By JOSCHKA FISCHER
BERLIN ( Project Syndicate )—After many months, the global economy is still reeling from the shock of the COVID-19 pandemic. Never before in peacetime has our technology-driven modern society experienced anything remotely similar to this.
Will there be a “second wave,” followed by more waves thereafter? That frightening question is now preoccupying people around the world, but particularly policy makers and national leaders.
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Nobody knows the answer. There is no playbook for a scenario in which a high-tech world economy interconnected by global supply chains is brought to its knees by a microscopic pathogen.
It would be a mistake to assess the meaning of this abrupt stop only from a short-term perspective. To be sure, the immediate priority is the fight against COVID-19. The pandemic has had dire economic and social implications for billions of people, and it seems to be hastening a global shift in political and economic power.
But the crisis will also have consequences that last far beyond the coming months and years. It is not unreasonable to expect that future historians will remember 2020 as the beginning of an era of transformative change. This could be the moment when, having realized the consequences of how we have organized our economic systems and engaged with nature, we finally commit to a decisive shift toward sustainability.
In that case, the coronavirus will have served as a timely wake-up call. But if we fail to make the necessary changes, the pandemic of 2020 will mark the beginning of an unprecedented human catastrophe.
One thing is already certain: the crisis should finally disabuse us of our naive trust in human progress. For too long, it has simply been assumed that the adverse unintentional consequences of constant economic growth would be offset or minimized by the fruits of that growth.
Despite the obvious facts and scientists’ warnings, we convinced ourselves that we are ultimately in control of nature. Yet for all our fantasies about colonizing space, the fact is that our power extends only to a certain point, usually defined by the horizon of human interests. Beyond lies everything that we still don’t know.
The immediate lesson of the COVID-19 crisis is that human civilization urgently needs a deeper sense of responsibility. Most of us will have already come to this realization subjectively. The question is whether we will act on it collectively, by launching the changes we need.
There are 7.7 billion people on the planet, and that figure is expected to grow to 9.7 billion by 2050. Our insatiable demand for material resources will continue to grow, implying that our exploitation of the planet will continue to outpace natural systems’ regenerative capacity.
That reality has launched the geological epoch called the Anthropocene: For better or worse, humankind has reached the point at which our own actions will determine the future for almost every other species on the planet.
Such enormous power entails enormous responsibility.
Until the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, human activity had little relative impact on the planet itself. Now, it has an utterly disproportionate, all-encompassing effect.