Man in face mask in Porto, Portugal, in February 2021. (Miguel Riopa/Getty Images)

Long Before The Pandemic, The UN Was Urging Us to Transform Our Economic System

1 MARCH 2021

No matter what your experience was of 2020, there's no doubt that the past year has been incredibly challenging not only for the planet, but the creatures living on it too - humans included.

 

We have lost million of lives to a pandemic that may have been linked to climate change, and lived through massive temperature extremes, from cold snaps so intense they confused satellites and left millions freezing without power, to bushfires that raged across continents.

Not to mention the lingering presence of drought, pollution in our air (which also exacerbates the impacts of COVID-19) and water, and major inequality in healthcare and living standards.

If it wasn't already clear, after the past 12 months it's now undeniable: our current way of life is pushing the planet beyond its physical boundaries, and we're all starting to feel the impact.

But despite a slight dip at the start of pandemic, capitalism - and our CO2 emissions - have never been stronger. Among its many impacts, COVID-19 has many experts suggesting that the financial market is now totally detached from reality

This link between capitalism, climate change, and wellbeing is no coincidence.

Long before the COVID-19 pandemic reached our attention, the UN was already warning the world urgently needs a major transformation.

 

Back in the simpler times of 2019, a background document for the United Nations' (UN) draft Global Sustainable Development Report 2019 suggested we seriously need to consider making drastic changes to our economic systems.

"[T]he economic models which inform political decision-making in rich countries almost completely disregard the energetic and material dimensions of the economy," the researchers wrote in the document.

"Economies have used up the capacity of planetary ecosystems to handle the waste generated by energy and material use."

In other words, maybe it's time to accept we can't somehow maintain endless economic growth on a finite planet.

The UN report was overseen by a group of independent scientists from different disciplines around the world.

This background document for the chapter of the report called Transformation: The Economy, was written by scientists from environmental fields, such as ecosystem scientist Jussi Eronen from the University of Helsinki, as well as economic, business and philosophy researchers, like economist Paavo Järvensivu from Finland's independent BIOS research unit.

Not only have we reached the point where using our land, water and atmosphere as a giant garbage dump is no longer viable, the document warns that our current economic systems are also causing critically widening gaps between the rich and poor - a gap that has increased during the pandemic.

 

This is leading to a rise in unemployment, and debt which are all contributing to destabilizing our societies.

In fact, data shows continuing to pursue economic growth in wealthy nations doesn't continue to improve human wellbeing, as ecological economist Dan O'Neill explains for The Conversation.

Still, the notion of changing our economic system to fit within the physical limits of our reality is seen as highly controversial and isn't something many policy makers will discuss.

Especially when leaders of wealthy nations openly deny climate change. 

Every indication from our scientists is that we have two options: make widespread drastic but controlled changes to the way we live or continue as we are, blundering towards disaster.

"Market-based action will not suffice – even with a high carbon price," the UN document warns.

It's not the first time humans have had to rally together and find unique solutions to extraordinary scientific challenges – the document points out the fact that the US Apollo program only succeeded because the government set a clear mission and then found ways to achieve the funding and research required.

 

They didn't wait for market-based mechanisms to make the Moon landing happen. So why are we still waiting for the market to miraculously steer us away from disaster, especially when so much is at stake, the document questions.

Now we've also witnessed how quickly countries were able to respond against COVID-19, with lockdowns and the rapid vaccine research and development. So experts are now calling for climate change to be taken as seriously.

"We need to show the same determination and unity against climate change as against COVID-19," said World Meteorological Organization Secretary-General Petteri Taalas said in April 2020,calling for action not only in the short-term "but for many generations ahead".

Journalist Naomi Klein, author of This Changes Everything: Capitalism Vs the Climate, points out that "we humans are capable of organizing ourselves into all kinds of different social orders, including societies with much longer time horizons and far more respect for natural life-support systems."

"Indeed," she writes, "humans have lived that way for the vast majority of our history and many Indigenous cultures keep Earth-centered cosmologies alive to this day. Capitalism is a tiny blip in the collective story of our species."

No one is suggesting we revert to technology-less societies. Instead, the idea is to learn from different ways of living that have proven track records of longevity. From there, we can find new and better ways forward with the help of our advanced technologies.

Klein believes we should view this need to transition our economies as an opportunity to shape them for the better, a chance for us to create both a fairer and more sustainable world.

The UN background document does not cover what transitioned economies would look like, but it does suggest they "must enable politics to acknowledge transformational social goals and the material boundaries of economic activity".

And that economies should primarily be a tool to "enable a good life" rather than as excuse to dogmatically pursue profits.

Järvensivu and colleagues also acknowledge that to transition our societies in time to prevent hurtling ourselves beyond the critical 2 degrees Celsius threshold of warming, it will take an emergency scale response.

This echoes warnings from other scientists: "Incremental linear changes… are not enough to stabilize the Earth system. Widespread, rapid and fundamental transformations will likely be required to reduce the risk of crossing the threshold."

Meanwhile, experts around the world are exploring alternative ways we can set up our economic systems, such as Doughnut Economics, Post Growth Economics, Prosperity without Growth and Steady State Economy - and Järvensivu and colleagues have asked all forward-thinking leaders around the world to start testing possible transitional strategies, such as a universal job guarantee.

These suggestions are pretty daunting, but if the past 12 months has proven anything, it's that we humans can achieve incredible things when we work together.

A version of this story was first published in September 2018.