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Will Civilization’s Response to COVID-19 Lead to a More Sustainable, Equitable World?

By Robert P. Brooks, originally published by

What better time to shift our thinking and actions away from a hyperconsumptive, inequality-widening, environmentally-detrimental era than the 50th anniversary of Earth Day.

Having been shaken to our collective core by the COVID19 pandemic, can we muster the will to make major changes in how we rebuild our systems, to truly transform how we function as a society for the betterment of Earth and her inhabitants? What cause is more just, fair, and wise? And what time is better to shift our thinking away from a hyperconsumptive, inequality-widening, environmentally-detrimental era in which we find ourselves – the Anthropocene – than the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, the 22nd of April 2020?

A proposition has been coalescing in my mind for years, but drew strength from recent essays by notable thinkers, which I’ll briefly mention for context.

Humanizing Capitalism

Meghan Kallman pleads that “Crises require a radical form of solidarity.” as she questions whether a capitalist system can address the looming threats of climate change, and more importantly prioritize social relationships above the search for wealth. Her perspectives on how these relationships germinate best at the community level are encouraging.

Darren Walker summarizes the August 2019 statement emanating from 181 CEOs of the Business Roundtable:  “…leading the way toward a more equitable, humane, and democratic economic system…” (because in the U.S.) “…the three richest Americans collectively own about as much as the bottom half of the population combined…” This group is attempting to redefine the purpose of a corporation, committing to “…lead[ing] their companies for the benefit of all stakeholders – customers, employees, suppliers, communities, and shareholders.”

Nate Hagens writes that COVID-19 “exposes economic, cultural, environmental fallacies” of our existence, suggesting we all become more compassionate in our work, play, and interactions. I applaud his many suggestions for individual action.

Reallocating Resources

Perhaps the strongest stimulus for clarifying my thoughts is Paul Erhlich’s recent essay linking the current pandemic to “planetary reckoning”, where he proposes a path forward. He briefly addresses how we might get off the “perpetual growth” trajectory, while searching for solutions in reallocated military budgets.

These four, forward-looking thinkers, along with hundreds more, have outlined pathways forward. One can read daily about amazing individuals and groups applying innovative actions to the wicked problems we face. To list only a few organizations making a difference:  Mayo Clinic, Direct Relief, Girls Who Code, The Nature Conservancy, Water Utility Climate Alliance, Pew Charitable Trusts …

To implement transformational changes, we need to constructively alter the hyperconsumptive system operating in the U.S., and other prosperous nations, by making major structural changes in our government and our economy to benefit our society. Unfortunately, many individuals, corporations, and nations rely on economic indicators focused solely on measures of growth as a barometer on society’s well-being, which feeds the collective, consumptive dragon. Precious few reimagine a global economy guided by principles of sustainability, equity, and ecology along with appropriate metrics to measure performance. What I propose here, are a few ways to change the missions of our institutions to have more sane, adaptive, and sustainable roles, with an immediate focus on one primary change, reallocating the military’s organization and spending. Of all the many possible choices, this one might be the most palatable although it will not be easy.

Military capabilities, of which there are many (recent examples include their 2017 prediction of a novel influenza virus, and their preparatory work for protecting military bases from threats of climate change), managed by a democratically-elected government, could be transformed into a series of “Response Corps”. The staggering monetary and human resources expended in military budgets (+/- $1B/yr) could be shifted to focus more on urgent and future humanitarian and environmental needs – particularly on events overwhelming local entities – such as broadly-based emergencies and contingencies (natural disasters, epidemics or epizootics, structural inequalities, and environmental catastrophes).

People in the military are valued members of society. They have families, needs, and dreams. Their jobs are to serve their fellow citizens, embracing tasks often outside the capability of the average person, unless similarly trained and directed. Fighting offensively or defensively to defeat an enemy with destructive intent, might be what comes to mind. What if defense of our nation and her allies was one of, but not the primary mission of these “soldiers”? Better yet, let’s broaden what “defense” of the nation means for the Department of Defense and for us.

Precedents do exist. The National Guard is called upon to assist the citizenry in times of need, such as riots, but more commonly these days for – floods, hurricanes, wildfires – all of which are tied in part to shifts away from climate “norms”. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers applies their expertise to managing rivers, bays, and harbors, and to build structures needed by the fighting force (bridges, encampments, roads). The U.S. Coast Guard does exactly that – guard the coast – enforcing the laws and regulations governing access to and use of coastal waters, but they also assist commercial and recreational boaters. These branches of government are fairly well prepared to make immediate responses to emergencies and disasters, perhaps less well prepared for pandemics.

So how can we expand upon their respective missions? Let’s look for options by considering two examples. Near the mouth of Chesapeake Bay, a high concentration of U.S. Navy ships and facilities coexists with the urban center of Hampton Roads, Virginia. They are equally threatened by accelerating sea level rise and extreme storm surges. The Army Corps’ expertise in managing harbors and rivers is highly relevant here, but they could become more collaborative. I know actions against such coastal threats are occurring, but I can only assume close coordination among entities is taking place – is it? Concurrently, the megadrought of the arid Southwest is affecting urban centers, rural agriculture, and expansive military bases 2,000 miles to the west. Here, the military should be at the forefront of developing renewable energy sources (solar and wind) and conserving water resources in this region, both for their own use and to justify their occupancy of extensive public lands. I can imagine joint ventures on military lands between private manufacturers of solar arrays and wind generators and public utilities. Is this happening?

If service to geographically-dispersed, urgent needs became the missions of tailored “Response Corps”, I for one would be more supportive of allocating public funds for those tasks. Funding quite a few less costly weapon systems and directing those limited public funds toward humanitarian and environmental crises might resonate widely through the populace. What is possible?

Preparing for climate change and threats to infrastructure are long-term security concerns of the Department of Defense, but these should be raised to higher and more collaborative priorities in the military’s portfolio. Consistent collaboration among pertinent stakeholders is key to successful international, national, and regional coordination when addressing difficult issues. Let’s review one example of how to successfully organize more effective public-private partnerships. For over half a century, an annual assessment of migratory waterfowl populations has occurred for four “flyways” (Atlantic, Central, Mountain, Pacific) across the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. Although primary activities revolve around setting hunting seasons and bag limits, the overall intent is to insure the long-term conservation of these birds. Councils comprised of experts from national, provincial, and state resource agencies, along with relevant non-profit organizations, conduct these assessments from spring through summer then negotiate final decisions for the fall harvest. This is a massive, science-based undertaking with a strong record of success year after year. Could it be a template for future collaborations designed to build resilient capacities into our food, water, energy, and social systems?

We need to pay as much attention to conserving and restoring the connectivity of the natural infrastructure (agricultural landscapes, river corridors, working waterfronts, land corridors through diverse ecosystems) as we do for the built infrastructure (regional electrical grids, water systems, roadways). For example:

  • if we are smarter about restoring brownfields and depauperate urban neighborhoods (create a new Urban Corps with architectural and agricultural expertise),
  • if we organize public-private partnerships to repair mistakes of our past transportation and energy activities (push for collaboration among the Army Corps, Federal Highway Administration, Department of Energy),
  • if we conserve coastal habitats and mitigate storm damage (create a new Conservation Corps, working in collaboration with the Fish and Wildlife Service, Army Corps, Coast Guard),
  • if we adapt existing military-associated units to prepare for and respond to widespread medical emergencies and regional natural disasters (National Guard, FEMA),
  • if we create several well-trained Response Corps for food security, cybersecurity, and children’s health and safety,

then we can create a more coherent whole for society.

We need sustainable strategies and actions to promote resilience in all spheres of our lives. To accomplish transformative shifts in priorities, we need input from scientists and technicians, engineers and contractors, doctors and nurses, agriculturists and urban planners, ethicists and spiritualists, economists and financial managers, diplomats and politicians, and beyond. We want innovative and pragmatic voices at the table. These are the “troops” we need to rally – soon.

As we emerge from conquering this threatening pandemic, let us embrace our heightened sense of community and reinvent our lives, sustainably and equitably. Perhaps we can begin by reimagining the “defense” of our nation, its lands and waters, and its people, by adapting missions and creating corps with the capabilities and preparedness of the military. With awareness of our intentions, and management of our actions, we can find and follow multiple pathways to creating, conserving, and restoring healthy, livable communities. As Wendell Berry, the renown American poet and environmentalist, wrote, “Earth is what we all have in common.

Links to cited authors:

Paul Erhlich is the Bing Professor of Population Studies, Emeritus and President of the Center for Conservation Biology at Stanford

A pandemic, planetary reckoning, and a path forward

Also see this paper with Erhlich as a co-author: Barrett et al. 2020. Social dimensions of fertility behavior and consumption patterns in the Anthropocence. PNAS.

Nate Hagens is Director of and teaches Reality 101 at the University of Minnesota 

Nate Hagens: Coronavirus exposes economic, cultural, environmental fallacies

Meghan Kallman. 2019. Turning toward each other.

Darren Walker is President of the Ford Foundation; Nov 2019.

Saving Capitalism from Itself. Fast Company No. 236. Mansueto Ventures, LLC.

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