If recent weeks have shown us anything, it’s that the world is not just flat. It’s fragile.
And we’re the ones who made it that way, with our own hands. Just look around. Over the past 20 years, we’ve been steadily removing man-made and natural buffers, redundancies, regulations and norms that provide resilience and protection when big systems — be they ecological, geopolitical or financial — get stressed.
We’ve been recklessly removing these buffers out of an obsession with short-term efficiency and growth, or without thinking at all.
The latest coronavirus is aptly named SARS-CoV-2 — with emphasis on the number 2. We don’t yet know for sure where this coronavirus that causes the disease COVID-19 came from, but it is widely suspected to have jumped to a human from a wild animal, maybe a bat, in Wuhan, China
At the same time, we’ve been behaving in extreme ways — pushing against, and breaching, common-sense political, financial and planetary boundaries.
And, all the while, we’ve taken the world technologically from connected to interconnected to interdependent — by removing more friction and installing more grease in global markets, telecommunications systems, the internet and travel.
Direct flights from Wuhan
In doing so, we’ve made globalisation faster, deeper, cheaper and tighter than ever before. Who knew that there were regular direct flights from Wuhan, China, to America?
Put all three of these trends together, and what you have is a world more easily prone to shocks and extreme behaviours — but with fewer buffers to cushion those shocks — and many more networked companies and people to convey them globally.
This, of course, was revealed clearly in the latest world-spanning crisis — the coronavirus pandemic. But this trend of more frequent destabilising crises has been building over the past 20 years: 9/11, the Great Recession of 2008, COVID-19 and climate change.
Pandemics are no longer just biological — they are now geopolitical, financial and atmospheric, too. And we will suffer increasing consequences unless we start behaving differently and treating Mother Earth differently.
Note the pattern: Before each crisis I mentioned, we first experienced what could be called a “mild” heart attack, alerting us that we had gone to extremes and stripped away buffers that had protected us from catastrophic failure. In each case, though, we did not take that warning seriously enough — and in each case the result was a full global coronary.
“We created globalised networks because they could make us more efficient and productive and our lives more convenient,” explained Gautam Mukunda, the author of “Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter.”
“But when you steadily remove their buffers, backup capacities and surge protectors in pursuit of short-term efficiency or just greed, you ensure that these systems are not only less resistant to shocks, but that we spread those shocks everywhere.”
I don’t think that I need to spend much time on the COVID-19 pandemic, except to say that the warning sign was also there. It appeared in late 2002 in the Guangdong province of southern China. It was a viral respiratory illness caused by a coronavirus — SARS-CoV — known for short as SARS.
As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website notes, “Over the next few months, the illness spread to more than two dozen countries in North America, South America, Europe, and Asia” before it was contained.
More than 8,000 people worldwide became sick, including close to 800 who died. The United States had eight confirmed cases of infection and no deaths.
The coronavirus that caused SARS was hosted by bats and palm civets. It jumped to humans because we had been pushing and pushing high-density urban population centers more deeply into wilderness areas, destroying that natural buffer and replacing it with monoculture crops and concrete.
It is important to note, though, that SARS was contained by July 2003 before becoming a full-fledged pandemic — thanks in large part to rapid quarantines and tight global cooperation among public health authorities in many countries. Collaborative multinational governance proved to be a good buffer.
Alas, that was then. The latest coronavirus is aptly named SARS-CoV-2 — with emphasis on the number 2. We don’t yet know for sure where this coronavirus that causes the disease COVID-19 came from, but it is widely suspected to have jumped to a human from a wild animal, maybe a bat, in Wuhan, China.
Similar jumps are bound to happen more and more as we keep stripping away nature’s natural biodiversity and buffers.
“The more simplified and less diverse ecological systems become, especially in huge and ever-expanding urban areas, the more we will become the targets of these emerging pests, unbuffered by the vast array of other species in a healthy ecosystem,” explained Russ Mittermeier, the head of Global Wildlife Conservation and one of the world’s top experts on primates.
What we know for sure, though, is that some five months after this coronavirus jumped into a human in Wuhan, more than 100,000 Americans were dead and more than 40 million were unemployed.
You have to be in total denial not to see all of this as one giant flashing warning signal for our looming — and potentially worst — global disaster, climate change.
I don’t like the term climate change to describe what’s coming. I much prefer “global weirding,” because the weather getting weird is what is actually happening.
The frequency, intensity and cost of extreme weather events all increase. The wets get wetter, the hots get hotter, the dry periods get drier, the snows get heavier, the hurricanes get stronger.
Weather is too complex to attribute any single event to climate change, but the fact that extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and more expensive — especially in a world of crowded cities — is indisputable.
The wise thing would be for us to get busy preserving all of the ecological buffers that nature endowed us with, so we can manage what are now the unavoidable effects of climate change and focus on avoiding what would be unmanageable consequences.
Because, unlike biological pandemics like COVID-19, climate change does not “peak.” Once we deforest the Amazon or melt the Greenland ice sheet, it’s gone — and we will have to live with whatever extreme weather that unleashes.
Technically speaking, globalisation is inevitable. How we shape it is not.
As the world gets more deeply intertwined, everyone’s behaviour — the values that each of us bring to this interdependent world — matters more than ever. And, therefore, so does the “Golden Rule.” It’s never been more important.
Do unto others as you wish them to do unto you, because more people in more places in more ways on more days can now do unto you and you unto them like never before.
Thomas L. Friedman is a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and author