As people around the world brace for the impacts of the Novel Corona Virus (aka SARS-CoV-2 or COVID 19), it is worth observing a few long-standing insights about the accelerating pace of change that signifies our modern era. Perhaps best explained in The Limits to Growth (Meadows et al. 1972) published by complex systems researchers at MIT, the argument is that as a system develops and becomes increasingly complex, it also becomes very efficient, highly structured, and vulnerable.
This vulnerability can take the form of an external shock or an internal imbalance that overtime amplifies into disruption. Either way, the system either has feedback in place to respond and maintain integrity, which we refer to has resilience, or it is overcome and disintegrates.
In The Limits to Growth, the authors observe a number of growing imbalances in modern society including rapid growth of human population, depleting soils, water, and other natural resources. All these are made possible through technology that enables humanity to not only live longer and better lives but also overcomes natural limits imposed by nutrient and hydrological cycles, gravity, and so on. For those interested in tracking the numbers, you may find “Worldometer” of interest. For every natural limit that is overridden through human ingenuity, a new limit is eventually reached. Therefore, it is not necessarily a single limit event, but rather the culmination of many occurring simultaneously that will ultimately trigger global population collapse (Meadows et al. 1972).
Enter the world’s recent pandemic crisis. Although no-one wants to see people at risk of disease, there are a few very interesting social responses that bear signs of hope for larger-scale efforts to physically distance while staying socially connected. In developed world economies, responsible for most of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, many people are telecommuting instead of driving cars to work. Although there have been obscene examples of personal hording of groceries and pharmaceutical supplies, most people are taking only what they need. Governments are responding through fiscal aid for people who need access to food and shelter. Some businesses are instituting regulations that penalize people attempting to take “unfair advantage” of the situation by reselling horded supplies (St. Denis 2020). The net impact socially could be a rebuilding of faith in the human spirit along with the single-largest drop in demand for fossil fuels and related greenhouse gas emissions the world has seen this century.
The opportunity is now to harness the new practices that people are invoking that positively contribute to personal and planetary health. The International Ecocity Standards can help provide a language for those interested in communicating about this. Whether it is through practicing environmentally friendly transport, participating in healthy culture, supporting an equitable economy, or promoting well-being and quality of life even during the midst of crisis, there are ways we can raise consciousness to build resilience in the face of rapid change.
Meadows, Donella, Dennis Meadows, Jorgen Randers, William Behrens III. 1972. The Limits to Growth: a report to the Club of Rome’s project on the predicament of mankind. New York: Universe Books.
International Ecocity Standards. Online resource: www.ecocitystandards.org (Accessed March 31, 2020).
St. Denis, Jen (reporter). March 14, 2020. Amazon blocks thousands of resellers during COVID-19 crisis, including Vancouver couple. CTV News. Available online: https://bc.ctvnews.ca/mobile/amazon-blocks-thousands-of-resellers-during-covid-19-crisis-including-vancouver-couple-1.4853411?cache=?clipId=104066 (Accessed March 31, 2020).
Worldometer – real time world statistics. Online resource: www.worldometers.info (Accessed March 31, 2020).
So true! And an important reminder of the ways in which crisis can precipitate positive outcomes/change, just as change, including technological change as you note, can precipitate crises.