Professor Arthur Lyon Dahl is President of the International Environment Forum, and a retired Deputy Assistant Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), with 50 years' international experience in environment and sustainability. His most recent focus has been on global governance and UN reform. He has been a consultant to the World Bank on indicators of development, Visiting Professor at the University of Brighton (UK) and Senior Advisor to its project on values-based indicators of education for sustainable development, and Co-coordinator of the UNEP Major Groups & Stakeholders Advisory Group on International Environmental Governance. More generally, his consultancies have covered indicators of sustainability, environmental assessment and observing strategies, coral reefs, biodiversity, islands, environmental education, and social and economic development. A specialist on coral reefs and small island developing States (SIDS), he spent many years in the South Pacific and organized the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP).
LH: Why do you say ‘Thank God for the Pandemic?’
ALD: It may seem weird to be thankful for a catastrophe. Human suffering is never something to be sought or revelled in. But the pandemic now sweeping the world, with its ultimate outcome still uncertain, may be a blessing in disguise.
LH: How is it a blessing in disguise?
ALD: We have been working for decades to identify and address social and environmental challenges and to make plans and set goals for a sustainable society across the planet. I have personally been involved since the first Earth Day in 1970 and have contributed to many constructive processes, leading most recently to the UN 2030 Agenda and its Sustainable Development Goals, as well as the Paris Agreement to address climate change.
However, along side this, governments have given priority to their national sovereignty, multinationals to their profits, and many world leaders to their inflated egos. Wealth is increasingly concentrated alongside growing inequality. Governments are failing to meet the needs of their people as they succumb to political fragmentation undermining democracy, when not already subverted to nativism, racism, corruption and despotism. A corporate stranglehold on the economy, feeding off a materialistic consumer culture, has escaped from all regulation or control. It is plundering the planet’s resources while driving us to a climate catastrophe and the collapse of world biodiversity as we drown in pollution. Nothing that we have done on the positive side has slowed this headlong drive to destruction.
As a systems scientist, I have often asked myself what it would take to slam on the brakes and slow the momentum of this material society out of control, before it takes us so far beyond planetary boundaries that it leads to the complete collapse of civilization. In our rapidly globalizing world, our economic, social and environmental systems have become increasingly interconnected, and while this has greatly increased human productivity and interaction, it also raises our vulnerability to a complex systems failure, with one problem precipitating many others like falling dominoes.
For a triggering event, a third world war is an obvious possibility, but not very desirable, with most of the world’s population dying in atrocious circumstances. The Doomsday Clock has recently moved closer to apocalypse than it has ever been as reckless leaders re-arm in their desire for global greatness or domination. If nuclear arms are used, this could precipitate a nuclear winter and leave much of the planet uninhabitable for the survivors.
My preference leaned towards a financial collapse, as government, corporate and consumer debt grew into a giant bubble after the 2008 financial crisis. If currencies lost their value and global trade shut down, that might save us from a climate catastrophe and give us time to move to renewable energy sources.
LH: What in your opinion are the knock-on effects that will result from the Corona Virus?
ALD: A global pandemic was always another option, something resembling the Spanish Flu of 1918, but the emergence of such a threat, while probable at some point according to the World Health Organization (WHO), was unpredictable. Suddenly, it has happened. We are fortunate that the corona virus behind Covid-19 is not particularly lethal, although it could still kill millions before it runs it course. The knock-on effects could be much worse, as populations are forced into isolation in an effort to slow the spread of the virus. Millions are losing their jobs and incomes. Education is interrupted. Whole sectors of the economy are frozen and driven towards bankruptcy. Supply chains are broken, including for essential medicines. Governments are doing everything they can to protect their populations, shore up their overloaded health systems, and preserve their economies. With such obvious priorities, worries about expanding debt are left for later. While it is too early to predict where all of this will ultimately lead, it is clear that the world will never be the same.
LH: What in your opinion are the challenges we face?
ALD: The challenge now, as we struggle through the immediate crisis, is not to plan to go back to business as usual, as most governments seem to be doing. We should see this as an opportunity to fix what is wrong in society. People are being forced to rediscover the benefits of a strong local community, with solidarity for those more vulnerable. Our addiction to material things and the consumer lifestyle is being broken, as we learn that getting along with much less in a simpler material lifestyle is not necessarily a disaster. The forced shift to digital communications technologies is stimulating creative new ways to maintain social ties and economic activities. Behind all of this is the need to rethink our basic values and our ultimate purpose as human beings. This period of forced isolation is a unique opportunity to read, study, reflect, pray and meditate on what kind of future we want for ourselves, our families, our communities, our nations and the whole world. With modern communications, we can still hold meaningful conversations with others, and help them to see the positive side of what we are going through.
LH: Do you believe governments can work together to solve all the problems created by Corona Virus ?
ALD: We are also being forced to see the necessity of global cooperation and a multilateral approach to governance. A virus respects no borders. No country can solve this problem by itself. The rationale for an effective system of global government has never been clearer. We take it as normal that a national government has legislative, executive and judicial functions that apply to everyone. Our ministry or department of heath is at the centre of national mobilization to fight the virus, and extreme measures can be imposed immediately for the common good. Yet governments have failed to give the WHO this capacity at the global level to organize a coherent approach to the crisis, and many lives will be lost as governments fumble to find the best way forward. As we move beyond this crisis, reforming global governance should become a priority.
We also will be forced to re-imagine how the world economy should work. We were on the verge of a major debt crisis before the pandemic started. The financial effort necessary to respond to immediate needs will leave an unmanageable level of debt behind. Many business of all sizes will be bankrupt. A financial system based on endless borrowing was never sustainable in the long term, and its collapse now seems inevitable. What will we put in its place? Should we go to a world currency? Should businesses be chartered to serve society rather than just their shareholders? How do we create meaningful employment for everyone? What mechanisms for the more equitable distribution of wealth would meet everyone’s basic needs and eliminate poverty?
Perhaps you now see why I am excited by the opportunities that the pandemic should ultimately open up. This is our best opportunity to make the paradigm shift called for in the UN 2030 Agenda and to accelerate our transition to a just, sustainable, climate-friendly civilisation in harmony with nature. I am full of hope.