Editor’s Note: Chandran Nair is founder and CEO of the Global Institute For Tomorrow, a Hong Kong-based think tank. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
Millions of people around the world have now seen images of the desperate situation in parts of India as infection rates exceed 300,000 per day. Reports point to a desperate shortage of oxygen, a double mutant strain and images of bodies laying on funeral biers on sidewalks, as crematoriums become overwhelmed – even in the capital New Delhi.
The World Health Organization announced at the end of March the findings of its draft report into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s what many have expected: the coronavirus likely jumped from animals to human populations. An entirely mundane cause for what is perhaps the most globally-disruptive event in a century, and the same as many previous pandemics: human intrusion into the biosphere.
At the same time, we may be seeing the end of an extraordinary period of hype. After years of being told that digital technologies would lead us to a post-scarcity future, the reality of the pandemic has been a sharp reminder of how the real world can upend idealistic and utopian fantasies.
The idea that technology will solve major problems has become an article of faith among many. A whole new generation has been led to believe that every challenge has a technological solution and educated to think of problem-solving through a technological fix rather than through addressing root causes and fundamentals. Access to the internet was elevated to become a major development objective as it would lead to “innovations,” with the idea that access to unfettered information was as critical as food, clean water, electricity, clean air and even oxygen.
Every new technological advancement appears to promise a radical transformation of society that wipes away inefficiency and inequity whilst empowering people through disruption. The blockchain, artificial intelligence, 3D-printing: all are hailed by their proponents as heralding the next big transformation of how we live and work, not just in advanced economies but in less developed countries as well, even those without the basics for life.
The current situation in India and in much of Europe and the United States just a few months ago should be a reminder that most of the world may have internet access but it is the basics we need to focus on. Human society is a biological entity: one that affects the real world and, in turn, is affected by it. Now is the moment where we should remember that our future is not digital. It is biological.
In one way, the faith in technology could even be seen in the Western response to the pandemic. Rather than examine the social contract that citizens buy into – putting collective welfare ahead of individual rights by not questioning the wearing of masks and other restrictions – and apply a strong, swift public health response that would have controlled the outbreak, Western countries instead placed their hope on vaccine development: a gamble that ultimately will pay off, but at the unnecessary cost of massive economic disruption and hundreds of thousands dead. In the US alone, a study showed that hundreds of thousands of lives could have been saved if lockdown restrictions, mask-wearing and social distancing were heavily enforced earlier on in the pandemic.
The SARS-COV-2 virus has caused such global chaos because of its ability to enter the human body through biological transmission and disrupt its workings. And it is prevented by a vaccine: something that leverages the human body’s natural response to infection.
If there is any hope of avoiding another global health disaster, human beings need to restrain their development and stop assaulting natural and biological systems based on an arrogant assumption that all other forms of life are subordinate to the quest for human progress. Economic imperatives have destroyed so much of the natural world, and events like the Covid-19 pandemic will only become more likely as human populations and desires grow and snatch more from the biosphere. It is time to pull back from our assault on nature.
Our survival depends on maintaining the integrity and vibrancy of natural systems and the biological processes within. That includes the environments we live in, the objects that invade our bodies (such as pollutants and viruses), the things we consume (water, air and food) and the biological consequences of the waste we produce.
Even during the early months of the pandemic when reports showed that earth was benefitting from the decrease in greenhouse gas emissions – since much of the middle and upper-classes were able to learn remotely and work from home – the shift to being indoors was not without consequences.
This more secluded lifestyle was dependent on people working in the real world, growing and making the food, staffing grocery stores and delivering meals to those staying in. Goods ordered via e-commerce still have to get to homes by boat, truck, and delivery driver.
The work-from-home lifestyle only works because an infrastructure of goods and people sustain it. Presently, the system operates on exploiting their services and externalizing most of the cost of this new model. It has biological consequences both on the workers and the natural world (such as excessive waste).
And this real-world infrastructure was deeply affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. Essential workers around the world, whether in hospitals, meat-packing plants in the United States, construction sites in Singapore or glove manufacturers in Malaysia, have all seen outbreaks of Covid-19.
This has shown the world that not only do we need to limit infringing on the natural world, but we need to invest heavily in basic protections (what I’ve called “insured resilience”): safe and secure food supplies, water and sanitation, basic housing, a robust public health care system and access to energy.
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As projections show that the human population will peak at just below 10 billion by 2064, greater pandemic risks will be accompanied by other man-made threats, from climate change and bio-diversity loss to vulnerable food systems and reductions in habitable land.
Digital technology can play a role in mitigating and fighting these threats, but they will only serve this purpose if we return to a basic understanding that human survival is fragile and wholly dependent on a viable biosphere. The sooner we realize that fact, the sooner we can ensure that our tech efforts and resources are placed into avenues that actually help human welfare, and not in utopian schemes defined by narrow definitions of human progress.