we perceive a threat on the order of tens of millions of lives lost (but not much impact beyond mortality) and in response we mobilize nearly all major political resources across the world, liquidate tens of trillions of funds, and halt a majority of socio-economic systems in most of the world’s leading economies, all in a matter of a few short months if not weeks, then surely – as the collective global unit in which we’re operating now, ex. war ceasefire in response to epidemic (UN) – we ought to be willing and able to temporarily pause our current, unsustainable socio-economic system of unmindful consumerism and linear, single-bottom-line capitalism, at every level, perform a serious introspective evaluation and holistic assessment of the treatment of the natural world (and each other), and begin a new way of living that is consciously designed to respect nature and the fact that all humans, not just 40 million of us, will be facing potential extinction if we continue to degrade earth’s ecosystems and over consume her natural capital.
Perception is the problem. Many people would argue that the coronavirus threat is upon us whereas the fallout from climate destabilization, biodiversity loss, and ecosystem function failure isn’t yet proven, let alone presenting any real threat at this time. The assessment that a stable future is not at risk and that the health of (human) life-supporting ecological function isn’t already in decline is grossly inaccurate and indicates a dangerous level of ignorance. Yes, I said it. If you’re not aware that there is a much more serious threat to human life than COVID-19 then you are not paying attention. The difference is that COVID-19 is an acute threat; one that is relatively easy to target. The threat of global ecosystem collapse is much more difficult to comprehend let alone for which to conceive of a solution. No amount of social distancing will protect us against the fallout from ecological bankruptcy.
If we require a real threat, like COVID-19, one that is directly killing people now, in order to mobilize drastic action, we need only to look at the current leading causes of death: the NCDs previously mentioned. In 2016 (again, most recent data available), 88% of deaths from NCDs occurred in high-income countries (WHO). This data suggests that there may be a correlation between the greatest human health threats of today and the luxurious lifestyles endorsed by “western culture”, i.e., western pharmaceuticals, a fossil-fuel-based economy, social competition/individualism, unmindful entertainment and distraction, single-use/non-recyclable/non-biodegradable consumables and individually-packaged goods, etc. I realize many people are going to be threatened by this suggestion because on many levels it attacks the “American way of life”…oh, like COVID-19? Or like the larger threat of ecosystem collapse will? Look, either we design-in change or change will be forced upon on. Either way, change is coming.
I, for one, welcome the social disruption that the coronavirus has catalyzed, minus of course the tragedy of death; but let’s be realistic: death is a part of life and viruses are a natural occurrence. Yet, no one seems to want to have that discussion because death is perceived as depressing and that sort of discourse is unpopular. But someone (in politics) needs to begin the dialogue of population versus resources and global carrying capacity. The issue is complex but the fact of the matter is very simple and comes back to a designed culture that includes some sort of population control in order to avoid nature’s version of population control as the latter is likely to be much more dramatic, chaotic, and possibly painful.
The bottom line is that our take-make-use-lose way of living is not sustainable. Something had to hit the pause button, someone needed to call a timeout, and COVID-19 did just that. Now it’s up to us to use the one thing that sets us apart from all other animals and affords us the position as apex species: our brain. We must take this opportunity to examine our life choices and social design…and by intention create a better, more conscientious way of living that is more harmonious with nature.
So if we don’t return to “normal”, to what sort of lifestyle should we return? The list of corrections is long and includes topics like equitable income and income caps, designed-in ethics, and proper valuation of natural capital. But that discussion is beyond the scope of this report. Suffice it to say that one major element of this pandemic is that it has shined a sobering spotlight on the luxurious lifestyle that is “enjoyed” under the current design of consumer-based capitalism. We, as a society, used to eat out at restaurants regularly, go watch movies at the cinema, gather up for recreational games of basketball, golf, and pickleball, head out to the countryside to fish or hunt for pure sport, and if we have nothing else to occupy our time: we shop, for whatever, it doesn’t really matter so long as we’re shopping. And when we’re not out engaging in extemporaneous pastimes we’re at home posting or watching videos of cats on YouTube, dancing on TikTok, chit-chatting about politics on Facebook and Twitter, binge-watching The Biggest Loser or enjoying “the game” (some sporting event). The extreme example of having too much time on our hands is the abuse of recreational drugs and alcohol, a topic also beyond the scope of this discussion.
While none of these activities are inherently bad – except perhaps the drug use and maybe hunting for sport – all do require natural resources, be it energy, materials, chemicals, etc., and as such all of them have an inherent ecological footprint. At the very least, we ought to be mindful of this fact but we also ought to be mature and responsible enough to take the next step and consider the cascade of ecological impacts that our life choices impart: If we waste food at the restaurant or grocery store in Florida, how does that affect the food production system in Indiana…or India? If we clear-cut forests in Colorado or (over) use water in Southern California, how does that impact the fisheries in Utah? If we randomly shop for whatever at will, use and waste plastic like oil is going out of style, run our central heating systems in Alaska like we’re living in Texas or our air conditioners in Texas like we’re living in Alaska…what is the impact of our lifestyle on the natural world? If we really believe ourselves to be responsible people, then we will be willing to ask that question and also be willing to act in response to the answer; to reduce our waste and limit our superfluous activities. Wait, did he just suggest we not be permitted to do whatever we want, whenever we want, using (and wasting) as much natural capital as we please (so long as we can afford it monetarily)? Something like that, yes. Again, exactly what the coronavirus has presented: stop all nonessential activities and reevaluate the efficiency of our ways.
To be clear, what I am not doing is advocating for pure socialism where everything is shared, there are no varying levels of income and equity, and no one is allowed to go out and shop or go fishing to blow off steam or escape or celebrate life in your own special way. What I am advocating for is mindfulness and moderation. My message is simply this: be mindful of your actions and the impacts that your actions have on others and on nature.
For me and my family the lesson of the virus and reevaluating for efficiency has literally translated to us sacrificing space on our small plot of suburbia in order to develop what is essentially a mini-farm. Where grass and ornamentals used to grow, now we have vegetables; where we used to have open space (for whatever purpose), now we have a chicken coop with egg-layers and storage for canned goods, dried foods, essential tools, etc. We’re planning a solar electric system to reduce our dependency on utility power, and a rainwater catchment system to reduce our dependency on the municipal supply. If the coronavirus has brought one issue to the surface, it is that we need to focus on what is essential: family, community, and more efficient use of resources – which means less dependency on markets and spontaneous shopping. We need to trim the fat, to get lean and optimize our existence, just like nature does. Actually, what seems to be distilling from this experience is a lifestyle a lot like humans used to live several generations back, and many still do in non-industrialized regions. After all, humans are nature and need to exist in the natural world and within natural processes. We can’t forget that we are connected to all living things. No matter how much artificiality we bring into our lives with fake grass, fake trees, fake climate (indoors…so far), fake bodies, and all sorts of barriers against the natural world with our cars and houses and pharmaceuticals, we can never eliminate the fundamental fact that we are animals too; we need the earth, we need to connect with the dirt, we need fresh air that contains not only oxygen and nitrogen but also nature’s cocktail of pollen, mites, mold, etc. We need fresh water to drink and we need a healthy ecosystem with a high degree of biodiversity. Every single day we are inundated with marketing that attempts to convince us of the things we need but what we really need is what nature provides. Everything else is nonessential.
Next up: Virus, Part III - Spirituo-philosophical