Climate and COVID as Crises of Environmental Sustainability
The developed world is a technological marvel that our grandparents or at least our great grandparents could barely have imagined. Air conditioning, automobiles, movies on demand, smartphones, the internet, global travel, drones, e-commerce: the list is virtually endless. Human technology and ingenuity have created a world of comfort, curiosity and creativity. But as we created that world and multiplied our population to nearly eight billion humans, we failed to account for the impact of our technology and lifestyle on the interconnected physical and biological systems that sustain the planet and in turn sustain human life.
Climate change is taking place because we did not pay attention to the impact of burning fossil fuels on the physics or earth systems of our planet. We did not think about the damage we might do to the amazing arrangement of chemicals in our atmosphere that enables our planet to maintain the temperatures that support the biology we call life. COVID-19 has spread around the world because humans encroached unknowingly on natural environments and creatures that allowed us to be exposed to a virus that we were not immune to. Not only that, but the technology of global travel enabled this virus to spread throughout the world in record time. What ecologists call “invasive species” are clearly as great a threat to humans as climate change.
Both climate and COVID are cases in which our technology was used without considering its impact. They are different types of problems: one rooted in physics or earth systems science, the other in biology or life science. But they are related because they were both caused by humans pursuing economic development without factoring in the impact of our behaviors on the environment and the impact of the environment on us. This is not an argument against technology. That particular horse has left the barn. It is an argument for the precautionary principle in the use of new technology. We need to think through the environmental impact of our new technologies before we use those technologies. When we see or project the potential negative impact of those technologies, we should begin developing new technologies to mitigate that impact.
For both climate and COVID, we are doing just that. Renewable energy technology, energy efficiency methods and technologies and high-tech agricultural practices are being developed to reduce the creation of greenhouse gasses. Vaccines and treatments are being developed to reduce the impact of COVID-19. The problem is that we only seem to mobilize when we need to remedy a crisis. Instead, we need to learn how to prevent crises before they happen.
An obstacle to preventing sustainability crises is the role of science in our political and economic system and the role…