LESSONS FROM NATURE IN A COVID RECALIBRATED WORLD
“Ecosystems form the basis of all wealth creation. […] Ecosystems provide societies with soil fertility, food, water, shelter, goods and services,
medicines, stability, pleasure, knowledge, and leisure. […] Today 60 per cent of the services provided by ecosystems are threatened. Economic activities aimed at achieving short-term wealth are destroying ecosystems worldwide and thus economies’ primary asset. Restoring damaged ecosystems is essential if we are to secure the livelihoods of future generations.”
Willem Ferwerda 2012: 13 (https://tinyurl.com/y2gqe3fs)
IT IS ALL A BIOECONOMY
We inhabit a planet with finite natural resources that the planet recycles infinitely. We only have to examine the major biogeochemical
cycles on the planet to understand that no matter how long it takes, everything on Earth is recycled. Since the mid-2000s the idea
of a “bioeconomy” has become more widely recognised as a pathway to a low-carbon economy, one that becomes independent of fossil
resources. However, if we examine our economies properly, we quickly realise that they all rely on natural capital, directly or indirectly, and that we often disregard the contribution of Nature to our economic success. The World Economic Forum in its 2017 publication
“Harnessing the Fourth Industrial Revolution for the Earth” recognises that the foundation of the “extraordinary human advances” in the last century “has been the consistently steady state of the Earth’s global environmental systems provided by the so called ‘Holocene equilibrium’. Global patterns of temperature, precipitation, seasonality, and the overall health of our atmosphere, cryosphere, hydrosphere and bio-sphere, have remained predictable for much of the last 10,000 years.”
A 2013 report by Trucost PLC, “Natural Capital At Risk: The Top 100 Externalities of Business” determined that if we accounted for the externalised environmental costs incurred by 20 global industry sectors by region, “none of the region-sectors with the highest [environmental] impacts generate a sufficient return to cover their environmental costs.” Let that sink in: if we accounted for the goods and services provided freely by Nature then NONE of our industries would be profitable. Ultimately, as a species, we have failed to recognise and take action to preserve the very ecosystems and natural capital on which we rely, using them faster than Nature can replenish, and thereby destroying Nature’s resilience.
RESILIENCE: WHAT IS IT?
Nature is resilient but it is not always efficient; in business, humans strive for efficiency, which often leads to decreased resilience. One of the best known explanations of “resilience” comes from Walker, 2004, “Resilience is the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganise while undergoing change so as to still retain essentially the same function, structure, identity, and feedbacks.” I would go further and add that humans ought to be able to anticipate and avoid the disturbances that can reduce the ability of our social, economic, and environmental systems to be resilient. There is no system more resilient than Nature. No human system, structure, or process possesses the inherent characteristics of natural systems, structures, or processes that provide Nature’s level of resilience, and Nature’s ability to
regenerate and recover from catastrophe. Humans have consistently and with remarkable efficiency and effectiveness reduced Nature’s ability to “retain essentially the same function, structure, identity, and feedbacks” that keep Earth’s systems hospitable to us. We
have polluted the air, soil, and water. We have triggered the sixth mass extinction or Anthropocene extinction, threatening the pre-industrial levels of biodiversity. We are ruthlessly, and some would argue willfully, destroying the very natural living and non-living resources that
previously allowed Nature to return to that steady state, which allowed us to enjoy the environmental conditions that allowed us to be here in the first place. We extract non-living resources without any thought for their finite nature, for example phosphorus, which for all intents and purposes is non-renewable in our lifetimes and cannot be synthesised. Phosphorus is vital to all carbon-based, aerobic life forms, both photoautotrophic (photosynthesising) and heterotrophic (non-photosynthesising), and we are dangerously close to exhausting all known deposits on Earth.
COVID-19: FRAMING THE CONTEXT
No other event in modern memory has created such chaos in human systems as COVID-19, with virtually no end in sight. The virus and disease exposed, among other things, the weaknesses of our production and distribution systems, which had grown, for the most part, into centralised behemoths susceptible to massive disruption in the right circumstances. The virus reminded us of a truth, which we have ignored either willfully or ignorantly: microbes rule the world. With all our advanced technologies, weapons, medicine, artificial intelligence, robotics, financial systems, etc., a microorganism has reminded us of our mortality. We have been so focused on generating wealth that we lost sight of what really matters. Our economic systems are all predicated on growth, seemingly oblivious to the fact that we live on a finite planet. According to Wahl, 2017, “Our profoundly unsustainable monetary and economic systems lie at the root of many of the converging crises around us.”
In many respects, it has been the choices made by human beings over decades, if not centuries, that created the perfect conditions for the novel coronavirus to make the leap from animal to human. We have degraded natural habitats, forcing wild animals into more frequent contact with humans. We have developed tastes for exotic meats, thereby incentivising the trade in wild, often endangered, species. We have moved from a largely plant-based to a meat-based diet, with consequent factory farms raising animals in tremendously inhumane conditions that facilitate zoonotic diseases. We have eschewed rural lives in favor of living in the petri dishes of urban settings. We have increased our population by means of advances in medicine, food production, sanitation, etc. increasing demand for resources and increased consumerism. We have altered Earth systems by our wastes and byproducts, resulting in phenomenon such as Climate Change. Although no definitive empirical evidence has been put forward to link Climate Change with COVID-19, there is little doubt that Climate Change probably played a part in the emergence and spread of the virus and its accompanying COVID-19 disease, and there is growing consensus that addressing Climate Change will play a part in reducing the impacts of COVID-19 disease, and other similar viral and bacterial diseases, and preventing
future outbreaks. Certainly, thawing permafrost because of warming of polar regions poses a real threat to exposing ancient viruses and bacteria, long buried and mostly forgotten, but capable of reanimation and wreaking havoc once more.
BUILDING RESILIENT SOCIAL, ECONOMIC AND ENVIRONMENTAL SYSTEMS
We can change the economic drivers of unsustainable practices. We can modify our concepts of what it means to be successful, to be happy, to no longer measure these variables using concepts like Gross Domestic Product, or the quantity of wealth and material goods we can accumulate. We can eliminate the inequalities that persist between nations and people by building regenerative cultures that “maintain and regenerate healthy ecosystems functions as the basis of true wealth and wellbeing.” On a finite planet the only way to achieve infinite use and benefits of its resources is to adopt a regenerative and circular economic model rather than the linear model we have used until now. We must design waste out of our economy, and we must design our activities to add environmental as well as economic value, by regenerating and restoring natural systems. Applying regenerative and circular approaches in our economic activities in all sectors, e.g. extractive, manufacturing, industry, agriculture, farming, services, intellectual, and quinary, will naturally result in sustainability. A regenerative economy and culture will eventually cause the mitigation and reversal of the existential threats facing us as a species and allow Nature to
return to “essentially the same function, structure, identity, and feedbacks” that favour us.
Author: David Ramjohn, CEO of AlgEternal Technologies, LLC
Magazine: Amcham Trinidad & Tobago, Linkage 2020 Issue 3 – Resilience