The COVID-19 pandemic signals that civilization has breached a major ‘tipping point’ that could pave the way for a dangerous new era of interacting ecological emergencies.
Scientific evidence accumulated over the last five years suggests that the pandemic didn't come out of the blue, but is a direct consequence of industrial civilization's breaching of key ‘planetary boundaries’—these are important natural ecosystems needed to maintain what scientists describe as the ‘safe operating space’ for human survival on the planet.
The more we destabilize those boundaries, the more this safe space for human habitation shrinks—and COVID-19 suggests that the world economy is now entering a volatile new phase of chronic instability due to not just one crisis, but the interaction of many crises including climate change, resource bottlenecks, food system failures and civil unrest. It is the escalating synergy between these crises, each of which is experiencing its own tipping points, which points to the risk we are crossing a planetary threshold in the global system.
This verdict doesn’t come from new data, but from applying a systems lens to understand the massive amount of data we already have. I assessed the evidence in a major report for the Schumacher Institute for Sustainable Systems, a British think-tank which has led on the European Commission’s CONVERGE project, among other things.
Pandemic: a symptom of civilization itself
Prior to 2020, warnings from public health experts of an incoming global pandemic had accumulated over the last few decades. All of them have based their diagnosis on examining the risks posed by the relentless expansion of industrial civilization.
One of the latest warnings in 2016 from the Commission on a Global Health Risk Framework published by the National Academy of Medicine, identified the main drivers of pandemic risk as continued population growth, increasing food production, closer transport ties due to globalization, and the expansion of urban areas into natural wildlife.
Numerous studies have similarly pinned the heightened risk of a pandemic on such expanding industrial processes. And many have noted that intensifying climate change plays a compounding role, by forcing disease-hosting species out of their traditional habitats.
There could be up to 600,000 unknown “zoonotic” virus species—hosted by animals—circulating in wildlife which could potentially spread to humans, the transmission of which is made more likely due to how industrial expansion is driving climate and land use changes. “Climate change means more zoonotic emergence risk—and no, mitigation doesn’t seem to reduce that, even if we stay under 2 degrees,” said Professor Colin J. Carlson of Georgetown University’s Center for Global Health Science Security on Twitter. “It’s coming no matter what we do now.”
One of the other biggest drivers of the increasing risk of pandemics is tropical deforestation, also a result of accelerating industrial expansion. New research has shown that the COVID-19 pandemic not only spurred greater illegal forest clearing in tropical countries—especially Brazil—during lockdown measures; but in turn is increasing the risk of disease outbreaks. “Zoonotic diseases, public health, economy, agriculture, and forests may all be reciprocally linked in complex positive and negative feedback loops,” wrote the authors, describing a self-reinforcing cycle of “emerging threats to nature and society.”
There is no evidence that the COVID-19 pandemic was triggered by deforestation or climate change. But it did seem to emerge from wildlife-to-human transmission in China, which has become more common in the context of a rapidly expanding urban society.
Five years ago, an international team of scientists identified deforestation and land-use change as among four planetary boundaries which civilization was already at high risk of crossing, out of a total of nine.
Other planetary boundaries we were on the brink of breaching at that time included the rate at which species extinctions, levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide, and the flow of nitrogen and phosphorus into the environment due to industrial agriculture. The further we breach these and other planetary boundaries, the greater the risk of irreversibly driving the Earth into a less hospitable state for humanity. Now scientists warn that at the current rate of deforestation, industrial civilization faces a 90 percent chance of collapse within the next two to four decades due to the devastating impacts on key ecosystems.
The COVID-19 crisis, I argue, urgently needs to be reframed. It’s not just ‘a pandemic.’ It’s a direct consequence of industrial civilization’s continued encroachment across planetary boundaries. As urban civilization along with its tightly-coupled global transport networks continue to expand and penetrate the biosphere, it is exposing more people to greater numbers of different virus habitats, which is what helped trigger the global pandemic.
Multiple tipping points
The systemic consequences of the pandemic have also been unpredictable and wide-ranging, exposing deep-seated structural fragilities within interconnected social, economic, and health systems. The public health crisis is now amplifying, and being amplified by, multiple simultaneous breakdowns.
The pandemic has forced an already unsustainable global economy into a state of paralysis. Economic modeling shows that all options lead to economic contraction and a reduction in GDP. If we let the virus spread uncontrollably, we face the devastating impact on health care systems amidst millions of hospitalizations, leading to economic collapse. Periodic lockdowns, too, have dire economic consequences. And even countries in East Asia that have protected most lives and livelihoods face what the World Bank calls a “triple shock” from the pandemic, the economic impact of containment, and reverberations from global recession.
Given economic research showing that over the last century the global economy is experiencing increasingly larger and slower recessions, the pandemic appears to be amplifying this pre-existing trend.
Perhaps the most significant yet understated impact has been on the global oil industry. Prior to the pandemic, some experts were forecasting that by 2020 fossil fuels would face a crisis of plummeting demand, while others predicted a supply crisis of escalating costs amidst ever diminishing returns. In hindsight, the pandemic has dramatically worsened both these processes, precipitating the largest oil price collapse in history. There is now a risk that long-term shut-ins could lead a significant percentage of oil reserves to experience permanent damage, suggesting that global oil production may well be experiencing a turning point this year.
The danger is that this unfolding energy crisis will, too, have complex societal consequences that are difficult to anticipate. With so much of the last decade of economic growth fueled by the shift to US shale oil and gas, the pandemic not only threatens to accelerate industry bankruptcies, but to provoke deepening recession and a global debt crisis that could particularly afflict oil producers.
Meanwhile, the pandemic is driving up levels of global hunger, as well as straining food supply chains—a crisis that could be worsened due to the effects of an oil crisis on our fossil fuel-dependent food system.
All these crises would be greatly amplified by climate change, where our ability to detect potential tipping points is inherently ambiguous. Eight years ago, scientists recognized 2020 as the critical year before which we needed to reduce carbon emissions to keep global average temperatures below the upper safe limit of two degrees Celsius.
It’s 2020, and emissions have continued rising overall, despite the pandemic’s dampening effect. And cutting-edge research around planetary boundaries suggests that human activities over the next decade or two will be pivotal in determining whether or not we trigger self-reinforcing feedbacks that could lead to a worst-case ‘hothouse earth’ scenario.
The global system is therefore experiencing multiple, simultaneous crises—the pandemic, energy, the economy, food, and climate change. These crises are not separate, but inherently intertwined. As they intensify, they converge and amplify one another. Left unchecked on a business-as-usual trajectory, this could become a system-wide self-reinforcing feedback process.
When a whole system experiences multiple, simultaneous tipping points, the very structure and architecture of that system comes under strain, and is pushed into a transition toward a new state. My research suggests that the COVID-19 pandemic is a signature of this process. Civilization’s breach of planetary boundaries is now triggering multiple interconnected crises which are shrinking the safe operating space for human survival. And it could either result in breakdown—or breakthrough.
Toward the next system
That’s why our report recommends a simultaneous whole system transition across multiple sectors. As governments continue to think about 'COVID-19' recovery plans, they need to join the dots and realize that economic prosperity, public health and ecological health are deeply intertwined.
To avoid the next pandemic, the next climate crisis, the next resource bottleneck, we need a World War II-scale transition to a ‘lifeboat economy’: an economy that thrives by protecting public health and planetary life-support systems. Markets cannot thrive when they degrade their own ecological foundations.
That requires a paradigm shift in economics: moving away from profit for its own sake, toward redesigning markets so that they meet public needs and nourish ecosystems. Governments are going to have to accept that a future of declining GDP may be unavoidable. Far from doom and gloom, this opens up an opportunity to rethink our addiction to endless growth linked to material overconsumption, and to embrace the mounting evidence that a good quality of life is available to all within planetary boundaries even with dramatically lower GDP—as long as we are ready to change.
Integral to that is a strategy to address the frontline driver of future pandemic risk, which also contributes to around 15 percent of global carbon emissions: deforestation. Driven largely by expanding industrial agriculture, there isn’t a single major food commodity that escapes deforestation. Currently, the predominant approach (for instance in the EU) tends to single out one commodity—palm oil. But this makes little sense given that beef production is the world’s number one driver of deforestation. It also creates a danger that if we shift away from palm oil, this will displace demand onto other oilseeds which, however, are less efficient and more land-intensive—which could drive even greater rates of deforestation.
To solve this, we therefore need a more consistent approach to stop deforestation across all commodities. One way to do this is to scale-up approaches which are beginning to work. In Malaysia, for instance, the rate of deforestation has fallen year on year for the last 5 years largely due to the impact of its own national certification scheme, MSPO—which is the world’s first mandatory sustainable palm oil scheme. According to Glen Hurowitz, CEO of Mighty Earth, although far from perfect, such schemes have been so successful in dropping deforestation from over a million to less than 250,000 acres per year, that they could be used as a “blueprint” for how to achieve the same in the Amazon.
The imperative, in other words, is to further incentivize, strengthen and support those locally-enforced schemes which are working, while focusing penalties on intransigent producers. One mechanism to incorporate this combination of carrot and stick could be realigning trade deals so that ecological restoration is at their foundation, rather than simply an afterthought. Trade would open access to Western markets for producing countries on condition of meeting core targets on domestic sustainable production.
Simultaneously, the full potential of the ‘Green New Deal’ opportunity must be recognised. Recent research reveals that just $2 trillion could transition the entire continental United States to a 100 percent solar, wind, and battery storage system, provided at marginal near-zero cost, opening up opportunities to transform entire industries across mining, manufacturing and agriculture while creating millions of jobs.
Governments can support this transition by gradually winding down incumbent fossil fuel industries. This would mitigate economic shocks as the industry declines, while retraining oil workers so that they can move into new renewable industries and emerging sectors.
As the Bank of England’s little-understood ‘Ways and Means’ facility proves, all this can be sustainably financed. Instead of printing money by borrowing it into existence from private banks, which tends to inflate asset bubbles and increase inequality, authorities can create their own money debt-free to support productive investments in the great transition.
Taken together, this programme of structural change can protect our societies from the consequences of overshooting planetary boundaries, and pave the way for the emergence of an ‘ecological civilization’—a civilization that enables the conditions of life to thrive within planetary boundaries.