COVID-19 is the chance for a social and ecological reset….but, how? Part I

We are living in unprecedented times. This period will go down in the history books, and today’s children will be telling their children stories about times of climate change and COVID-19. How the stories end is in great part up to us, now.

It is a tale of two emergencies. They are really intersecting rises. Only one is being responded to with urgency, but they are both connected to each other, and both entail unprecedented threats to humanity.

COVID-19 has led us to a deeper understanding of how we are connected to each other and to nature. This highlights the urgent need to radically address climate change to ensure the health of that relationship.

The World Health Organization has affirmed that there is an increase in infectious diseases, particularly zoonotic viruses making a jump between animal hosts and humans, and that there is a link between this and climate change. Not only will biodiversity loss due to climate change makes pandemics more likely, but we will have reduce capacity to tackle global health crises due to the intersecting nature of more extreme weather and environmental events on human health.

We know that climate change puts pressure on many species to move to new areas due to loss of habitat and food sources. This puts more animal and bird species in contact with human populations, increasing the risks of novel virus spillover.

According to a recent study, by 2070, around 4,000 mammal species are “predicted to aggregate in areas of high human population density…sharing novel viruses between 3,000 and 13,000 times.”

It is not yet know the definitive links of findings such as this and the potential for global pandemics, but science suggests the risks are high. For such reasons, the IPCC is currently modelling the links between climate change, biodiversity loss and future pandemics to include in its next assessment report in 2021.

Regardless of the science, we know that the wellbeing of the natural environment affects human wellbeing and vice-versa. It is this society-nature continuum, that often gets forgotten and is in danger because of human activity and the continual search for developmental ‘progress’.

We live on a finite planet. The constant, unrelenting quest for economic growth is creating more ecological destruction that we cared to imagine at the start of the industrial age. Because of this we are now living a climate planetary emergency. This has been internationally acknowledged and declared in over 1,750 jurisdictions worldwide, yet the political will to address the climate emergency with as much urgency as the health emergency is still lacking.

Nonetheless, COVID-19 has demonstrated that we have a chance for a social and ecological reset. This gives us the possibility to address climate change in the process. But, how?

I will discuss further in the second instalment of this post

What comes after COVID19? Buen Vivir and a social and ecological ‘reset’

In the space of a few short, but seemingly long months, the world as we know it has changed. Perhaps forever. We should neither long nor need to return to the old ‘normal’. The normal that perpetuated an economy of overexploitation of the people and the planet. The old normal that preoccupied our minds and hands with the business of wealth accumulation and economic growth without limits.

If we return to the old normal, what have we learnt? The time has come, as Ateljevic rightly argues, to “mainstream previously marginalised ideas…To potentially move what was considered either radical, over positive or naïve into the centre of (y)our attention and (y)our consideration.”

“During this great pause, we could potentially embrace the holistic paradigms and practices that have been waiting on the margins. In our humbled state, we could bring them into the centre and build a new system around them (Eisenstein, 2020).”

One such idea that has applicability now more than ever is the Latin American concept of Buen Vivir. If you know my work, you will know that I have dedicated the past few years trying to understand what it entails and how to practically bring it into other contexts. It has in the past been labelled vague. Rooted in Indigenous cosmology, it has grown to involve grassroots, political, and academic interpretations. Yet, the way it has evolved in recent years – honouring its Indigenous past but co-constructing it from those who have influence in its meaning (without co-opting the term) – means that we have a great deal to learn about how to change our relationship with others and our planet.

It is about learning from those previously marginalised voices who have something extremely valuable to contribute to the wellbeing of people and the planet.

Taking those co-constructed meanings about Buen Vivir, through my doctoral research I developed a framework from 17 principles of Buen Vivir that I identified from communities in Ecuador, academia and policy. My aim has always been to enable lessons from those voices to help us on the trajectory for a better planet. My upcoming book will outline how this can be done in any context using the framework as a community tool for change – for the transformative change that we need.

We have already started this shift on the margins in many societies, and in multiple ways not labelled Buen Vivir, but nonetheless in the same ethos. People have been increasingly scaling-down their way of life for some time now. Environmentally, individuals, households and businesses have started to change their consumptive ways, striving for low waste or even no waste lifestyles and product offerings. We see this through the numerous vocalised ‘No Waste’ movements that have cropped up all over the world.

Economically and socially, focus has been turning from mass-consumption to local, fair and ethical trade; socially, communities have been slowly becoming more connected through local initiatives community centres, gardens, knowledge-sharing activities. The unprecedented shift from global to local during COVID19 has accelerated that change to a pace that might just have some transformative impact.

If this change is already occurring, do we not have a moral obligation to pursue it and continue its momentum, rather than long to return to a state of chaos and despair that perpetuates the status quo that is global capitalism and neoliberal development?

It seems to me illogical in the period that follows to turn the tables on local trade, community solidarity, greater connections with nature, communal wellbeing, increased leisure time, renewed focus on family and friends and the positive ecological benefits that have ensued the tragedy that has come from the COVID crisis; and instead return to the individualistic, anthropocentric and globally focused exploitative ways of the past.

COVID19 has been a tragedy of unprecedented proportions. I am not so naive as to think that society will have completely learned from it and we will entirely upend all that is wrong with the world both socially and environmentally, but we have a rare opportunity to change the course of direction, and an open door to change. Let’s not slam it in the face of social and ecological wellbeing for the sake of the few beneficiaries of the wealthy.

This is my first blog post of many navigating this New Normal (capitals and no apostrophes, because it is a fact rather than an idea). Thanks for reading and please follow me here, and on twitter, as we navigate this together. I will not only be writing about Buen Vivir, but also about all the issues implicated in Buen Vivir such as climate change, ecological sustainability, nature, social justice, human rights and economic alternatives.