Now might be a good time to think how life might be in future. If the world has not been jolted by COVID-19 then it is hard to know what else would create the conditions for introspection about what we value.
The middle of the Century is only one human generation away, yet most of the trends we see around us are indicating action is needed within that time. This is the kind of action which will bring about social and technological transitions which have happened in the past but which have taken many generations to implement.
A challenge, therefore, is not so much that transitions are needed, it is the speed with which they need to happen.
The trends which are concerning include the rise in global population and a super-abundance of associated consequences. With rising population comes rising demand for resources and with rising average wealth among people demand also rises. This places significant stress of global resource, both in terms of raw materials and in terms of global capacity to absorb the resulting flow of waste which people produce and which is produced as a direct result of mining or growing those resources.
The resources include minerals but also land for food production, the demand for which is causing declines in natural systems, like tropical forests, which are part of the self-regulating system of planetary carbon, water, and nitrogen. Without these we cannot survive.
Waste includes everything for CO2 from fossil carbon spewed into the atmosphere after hundreds of millions of years in the ground and novel chemicals which end up in the soils and oceans and which nature has never experience before.
Although there are some super-optimists around who deny that all these things are happening, these activities of mankind poison us and the planet.
This is not an analysis with a “green” bias, a form of reality which like so many others is cooked up within the social bubble of politics; it the reality represented by the hard limits of Nature. We are a juggernaut out of control and on a collision course with this reality.
Even if pandemic disease is the focus of the moment, it is symptomatic of the “out of control” nature of the juggernaut. If we respond by just attempting to patch up our advanced warning systems for disease and healthcare systems, as seems likely, we will have missed the point.
Healthcare is creaking in the rich global north because of an epidemic of non-communicable disease brought on by lifestyle choices; in the global South it is creaking because sparse planetary resources are wasted in the global North.
True adaptation for future resilience in the 21st Century is going to mean significant changes in what we value and how we live.
If we fail to understand this, then we can expect many more events like COVID-19 before the end of the Century, some far worse.
It is in the nature of systemic failures that they creep up in the form of increasingly frequent and severe events.
We had one in the form of the banking crisis in 2008. Prior to that it was in the form of two world wars in the 20th Century. Unless we adapt quickly, we can expect many more of these before the end of the 21st Century. The next one will be nothing like the last one.
Where this will leave humanity is anybody’s guess. Some extreme optimists think that technology will dig us out of the hole; others think that we need to abandon the selfish tendencies in human nature and redistribute wealth, imagining that we can all live like kings; while others simply think that preserving current divisions creates a power balance which is semi-stable while the “haves” lord it over the “have-nots”.
Resilience is none of these. It is the narrow tightrope we need to walk which uses technology but also curbs demand for resource and re-sets our expectations of what it means to live a good life.