By Daniel Perell
Humanity today is facing numerous deep-seated and intersecting crises. From overt and covert prejudice to a breakdown in trust, from extremes of wealth and poverty to a disregard for planetary boundaries, the manifold challenges before us may better be conceived of as various expressions of a more fundamental malady.
In addition to being a concern in its own right, COVID-19 has served as an accelerant for many persistent vulnerabilities at every level of society, vulnerabilities that have often remained hidden behind economic indicators such as GDP that overlook central questions of equity, sustainability, and resilience. It has highlighted the shortcomings of current responses in bringing about enduring change, and it has unveiled the limitations of dominant assumptions and attitudes about the nature of human existence—the way we approach care, the state of our physical environment, and the nature of our relationships with our planet and each other. What is becoming clearer amidst the unfolding uncertainties is that humanity has been focused on tending to the symptoms of an ailing order without sufficiently addressing the root causes.
Notions of progress grounded in material gain and profit, and a reluctance to explore a moral or, more explicitly, spiritual dimension of existence have become commonplace.
This approach is the result of centuries of conditioning, a product of the unquestioned pursuit of material goods. For the majority of human history, this accumulation was a necessity for survival and, as a result, the tendency towards in-group and out-group competitive thinking became dominant. Yet doing so has produced an outlook too materialistic to meet our full spectrum of needs. In a world where, for the first time, there is sufficient material goods for all and the capacity to equitably distribute them, perpetuating an accumulation mentality has proven counterproductive, leading to deepening inequalities and greater crisis.
Only recently is the limit of this approach becoming clear. Like never before, crises are global, impacts are linked, systems are interconnected, and our destiny is shared. Keeping competition as the driving force behind progress is limited in terms of what it can achieve. As interdependence increases, we are confronted with a question for which we do not have a clear answer: how are we to behave—personally, as communities, and as institutions—in an interconnected world that is so vastly different to anything we have experienced before?
The deeper crisis, beyond COVID-19, climate change, and others, lies in the attitudes and assumptions which determine our norms and standards. Until we are able to shift our thinking beyond accumulation as development, our social and institutional systems will remain inadequate to respond effectively to global challenges.
The suddenness with which COVID-19 struck humanity has cast a light on longstanding vulnerabilities. What is unique to this moment is that it has the potential to expand our consciousness, to help us rethink our priorities, to gain an appreciation of humanity’s shared identity, and, ultimately, to reorder our societies based on that understanding. Principles such as unity, solidarity, concern for collective as well as individual wellbeing, and reliance upon good science and accurate information are not the ancillary or “soft” dimensions of humanity’s response to this or any crisis. They represent, in fact, our greatest tools for they have the potential to rise above even the most broken of systems and set humanity on a course for true resilience—both in times of hardship and prosperity.
COVID-19 will be followed by more profound crises if we do not learn the lessons we are being taught about harmful social and cultural legacies—racial prejudice, gender inequality, and materialism to name a few. The true disease is not COVID-19. Nor is it the other symptoms of a struggling order. The disease is an insistence on an approach that does not speak to the deeper needs of humanity at this moment in history. It is the retention and perpetuation of outworn habits, attitudes, and institutions. Let us engage in collective exploration of the root causes of our current problems as vigorously as we seek a vaccine. For while the latter can stave off the pandemic, the former can help us develop patterns of thought and action that will result in just systems and collective flourishing, even in the face of future calamities.