by Dr Mike Joy
This article was originally published on Pure Advantage.
It is clear to ecologists and many others that the COVID-19 pandemic is not a one off ‘bolt from the blue’. Rather, it is a symptom of our over-exploitation of the life-supporting capacity of the planet. It is a warning sign of our overshoot in the same way that climate change, biodiversity loss, anti-microbial resistance and many more incipient crises are.
It is crucial to understand that as bad as this pandemic is, it could have been so much worse, and the only to make sure it doesn’t happen again is to radically change how we live. This is our wake-up call – a real-life manifestation of our exceedance of the limits to growth we were warned about decades ago.
The best way I can think of to show just how much we have overstepped our biophysical limits is to reveal how we dominate all life on the planet. We human beings and the domestic animals we farm to eat now make up more than 96% the biomass of all animals on the planet, just humans alone are 10 times the biomass of all the wild animals but our true ecological footprint is so much larger because our domesticated animals make up 20 times the biomass of humans.
This human domination has happened in just a few centuries but mostly since the middle of last century. Go back a few hundred years and humans and domesticated animals were a tiny proportion of wild animal biomass but even by 1900 the biomass of domesticated animals was three times that of all wild mammals, and now their mass is 25 times that of all wild animals. Knowing that wild animals are just a few percent of the biomass of all animals and humans on the planet it’s not hard to imagine why we have a biodiversity crisis.
During the 20th century, the world human population increased nearly four-fold, crop area grew by only 40%, but we increased the harvest of food six-fold. The catch was that to achieve this output six-fold we used ninety times more energy. Instead of using just sunlight to produce food we used fossil energy now we are literally eating oil.
This mind-blowing human population growth is not natural, it is simply the result of our recently found ability to exploit cheap, easy energy fossil fuel, which is just solar energy captured by plants over millennia. In a mad rush of less than two centuries we squandered this unique endowment of high-density energy. This energy boost enabled the incredible population growth an even faster growth in consumption but unfortunately had many other negative side-effects like climate change and more.
In the last few months, the fossil fuel driven growth of human impact has been drastically reduced by government response to COVID-19, allowing us to see that we have the ability to stop and hopefully we will take the opportunity to make a sustainable new world that will give a hope of a future for humanity.
Here in New Zealand if we get the response right we can have much better lives than we would have had without this wake-up-call, crucially we must make the right changes because if we go back to how we were, we are doomed to something much worse than this pandemic.
There will clearly be a need for government job creation on a massive scale, but we must ensure that the projects we chose increase our resilience and do not chose those that make us more vulnerable.
To guide us in decisions about what to do we have a blueprint, based on simple and obvious these principles make decision making on our options easier. They are ecological economist Herman Daly’s three principles of sustainable resource management:
- resources must not be used at a pace faster than the rate at which they regenerate
- use of non-renewable resources must not be used faster than the rate at which their renewable substitutes can be put in place and
- the emission of pollution and wastes must not be faster than the rate at which natural systems can absorb them, recycle them, or render them harmless.
Using this blueprint, I have some suggestions for our future:
The major new infrastructure projects must only include those that strengthen our resilience. For example, we need to massively upgrade and renew drinking water, wastewater and stormwater infrastructure. Require all new building construction use locally grown timber and be built to much higher energy conservation standards. All existing housing stock could be retrofitted to much higher energy conservation standards using locally grown materials.
Our reliance on globalisation must be drastically reduced, and local food and energy production and supply systems ramped up. We must learn again to produce food that fits with what we can grow without fossil fuel derived fertilisers, to match the food we grow to climate and not vice versa, to again match our eating choices with natural seasonal growth peaks.
We must boost local engineering, manufacturing, in the process building our capability to re-purpose what we have, to build things with long product life and make them repairable, built-in obsolesce prohibited. Waste-stream diversion and responsibility for packaging products must be that of the producer for everything sold.
Transport of freight and people based only on renewable energy, electrified local and long-distance rail, no more money for roads, only maintaining what e have and any new spending only for public transport local shipping and rail.
Finally, we need to rethink education, much more about skill-teaching for real life emphasis should be on how to create a sustainable world, this will mean accentuating the importance of deep and wide learning. This is long overdue move away from seeing schools as day-care for children and universities as degree-granting businesses.
We need this new post-Covid-19 paradigm that switches from wealth-affirming to life-affirming, our only chance for a flourishing future for humanity and a living Earth.
Dr Mike Joy is a freshwater ecologist, widely respected for his courageous and sustained advocacy for the environment. He is a Senior Research Associate, at the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies, University of Victoria, Wellington.