THOUGHT LEADERSHIP | Llewellyn van Wyk, B.Arch; MSc. (Applied), Urban Analyst
“Owing to past neglect, in the face of the plainest warnings, we have entered upon a period of danger. The era of procrastination, of half measures, of soothing and baffling expedients of delays, is coming to its close. In its place, we are entering a period of consequences …We cannot avoid this period; we are in it now…”
Winston Churchill, November 12, 1936
The irony of the coronavirus pandemic is that it is both a devastating global disaster and a defining moment for our species. No-one knows how it will end, even as we shudder at the unimaginable, and growing, the scale of the suffering, especially among poor communities.
At the same time, however, the pandemic has given us a unique opportunity to open ourselves to the possibility of a global and personal transformation as a giant leap towards creating new social mores and values which are focused more on the planet and our place in it.
As George Swingler, an Emeritus Professor of Paediatrics and Child Health at the University of Cape Town in South Africa puts it, this is a wake-up call like no other – one that has caught our attention in a way that the climate crisis has never succeeded in doing. It should also starkly expose the malignant roots Covid-19 shares with the climate crisis namely our unsustainable and unjust economic system based on unrestrained industrialisation and a singular obsession with GDP growth in the face of finite planetary resources.[i]
As he notes, “We face a systemic crisis that will remain after the virus risks have passed. We live as part of a system and it’s high time we start speaking about how to go forward as civil, reasonable people choosing ‘less bad’ options in the near term while considering inspired choices for the future post-crisis. In answering, “What to do?” there are two timelines: 1) What do we need to do right now to navigate this crisis, and 2) Longer-term policy/behaviour/cultural changes to work towards and adopt after the crisis is passed.”
How did two of the most advanced countries in the world, the United States and Great Britain, both rich in technology and expertise, fail to recognise the crisis as it unfolded? A final answer will only come with hindsight and numerous public inquiries, but there are many known psychological processes that cause individuals and organisations to miss the signs of a coming emergency – even when it is staring them in the face.
In 1980, psychologist Neil Weinstein published the first study of what has come to be known as ‘optimism bias’ in which he found that people are unrealistically optimistic about their own prospects. [ii] Short-sightedness is another reason: according to Elke Weber, a behavioural scientist at Princeton University[iii], “We are evolutionarily wired for taking care of the here and now: we are bad at these decisions that require planning for the future.” Therefore, he argues, climate science, which deals in future probabilities, is “hard to process and hard for us to be afraid of.” As with climate change, our collective ability to confront the pandemic is shaped by our brains, and we have seen the lack of attention paid to Covid-19 in the early stages of the outbreak.
As Davis Spratt and Alia Armistead from the Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration put it in a recent discussion piece “modern society has been quite good at dealing with frequent, low-impact disruptions, but bad at managing infrequent, high-impact threats.”[iv]
Charles Mann, in an essay submitted for a 2013 National Magazine Award, relates a story of how Lynn Margulis, a researcher who specialised in cells and microorganisms and one of the most important biologists in the last half century, used to teasingly say that the problem with environmentalists is that they think conservation has something to do with biological reality.[v] Questioning her placing of humans as just part of another part of a larger ecology, he enquired whether humans were not, in some way, special. Her response is critical to how we view a post-Covid world:
It was Goergii Gause, author of a book recognised as a scientific landmark, The Struggle for Existence, published in 1934, whose experiment of the relationship between food resource and the growth of an organism, generated a graphic depiction of the fate Margulis alluded to. In the graph, time is on the horizontal axis, and the number of protozoa on the vertical axis. In the beginning the growth in the number of protozoans is slow, and the graph line ascends to the right. Then the line hits an inflection point, after which it suddenly rockets upward in a frenzy of exponential growth. The frenzied rise continues until all the food is consumed, at which point there is a second inflection point, and the growth curve levels off again as bacteria begin to die. Eventually the line descends, and the population falls toward zero.
All living creatures have the same purpose: to make more of themselves, ensuring their biological future by the only means available. It is natural selection, as Darwin argued, that interferes in achieving this goal. It snips back almost all species, restricting their numbers and limiting their range. In the human body, P. vulgaris is checked by the size of its habitat (portions of the human gut), the limits to its supply of nourishment (food proteins), and other, competing organisms. Thus constrained, its population remains roughly steady.
Sometimes, either by luck or superior adaptation, a few species manage to escape their limits – for a while at least. These are Nature’s success stories: their populations grow exponentially; they take over large areas, overwhelming their environment as if no force opposed them. Then they exterminate themselves, drowning in their own wastes or starving from lack of food. In his essay Mann writes that this is the reason why, to someone like Margulis Homo sapiens is one of those briefly fortunate species.
Escalating up the growth curve, human beings so dominate the earth that in 2000, the chemist Paul Crutzen, christened our time the “Anthropocene,” the era in which Homo sapiens became a force operating on a planetary scale. Mann points out that if we follow Gause’s pattern, growth will continue at a delirious speed until we hit the second inflection point. At that time, we will have consumed or degraded, or both, the resources of the planet.
I could conclude this think-piece right here, were it not for a concept called behavioural plasticity, one of humankind’s greatest attributes. The term, coined in 1890 by the pioneering psychologist William James, is defined as “the possession of a structure weak enough to yield to an influence, but strong enough not to yield all at once.” Behavioural plasticity, a defining feature of Homo sapiens’ big brain, means that humans can change their habits, almost as a matter of course. It is this plasticity, Mann writes, that is the hallmark of our transformation from anatomically modern Homo sapiens to behaviourally modern Homo sapiens—and the reason, perhaps, we might be able to survive.
Our ability to change ourselves to extract resources from our surroundings with ever-increasing efficiency is what has made Homo sapiens a successful species. It is our greatest blessing or curse. Which of those two it will be, depends on how we answer the following question:
Students of sustainable development will recognise the sustainability mantra in those words.
So here is the thing: changes must be planned and executed decades in advance of the usual signals of crisis, which human psychology tells us is we are not wired to do. Ironically, in the name of nature, we are asking human beings to do something deeply unnatural, something strange, something no other species has ever done or could ever do: constrain its own growth (at least in some ways).
Is this even possible? As Mann notes, to biologists like Margulis, who spend their careers arguing that humans are simply part of the natural order, the answer should be clear. All life is similar at base. All species seek without pause to make more of themselves—that is their goal. By multiplying till we reach our maximum possible numbers, even as we take out much of the planet, we are fulfilling our destiny. Seen from this perspective, the answer to the question whether we are doomed to destroy ourselves is yes. It should be obvious.
Should be—but Mann suggests it is perhaps not.
In his essay Mann uses slavery to suggest why the answer is not necessarily yes. He notes that slavery was the norm from one end of the world to another. Forced labour was everywhere, building roads, serving aristocrats, and fighting wars. Slaves teemed in the Ottoman Empire, Mughal India, and Ming China. Portugal, Spain, France, England, and the Netherlands happily exploited slaves by the million in their American colonies. Few protests were heard; slavery had been part of the fabric of life since the code of Hammurabi. Then, in the space of a few decades in the nineteenth century, slavery, one of humankind’s most enduring institutions, almost vanished.
The sheer implausibility of this change, Mann suggests, is staggering. In 1860, slaves were, collectively, the single most valuable economic asset in the United States, worth an estimated $3 billion, a vast sum in those days. Rather than investing in factories like northern entrepreneurs, southern businessmen had sunk their capital into slaves. And from their perspective, masses of enchained men and women had made the region politically powerful and gave social status to an entire class of poor whites. Slavery was the foundation of the new social order. Slave owners saw no wrong in this, considering it instead “a positive good.” Astonishingly, just a few years later, a part of the United States set out to destroy this institution, wrecking much of the national economy and killing half a million citizens along the way.
What is more, the tide against slavery was not restricted to the United States, but to slavery itself. Great Britain, the world’s biggest human trafficker, abolished its slave operations in 1808, though they were among the nation’s most profitable industries. The Netherlands, France, Spain, and Portugal soon followed. As Mann puts it, like stars winking out at the approach of dawn, cultures across the globe removed themselves from the previously universal exchange of human cargo. While slavery is, regrettably, by no means over, in no society anywhere is it formally accepted as part of the social fabric.
Many reasons have been provided by historians for this unnatural transition. But one of the most important, Mann suggests, is that abolitionists had convinced huge numbers of ordinary people around the world that slavery was a moral disaster. An institution fundamental to human society for millennia was swiftly dismantled by ideas and a call to action, loudly repeated.
This extension of human rights, to which historians assign multiple causes in this shift in the human condition, is both rapid in time, and staggering in scope. But one of the most important, Mann suggests, was the power of ideas—the voices, actions, and examples of activists, who through decades of ridicule and harassment pressed their case.
Preventing Homo sapiens from destroying itself as in the Gause experiment would, Mann writes, require a still greater transformation—behavioural plasticity of the highest order—because we would be pushing against biological nature itself.
Mann concludes his essay by noting that even though past successes are no guarantee of the future, it is terrible to suppose that we could get so many other things right and get this one wrong. To have the imagination to see our potential end, but not have the imagination to avoid it. To send humankind to the moon but fail to pay attention to the earth. To have the potential but to be unable to use it—to be, in the end, no different from the protozoa in the test tube. It would be evidence that Lynn Margulis’s most dismissive beliefs had been right after all. For all our speed and voraciousness, our changeable sparkle and flash, we would be, at last count, not an especially interesting species.[vi]
Society’s response to the Covid-19 shutdown is an example of behavioural elasticity.
Kingsley Davis refers to the increased individualisation and specialisation caused by urbanisation and questions whether it is possible to construct new social mores and standards under those conditions. Seems like Covid-19 has provided the answer – yes, it is.
Here, too, are lessons for our ability to confront the virus. Precisely because we are bad as individuals at thinking about tomorrow, economists and psychologists say it is more important to have leaders enact policies that enable us to protect ourselves against future risk.
As Leo Murray points out, there is one type of intervention that jumps out of the behaviour-change research as unusually effective: targeting “moments of change” like moving house or job where our patterns of behaviour are disrupted and we cannot simply rely on habit. In such moments, individuals are required to make new, active choices and subsequently may establish new patterns of consumption in the future. Intervening strategically at these moments can help steer people into a lower carbon consumption pattern more seamlessly than trying to prise them out of their existing habits and bring about more lasting reductions in lifestyle emissions.
The coronavirus pandemic represents an utterly unprecedented global “moment of change”, in which the regular patterns of hundreds of millions of people’s lives have been forcefully interrupted, not just as individuals, but as part of local and global communities. This mass instance of “habit discontinuity” is most pronounced in personal mobility, precisely the area of consumption behaviour that has so far proven most difficult to shift.[vii]
This is the collaborative opportunity of our time. Let us not let this crisis go to waste.
[i] Swingler, G. 2020. “Amid the devastation wrought by COVID-19 lies a glimmer of hope for the planet.” Available from: https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2020-04-14-amid-the-devastation-wrought-by-covid-19-lies-a-glimmer-of-hope-for-the-planet/. Downloaded: Thursday, 16 April 2020
[ii] Marshall, M. 2020. “Why we find it difficult to recognise a crisis.” Available from: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200409-why-we-find-it-difficult-to-recognise-a-crisis. Downloaded: Friday, 17 April 2020
[iii]Sengupta, S. 2020. “Climate change has lessons for fighting the Coronavirus.” Available from: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/12/climate/climate-change-coronavirus-lessons.html. Downloaded: Tuesday, 07 April 2020
[iv] Spratt, D. and Armistead, A., 2020. “COVID-19 climate lessons: unprepared for a pandemic, can the world learn how to manage the bigger threat of climate disruption?” Breakthrough – National Centre for Climate Restoration, Australia.
[v] Mann, C. 2012. “State of the species.” Available from: https://orionmagazine.org/article/state-of-the-species/. Downloaded: Saturday, 04 April 2020
[vii] Carbon Brief Staff, 2020. “Coronavirus: What could lifestyle changes mean for tackling climate change?” Available from: https://www.carbonbrief.org/coronavirus-what-could-lifestyle-changes-mean-for-tackling-climate-change. Downloaded: Friday, 10 April 2020
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