Global Obsession with Economic Growth Will Increase Risk of Deadly Pandemics in Future

This article offers clarity regarding the risks of continuing in an ‘economic growth mindset’. All life on earth needs a stable climate, healthy soil, and protective ozone layers. Without significant, meaningful, global change humans remain on a course that invites climate collapse, this includes pandemics.


By Tom Pegram, Associate Professor in Global Governance and Deputy Director of UCL Global Governance Institute, UCL,
and Julia Kreienkamp,Researcher at the Global Governance Institute, UCL


As governments around the world roll out COVID-19 vaccine programmes and seek to kickstart their economies back to life, recovery seems to be within reach. However, hard questions must not be sidestepped. How did this pandemic happen? And how resilient are we to future global risks, including the possibility of deadlier pandemics?

Importantly, COVID-19 was not a “black swan” event – an event that cannot be reasonably anticipated. As Mike Ryan, executive director of the World Health Organization’s emergencies programme, made clear in an impassioned address in February, COVID-19 is very much a human-made emergency. By continuing to privilege economic growth over environmental and social sustainability, “we are creating the conditions in which epidemics flourish … and taking huge risks with our future”.

Human civilisation is on a collision course with the laws of ecology.

Experts have long warned of zoonotic diseases jumping the species barrier as a result of growing human encroachment on nature. A 2019 landmark global biodiversity assessment showed that species and ecosystems are declining at rates “unprecedented in human history”.

Biodiversity loss is accelerating, driven by multiple interrelated forces, all of which are ultimately produced or greatly amplified by practices that push economic growth. These include deforestation, agricultural expansion and the intensified consumption of wild animals.

Climate change often steals the headlines, but it is becoming increasingly clear that the prospect of mass biodiversity loss is just as catastrophic. Crucially, these two challenges are deeply interlinked. Global warming is putting massive pressure on many of our most diverse natural ecosystems. In turn, the decline of these vital ecosystems weakens their ability to store carbon and provide protection from extreme weather and other climate-related risks.

These effects cannot be captured in simplified metaphors such as “the war on carbon”, which may be politically expedient but obscure the complexities involved in protecting life-sustaining ecosystems. There is no single measurement that captures the “the variability among living organisms from all sources including … terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems and the ecological complexes of which they are part”. In fact, many of the living organisms on Earth are still unknown to humans.

Uncharted territory

Although it has long been argued that there are hard limits to unsustainable economic growth on a finite planet, these arguments have been largely dismissed by western economic powers. But market forces will not abolish natural scarcity or do away with planetary limits.

Belatedly, driven in part by growing public awareness of environmental destruction, economic planners are waking up to our ecological interdependence. As the recent Dasgupta Review, commissioned by the UK Treasury, puts it:

“Our economies, livelihoods and wellbeing all depend on our most precious asset: nature. We are part of nature, not separate from it.”

Buoyed by school climate strikes and the declaration of climate and nature emergencies around the world, UN Secretary General António Guterres has declared 2021 as “the year to reconcile humanity with nature”. However, the lack of progress is sobering. Of the 20 global biodiversity targets agreed in 2010, none have been fully met a decade later.

The international community remains way off track when it comes to implementing the Paris climate agreement. And although the COVID-19 crisis has led major economies to make commitments to build back better and greener, much of the recovery spending is flowing into business-as-usual economies.

A fundamental shift in thinking

How can political reality be brought into alignment with biophysical reality to ensure our societies do not prosper at the expense of the ecological life support systems upon which they ultimately depend?

Economist Kate Raworth’s doughnut-shaped economic model for human development provides one prominent plan of action, placing social and planetary boundaries at the core of governance redesign. In other words making sure that no human being is deprived of life’s essentials (food, shelter, healthcare and so on) while collectively ensuring that we don’t put damaging pressure on Earth’s life-supporting systems, on which all humans depend (a stable climate, healthy soil, a protective ozone layer).

But this is just one in a long line of ecological economic blueprints stretching back to at least the 1960s. The question remains: is society ready to relinquish its deep-seated will to power over nature for a different accommodation – one where we live in agreement with nature?

As ecologist Gregory Bateson observed: “The creature that wins against its environment destroys itself.” The COVID-19 pandemic is a canary in the coalmine; more are sure to follow. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has made it clear that the environmental challenge requires

“rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society”.

What is perhaps less clear from this statement is that the mindset, models and metaphors which shape society’s goals and aspirations must also change. Where might we look for inspiration? According to the Yale Environmental Performance Index, Botswana and Zambia rank first and second in the world for biodiversity and habitat protection. In fact Botswana is unique in that most of its biodiversity remains intact. Such examples hold lessons for how we can converge towards a reconciliation with nature.

Political scientist William Ophuls argues that political struggle must now urgently focus on making ecology the master science and Gaia the key metaphor of our age. In other words, we need to stop thinking of ourselves as somehow above or outside the natural systems that support us. Humanity’s efforts to embrace the politics of ecology could well prove to be the defining story of this century if we are to avoid indulging the tragedy of homo (in)sapiens.


You can read the original article, published in The Conversation, on the 5th March 2021 here. The authors are:

Tom Pegram Associate Professor in Global Governance and Deputy Director of UCL Global Governance Institute, UCL

Julia Kreienkamp Researcher at the Global Governance Institute, UCL

2 thoughts on “Global Obsession with Economic Growth Will Increase Risk of Deadly Pandemics in Future”

  1. Another threat to Earth’s and our future was underscored in a recent article in The Guardian: The chemicals unleashed on nature during the 20th century have accounted for a 60% drop in human fertility since the 1970s. This led the author of the article to project that human reproduction could become impossible before mid-century.

    Remember DDT? Unfortunately, it was just one of the more than 80,000 manmade chemicals unleashed on the environment during the 20th century — incredibly, almost all of them without testing their effect on human health.

    Even more unfortunately, they weren’t tested on other species, either, putting most animals and many plants at risk of extinction, too. And it’s not just the obvious things like DDT, Agent Orange, and Roundup. Two of the culprits cited were baby shampoo and plastics.

    Another recent article said microscopic fragments of plastic are now everywhere and in everything — from Arctic snow to the soil at the top of the Alps. I once saw graffiti on a wall, reading, “Plastic people, go home!”

    Now we’re all plastic. And plastic is one of the prime suspects in human and animal sterility. Estimates are that each of us now consumes an amount of plastic equivalent to eating a credit card per month, if I recall correctly.

    For years, I’ve suspected that the reason radiotelescopes have never found signals from alien cultures is that an industrial species anywhere rapidly destroys itself, by relying on things like fossil fuels for its development. And I was surprised to learn that scientists suspect this, too.

    The big question is why this isn’t common knowledge. Why is The Guardian one of the few places we read such news? Why was there no banner headline in The New York Times, proclaiming, “Human Reproduction Could Be Impossible by 2040!”

    The answer is denial. It isn’t common knowledge because the chemical companies, investors, politicians, the media, our parents, and ourselves don’t want to admit that industrial civilization — the “miracle” that gave us everything from cars and hair dryers to jet vacations and space travel — is a pact with the devil.

    We think we’re rich, with our supermarkets, imported food and wine, hair spray, flame-retardant bedding, pest-resistant crops, light switches, air conditioners, elevators, and cell phones that can tell us the current weather in Bangkok, with a few clicks of our thumbs. But our pre-indistrial, village-based ancestors were infinitely wealthier than we are. They had clean air and water, peace and quiet, and –more importantly — they had peace of mind. They had a future, and a probability that their grandchildren had one, too.

  2. Guys, the ruling class doesn’t care about economic growth. They care about their profits and nothing else. They do not “want” capitalism, they want to win the class war. The point of capitalist competition is to one day win. This is the reason why a transition to biotechno-neofeudalism is now in place.

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