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After the Pandemic: Designing a Just and Resilient Economy For All

by |April 3, 2020
ship passing through the Panama Canal

A ship passing through the Panama Canal. Photo: Dale Willman

The coronavirus pandemic has shown the immense brittleness and vulnerability of the world’s economy. Extended supply chains have collapsed, many staples are in short supply, and life-saving healthcare in many countries is being rationed. So, what will a recovery look like? Will it focus on a return to normal — the same conditions that made such a collapse possible in the first place? Or do we find another path forward?

“Normal might not be a system that we’re all benefiting from,” says Jon Erickson, an ecological economist with the University of Vermont. “Normal might be a system that concentrates the benefits to the few but distributes the costs to the many. So ultimately, I think this conversation is about returning to what system, and how and for whom.”

Erikson — along with Juliet Schor of Boston College and Nate Hagens of the Post Carbon Institute — recently took part in an on-line conversation about how to make the economy more resilient and able to withstand deep disturbance. The conversation was hosted by the Resilience Media Project, which is part of the Earth Institute Initiative on Communication and Sustainability, and included hundreds of journalists and economists.

“There are two timelines right now,” says Hagens, “and we need to do two things right away.” He calls these emergency measures, necessary to stop the economic hemorrhaging. “Republicans don’t want to bail out people — we have to bail out people. Democrats don’t want to bail out corporations — we have to bail out corporations. We have to keep the system afloat during this period.”

Once the economy is stabilized though, or not too long after, Hagens says we’ll have no choice but to take a different path. “It will be just a few years before societies start to recognize that we don’t have the materials or energy to continue growing. So all futures are going to, I would argue, need to use 30 percent to 50 percent less energy. And what that means is that we can no longer have GDP as our global, cultural human objective.” Instead, he says, our goals will shift to well-being.

One effort to start moving in that direction can happen immediately, says Juliet Schor. Schor is an economist at Boston College. She says expanding community-level sharing economies can help us move toward a new economic system. But when she talks of sharing, she says that doesn’t mean gig economy companies such as Uber and AirBNB. “They are less resilient than conventional firms, and that is because the key part of their business model is shifting risk onto their workers.” What she wants to see more of are economies that are truly locally based.

“These tend to be a bit more resilient than those with global supply chains,” she says. “And there are other aspects of the sharing economy that are particularly resilient. So for example, if we think about something like cooperative ownership, which is a sharing idea — cooperatively owned firms (worker cooperatives), they tend to do what we call labor hoard during downturns. They keep people on the payroll in periods of reduced demand more than conventional firms do.” And this ‘hoarding’ means that more people have income in downturns and these companies are able to retain trained talent that will sustain them when the economy picks up again.

“In the end, The new economic story will really be stories, with an ‘S’,” says Erickson. “And from my perspective as an ecological economist, perhaps what’s most needed and the least discussed is a story about right-sizing the economy with a focus on dialing back the scale of the economic system to within its ecological limits.”

Some things to consider as we try and find that new path forward.

You can watch the entire program here:

Additional resources for journalists below.

One of the priorities of the Earth Institute’s new Initiative on Communication and Sustainability is improving the interface between journalists, scientific expertise and vulnerable communities. This is the latest webinar in a series I’m developing on covering factors that either boost or impede community and ecological resilience in the face of the landscape of hazards in this era of rapid change. More videos can be found on the Resilience Media Project page.

General Information

How the Pandemic Will End – The Atlantic. A great general overview of what we know, and where this might end

Coronavirus Facebook page for sharing ideas for radio stations

Coronavirus shows that yes, we can affect rapid change

Traffic and pollution drop because of coronavirus

World stats on coronavirus (not economic)

Opinion piece about carbon pricing

Return to business as usual

Pandemic response requires post-growth economic thinking

From Our Speakers

From Jon Erickson:

A Green Stimulus to Rebuild the Economy, from The Next System Project

Jon’s video

From Juliet Schor:

New Economy Roundup from the New Economy Coalition

After the Gig: How the Sharing economy got Hijacked – Her new book out soon

True Wealth

From Nate Hagens:

Systemic Implications of the Coronavirus – Post Carbon Institute

The Human Predicament – 55-minute video summary of situation and framework for response

Economics for the Future – Beyond the Superorganism – Ecological Economics paper

Where are We Going? – Transcript of 2018 Earth Day talk

The Human Predicament – Short Course – 4 videos totaling 75 minutes, made for all University of Minnesota freshmen on human behavior, energy, environment and what to do

Reality 101 -mini course – 5-hour video series summarizing overview of the University of Minnesota course “Reality 101” — in particular the energy section is important for journalists

NGOs Working in this Space

New Economy Coalition

The Democracy Collaborative

Cooperation Jackson – Jackson, MS

Post Carbon Institute

Books

From Chelsea Green:

The ALL NEW Don’t Think of an Elephant!George Lakoff

Doughnut EconomicsKate Raworth

Thinking in Systems – Donella Meadows

From What Is to What IfRob Hopkins

Systems Thinking for Social Change – David Peter Stroh

From Island Press:

Free books on resilience thinking.

Story Ideas

From Jon:

We have tons and tons of reactive stories about the fast variables, the changes that are happening and measurable and right before our eyes like unemployment. We don’t have enough proactive stories about the slow variables. The pandemic came as no surprise to people who have been working in the field of environmental public health. We’ve been connecting the dots for a long time between the deterioration of ecosystems and the emergence of both old and new infectious disease. But no one is telling these stories of the slow deterioration of systems.

From Juliet:

Cities and towns doing moratoriums on foreclosures

The importance of self-organizing in the presence of state failure, such as the 3D printing of medical equipment, self-help groups for medical aid.

From Nate:

GDP is 99.5% correlated with energy, so it would more effectively be called GDB — Gross Domestic Burning. Because for every product in our world, a little fire was started somewhere on the planet to provide it. But all the laughter and joy I get from my dog is not included in GDP. You go for a walk in the woods — all these things that are not quantified in our success of how we enjoy our lives are not remotely included. But taking trips and other things boost GDP. We have to get away from the burning and move toward the well-being. Look for these types of stories.

A Final Thought

“Anyone who thinks that endless growth in a limited world is possible is either a madman or an economist.” — Kenneth Boulding

Dale Willman is an award-winning journalist and educator. He has joined the Earth Institute to create programming that will help journalists and other science communicators in their efforts to translate science information for a general audience.

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Jacques GSAPP 1993
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Jacques GSAPP 1993

To maybe bring a political sciences flavour to the debate: it seems to me never in history since constituted powers exist have they voluntarily relinquished, amputated themselves, of the very means required to maintain themselves and ensure their very reason to exist, hence dented their legitimacy, since the Thatcher – Reagan conservative revolution against “big government” hence inverting the hierarchy among profit and good government. With Epictete we may want to redefine what should “depends on us”, and what we can let go, as a starting point.