How to manage a societal crisis: that is the question. Or, is it a question at all? Why is it so difficult for a society of ostensibly free people to work together to make life better?
To be accurate, we humans are in quite a pickle these days. With looming climate chaos before us, we fall victim to a global pandemic perpetrated by one of the most infectious viruses ever. In both cases, it seems we work at cross-purposes, blithely ignoring the signs even when faced with grave existential crises. Our predicament calls for fact-based reasoned judgment and society-level concerted action to resolve the extremely difficult conditions that confront us.
Societal Dysfunction Invites Tyranny
At the same time, we flounder over misplaced fears, resentment, and anger, which of course, make us vulnerable to demagoguery, conspiracy theories, and even to denial of the most obvious physical and biological facts. The problems of a deadly pandemic and those of emerging climate chaos are not so much technical as they stem from societal and cultural failures to face scientific facts.
Climate science and public health professionals have lots of relevant physical and biological facts at hand. Yet, those in power ignore or deny them for strictly political reasons. When a president stands before a national audience and claims that medical researchers ought to look into injecting or ingesting bleach or disinfectants as a “cure” for a viral infection, we ought to know that we are in very deep trouble. Only the arrogance of the fool who made the suggestion could match that level of basic ignorance.
If we look, we can see our deepest failures in the mistaken modernist culture that denies our place in Nature. Because we live in a consumer bubble, our diverse anxieties and fears come from our denial yet subliminal awareness of growing traumatic social changes amid catastrophic planetary destabilization. These contradictions make life far less stable and predictable than our industrial-consumer illusions assume. We deny the global unwinding before our eyes.
The astounding contrast between how most nations responded to the COVID-19 pandemic and how the US floundered in indecision, denial, and the refusal of our so-called leaders to take decisive action, points to the crucial distinction between leadership and tyranny. In the case of the US, the tyranny of politically forced economic reopening without taking the virus down enough to allow effective testing and tracing resulted in the further outbreak shown in the graph above. Nations that relied on scientific knowledge instead of political whim fared so much better.
An actual leader rallies the people to act cooperatively in everyone’s interest in achieving safety and security. A tyrant just does not give a damn about the people, although he pretends to lead them to safety from imaginary enemies and external threats. However, the tyrant is the real threat. His dedication to his own power over all else is an existential danger to the public interest. He denies the real threats to public safety and health in order to promote discord and dissatisfaction that he can exploit to retain power. That’s what the secret police violence against peaceful protestors in Portland is all about.
The Climate Pandemic Parallel
In both cases, the climate emergency and the surging viral pandemic, scientists are able to predict with relative accuracy the devastating difference between aggressive concerted protective action and the refusal to step out of one’s political comfort zone.
Epidemiologists have known for decades how community spread of infectious diseases can exponentially grow into pandemics. The international public health community applied that knowledge to contain and control the outbreak of the Ebola virus and the mosquito-borne Zika virus outbreaks, which were mostly confined to parts of Africa. Each virus is different and calls for its own counter-strategy. The novel coronavirus was new when the outbreak in Wuhan China was discovered, far more contagious than most others, and recently estimated to be 600% more deadly than influenza.
To stop it requires social isolation to avoid community spread. Some nations, such as New Zealand and South Korea, quickly executed programs of testing and tracing vectors of infection in order to quarantine anyone infected, thereby stopping the spread to others. Instead, Trump set up press conferences to assure the public that is would simply “go away.” It did not, of course. Naturally, the virus took that opportunity to run rampant.
The same pattern has emerged in response to the climate crisis. Trump engaged in total political denial of scientifically documented changes in climate and their dire consequences, announced the US withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords, and reversed every environmental regulation meant to slow global warming. His goal as president was to pander to the most powerful financial and commercial interests, seeking support for his continued incumbency. We were already so far behind in attempting to slow the heating of the planet and all its disruptive consequences including super-storms, heatwaves, floods, and drought. Now it will take herculean efforts to avoid the most catastrophic effects such as crop failures, starvation, migration, and resource wars around the world.
Genuine leadership would have pulled everyone together to fight the threats of pandemic and climate chaos. Tyrants attempt instead to sow discord and conflict in their efforts to retain and gain more power.