Only Catastrophe Brings Awareness of Our Common Fate

Experience teaches us that only disaster will lead to awareness. When it comes to our environment, we probably can’t afford it.

The COVID-19 outbreak is revealing how interconnected our lives have become. Supply chains are fragmented across many countries. Information is instantly diffused across continents. The number of international trips has surpassed one and a half billion. Human activity is now the biggest geomorphic force, ahead of rivers, weather, or plate tectonics.

But it’s not the first time we are made aware of our common fate. The 20th century demonstrated that national peace and security could no longer be isolated from global forces. Every country was ensnared in systems of alliance and conflict during the two world wars.

And the creation of weapons of mass destruction meant that the consequences of war could potentially inflict damage on a planetary scale. The existentialist literary movement which followed speaks to the anguish brought by the realization that our security irreversibly became a global affair. Since then every conflict or civil war — the implosion of Yugoslavia, the Rwandan Genocide, the Sandinista uprising, and the Rohingya killings — has been embedded in a global system of power and incentives.

The experience of our common fate does not stop at the realm of politics or military capability. The 2008 financial crisis showed how interconnected markets have become. A subprime mortgage crisis in the United States sent the entire world financial system into chaos, with consequences still being felt a decade later. The Great Recession also shook the field of macroeconomics as many failed to predict and understand its cause. Traders, investors, and policy makers scrambled to find a path forward amidst the chaos. New voices able to identify the fragility of the system and offer solutions such as Nassim Taleb or Michael Lewis grew louder. An arsenal of new regulations, such as Basel III, was brought forward in an attempt to limit the propagation of risk from one market to another.

Now we are learning that in addition to politics, security, and economics, our health is also part of a global system. A virus can spread from one part of China to the rest of the world in a matter of weeks. And more significantly, our ability to delay the COVID19 pandemic depends on the ability of other countries to adopt similar curbs on individual freedom. Suppressing the pandemic is a matter of global cooperation. For the spread of Coronavirus to be manageable so as not to overwhelm health systems, harsh measures won’t suffice if just carried out at home.

The development of each interconnected system follows a common pattern. First, connections amongst individuals, countries or companies start to multiply. Increasing interdependence brings efficiency gains which hide any potential downside, and connections continue to multiply. Risk spreads in the network without any system of control or oversight. And once the network is well established, only a catastrophe can make us truly aware of its fragility.

In the aftermath, new institutions are put in place to limit future risks, such as the United Nations for security, new financial regulations for financial markets, and we can expect the creation of a new institution in charge of pandemics or new regulations following the COVID.

How we become aware of our common fate

We might not recover from a climate catastrophe, but precedents suggest one is required to make us aware of the interdependence of our environmental systems and the global cooperation required to mitigate risks. Despite constant warnings about the danger of collapse, individuals don’t have the same awareness that their environment is part of a globally interdependent system. Institutions like the UNFCCC and the annual COP aim to foster global cooperation for protecting our planet, yet behavioral change at the scale required is not seen on the individual level. In the same way that we put others at risk by leaving the home during this period of confinement, we put others at risk when consuming resources that release CO2 into the atmosphere.

Experience teaches us that only disaster will lead to awareness. When it comes to our environment, we probably can’t afford it.

Mélusine Boon-Falleur is a PhD student in Cognitive Science at the ENS Paris.

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