When I last wrote to you, we were reeling from the devastating Australian bushfires that had killed over one billion animals. Discussions about the urgency of climate change were surging in the press. Then, as fast as our focus had sharpened on the pressing need to address our ailing climate, COVID-19 spread across the world, shifting our attention to “flatten the curve” of a global epidemic. But as news cycles shift from one global catastrophe to another, we should be reminded that climate change and COVID-19 require the same set of actions: They can only be abated by resilience thinking that reduces our vulnerability to external shocks, such as disease, economic fluctuations, floods and famine.
Although none of us could see this specific virus coming, we definitely saw ourselves hanging from an ever thinning thread. Winnowing resources and increasing inequality have left us vulnerable to a dystopian future, where competition for scarce resources deteriorates into “Us” versus “Them” in an epic battle for survival. We are living in that world now. Our efforts to increase density in cities to lessen waste through economies of scale have provided the ideal conditions for this virus to spread. Almost overnight, tens of millions of people worldwide lost their jobs, restaurants boarded their doors, international travel and trade ground to an abrupt stop. The vulnerabilities in our local and global systems were revealed in an instant.
Much of my own research and writing has focused on the factors that predict vulnerability when crises occur. In my book Resilience, Environmental Justice and the City, I wrote:
When we look at inequality and resilience at the international level, three critical dimensions are highlighted in the sociological literature: the exposure and impacts of … disasters; the ability of elites to exclude the poor from decision-making and available resources; and the power of industrialized nations to dominate the international institutions that create policies, treaties and other cooperative agreements.
These findings are as relevant for the spread and devastation of COVID-19 as they are for other economic, technical, and natural crises. Some can shelter, while others remain exposed. Frontline workers, whether fire fighters, health professionals or meat packers are significantly vulnerable, as are people in densely populated cities, nursing homes, prisons, refugee camps, and shanty towns. The elites use their access to information, their financial power, and their political prowess to scoop up scarce personal protection equipment and ventilators before they can reach the communities that desperately need them. And central governments actively suppress information about predictive models and recommended reopening procedures that point to different policy responses than those that serve their reelection probabilities and the donors who support them.
The vulnerabilities associated with inequality during the Coronavirus pandemic have been striking. In the United States, several studies have revealed that black and brown people, who make up approximately 30 percent of the population, have suffered over half of infections and nearly 60 percent of deaths from COVID-19. In the developing world, the pandemic has left millions unemployed worldwide whose services to international travelers and the global food and garment industries have been halted due to low demand. While small scale producers in Africa and Asia fear starvation due to frozen exports, Zoom stock increased by over ten percent as working from home became the norm for the professional class. While food lines grow, potatoes rot. While unemployment rates soar and organizations cease operations, the stock market recovered quickly and continues to climb. These contradictions are indicative of an economic system that favors profits over people and lacks adaptive capacity to collaboratively shift resources from their intended use to where they could be saving lives.
But, just as we know the factors that contribute to our vulnerability to disease, climate change, and economic crises, we also know the factors that lead to increased resilience for everyone. As our Associate Editor Hunter Lovins writes in her book Finer Future, we have to create an economy in service to life. Our current economy exploits the environment and vulnerable populations of people to build profits for large corporations and elites, leaving everyone else vulnerable. Instead, the economy needs to be reorganized to steward the natural resources that support life on earth and provide equitable opportunities for all of the people who live here. Other members of our distinguished Editorial Board have articulated pathways to increased equity and resilience, shining a light on the global, national, and bioregional solutions:
- We can create an economy in service to life by placing people, prosperity, and planet into interaction in ways that support abundance for all three;
- We can elevate indicators of wellbeing to measure progress in nation-states, rather than rely on GDP as our primary judge of success in our economy;
- We can shift from a focus on sustaining our current way of life toward a regenerative future.
In this issue, we feature articles that articulate solutions that increase resilience. In our Feature Article Section, we are grateful to bring to you a series of state-of-the-art pieces focused on creating a resilient water future, which was originally published by the Inter-American Development Bank. Several articles outside of the Feature Section also focus on ways to enhance security and equitable access to increasingly threatened water supplies around the world.
We also offer a special Envisioning Section dedicated to scenarios for post-Covid-19 recovery – scenarios that abandon attempts to restore business as usual in favor of a future focused on shared prosperity on a healthy planet. Many thanks to the Club of Rome, in particular, for sharing their assessment of this global pandemic with us at such an important time. And, finally, we are deeply grateful for the financial support of Domini Impact Funds, who is our issue sponsor and a leader in the fight to build shared abundance in the world.
I know all of you, our incredible readers and supporters, are leading us in the right direction. Thank you for your continued work on behalf of justice and sustainability.
Quoting George Packer of The Atlantic:
We can learn from these dreadful days that stupidity and injustice are lethal; that, in a democracy, being a citizen is essential work; that the alternative to solidarity is death. After we’ve come out of hiding and taken off our masks, we should not forget what it was like to be alone.
As always, in deep solidarity,
-  Caniglia, B and B. Frank in Resilience, Environmental Justice and the City (Caniglia, B et al. eds). Chapter 4 (Routledge).
-  See the writings of Lester Brown, Paul Hawken, Bill McKibben, Peter Senge, Gus Speth, and Robertson Work (among others).
-  See the writings of Robert Costanza, Lorenzo Fioramonti, Ida Kubiszewski, and Kristín Vala Ragnarsdóttir (among others).
-  See the writings of Beth Caniglia, Rebecca Sheehan, Eugene Wilkerson, Ken Sagendorf, and Hunter Lovins.
-  George Packer We are Living in a Failed State (online 2020) https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/06/underlying-conditions/610261/