Fascinating document expresses what we’ve all suspected!
While scouring the internet for interesting revelations in the current pandemic/social engineering exercise, I came upon this remarkably frank editorial piece from the Journal ‘Sustainability: Science, Practice and Policy‘
The text speaks for itself. Note that I have highlighted particularly relevant portions of text in bold. MH
Does the COVID-19 outbreak mark the onset of a sustainable consumption transition?
Published online: 18 Mar 2020
For nearly 30 years, since the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, sustainability proponents have sought in various ways to foster a “sustainable consumption transition.” For instance, Chapter Four of Agenda 21 forthrightly observes that “[w]hile poverty results in certain kinds of environmental stress, the major cause of the continued deterioration of the global environment is the unsustainable pattern of consumption and production, particularly in industrialized countries, which is a matter of grave concern, aggravating poverty and imbalances” (United Nation 1992; see also Cohen 2001).
During the following decades, numerous governments, multilateral organizations, scientific societies, and others developed carefully detailed plans outlining how to facilitate less resource intensive forms of consumption and to ensure prosperity without transgressing planetary boundaries (Royal Society of London and the United States National Academy of Sciences 1997; Nash 2009; Scholl et al. 2010). For instance, in 1998 the United Nations Development Program described the circumstances of the affluent nations as a “runaway consumption train” (UNDP 1998). Consistent with this characterization, the Nordic Council, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the European Commission, the Royal Society of London, and the United States National Academy of Sciences highlighted the challenges of designing more sustainable means of consumption and production. More recently, given the close correspondence between consumption practices and greenhouse-gas emissions, the Paris Climate Agreement appropriately recognized, “sustainable patterns of consumption and production…play an important role in addressing climate change” (United Nations 2015; refer also to Alfredsson et al. 2018).
The issue of sustainable consumption has evolved on the international policy agenda since the Rio Conference through three loosely demarcated phases. First, the 1990s were largely marked by an emphasis on the promotion of cleaner and more efficient processes for manufacturing consumer goods and their intermediary inputs (Hertwich 2005). Second, during the early 2000s attention shifted to “greener” forms of household provisioning exemplified by strategies devoted to educating consumers, designing eco-labels on product packages, and “nudging” shoppers to make responsible choices (Matthias, Mont, and Heiskanen 2016; Sunstein 2015). Finally, in the years since the onset of the global financial crisis in 2008, we have witnessed growing appreciation of the need for systemic change of the social and institutional arrangements that perpetuate contemporary consumerist lifestyles—in short, to achieve absolute reductions in consumptive throughput (Cohen 2019; Foden et al. 2019; see also Akenji et al. 2016).
Against this background, we are now struggling to anticipate the impacts of COVID-19. Major financial markets are gyrating and international supply chains are in turmoil, prompting managers to canvass about to find local sources of fabricated materials to maintain industrial production. Tourism is grinding to a halt as travelers cancel trips, airlines suspend flights, and hotels become increasingly vacant. Sporting events, concerts, theatrical performances, museum exhibitions, and other public showcases are being postponed. Growing numbers of companies are encouraging employees to take time off from work and contemplating the imposition of compelled furloughs. Economic forecasters are warning that gross domestic product for many countries will contract, perhaps very significantly, in coming months.
While the present situation is being treated as an emergent economic crisis, it merits acknowledging that sustainability scientists and policy makers have implicitly been seeking to achieve over the past decade broadly similar objectives—albeit with greater political subtlety and awareness for adverse societal consequences—in the form of a sustainable consumption transition (see, e.g. O’Rourke and Lollo 2015; Valentine, Ruwet, and Bauler 2015; Røpke 2015; Welch and Southerton 2018).1
It merits recognizing that COVID-19 is simultaneously a public health emergency and a real-time experiment in downsizing the consumer economy.
Social scientists have long recognized that disasters, especially when the scale of their tragic consequences emerges with modest but steady pace, have a tendency to catalyze processes of social change. For instance, the renowned Russian-American sociologist Pitirim Sorokin observed in 1942 that society “is never the same as the one that existed before the calamity. For good or ill, calamities are unquestionably the supreme disruptors and transformers of social organization and institutions” (Sorokin 1942).
Although current circumstances pose unique challenges to foretelling the future, it is notable that medical authorities are now making comparisons to the Spanish flu of 1918 and 1919 that internationally resulted in the death of 50 million people (Chen et al. 2020; Lambert 2020). While it is extremely premature to suggest that the current public health emergency will reach this alarming level, political regimes in a number of the most severely affected countries are coming under profound strain due to intensifying anxiety about the coronavirus epidemic. With respect to supply chains, at least some of the stopgap measures being implemented to get through the next few weeks or months will become locked in on a longer-term basis. Consumers are stockpiling nonperishable food and other supplies and public authorities have not disclaimed the eventual need for rationing and other consumption controls.
A practical outcome is that we are liable to see customarily face-to face activities move to virtual platforms as users become more acclimated with online interfaces for conducting business, delivering educational programing, and engaging in a widening range of social activities. Experience in China to date suggests that extended periods of quarantine create novel forms of consumer demand as people cope with the exigencies of isolation. The more protracted the threat of contagion proves to be, the further engrained and resistant to reversal these adaptive responses will become. As is frequently the case in the aftermath of disasters, we will quickly forget “how things used to be.”
Nonetheless, as soon as circumstances allow, there will be vigorous promotional efforts encouraging us to revert to “normal.” We should expect a relentless stream of inducements from governments and companies encouraging consumers to get out of the house and back on the bandwagon. Central banks are already signaling a willingness to lower interest rates—already in negative territory in some countries—as far as necessary to make this happen. Many individuals are likely, at least initially, to respond positively to these appeals, but we should not be surprised in due course to discover that other predilections have supplanted once-familiar practices.
While it may seem both fanciful and insolent, COVID-19 is an opportunity to reduce over the longer term the prevalence of lifestyles premised on large volumes of energy and material throughput. At the same time, imperatives for social distancing to lower the risk of community transmission will regrettably reinforce commitments to individualized rather than public and shared modes of consumption. Despite what appears to be an increasingly dire public health emergency, policy makers should work to ensure that the coronavirus outbreak contributes to a sustainable consumption transition. This would be one way to offset some of the unfortunate suffering and disruption caused by this event.
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