U.S. and Chinese negotiators are set to discuss implementation of the phase one trade deal in the coming days, with Beijing pushing for the recent measures targeting businesses including TikTok and WeChat to be on the agenda.
A virtual meeting will likely take place as soon as this week though a date hasn’t been finalized, according to people familiar with preparations for the talks who asked not to be named. Along with agricultural purchases and the dollar-yuan exchange rate, which are among topics to be discussed, Chinese officials intend to bring up President Donald Trump’s prospective bans on transactions with the two apps on national security grounds, the people said. They did not elaborate on what China hopes to achieve on these issues.
Seven months after the signing of the agreement which paused a tariff war that had roiled the global economy, the purchases of U.S. goods it entails are lagging far behind schedule. The coronavirus crisis and the concurrent deterioration in U.S.-China relations on everything from tech security to Hong Kong has meant the trade deal remains one of the few areas where Washington and Beijing are still cooperating.
The “one area we are engaging is trade,” Trump’s top economic adviser Larry Kudlow said at a White House press conference Tuesday. “It’s fine right now.” China’s commerce ministry and foreign ministry did not immediately respond to faxes seeking comment.
China is seeking to defuse an unpredictable confrontation with the U.S. that’s seen several of its tech champions targeted, with the latest actions spurring a potential sale of the U.S. operations of ByteDance Ltd’s wildly popular short video app to Microsoft Corp. Trump is also banning U.S. transactions with Tencent Holdings Ltd’s WeChat app, which has more than 1 billion users.
Trump’s executive orders, set to take effect in September, have potentially an even wider impact than the multi-pronged assault on telecommunications hardware provider Huawei Technologies Co., as they threaten to sever communication links among the people of the world’s biggest economies. The U.S. argues that Chinese apps which collect information on U.S. citizens pose a grave national security risk as the data is prone to being acquired by the Chinese government.
Meanwhile given the collapse in the global economy this year due to the pandemic, which Trump blames on China, Beijing was only a quarter of the way through its effort to buy more than $170 billion in U.S. goods this year by the end of June. On Tuesday Kudlow downplayed the shortfall, saying China had “substantially” increased purchases of U.S. goods.
China would need to buy about $130 billion in the second half of this year to comply with the original terms of the agreement signed in January, which laid out purchasing an additional $200 billion of U.S. goods and services over the 2017 level by the end of 2021.
–With assistance from James Mayger.
‘Wakanda Doesn’t Have Suburbs’: How Movies Like Black Panther Could Help Us Save the Planet
I don’t know when I first learned that the story of humanity was one of profound wrongness. But the idea that the world was broken because of our presence was always there, a constant cadence with which to orient my life, as seemingly natural as the four seasons that ordered my years and the cycle of the sun that ordered my days.
I grew up in the Catholic Church, whose theology of original sin means that humans are born with a built-in desire to disobey God ever since Eve, allegedly, took a bite of that damn apple. Since her and Adam’s punishment was to be kicked out of the Garden, it’s not a stretch to say that I also grew up with a belief that humans have an innate tendency to destroy their environment.
Growing up in New York City, secular classes taught to state standards imparted a similar message of humanity’s inherent shortcomings. A critical undercurrent of history and science classes, for example, is the idea of perpetual progress. That progress, we are taught, has always come at the cost of the environment—from smog-filled skies to landscapes devoid of birds, as chronicled in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. And, of course, the idea of progress itself implies that there is something wrong with the present and with our place in it.
I am not the only person who has gotten this message. Robin Wall Kimmerer, an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, scientist, author, and lecturer, writes in her beautiful book Braiding Sweetgrass that in her survey of roughly two hundred third-year ecology students, almost all said that they thought that humans and nature were a bad mix. These were, she pointed out, people who had chosen to devote their lives to environmental protection. “I was stunned,” she wrote. “How is it possible that in twenty years of education that they cannot think of any beneficial relationships between people and the environment?”
When I share this quote with a friend, she points out that it is ahistorical to frame people and nature as always in opposition with each other. There are societies that live within their ecological boundaries. The mountainous nation of Bhutan, for example, absorbs more carbon than it emits. But good luck finding those stories in the tales that dominate much of U.S. culture.
As someone who consumes what I’m told is an excessive amount of popular culture, I can rattle off entire genres of film—from dystopian science fiction to horror movies to serious dramas—that reaffirm the idea that where humans go, ecological devastation inevitably follows.
Movies like Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, Waterworld, and The Hunger Games—all of which, to be clear, I enjoyed—posit not only that humans could decimate the planet but that we will. Arguably my favorite dystopian movie, the 1986 Solarbabies, which features a glowing alien orb and kids roller-skating through the desert, is based on the idea that a global corporation would happily lock up every drop of water to turn the planet into a giant desert, and by proxy enslave humans, out of a desire for world domination. Reflect on that for a moment: The film’s central conceit is that lots of people think turning Earth into a hellscape is preferable to sharing resources.
James Cameron’s popular movie Avatar features a planet where intelligent beings live in concert with their environment until humans, once again, show up to destroy it. The short-lived television show Terra Nova deals with an overly polluted, overpopulated Earth by sending humans back in time to when dinosaurs roamed—before humans had a chance to spoil the place. The youth-oriented television network the CW has a show called The 100 in which the Earth is “simmering in radiation” as a result of a nuclear war. In the series opener, the surviving humans orbit the now-hazardous planet on spaceships. Space also features prominently in WALL-E, an animated film by Pixar that is ostensibly a story for children. It features not just a polluted Earth but an atmosphere so physically littered with trash that humans have opted to live on sterile space stations. Even Star Trek, which many hold up as a positive vision of humanity’s future, assumes that in order for us to live in equilibrium with our environment, we must first let key species, including whales, go extinct; fight a third world war; have a wiser, more advanced alien species intervene in our development; and create an off-planet resource base.
No big deal.
So disabused are we of the notion that humans en masse can have anything approaching the good life, that some of the most terrifying pieces of fiction aren’t ones in which the opening scenes are filled with horrors out of Dante’s Inferno but rather ones in which the setting is bucolic. In the television show The Good Place, demons torment the show’s protagonists by wielding a slightly twisted version of heaven. From Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” to Jordan Peele’s film Get Out, idyllic settings are increasingly a signal to the audience to prepare for some underlying wickedness. Of course, these are “only” stories. But stories are powerful.
A 2017 study in the journal Nature Communications found that among hunter-gatherer societies, those with better storytellers are more cooperative. It’s our ability to cooperate that anthropologists say has allowed humans to survive even the harshest environmental conditions and to fend off predators that could take us out individually. In fact, our brains are wired for story, which is why most of us can retain stories far longer than we can retain a series of facts stated plainly. The stories that we tell about ourselves and our place in the world are the raw materials from which we build our existence. Or, to borrow from the storyteller Kurt Vonnegut, “we are what we pretend to be, so we must be very careful what we pretend to be.”
Simon Lake, who helped pioneer the modern submarine, admits he was influenced by the idea of undersea exploration after reading Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Physicist Leo Szilard, who helped develop the atomic bomb, was motivated in part by the H. G. Wells novel The World Set Free. The Star Trek communicator was the inspiration behind the cellphone.
Increasingly, the idea that the Earth will become unlivable due to human actions has created a push for us to move to a new frontier. It’s unclear if tech billionaires are taking cues from WALL-E, but some, such as Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, are investing heavily in space exploration, their efforts predicated on the idea that humans need to move into space to survive as a species.
“We humans have to go to space if we are going to continue to have a thriving civilization,” Bezos told CBS Evening News in 2019, envisioning a world where we put big factories in space and zone the Earth as residential.
That humans would head out to space in order to mine it, by the way, is the framing of the television show The Expanse, which was saved from cancellation by Amazon, of which Bezos is founder and CEO. Like me, Bezos is on record as being a fan of the show.
Not everyone agrees with his must-go-to-space story, however.
“Fun fact: space wants you dead. Mars wants you dead. Titan wants you dead. Space will fucking kill you,” tweeted Shannon Stirone, a science writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times and The Atlantic.
“Earth is Easy Mode,” tweeted Mika McKinnon, a Canadian field geophysicist and science communicator, in agreement. “If we can’t maintain habitability here, we’re utterly fucked trying to pull off longterm survival anywhere else.”
And yet billions of dollars are being allocated to this effort. What does it say that spinning a story about humans moving into a radioactive vacuum resonates more strongly with many people than our chances of reducing greenhouse gas emissions?
Right now, the stories that many of us are telling about ourselves are hurting us.
It is not universal—there are cultures Indigenous to North America, for example, that are still enacting a different story—but this story of inherently destructive humans is the most mainstream. We need different stories, ones that help us envision a present in which humans live in concert with our environment. One in which we eat, play, move, and live in ways that are not just lighter on the Earth but also nurturing to us as humans, with at least some of the trappings that many of us have come to expect of modern life.
In fact, I can recall only one mainstream vision of the present— never mind the future—that starts from the premise that humans can live in equilibrium with their environment.
Our first glimpse of the fictional African country of Wakanda—the backdrop of the Marvel movie Black Panther, which is loosely based on the Mutapa Empire of 15th-century Zimbabwe—begins with the nation’s natural landscapes. Wakanda is the most technologically advanced country in the world, but the filmmakers choose to ground our understanding of this civilization in sweeping images of its mistveiled mountains; its verdant valleys, where sheepherders drive their flocks in ways they have likely done for generations; and its border tribesmen, wrapped in the Wakandan version of Lesotho blankets, galloping by on horseback. The message seems to be that Wakanda is a country whose greatest technological achievement is maintaining its environment.
From there, the camera takes us on an aerial tour of the capital city, Birnin Zana. The transition from lush countryside to bustling city is so abrupt, so fantastical, that it’s easy to miss what the camera is really telling us: that Wakanda can maintain its ecosystems in part because there are no suburbs.
It’s a vision of a modern civilization that looks and feels drastically different from the United States, where an estimated 52% of Americans describe their neighborhoods as suburban. Suburbs emerged in part because cities were polluted, with bad air quality and substandard housing. But rather than address those issues, we simply relocated our population and created new issues, not least among them an increased climate impact. Studies have shown that suburb dwellers have greater greenhouse gas emissions than their urban counterparts.
Black Panther’s vision of Wakanda rejects the oft-repeated story that we humans and our environment are natural enemies. Instead, it tells a story in which humans have become technologically sophisticated while maintaining a flourishing relationship with their surrounding environment.
To paint this picture, the filmmakers borrowed heavily from existing African cultures—the Maasai people of eastern Africa, the Zulu people of South Africa, the Sotho people of southern Africa, and the Himba tribes of Namibia, among others—and asked themselves: If these groups had not been colonized and had opted to live within their ecological limits, what would the resultant society look like? And to them, it looked like an urban core surrounded by countryside before giving way to true wildlands.
In Birnin Zana the skyscrapers, as envisioned by director Ryan Coogler, are high, organic structures that rise out of surrounding forests so lush they have likely never been chopped down. And many of the buildings have plants growing off terraces and rooftops. On the ground, a trolley toddles through the city, kicking up some dust because the ground is not asphalt but rather pressed earth. It moves fast enough to beat walking but slowly enough that people instinctively move out of its way, mingling through a narrow (by North American standards) streetscape that contains no sidewalk—evoking the famed words of the sociologist Lewis Mumford, “Forget the damned motor car and build cities for lovers and friends.” Wakanda doesn’t have cars, and thus its streets have no need for separation.
All of this means that even without vibranium, the fictional metal that powers Wakanda’s technology, the country would be more sustainable than the United States. Cities that have more green space are naturally cooler, requiring less air-conditioning, lowering energy use and making it easier to reduce fossil fuel use and rely on renewable energy. They also reduce the likelihood of minor flooding because, unlike cement or concrete hardscaping, soil absorbs water instead of having it run off. Green spaces also provide a host of psychosocial benefits, from improving mood and behavior to speeding up healing and increasing students’ ability to learn.
Eliminating suburbs and their longer-distance counterpart, exurbs, could be one way of slashing the country’s ecological footprint. No suburbs mean fewer roads to fragment ecosystems, making it easier for animals and plants to survive, promoting biodiversity. Roads also use a lot of cement, which is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, as well as sand, which is often acquired by dredging rivers and other critical ecosystems. These impacts happen regardless of whether or not the vehicle in question runs on gas, electricity, or the hopes and dreams of future generations. It’s the whole structure of suburban life and car dependence that’s the problem.
At the same time, it’s not clear that suburban living, which is associated with increased social isolation, especially for those with longer commutes, is any good for humans. At least one study, of couples in Sweden, found that those where at least one partner has a commute forty-five minutes or longer are 40% more likely to divorce. Suburban residents are less likely to get physical exercise than their urban counterparts.
Beyond its fantastical elements—superpowers and impossibly high tech—Black Panther is telling a very different story of what it means to be human. And even when trouble comes, it comes in the form of an angry outsider named Killmonger, who is telling a flawed story based on conquest and scarcity—a very U.S. story—of what it means to be human. Wakandans elected to tell a story about themselves that differs from Killmonger’s—namely that it was possible to improve the quality of their lives without degrading the environment that they depend on—and then they did it.
And yet when we talk about climate change, there’s often a hidden resignation—like, of course we harmed the Earth. And when we talk about acting on it, there’s also an undercurrent: that it will require a level of sacrifice that is worth it, but just barely. What if, instead, the story we tell about climate change is that it is an opportunity? One for humans to repair our relationship with the Earth and re-envision our societies in ways that are not just in keeping with our ecosystems but also make our lives better?
If this doesn’t sound possible, ask yourself: Why not?
Maybe we should start telling ourselves a different story. One that is a bit more like Wakanda. One that maybe goes something like this…
Once upon a time, some humans told a story about their relationship to the Earth, and they used it to build a world that was beautiful but flawed. Over time, people realized that was the wrong story and they constructed a new one, one that said they could live in harmony with their environment. And they used the pieces of their old story to help construct their new one.
“Wakanda Doesn’t Have Suburbs” by Kendra Pierre-Louis is from the book ALL WE CAN SAVE: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crises edited by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine K. Wilkinson. Copyright © 2020 by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine K. Wilkinson. Published by One World, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Buy the book here.
Environmental crisis will 'dwarf' pandemic's damage, warns Prince Charles
The Prince of Wales will on Monday warn of the looming environmental crisis which will “dwarf” the damage wrought by coronavirus, as he says the world risks missing the opportunity to “reset”. The Prince, who will deliver the opening speech at Climate Week 2020, is to say the global pandemic is a “wake-up call we cannot ignore”. In a message recorded at his Scottish home of Birkhall and delivered online, he warns "swift and immediate action" must now take place, with the Covid-19 pandemic providing a “window of opportunity” to change the world for the better. He will join leaders and environmental campaigners for Climate Week, which takes place annually alongside the United Nations General Assembly. The Prince recently launched a “Great Reset” project at a virtual meeting of the World Economic Forum, calling on business and political leaders to ensure that global economies are rebuilt with the balance of nature at their centre. In a key note speech to be delivered virtually at 3pm on Monday, the Prince will say: "Without swift and immediate action, at an unprecedented pace and scale, we will miss the window of opportunity to 'reset' for … a more sustainable and inclusive future. "In other words, the global pandemic is a wake-up call we cannot ignore. "[The environmental] crisis has been with us for far too many years – decried, denigrated and denied. "It is now rapidly becoming a comprehensive catastrophe that will dwarf the impact of the coronavirus pandemic." The Prince, 71, who tested positive for coronavirus in March, has previously urged members of the Commonwealth to come together to tackle climate change. In June, he spoke at a virtual meeting of the 54 UN Commonwealth Ambassadors about The Great Reset, telling them: “In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, we have an unparalleled opportunity to reimagine our future. “This opportunity is an historic and precious one. As we begin to move from crisis to recovery, we have the chance to determine and shape the world we want, not just for ourselves but for the generations which follow.” The Prince’s concern for the environment has been echoed by other members of the Royal Family. Next month, the Duke of Cambridge will join 50 “leading thinkers and doers” to speak in a session at TEDx Countdown, to discuss climate change, regeneration and protecting nature. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, the Duke launched the Earthshot Prize, a multimillion-pound award to find positive solutions to the “world’s greatest problems by 2030”. Last month, a study led by the University of Leeds suggested the global lockdown will have a "negligible" impact on rising temperatures but a green recovery could avert dangerous climate change. While lockdowns caused a fall in transport use and greenhouse gases and pollutants caused by vehicles and industrial activities, it found, the impact is only short-lived. Analysis showed that even if some measures last until the end of 2021, global temperatures will only be 0.01C lower than expected by 2030 without further action.
Wildfires, Droughts, Pandemics. Is this Our Future? How to Build a Safer World.
Imagine Massachusetts on fire, literally the entire state engulfed in flames. That is how much land has already been ravaged—at least 5 million acres—in the wildfires of California, Washington and Oregon. Put another way, in just a few weeks these fires have burned as much land as was destroyed by a decade of using napalm and Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. With temperatures over 100°F, toxic air now blankets tens of millions of people, power outages have afflicted vast regions, and dozens have already died from the blazes. Air quality in West Coast cities has ranked among the world’s worst, with Portland’s air at points being almost three times more unhealthy than in notoriously polluted cities like New Delhi. The scenes of red skies out of America’s West have an unreal quality to them, as if they come from a different planet. In a sense they do—they are portents of the future.
There are many proximate reasons for these forest fires—fireworks, campfires, a stray spark—but there is one large cause that is blindingly clear: human actions that have led to climate change. To put it simply, the world is getting hotter, and that means that forests get drier. A yearslong drought, which ended in 2017, killed 163 million trees in California—and that deadwood proved to be the kindling for this year’s devastation. A scientific study led by Stanford, released in April, found that California’s five worst wildfires—whether measured by deaths, destruction or size—all occurred during 2017 and 2018. And we can be sure of one thing: it’s going to get worse. Temperatures continue to rise, drought conditions are worsening, and the combined effect of all these forces will multiply to create cascading crises in the years to come.
Cascades, in which small sparks cause great conflagrations, are happening all around us. Think of COVID-19, which began with a viral speck that was likely lodged in a bat somewhere in China—and is now a raging global pandemic. While viruses have been around forever, they mostly originate in animals and, when they jumped to humans, remained largely local. But over the past few decades, many viruses have gone global, causing widespread epidemics—SARS, MERS, Ebola, Zika and now the novel coronavirus. In a recent essay in the scientific journal Cell, the country’s top infectious—disease expert, Anthony Fauci, and one of his colleagues, David Morens, warn that we “have reached a tipping point that forecasts the inevitability of an acceleration of disease emergencies.” In other words, get ready for more pandemics. The fundamental reason behind this acceleration, they argue, is human action—the ever increasing scope and pace of development.
We have created a world in overdrive. People are living longer, producing and consuming more, inhabiting larger spaces, consuming more energy, and generating more waste and greenhouse gas emissions. The pace has accelerated dramatically in the past few decades. Just one example: a 2019 U.N. report, compiled by 145 experts from 50 countries, concluded that “nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history.” It noted that 75% of all land has been “severely altered” by human actions, as has 66% of the world’s marine environments. Ecosystems are collapsing, and biodiversity is disappearing. As many as 1 million plant and animal species (of 8 million total) are threatened with extinction, some within a few decades. All these strains and imbalances produce dangers—some that can be foreseen, and others that cannot.
The pandemic, for its part, can be thought of as nature’s revenge. The way we live now is practically an invitation for animal viruses to infect humans. Why do diseases seem to be jumping from animals to humans at a faster pace in recent decades? As cities expand, they bring humans closer and closer to the habitat of wild animals, making it more likely that virus in a bat could be transmitted to a pig or a pangolin and then to humans. Developing countries are modernizing so quickly that they effectively inhabit several different centuries at the same time. In Wuhan and other such cities, China has built an advanced, technologically sophisticated-economy—but in the shadows of the skyscrapers are wildlife markets full of exotic animals, a perfect cauldron for animal-to-human viral transfer. And the people who live in these places are more mobile than ever before, quickly spreading information, goods, services—and disease.
Our destruction of natural habitats may also be to blame. Some scientists believe that as humans extend civilization into nature—building roads, clearing land, constructing factories, excavating mines—we are increasing the odds that animals will pass diseases to us. COVID-19 appears to have originated in bats, which are hosts to many other viruses, including rabies and Ebola. Bats used to live farther from humans. But as we encroached on their habitats, their diseases increasingly became our diseases. “We are doing things every day that make pandemics more likely,” said Peter Daszak, an eminent disease ecologist. “We need to understand, this is not just nature. It is what we are doing to nature.”
As economic development moves faster and reaches more people, we are taking ever greater risks, often without even realizing it. Think about meat consumption. As people get richer, they eat more meat. When this happens globally, the effect is staggering: about 80 billion animals are slaughtered for meat every year around the world. (And that doesn’t even count fish.) But supplying this enormous demand comes at great cost to the environment and our health. Animal products provide only 18% of calories worldwide yet take up 80% of the earth’s farmland. Meanwhile, meat is now produced on a vast scale with animals packed together in gruesome conditions. Most livestock—an estimated 99% in America, 74% around the world—comes from factory farms. (Organically farmed, grass-fed meat is a luxury product.) These massive operations serve as petri dishes for powerful viruses. “Selection for specific genes in farmed animals (for desirable traits like large chicken breasts) has made these animals almost genetically identical,” Vox journalist Sigal Samuel explains. “That means that a virus can easily spread from animal to animal without encountering any genetic variants that might stop it in its tracks. As it rips through a flock or herd, the virus can grow even more virulent.” The lack of genetic diversity removes the “immunological firebreaks.”
Americans should know better. The country has experienced several ecological disasters, most notably the 1930s Dust Bowl. The event is seared in the American imagination. The bitter tale of desperate Dust Bowl migrants inspired John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath—describing the plight of people who could be called America’s first climate refugees. And it is a story of human actions causing a natural reaction.
The Great Plains are the semiarid places east of the Rocky Mountains and west of the Mississippi River. The wind blows fast over these lands, sometimes scarily so. Over centuries, probably millennia, nature’s solution was to grow grass that held the loose topsoil in place. But by the late 19th century, as the pioneers headed west, lured by promises of fertile farmland, they tilled the prairies, turning the grassy plains into wheat fields. The farmers felled trees that served as windbreaks, and turned the soil over and over, until there was no grass and the topsoil had been reduced to a thin, loose layer just covering the hard land beneath.
Then came bad weather. Starting in 1930, the region was hit by four waves of drought. With the drought came winds—ferocious gales that blew off the entire layer of topsoil with a force that few humans had seen before and kicked up dust storms that blackened the sky. By 1934, the topsoil covering 100 million acres of land had blown away. The heat intensified the suffering—1934 was the nation’s hottest year on record until 1998. Thousands died and millions fled. The farmers left behind were plunged into a decade of poverty.
We are tempting fate similarly every day. We are now watching the effects of climate change on almost every part of the natural environment. It is bringing a warmer climate to more of the world, thus creating more hospitable conditions for disease. It is also turning more land into desert—23 hectares every minute, by the U.N.’s estimate. In 2010, Luc Gnacadja, who headed the organization’s effort to combat desertification, called it “the greatest environmental challenge of our time,” warning that “the top 20 centimeters of soil is all that stands between us and extinction.” Thirty-eight percent of the earth’s surface is at risk of desertification. Some of it is caused less by global climate change than by something more easily preventable: the overextraction of water from the ground. One of the world’s most crucial water sources is the Ogallala Aquifer, which sprawls through the Great Plains and supplies about a third of the groundwater used to irrigate American farms. This seemingly bottomless well is in fact being emptied by agribusiness so fast that it is on track to shrivel by 70% in less than 50 years. If the aquifer ran dry, it would take 6,000 years for rainfall to refill it.
You may say that this is not new. Human beings have been altering natural processes ever since they learned how to make fire. The changes picked up speed with the invention of the wheel, the plow and, most dramatically, the steam engine. But they intensified, particularly in the 20th century and in the past few decades. The number of people on the planet has risen fivefold since 1900, while the average life span has doubled. The increase in life span goes “beyond the scope of what had ever been shaped by natural selection,” explained Joshua Lederberg, the biologist who won the Nobel Prize at age 33 for his work on bacterial genetics. In a brilliant, haunting speech in 1989 at a virology conference in Washington, D.C., Lederberg argued that we have changed our biological trajectory so much that “contemporary man is a man-made species.”
Lederberg called human beings’ continued economic and scientific advancement “the greatest threat to every other plant and animal species, as we crowd them out in our own quest for lebensraum.” “A few vermin aside,” he added, “Homo sapiens has undisputed dominion.” But he pointed out that we do have one real competitor—the virus—and in the end, it could win. “Many people find it difficult to accommodate to the reality that nature is far from benign; at least it has no special sentiment for the welfare of the human vs. other species.” Lederberg reminded the audience of the fate that befell rabbits in Australia in the 1950s, when the myxoma virus was unleashed upon them as a population—control measure. Eventually, rabbits achieved herd immunity, but only after the virus had killed over 99% of those infected in the first outbreaks. He concluded his speech with a grim image: “I would … question whether human society could survive left on the beach with only a few percent of survivors. Could they function at any level of culture higher than that of the rabbits? And if reduced to that, would we compete very well with kangaroos?
This is a gloomy compendium of threats. And given the unstable nature of our international system, it may seem that our world is terribly fragile. It is not. Another way to read human history is to recognize just how tough we are. We have gone through extraordinary change at breathtaking pace. We have seen ice ages and plagues, world wars and revolutions, and yet we have survived and flourished. In his writings, Joshua Lederberg acknowledged that nature usually seeks an equilibrium that favors mutual survival of the virus and the host—after all, if the human dies, so does the parasite.
Human beings and our societies are amazingly innovative and resourceful. This planet is awe-inspiringly resilient. But we have to recognize the ever greater risks we are taking and act to mitigate them. Modern human development has occurred on a scale and at a speed with no precedent. The global system that we are living in is open and dynamic, which means it has few buffers. That produces great benefits but also vulnerabilities. We have to adjust to the reality of ever increasing instability—now.
We are not doomed. The point of sounding the alarm is to call people to action. The question is, what kind of action? There are those, on the right and the left, who want to stop other countries from growing economically and shut down our open world. But should we tell the poorest billion in the world that they cannot escape poverty? Should we close ourselves off from the outside world and seek stability in national fortresses? Should we try to slow down technology, or the global movement of goods and services? Even if we wanted to do any of this, we would not be able to arrest these powerful forces. We could not persuade billions of people to stop trying to raise their standards of living. We could not prevent human beings from connecting with one another. We could not stop technological innovation. What we can do is be far more conscious of the risks we face, prepare for the dangers and equip our societies to be resilient. They should be able not only to withstand shocks and backlashes, but also learn from them. Nassim Nicholas Taleb suggests that we create systems that are “anti-fragile,” which are even better than resilient ones. They actually gain strength through chaos and crises.
We know what to do. After the Dust Bowl, scientists quickly understood what had happened. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Administration produced a short movie to explain it to the country, The Plow That Broke the Plains. Government agencies taught farmers how to prevent soil erosion. The Administration provided massive aid to farmers, established the Soil Conservation Service and placed 140 million acres of federal grasslands under protection. In the past three-quarters of a century, there has been no second Dust Bowl, despite extreme weather.
“Outbreaks are inevitable, but pandemics are optional,” says Larry Brilliant, the American physician who helped eradicate smallpox 45 years ago. What he means is that we may not be able to change the natural occurrences that produce disease in the first place, but through preparation, early action and intelligent responses, we can quickly flatten its trajectory. In fact, the eradication of smallpox is a story that is only partly about science and mostly about extraordinary cooperation between rival superpowers and impressive execution across the globe.
Similarly, climate change is happening, and we cannot stop it completely. But we can mitigate the scale of change and avert its most harmful effects through aggressive and intelligent policies. It will not be cheap. To address it seriously we would need to start by enacting a carbon tax, which would send the market the right price signal and raise the revenue needed to fund new technologies and simultaneously adapt to the already altered planet. As for economic development, there are hundreds of ways we could approach the process differently, retaining traditional ingredients like growth, openness and innovation while putting new emphasis on others like security, resilience and anti-fragility. We can make different trade-offs, forgo some efficiencies and dynamism in some areas, and spend more money to make our societies prepared. The costs of prevention and preparation are minuscule compared with the economic losses caused by an ineffective response to a crisis. More fundamentally, building in resilience creates stability of the most important kind, emotional stability. Human beings will not embrace openness and change for long if they constantly fear that they will be wiped out in the next calamity.
And what about preventing the next pandemic? Again, we need to balance dynamism with safety. Much attention has focused on wet markets where live animals are slaughtered and sold, but these cannot simply be shut down. In many countries, especially in Africa and Asia, they provide fresh food for people who don’t own refrigerators. (In China, they account for 73% of all fresh vegetables and meat sold.) These markets should be better regulated, but they pose limited risks when they do not sell wild animals like bats, civets and pangolins. It is that exotic trade that must be outlawed. Similarly, getting the world to stop eating meat may be impossible, but promoting healthier diets—with less meat—would be good for humans and the planet. And factory farming can be re-engineered to be much safer, and far less cruel to animals. Most urgently, countries need strong public-health systems, and those systems need to communicate, learn from and cooperate with one another. You cannot defeat a global disease with local responses.
So too California can’t stop climate change or wildfires alone. But, like America after the Dust Bowl, it can learn from its policy mistakes, using controlled burns to clear out underbrush and practicing sustainable construction. Unfortunately, earlier this month it took a step in the wrong direction when lawmakers killed a reform bill that would have allowed denser housing development. Without new action, single-family homes will keep sprawling outward into the forest, expanding the human footprint and making future destructive fires inevitable. Rather than subsidizing settlements on the coastline and in forests and deserts, governments should encourage housing in safe and more sustainable areas. We have to recognize that the way we are living, eating and consuming energy are all having an impact on the planet—and increasingly it is reacting.
Human beings have been developing their societies at an extraordinary pace, expanding in every realm at unprecedented speed. It is as if we have built the fastest race car ever imagined and are driving it through unknown, unmarked terrain. But we never bothered to equip the car with airbags. We didn’t get insurance. We have not even put on our seat belts. The engine runs hot. Parts overheat and sometimes even catch fire. There have been some crashes, each one a bit worse than the last. So we douse the vehicle, tune up the suspension, repair the bodywork and resolve to do better. But we race on, and soon we are going faster and faster, into newer and rougher terrain. It’s getting very risky out there. It’s time to install those airbags and buy some insurance. And above all, it’s time to buckle up.
This essay is adapted from TEN LESSONS FOR A POST-PANDEMIC WORLD. Copyright (c) 2020 by Fareed Zakaria. Published by W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
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