As the media report the continued explosive growth of new confirmed cases of COVID-19 and resulting deaths in some cases, the level of indifference and denial appears to be declining. Yet, governments remain sluggish in their response to the pandemic, with a small number of exceptions.
The United States of America seems particularly vulnerable to a cultural resistance to recognize the clear and present danger of this pandemic. The US political culture places economic growth above all as the engine of human progress. This tends to force other issues, no matter how critical, into the background. On top of that, we have a relatively peculiar administration that has purged experts in various fields in favor of political lackeys as the heads of most departments in the executive branch. We find almost no expertise among the president’s “advisors.”
Trump has little interest in facts except to the extent that he can fabricate or twist them to support his peculiar “transactional” politics. Any fact that does not comport with his overdrawn image of his “perfect” self he either denies or dismisses. That seems to be why his administration was so slow to respond to the rapidly developing COVID-19 epidemic, despite expert warnings, until it reached pandemic proportions.
As China, South Korea, and Singapore have already demonstrated, and some public health officials here have implied, if the administration had been prepared and had acted in proportion to the threat, the nation would be in an entirely different condition today. Only the pretend president’s ignorance of science and the real world matches his arrogant pride.
On top of that, the US industrial-consumer worldview holds to the irrational claim that human progress consists of perpetual economic growth (on our finite planet). That growth is implicitly defined as corporate financial growth. The culture takes the stock market as the measure of the wellbeing of the nation. It is certainly the measure of the comfort and enrichment of the investing class, but it has very little to do, at least on the positive side, with the wellbeing of the US population.
The Deeper Culture of Ignorance
We must not fall into the trap of simply blaming all our troubles on the narcissistic sociopath in the White House. It runs much deeper than that. The entire political culture of recent decades has worked for the abolition of the public sector and the enshrinement of outlandish wealth as the goal for every American. That, of course, requires the denial of science in order to hold on to irrational beliefs that serve the economic interests of the ultra-rich.
The cult of economic growth tries to justify itself by the pseudo-philosophy of “rational optimism,” and the myth that the avarice of the powerful will somehow result in the common good.
The plutocrats and their agents in Congress promote the irrational claim that the nation can maintain continual progress by steadfastly pursuing the utopian dreams of industrial consumerism. Rational optimists assure us that perpetual technological innovation and the invention of new materials to replace rapidly depleting resources for industrial use will assure perpetual progress. They claim that we can “decouple” economic growth from environmental destruction.
Destructive Denial or Hopeful Realism
It is therefore not so surprising to see the prevaricating president claim that “it’s just another flu” and that it will soon “go away.” Unfortunately, even if he had listened to the warnings by experts in the CDC, it would take him so long to understand how epidemics and pandemics work, that we would probably be right where we are now—in deep trouble.
Exponential growth is very powerful, especially in social networks. Nevertheless, many people discount potential problems if it means changing their behavior. These are both stunning parallels between the pandemic and the climate crisis. Resistance to change reflects the power of habit. We all, in varying degrees, participate in the industrial-consumer culture and really would rather not give it up.
Now we can see in real-time the effects of suddenly halted consumerism as public health experts admonish everyone to stay home and “shelter in place.” Such “social distancing” is a powerful tool to stop the pandemic because it cannot spread among people who are not in contact with one another. It is not easy to change anyone’s behavior, let alone everyone’s. However, the immediate threat of illness and possible death is a powerful motivator.
The climate emergency is likely a much greater threat to humanity than the COVID-19 pandemic, which will subside and we can eventually control. The existential threat of the collapse of the Earth System itself is happening on a scale of years, not days. While rapidly growing numbers of people finally recognize it, the task of shutting down the carbon emissions of the industrial-consumer global economy is daunting ab best. It is far more difficult a task than simply staying home.
Restraining carbon emissions requires a massive, complex, and fundamental transformation in the way we live. There will be no going back. It will be useful to see how distinct the drop in carbon emissions is during the pandemic when so much fossil-fueled economic activity has slowed to a crawl. That will demonstrate clearly how unprepared nations and populations are to transform their economies and lives to decarbonize the global economy.
Simply stopping the fossil-fueled global economy will not be enough—that would be equivalent to the current economic suspension. Instead, we need to engage in a new form of creative destruction of the no longer tenable industrial civilization by replacing it with a human scale network of ecological communities. I cannot think of a more formidable or more necessary prospect for humanity.