The Coronavirus as a Crucible

I recently participated in a conversation with thought leaders at the Great Transition Initiative on a critical question poised by Paul Raskin:

“The coronavirus outbreak has disrupted our lives, equanimity, and assumptions. . . The pandemic is a rupture in historic time that shakes the continuity of institutions and consciousness. . . How can we seize the moment to steer toward the Great Transition we all hope for and know to be possible?

Here’s my contribution, “The Coronavirus as a Crucible” which explores how progressive leaders might skillfully use the dramatic changes we’re already experiencing to steer society toward the greater transformation that’s needed.

I recommend exploring the full conversation at the Great Transition Initiative website.

THE IMPACT OF CORONAVIRUS will be huge—but it is not yet the crisis that could push our global society into the phase change required for the Great Transition. These two simple facts offer a valuable framework for thinking about how to respond most effectively to the current situation.

To begin, let’s consider the magnitude of COVID-19’s impact. A year or two from now, the virus itself will likely have become a manageable part of our lives—effective treatments will have emerged; a vaccine will be available. But the effect of coronavirus on our global civilization will only just be unfolding. The massive disruptions we’re already seeing in our lives are just the first heralds of a historic transformation in political and societal norms.

If COVID-19 were spreading across a stable and resilient world, its impact could be abrupt but contained. Leaders would consult together, economies would be disrupted temporarily, people would make do for a while with changed circumstances, and then, after the shock, things would return to normal. That is not, however, the world in which we live. Instead, the pandemic is revealing the structural faults of the system, which have been papered over for decades even as they’ve been growing worse. Gaping economic inequalities, rampant ecological destruction, and pervasive political corruption are all results of unbalanced systems relying on each other to remain precariously poised. Now, as one system destabilizes, expect others to tumble down in tandem in a cascade known by researchers as “synchronous failure.” The last time a disruption of such magnitude occurred was during the period of the Great Depression and World War II, which shaped the geopolitical structure of our current world.

Coronavirus as a Crucible

In just a few months, we have seen political and economic ideas seriously discussed that had previously been dismissed as fanciful or utterly unacceptable: universal basic income, government intervention to house the homeless, and state surveillance on individual activity, to name just a few. This is just the beginning of a process that will expand exponentially in the ensuing months, as the world begins to reel from the aftereffects of the shutdown.

A crisis such as the coronavirus pandemic has a way of massively amplifying and accelerating changes that were already underway: shifts that might have taken decades can occur in weeks. Like a crucible, it has the potential to melt down the structures that currently exist and reshape them, perhaps unrecognizably.

What might the new shape of society look like? There is a serious risk that the new stable state will be closer to a Fortress World, with increased state surveillance, empowered authoritarianism, further breakdowns in democratic norms, mega-corporations even more dominant, and heightened militarism in international relations. In contrast, as many have pointed out, there is also a resurgence in the values that would underlie a transformed world, such as mutual aid, compassionate community, grassroots empowerment, and global collaboration.

The Next (Tidal) Wave

However, no matter which way the crucible hardens, COVID-19 is not a big enough phenomenon to reshape the flawed foundation of our current worldview that has brought our civilization to its current predicament. Our dominant worldview is based on an underlying theme of separation: people are separate from each other, humans are separate from nature, and nature itself is no more than an economic resource. The value system built on this foundation is the ultimate cause of the world’s gaping inequalities, our roller-coaster global financial system, our failure to respond to climate breakdown, and our unsustainable frenzy of consumption. It provides the implicit basis for ruthless neoliberal policies, the domination of transnational corporations focused solely on shareholder returns, and the worldwide obsession with maintaining unsustainable GDP growth on a finite planet.

As our civilization hurtles toward the precipice through this century, we will encounter ever greater shocks that will make COVID-19 seem like a leisurely rehearsal by contrast. We can expect massive urban flooding, global famines, and overwhelming refugee crises that will shake the foundations of our civilization’s overbuilt edifice. As the interconnected links of our global system unravel, millions of people will reject the values that wrought this devastation, and look for a replacement. The value system they choose will determine whether this century ends in a Fortress World, a civilizational collapse, or a fundamental transition to a life-affirming world based on dignity and community: an ecological civilization.

Coronavirus as a Trimtab

This is the broader context that sheds light on the importance of COVID-19. By itself, this pandemic won’t force the required change in our civilization’s direction, but it can begin to set a course away from the current trajectory of rampant self-destruction. Buckminster Fuller offered the brilliant metaphor of a trimtab, the miniature rudder in front of an ocean liner that helps the main rudder to shift direction almost effortlessly by changing the pressure in front of it. Similarly, we can view the potential for significant policy changes in the wake of coronavirus as a trimtab for the redirection of our global civilization that is the only way to avert catastrophe in the longer term.

This suggests that the most skillful approach to the current situation is to identify those policy initiatives that are already garnering popular support—and can also serve as trimtabs to move our entire civilization toward a new trajectory. In my view, some of the highest potential trimtabs are the idea of a universal basic income, which is now being discussed favorably even in conservative mouthpieces such as the Financial Times; Kate Raworth’s “doughnut economics,” which is being used as a model for Amsterdam’s coronavirus recovery plan; and full-scale implementation of a Green New Deal in the United States.

Others may identify other trimtabs that are just as, or even more, effective. I simply offer this framework as a lens to view how we might skillfully prioritize the progressive forces unleashed by the current pandemic as preparation for the far greater disruptions yet to come.

5 thoughts on “The Coronavirus as a Crucible

  1. The following passages are intriguing :

    “Our dominant worldview is based on an underlying theme of separation: people are separate from each other, humans are separate from nature, and nature itself is no more than an economic resource. The value system built on this foundation is the ultimate cause of the world’s …

    We can expect massive urban flooding, global famines, and overwhelming refugee crises that will shake the foundations of our civilization’s overbuilt edifice. ”

    I wholeheartedly agree with the meaning you want to convey but I feel that a fundamental weakness is reducing the impact of your argument. What I mean to say is that you interchangeably use the concepts ‒ civilization ‒ global civilization ‒ worldview ‒ values system ‒ I did not see culture.

    You are not alone, as a matter of fact, these concepts are mostly always used interchangeably nowadays which indicates that there is a great confusion in Modern minds about the mechanisms within the “cultural continuum” that sustain societal evolution.

    I think that to move forward, in the mess humanity has created for itself, we need a better grasp of societal evolution and the mechanisms that sustain it. Societal evolution is what drives Modernity and what comes after it.

    On another note. I’m originally from Europe but I live in china since a few decades and I observe a radical disconnection between the perceptions, the mood, in the West versus the East.

    The West is hyper individualistic, the individuals are atomized (radical separation from the others and from their society), the mood pessimistic, total absence of trust in societal governance, nihilism in the arts, and the disappearance of a unifying worldview has completely destroyed the cohesion of societies.

    In contrast China is highly individualistic while also highly communitarian, the individuals feel bound together through their traditional culture (worldview = Chinese Traditional Culture), the mood is optimistic, very strong trust in societal governance, at the contact with the west the arts ended up in crisis, so all in all the CTC worldview glues the minds of Chinese citizens and as a result their society is highly cohesive.

    In my mind this disconnection signals the following :
    – the negativity in the West indicates a will to scapegoat “the other” for a locally made economic disaster which signals a fighting mood that brings us closer every day to a 3rd world war… Did you see the atomic clock ?
    – a better, positive, disposition in China to answer the great-convergence, of the multiple side-effects of Modernity, that is happening in this Late-Modernity. And this positive disposition extends to the governance sphere. Here when talking about the future they say that “a community of nations shares a common destiny by building an ecological future for their children” and they walk their talk …

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Jeremy, thank you for this piece, where you offer the possibility of people choosing to direct our civilization toward the great transition, and act as agents of social evolution, and as you say ” Trimtabs” . My contribution to this process is both developing evolutionary leaders that act as trimtabs, there are no shortage of alternative and better futures, but we need people to commit and take action to build that great transition and future. MY other trimtab is contributing to the “Bounce Beyond” project created by Steve Waddell, to push civilization toward a new economic paradigm.
    On the issue of separation, I agree with your examples, and I would also add separation in the person from reason and emotion, body and mind, the classical Cartesian separation.
    Manuel Manga

    Liked by 2 people

  3. This is the kind of in depth thinking I keep hoping to hear from the media, such as CBC who once upon a time would include in their news. I despair at tones coming from right wing ‘think tanks’. In my own world I keep thinking how can I interject the thoughtful ways my neighbours and friends respond. It seems to be irrelevant to the mainstream. It makes life redundant. Thank you Jeremy.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Jeremy, your piece is interesting and topical. Yes, Covid-19 is a catalyst for changes. And, of course, this pandemic alone will not change much. So far, the total number of deaths is much smaller than the number of deaths during the Black Death period. At that time, about 30% to 60% of the European population was killed [1, 2].
    On the other hand, in our unbelievably interconnected world, disruptions spread much faster and to many more areas of mankind activities.
    For me, the most far-reaching statement in your article is that “[pandemic] can begin to set a course away from the current trajectory of rampant self-destruction. “. Yes, it could.
    However, I think we have no tools to make any estimates, with some degree of certainty, which course will prevail.
    Most governments and political elites’ actions are based on short-term goals, aligned with election cycles. China is an exception. And we don’t know yet is it good or bad for the whole of mankind.
    Could some mass movements force governments to change the course and pursue long-term goals for humanity? In theory, they could. But, in practice, they do it very rarely. There is a reason for that. Some studies suggest that the percentage of the population involved in peaceful mass action has to be at least 3-4 % to have an impact on government policies.


    Liked by 1 person

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