Updated: Jan 1
Either we save the planet or our way of living, but we can’t do both simultaneously. Can we break free from this dilemma?
"Bears are becoming an endangered species on Wall Street"
These were the first words of a column released on January 17th in the Financial Times under the headline “US stocks close in on the biggest bull run on record”.
Indeed, for an unprecedented eleven years since the last crisis, financial markets have been rising in a so-called “bull market”, in other words they have been trending upward.
Symbol of capitalism, stock markets were reaching the zenith.
At the same time, towards the end of 2019, most likely in the town of Wuhan, China, an unknown wildlife lover became patient zero of the XXIst century’s largest worldwide pandemic to date, most likely after eating a pangolin. Originally from Sub-Saharan African and South-East Asia, and like the bears on Wall Street, pangolins are an endangered species.
The ensuing events are known to us all as they have filled our Facebook newsfeeds, our Instagram stories, WhatsApp group chats, and even our lives since we live under national lockdown.
“It is not the virus that kills”, but rather the “chronic pathologies that make [it] potentially fatal to certain patients”
But although thousands of thinkers, and many of us, have written much about the topic, there is a rising discussion on what might have caused all of this, beyond the pangolin. As medical anthropologist Jean-Dominique Michel put it in a recent blog post, “it is not the virus that kills”, but rather the “chronic pathologies that make [it] potentially fatal to certain patients”.
According to data coming from Italy, only 0.8% of those who died from the virus did not show signs of any other illness. For the Swiss anthropologist, the culprits of this hecatomb, responsible for the aggravating factors that make the infection fatal to some, are right in front of our eyes: junk food, pollution, stress and physical inactivity.
Does this mean that the problem is deeper than this killer virus, that it could actually be a flaw of our system itself?
Building on the lessons from mercantilism, the system we currently live in takes its roots in the Western world and evolved over time to become what we now call capitalism. Since then, the most predominant rethinking of this profit-based view of society has been initiated by Karl Marx and pushed forward by leaders such as Lenin in Russia.
We are not at war solely against a virus, we are at war against ourselves
While announcing on TV a national lockdown in front of a record 35 million French citizens, France’s president Emmanuel Macron argued that the crisis had “revealed that some goods and services must be put outside the rules of the market” and urged the nation to “question the development model in which our world has been engaged for decades”. He went on to declare that the nation was at war.
But we are not at war solely against a virus, we are at war against ourselves. The virus does not attack us with an army, we humans spread it by engaging in daily activities that require human interaction and produce added value. In a sense, it is the way we organized our societies that is at stake, because it is it what fuels the spread of this virus.
What made it easy for the French head of State and many around the world to raise this question comes down to the reason that no single entity is to blame for this pandemic. Unlike wars or economic crisis, we cannot easily point our fingers at an ideal culprit. And this is probably what has been driving the very questioning of our system, if we can’t blame anyone for it, can we perhaps turn to ourselves and reflect on the way we have been doing things until now?
For many countries, public health and the lives of their citizens have been considered a priority, over the mere considerations usually given to the economy and the limit to public budgets. For many governments, and for most of us, favouring public health over the economy was obvious. We did not care about going to bars, buying that new pair of jeans or spending our days at Starbucks when lives were at stake.
Both individualistic and more collectivist views would agree that it seemed delusional to even compare the two. The reflection is analogous to that of vaccines: on a purely individualistic perspective, respecting public health recommendations would not only protect me, but favour the collective herd in the meantime.
The very fact that slowing down has been seen so negatively by our system should make us all think about it
And this is perhaps the revelation of a deeper issue, a greater divide. For years, and more predominantly in the last couple of months, there seem to have been a divergence between what many of us were seeking, and what our system has been promoting.
While many of us were marching or supporting climate strikes, women’s rights movements, cruelty-free initiatives, local purchasing actions or new forms of solidarity, our societies kept on going on as if nothing was changing. In other words, the system was deaf to the changes that many demanded, because what they demanded was a hit at the system itself, a threat to the very foundations of capitalism.
The very fact that slowing down, staying a home for a little while, spending time with our loved ones or even baking bread has been seen so negatively by the traditional metrics measuring the health of our system, should make us all think about it. As German sociologist Hartmut Rosa would put it, our high-speed societies are evolving in a state of social acceleration, where hitting the brake is perceive as a failure.
In a 2001 reflection on the maximization of value, American economist Michael Jensen argues that corporations should have one and only one objective. It is unrealistic to pretend that companies can both maximize their shareholder’s’ value while pursuing socially or environmentally friendly goals. The main argument here is that if a company has several objectives, they will necessarily conflict on certain issues. The same can be said for any entity, whether it be an individual, a group of people, a State or a society. Pursuing several objectives will lead to conflicts of diverging interests.
Therefore, how can a society turn to social and environmental objectives while still pursing the goal of maximizing added value? And more specifically how can a system support anything else than what is reflected in its main measure, the Gross Domestic Product? In the end, having objectives does not amount to much if there is not metric to tell us how well these goals are attained.
One country famously moved away from GDP. Since the early 1970s, the Himalayan nation of Bhutan vowed to measure the well-being of its citizens by calculating a Gross National Happiness (GNH) index. However appealing the measure might be, it relies primarily on subjective surveys and has failed to spread internationally, despite the efforts of local governments and NGOs to promote it.
This is where lies the distortion of interest between those who pursue purely value adding objectives, who are rewarded for it because they fuel growth, and those who engage in actions that are supported by many, except that it does not reflect in the calculation of GDP. On this topic many rightfully wonder why cutting trees down or flying a mango from the other side of the world positively reflects on the system’s metrics, while planting those trees back or growing your own mango tree does not.
And this is where the discussion will need to move: can we keep our system and get rid of its metrics, do we need to change our system or should we just continue business as usual?
Either we save the planet or our way of living, but we can’t do both simultaneously
So what next? Well, I don’t have the answer. In fact none of us do. As French sociologist Jean Viard said in a recent interview, “no one was right before, many people will now make choices that they had not thought of before the pandemic”. In other words, let us not waste time on electing prophets, as no one could have predicted the extend of what is currently happening.
If none of us have the answer, perhaps all together we might be able to see the tip of the iceberg. It will take months, years and perhaps decades, because if the question is simple, the answer is endless.
It all comes down to the same question that would drive the creation of a so-called “strong AI”, an artificial intelligence at least as intelligent as human beings. Many wonder what would be the single objective of such a machine. In other words if this God-like intelligence was to be created, would it deem necessary to wipe out mankind, thus effectively favouring the planet’s well-being over that of its most disturbing inhabitants?
This is the dilemma that we were facing until now: either we save the planet or our way of living, but we can’t do both simultaneously. And this dilemma was increasingly restricting our freedom. As we’re all picturing this new world in our minds, let us finally break free from this dilemma.
Then, and only then, we will be able to paraphrase Sartre in saying that we were never freer than during the coronavirus pandemic. Then, and only then, we might realize that a random pangolin might have been more successful at triggering the questionning of capitalistic ideas than Lenin or any Marxist revolutionary.