COVID-19 is many an ecologist’s dreams come true. A crude hyperbole perhaps, but given the size and depth of the hole the human species has dug itself, perhaps not so.
I can only speak for myself, coming from a place of privilege (haven’t been evicted, no one I know has the virus, more or less financially stable, etc.), but these are exciting times. Truly. Beyond this pandemic, being alive in the 21st Century is a unique and exciting time, an inflection point in history.
Right now supply chains, economies, healthcare, and countless other aspects of society are being exposed as fragile constructs, unable to cope with shocks to the system. Akin to taking The Matrix’s red pill, many individuals are being thrust into an unpleasant reality amidst these disruptive times. But from my stance, the current status quo or “reality” is much more unpleasant.
With COVID-19, there is a scramble to keep our GDP-driven world afloat through financial measures. But are these solutions novel? Or merely a move to maintain the status quo? If anything, with everything being turned upside down, now seems to be a great opportunity to rethink how our society is structured and REstructure ahead of future shocks. We all thought climate change was going to end us, but a global pandemic struck instead. What does this say about the future? What does it say about our understanding of the present?
At present, our world/economy runs on cheap fossil fuels. It powers transportation, manufacturing, political leverage: nearly everything is dependent on hydrocarbon energy. A barrel of oil is equivalent to 4.5 years of human labor. This should be common knowledge. Even renewable energy requires fossil fuels to build, so a more apt name is “rebuildables.” With travel bans, work/school from home, and trade restrictions, oil demand has plummeted, resulting in ridiculously low prices. A good pint of beer in Canada costs $5 — you can get a barrel of oil for less than that now.
So. With less demand for oil to power society, a recession impending due to stagnation from COVID-19, and a host of other existential issues, one is led to believe this nightmare will never end. Wrong! While this pandemic will pass, I believe the implications of it will stay for some time.
Ecologists often talk of the carrying capacity and natural disruptions to species. While I am no Malthusian, I think COVID-19 is a sort of primer for humans, a natural disruption, a wakeup call for us to realize our limits to growth.
While we might not change the world from our couches in quarantine, the circumstances do allow for some reflection on what society can look like and how it can function in radically different ways. You may call me a dreamer, as John Lennon would say in his iconic song “Imagine,” but these are the times to imagine a future with less pollution in the sky, widespread government aid, un-institutionalized education models, and more.