COVID-19 has exposed the core of almost every national ethos around the Planet. It is causing untold harm to the health and well-being of virtually everyone. Economies that were chugging along have come to an abrupt halt as people are retreating indoors to avoid exposure to the virus. Medical facilities are beginning to become overloaded, even in highly developed countries. Here in the US, President Trump, worried about the political fallout, is said to be weighing the lifting of the social distancing strategy that, so far, has been the primary public health response to the virus. Congress is about to pass the largest stimulus program ever in hopes to stem the virtually certain slowing of the economy.
Dan Patrick, the Lt. Governor of Texas, suggested on a talk show that older folks should be willing to risk their lives so that social distancing could be stopped in order to “save” the economy by allowing commerce to return to “normal.” Patrick’s comments and the dithering in the US Senate and by the President are pretty good signs that keeping the economy growing is the number one value of the current cultural ethos. Caring for people comes somewhere behind, how far behind is hard to tell. This article from the TPM website points to the pols and pundits who have started to argue the market is more important than people.
Clearly COVID-19 has not been good for either health or economy, but there is an upside to the situation, if world leaders in every sector use this opportunity for learning and change on a much broader scale. Like previous pandemics, COVID-19 is likely to subside after wreaking its terrible damage, both to individual’s lives and to institutional structures. But we will have learned little of real consequence from the experience, I suspect.
One critical observation is that the apparently normally functioning of the Planet can be upset in an instant of time. The takeaway from this reality is the acknowledgement that every human and every institution on the Planet is a part of a highly interconnected complex system. The critical item in this last sentence is the notion of complexity and its peculiar ways of behaving. Most of the time big systems like that of the planet act like machines, running relatively smoothly and predictably. That’s why natural and social scientists of all sorts are able to provide facts and theories that powerful actors can use to keep it running. But that is an error; they are not machines, even very complicated ones like airplanes or supercomputers. Small upsets to complex systems can grow and change their behaviors so markedly that they move from one “normal” regime to another with a different set of norms. What had been a resilient world suddenly leaves its quasi-stable, familiar state and moves into a new, unfamiliar and unpredictable one.
The unpredictability of a complex system to random, exogenous perturbations, like the coronavirus, is mirrored by purposeful, endogenous acts intended to control the new behaviors in attempts to keep the system within some normatively desirable set of bounds. More simply put, we cannot predict what the results of any response to the onset of abnormal behaviors will look like. All we can do is try them and observe. Past history and scientific information may be used to shape any such responses, but there is no certainty that they will work in the way they did in the past or as the theories predict.
It is too late to prepare for the COVID-19 virus; all we can do is react. But there is another looming crisis that we can anticipate appropriately, treating it as another phenomenon with the potential to seriously upset the Earth’s complex system—global climate change. That the Earth’s atmosphere is warming cannot be denied. Since the system that produces the climate is complex, future behavior cannot be predicted with the same precision that describes an intercontinental missile’s trajectory.
The proper way to interact with complexity is to be pragmatic and employ pragmatic methodology to understand and interact with such systems. The key is to observe them over time, play with them to see how they respond, if feasible, to establish plans based on whatever is learned in that process for action when the system actually begins to depart from normal behavior. Denial and withdrawal from programs at any scale is just about the worst action to take. The observation and assessments of the information thus collected should be done by a group of concerned parties, committed to getting their collective arms around the situation in a positive sense. This group needs members from the scientific community, but also participants representing all the stakeholders involved.
Decisions must be made by deliberation and some form of consensus, rather than by applying any “rational” weighting scheme, like economic cost-benefit analysis. Such analyses can inform, but not determine the outcome. John Dewey, the great American pragmatist, called the outcome of such a process, warranted assertibility. The inherent unpredictability of complex systems over time rules out any kind of analytic truth statement about them other than they are unpredictable. Such pragmatic assertions are the best we can do, but the degree that they are warranted as a basis of action depends on the make-up of the inquirers and their methods.
Relying on the IPCC as the only body inquiring into climate change is a mistake; their concerns are too limited to arrive at a warranted assertion of action to be taken now and in the future. That is, perhaps, why their findings have been largely ignored by political and economic powers. Climate change may be a tempest in a teapot, but, then, it may not be. The same was said of COVID-19 as it began to show itself. Some would excuse the lack of pragmatically based preparation for another pandemic on the suddenness and spontaneity of the arrival on the coronavirus. No such excuse can be offered in the case of climate change. We know it is happening right now. It is a global issue, just as COVID19 has become. The failure of those with the power to act now is unconscionable, irresponsible, and despicable. Strong words, but spoken with warranted assertibility.