Early in World War II, in August 1941, before the United States had entered the war and Britain stood alone against Adolph Hitler, President Franklin Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill steamed in secret aboard their respective battleships and met off the coast of Newfoundland on HMS Prince of Wales. Their aim: Shape the Post War World. They drafted eight points that became the Atlantic Charter, shaping the United Nations and other lasting relationships of the post-war years.
Humanity, 7.8 billion of us, now faces what may be an even larger crisis than World War II. Perhaps for the first time in our 300,000 years of existence we are aware we are a single species in which COVID-19 swarms. Our $100 trillion global economy growing at 3% a year is lifting millions from poverty, links our nations in trade, is the means by which we earn our livings and find much of our meaning. But the same juggernaut growing economy is driving climate change, a mass extinction, and wave after wave of pandemics as we invade habitats: Zika, SARS, Ebola. We are destroying the biosphere of which we are children.
This pandemic is not an accident. Almost certainly it is we who have caused it. 300,000 years of our cumulative technological, and cultural evolution proceeded at a glacial pace for tens of thousands, then thousands, then hundreds of years, then burst upward in the last two centuries.
GDP and per capita GDP fluctuated at about $400 for thousands of years then exploded upward, shown in the figure below. Before that per capita GDP explosion, humanity was in a Malthusian trap. If population went up, resources did not. We died back. With that explosion, where per capita GDP rose faster than the population could expand, the population rapidly increased to our present 7.8 billion. We are beyond the Malthusian trap. We are now creating another, worse, and perhaps final trap.
We begin to understand the long course of human technological evolution, glacial for eons then much faster in the last few hundred years.
This explosion IS our growing juggernaut global economy that lifts millions from poverty and drives climate change, mass extinctions, and waves of pandemics in this, the Anthropocene.
We overwhelm the planet. A typical abundant mammalian species has a million members. There are almost 8,000 of us for each member of that species. Humanity uses 40% of the land surface for our food. The biomass of humans and our chickens, pigs, cows, rice, corn, and wheat is greater than the biomass of all other terrestrial species.
Nothing on our finite planet can surge toward infinity forever.
COVID-19 now ravages our lives and livings and the global economy. Today, over 160,000 worldwide have died and the United States accounts for more than twice the number of deaths than Spain, the next closest. The US economy is crashing, along with most other nations’ economies and with it our fragile supply chains. In the next few years we face sustaining sufficient social distancing above a threshold of about 80% to switch the growth of COVID-19 from exponential to the safer logistic regime where the disease dwindles, as it has in China, Italy, and now in New York. We face balancing a gradual reopening of an economy with the risks of renewed disease. We face serious recession or depression. We face large unemployment.
But we face a vastly larger set of issues. If we recreate our $100 trillion juggernaut global economy growing at 3%, we face continued climate change, mass extinctions and yet further waves of pandemics.
For the first time in our 300,000-year history, the 7.8 billion members of Homo sapiens face challenges that are global in scale, civilizational in scale, and existential in scale.
As we recover from COVID-19, we may need to reconsider the international institutions that arose from World War II. Some may still serve us well, others not. Some may require reinvention.
The pandemic has shown us how interdependent we and the life around us are.
We, all of us, all 7.8 billion of us, here in the United States and across the lands and seas, need somehow to “decide:” will we soar to the destruction of our only biosphere? Or will we find our way to live and flourish with it?
If Roosevelt and Churchill in the grim days of 1941 could dare to envision a post-war world leading to the Atlantic Charter, can we now in the midst of COVID-19 dare to envision a post-COVID-19 world and craft a Global Charter that lasts as long and is effective as what those greater leaders accomplished?
Featured Image Credit: by TheDigitalArtisits via Pixabay