What are the odds that this pandemic, and our response to it, could trigger a far larger global catastrophe? William Gibson, the sci-fi prophet of Vancouver, provides us with a possible scenario, one that unfolds in a world a lot like our own – an age known to its survivors as “the Jackpot.” It’s not a big bang, but rather a lethal spiral of preventable disasters abetted by incompetent leadership and economic contraction.
“No comets crashing, nothing you could really call a nuclear war,” recalls a character in the next century, when there are a lot fewer of us, in his 2014 novel The Peripheral. “Just everything else, tangled in the changing climate: droughts, water shortages, crop failures … diseases that were never quite the one big pandemic but big enough to be historic events in themselves.”
A disease outbreak or climate disaster during the Jackpot cost many lives, and destroyed the incomes and livelihoods of millions, making a recovery difficult and expensive. Afterward, many countries, led by small-minded figures who were too busy confronting one another, lacked the financial or organizational resources to restore health and ecological order and prevent the next disaster – and so it continued.
It’s a lot easier to imagine a Jackpot scenario today than it was a couple weeks ago. But it’s also easier to imagine a way out.
We could not have imagined a month ago that fighting a full-scale global pandemic would lead countries to shut down their economies and isolate populations immediately. And, more optimistically, we would not have believed that most citizens and corporations would willingly comply.
The priority today is to do everything possible to prevent the disease from spreading at an exponential pace – and that means the extreme isolation and immobilization of populations. But a simultaneous challenge, equally important, is to prevent those efforts from unleashing a second crisis – the one that would occur if millions of jobs and homes were lost because spending stopped.
A complete economic collapse – the sort that will occur if governments aren’t able to subsidize their citizens enough to keep them paying their bills and buying products – would make the postvirus recovery vastly more expensive and difficult. And that could indeed launch a spiral of crises.
The climate change threat, for instance, has already reached a fulcrum point: There is widespread scientific agreement that if we can’t keep warming below 2 C, the cost will be a pandemic-scale loss of life and livelihood. A safeguarded future, according to credible projections, will require achieving a carbon-neutral economy before 2050 – a project that needs to begin in earnest now.
Averting that crisis is feasible, but it will be enormously expensive. Well-regarded estimates by organizations such as the Energy Transitions Commission show that it would involve, at a minimum, quintupling the current electricity supply, while shifting it entirely to renewable and nuclear technology.
The needed public and private investments to do this, and to accelerate the shift to carbon-free transportation and housing, would be in the trillions. Governments will need robust flows of tax and consumer revenue, which would be hard to achieve under the anemic levels of growth we’ve seen this past decade, never mind during an epidemic-driven depression.
A lasting collapse in economic growth, then, is the worst thing that could happen. Not only would it ruin the lives of millions of vulnerable people who were already in precarious straits, but it would starve us of the ability to make the investments needed to prevent the next big crisis, whether it’s epidemiological or ecological.
There are some who’d argue the end of economic growth is exactly what we need to save the climate. That simply isn’t true: Even if growth fell to zero for decades, analyses show that emissions wouldn’t decline enough to reach the two-degree target. Economic growth today means replacing old, carbon-emitting products, vehicles and buildings with new, non-emitting ones – and the faster the better. With government investment and foresight, growth can be an emission-reducing process.
We have an opportunity to avoid triggering a Jackpot, and it will occur in the postpandemic recovery. As we learned after the last crisis on this scale – the Second World War – a strong recovery erases debt, pays for the sort of big-picture inventions that prevent future crises (a universal vaccine, a better way to turn matter into energy), and prevents the rise of the sort of demagogues who fail to plan for crises.
This is going to be the most expensive emergency in human history. During this crisis, and in its long recovery, it would be a terrible waste if we did not spend in ways that also make the world a cleaner and more resilient place. If we have these higher goals in mind, though, we can turn a fatal spiral into a hopeful one.
Doug Saunders, The Globe and Mail’s international affairs columnist, is currently a Richard von Weizsaecker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin.
Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters.