In late February 2020, with my colleague, futurist and epidemiologist Peter Black, we, wrote a piece on COVID-19 scenarios and implications. We started as our departure point asking the question, was this a black swan or predictable event? Our conclusion was that the emergence of this zoonotic disease with planetary political, financial, and health implications was not just utterly predictable but an event that those in the biosecurity field had been anticipating for decades.
I remember running workshops with him over the past twenty years for several nations and international organizations, where expert after expert would conclude unless we change our relationship with nature – what we eat, how we farm, to what extent urban growth enters wildlife areas – we are in severe trouble.
As it turned out, like many others, we were correct. But there is no solace in being correct when over two million have died from the global pandemic. More so, merely stating an event will occur does not lead to the real purpose of Futures Studies, stopping such events and using science and narrative to reduce human suffering and enhance human creativity. We also understood that the current failure was based on a worldview and a guiding image of the future. Both needed to shift if we are not just to survive but collectively thrive.
When we wrote the piece, as with all futurists we knew that forecasting precisely what the world would look like a year later would be near impossible. Thus, we used scenarios to develop the possibilities and narratives to speculate on what needed to be done.
Quoting our original work extensively, our scenarios were:
- Zombie Apocalypse [i]
This future emerges because of the mutation of the COVID-19 virus (or future viruses) plus xenophobia plus panic. Uncertainty leads to continued market crashes. Supply chains, tourism, travel, and conferences are all disrupted. A severe and long- term recession, if not depression, results. Failure to act leads to numerous regime changes, to begin with. Wherever there are system stresses, they break. This is certainly how the future feels to many. The memory of earlier plagues remains at the inter-generational level. Fear and panic rule
- The Needed Pause
Efforts are made in most countries to ‘flatten the curve’ to help health systems cope. Overtime, COVID-19 becomes just another winter flu – dangerous as it is for the elderly and those who smoke. It is, however, solved and routinized within a few years through vaccines. Global efforts and Big Pharma ensure that by the end of 2021, most people in the world have been vaccinated. In the meantime, the frenetic pace of everything slows down, with multiple benefits to the planet and personal health. Greenhouse gas emissions fall, for starters. Over-touristed cities like Venice get a break. Localization heals. People focus on their inner lives. More and more people meditate. For a short period working from home becomes the norm. However, states still do not support employees in this process as trust is a factor. Thus, after the pause, back to business as usual. We slowed down to speed up again.
- Global Heath Awakening
Large AI companies, genomic start-ups, and public health expertise come to the rescue. We truly enter the digital fourth wave era – genomics plus AI help monitor and then prevent. The five ‘p’ health model – prevention, precision, participation, partnership, and personalization become the norm. There is breakthrough after breakthrough with innovation (real time detection, health monitoring using big data) cascading through the system. While the virus began in China, the nation leads in innovation as it is forced to adapt. Toynbee’s creative minority via open source science and technology lead the way. Working from home booms as new relationships between employer and employee are created. Universal basic income is supported as the strength of society is based on how we treat the weakest; not how we glorify the strongest. Young people are no longer the future, but the present. This the disruption that truly creates the fourth industrial revolution. Along with external innovation there is inner innovation – a social revolution. Evidence-based science and technology inform public policy, not the whims of particular leaders. The insights from fighting COVID- 19 are applied to climate change. There is a dramatic shift to plant-based diets. It is business transformed, social mutation,[ii] not back to usual. Privacy concerns become stronger.
- The Great Despair
Not an apocalypse, not a depression, no magic – just a slow and marked decline of health and wealth. Walls appear everywhere. The World Health Organization and others try to contain, but virus repeatedly slips in and infects the bodies, minds, and hearts of all. We are back to the European Middle Ages. The second and third wave are particularly distressing. Vaccinations ultimately fail as the virus mutates. The least connected to globalization fare the best. The vulnerable are forgotten. Inter-generational memory of past pandemics informs.
As we read of the failed coup in the USA, we can see we had captured some of the variation. And as we read of the disasters in the UK, Brazil, and India, politics has reigned supreme over scientific advice. Many nations have been up to the challenge: others have used the narrative of fear to attempt to enhance electoral positioning.
As we start to think about the longer-term future, what might emerge? To understand this, I move from scenarios to narratives, or the deeper stories that help us understand phenomena.
Narratives construct both our external and inner worlds. In my own case, I am informed by the departure from tradition to modernity. Thus, vaccinations, leaving the village, embracing science and technology were all the norm. The memories of my grandmother who lost six siblings to smallpox, and my great grandmother who passed away before turning 20 from the bubonic plague remain. There is no nostalgia for a time before the modern medical revolution. As well, as a futurist, we search and use narratives with the intent to assist in the social change transformation process. And as many other futurists, we are idealistic, working for, imagining a different world. Every problem, thus, becomes a possible opportunity to create a different future. However, futures studies is far from just visioning and reducing organizational uncertainty, we are well aware of how power – the weights of the past – hampers us. The future thus is read critically, aware of power uses the future to maintain advantage, and how systems can be created to enhance equity or to reinforce privilege.
The narratives I have developed to understand what is going on are the following.
1 BLAME GAME AND CON-SPIRITUALITY
In this narrative, the goal is to use the pandemic for political points, to hold on to and extend power. [iii]Thus, in India Prime Minister Modi and his cronies blame Muslims.[iv] In the USA, the disgraced former President Trump and his regime, call it the Kung-flu, the China-virus. Instead of a focus on global solidarity – we are all in the same storm, though different boats – the focus is on division. Equally significant has been the rise of the conspiracy movement, largely prevalent in the extreme right and the spiritual left. Feeling powerless and believing in over-inflated agency, [v]they create grand theories where there is a secret elite – often Jews – who have created the virus for unknown purposes. In both approaches, it is political point scoring that comes first. This is often done to win elections.
2 DISEASE AND CURE
However, If COVID-19 is a global health crisis ie a disease crisis, then the answer is easy: find the cure and the vaccine. We have seen some of this in the past year. The policy goal has been to ensure open science and create medical solutions. The main insight is that global science – the free flow of information – working together can create the difference. The swift global response has shown how effective this discourse is with numerous vaccines already released.
3 THE NEXT DISEASE
While this resolves the short and medium-range future, what happens when a similar zoonotic disease erupts? To meet increasing demand, wildlife is being sourced from more and more remote patches of the planet that humans have disturbed (i.e. land-use change)—to satisfy resource consumption needs at the broadest level. More erratic excretion patterns of viruses follow, coupled with mixing of species that increase the risk of so-called ‘spillover events’ that manifest more as a food consumption crisis. Required here, as much as possible, is the banning of wet markets, of eating of exotic animals. It also means challenging masculinities in East Asia and the search for exotic alternative health potions. But mere legislation will not solve the day. We need to ensure that those trading in these lucrative areas – the bounty hunters – find new work, otherwise, the trade will just go underground. This again is not just a Chinese national issue but one requiring a global coordinated effort. It will require Interpol to begin to shift toward becoming Earthpol. Thus, as we can see, based on the narrative we use, the policies solutions broaden.
4 BEYOND MEAT AND CITY DESIGN
However, perhaps this is more than just a zoonotic crisis. It is not just wildlife that is the problem, but our consumption patterns. COVID-19 is a strong signal suggesting dramatic changes in the industrial factory farming systems are required. Thus, we need to urgently change our relationship with meat. While ending meat may be too much for many, the current production models certainly must shift. Meat is not just about what we consume but the broader pattern of industrial food production. While one solution is to ensure the boundary lines between human habitat and wildlife settlements is respected, another one is to develop cellular agriculture. Food then is grown in scientific labs initially and eventually with 3d printed food, food becomes essentially software.[vi] The implications for this shift are enormous. Writes one forecaster:
The cost of proteins will be five times cheaper by 2030 and 10 times cheaper by 2035 than existing animal proteins, before ultimately approaching the cost of sugar. They will also be superior in every key attribute – more nutritious, healthier, better tasting, and more convenient, with almost unimaginable variety. This means that, by 2030, modern food products will be higher quality and cost less than half as much to produce as the animal-derived products they replace. By 2030, the number of cows in the U.S. will have fallen by 50% and the cattle farming industry will be all but bankrupt. All other livestock industries will suffer a similar fate, while the knock-on effects for crop farmers and businesses throughout the value chain will be severe.[vii]
5 LEADERSHIP AND CLIMATE CHANGE
We now know that global focus is possible. Global coordination is possible. Solutions unimaginable months ago are now the new normal. This crisis can be considered as a pre-run, a trial, preparing us for the real event – climate change Some of the drivers for the zoonotic disease challenge, such as land-use change, are also directly related to climate change. What we learn today, or the changes we need to make today can be crucial for the world we create. Thus, this crisis is essentially about leadership. Can we ensure the shift to a greener planet? This means moving toward solar energies and ending the fossil fuel era. The Peoples Republic of China has recently been forecasted to meet its carbon goals nine years earlier than planned under the Paris agreements.[viii] “As China moves towards a higher-tech and service economy, it is likely to show how the passage to a low-carbon economy and robust and sustainable growth in an emerging market economy can be mutually supportive,” says Nicholas Stern, of the London School of Economics.[ix]
6 THE END OF CAPITALISM
If we enter a severe recession, or a seven-year malaise, possibly a global depression, the real issue is economic. Creating a world where “money keeps on rolling” and not getting stuck in the hands of a few become urgent and imperative. This is a world where glo-cal solutions are focused on equity and prosperity. This is a future where universal basic income, free education, health, and housing for all are not the sole concern of the left but required for global security. We thus need to challenge the world capitalist system with its mantra of “more, more, more for the few. ” In this scenario, uneven development distorted by deep global inequity are not allowed to continue. Capitalism dies, we help it disappear. Most likely this will mean three economic spheres as argued by Shrii P. R. Sarkar, the founder of Proutist Economics. [x] Global cooperatives, globalized industries, and markets. It will require global governance if not global government. For many, this means surveillance and the loss of individual liberties. For others, this means the end of identity based on whom one hates and other imagined realities. It means accepting that we are human beings first Innovative technologies create stunning wealth for all.
7 THE NEW RENAISSANCE
This then is a much deeper crisis and challenge. The novelist Arundhuti Roy writes:
Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.[xi]
The deep challenge lies in fixing the great imbalance. In our four spheres of life: economy, society, spirit, and nature, we have overly favoured one at the expense of others. Thus, if we adopt this latter narrative, then we need a great Gaian rebalance, moving to a world with a quadruple bottom line: Prosperity, Purpose, People, and Planet.[xii] COVID-19 can help us create a new Renaissance – a transformation of self and society, home and plant. There have been two historical renaissances. The Asian Renaissance was personal: the quest for inner peace, enlightenment, the utopia of the mind. The European Renaissance challenged dogma, allowing science and art to flourish, creating the possibility of revolution after revolution against authority that does not serve, the utopia of the material world.
We are in a similar process now. However, after the vaccine is found there will be a push to go back to what we know, the used future. If we are not careful and purposeful, it will be a pause followed by the pursuit of light-speed economic growth—back to where we were. Gaian leadership, however, is about charting a new direction, exploring scenarios, and creating global systems that help us arrive at a new future.
COVID-19 becomes in this reading a leverage toward possible transformation. Or a way to deflect and blame the other and become lost in conspiratorial thinking.
The biggest challenge for many is how to act and think during the transition. Where many engage in debates on this subject, I have focused on learning from the medical system and developed a simple check list to evaluate.
The check list merely seeks to position the policy or the leader. In simple questions:
- Does the leader or policy enhance economy equity and an increased standard of living?
- Does the leader or policy focus on race or on humanity?
- Does the leader support nature – to keep nature safe and bountiful.
- Does the leader use the language of exclusion or does the leader or policy support inclusion of others?
- Does the leader or policy create a reality where technology is for the few or support policy that leads to innovator for all?
- Does the leader or policy support cooperation wherever possible between groups, nations, individuals or does the policy create antagonism and possibly war.
At heart this is about does the leader or policy stay within a single bottom line (economy or power) or using a quadruple bottom line – prosperity, people, planet, and purpose – to create the future. This means a world where humans, nature, and technology are in conscious co-evolution. COVID-19 suggests that we need to make this transition much sooner than later. Now.
[i] https://www.cdc.gov/cpr/zombie/index.htm Accessed 11 March 2020.
[ii] To use the words of Satya Tanner. Facebook post. March 6, 2020.
[iii] Inayatullah, Sohail. Conspiring to destroy or create better futures.” UNESCO Ideas Lab. https://en.unesco.org/futuresofeducation/ideas-lab/inayatullah-conspiracy-theories-destroy-or-create-better-futures. Accessed 10 October 2020.
[iv] https://www.npr.org/2020/04/16/835710029/hindu-nationalists-blame-muslims-for-indias-covid-19-crisis. Accessed 4 December 2020.
[v] Milojevic, I. 2020. Mirror, mirror, on the wall, whom should I trust after all. UNESCO. Ideas lab. https://en.unesco.org/futuresofeducation/milojevi%C4%87-mirror-mirror-wall-who-should-i-trust-after-all. Accessed 10 October 2020.
[vi] https://www.thisiscapitalism.com/how-food-as-software-will-disrupt-the-food-industry/. Accessed 30 November 2020. Also see: https://www.nextbigfuture.com/2019/09/ten-times-cheaper-but-better-food-is-going-to-radically-change-your-world.html. Accessed 30 November 2020.
[x] Sarkar, P.R. 1987. Prout in a Nutshell. Kolkata: Prout Publications.
[xi] Roy, Arundhati, The Pandemic is a portal, Financial Times, 4 April 2020. https://www.ft.com/content/10d8f5e8-74eb-11ea-95fe-fcd274e920ca. Accessed 30 November 2020.
[xii] Inayatullah, S. 2017. Prout in Power: Policy Solutions that reframe our futures. Delhi: Prout Publications.