COVID-19: Let’s make sure we don’t learn the wrong lesson

This is a wake-up call. The new global ecology we have created through our ravaging of Earth’s resources holds great risks for humanity.

This blog is republished from the COVID-19 Sustainability Compass

We are in the midst of one of the biggest global wake-up calls in history, threatening both individual lives and entire economic and social systems. Let’s make sure we don’t learn the wrong lesson. It’s not just a public health emergency. It’s something bigger. It’s nature telling us that the new global ecology that we have created through our ravaging of Earth’s resources holds great risks for humanity.

It’s telling us that local impacts of our actions are transmitted through the global ocean, the global atmosphere and though global cultural, economic, trade and travel networks to become global impacts. It’s telling us that national solutions alone are quite inadequate, that viruses and climate do not carry passports, that we must resolve the underlying causes of our vulnerability through global collaboration, revitalized global institutions and by investment in global public goods. And it’s telling us just how big are the externalities that markets cannot resolve.

Health and environment are intimately linked, so don’t separate them in policy

The health of the human species, and all other species on Earth, is conditioned by the planetary environment we all share. The virus that leapt to humans in Wuhan and now holds the world in lockdown is a response to humanity’s assault on the planetary system. That assault is temporarily on hold whilst global lockdown lasts, but still with the potential to continue ramping up at formidable speed. We must not let that happen.

Failing to take care of the planet means not taking care of ourselves. Our continuing penetration into wild spaces has confronted us with diseases that are always on the lookout to jump the species barrier from other hosts. Our food, our climate, our resources, our health, our economy are all part of the complex global system in which each part influences all the others. It would be disastrous, for example, to put on hold our attempts to control global climate change whilst we deal with COVID-19.

But it’s also telling us of the human capacity to respond.

Rarely, if ever, have so many people been alerted so quickly to a large-scale shock. Anxious and uncomfortable as they are, people have responded by making huge personal sacrifices in accepting unprecedented measures as they recognise an existential threat to their community’s collective survival. Salutary lessons for human societies have often precipitated socio-economic and political changes faster and further than normal processes are able to achieve. We must use those lessons and the enlivened public response to reform the way we live on the planet.

Heightened public awareness can be a powerful lever for instituting change. Creating awareness of the broader environmental dimensions of COVID-19 is essential. We must ensure that attention is not diverted away from climate, from biosphere degradation and the SDGs. It must not get back to business as usual. We should think twice before restarting the hydrocarbon-based economy, and instead take the chance to think greener. And we should note that many of the countries most badly affected are those where free-market policies have eroded state capacities and induced a habit of governmental inaction in favour of market fundamentalism.

And what of the response of science? 

The immediate scientific response to the pandemic is predominantly biomedical. As we move out of the acute phase, that biomedical understanding needs to be embedded in broader concerns about the global ecology, including its socio-political and cultural dimensions. Global systems science is a key and promoting systems-thinking amongst policy makers and politicians is essential. Just as the tools of the digital revolution have been effective in monitoring and managing the pandemic, so must they be in the broader ecological context, but with a keen eye on their consequences for civil liberties.

It should also be the moment for the Open Science Movement to come of age. Open data, open access to scientific results and a new and vigorous openness to society could be powerful assets in enabling transformative change. These are the priorities that will shape the new normal for international science and that will define the work of the International Science Council in advancing science as a global public good. If we can continue to ride the wave of public confidence in science through this pandemic, can we build on that to mobilise even greater support for climate action?


Corona Sustainability Compass – manage today, master tomorrow. The Corona Sustainability Compass is a new initiative lead by UBS (Umweltbundesamt) in partnership with the ISC, Future Earth and Stiftung 2° (Foundation 2°). For more information click here 


Geoffrey Boulton

Regius Professor of Geology Emeritus, University of Edinburgh; Research in geology/glaciology of environmental change; Governing Board member of the International Science Council; formerly member of the UK Prime Minister’s Council for Science and Technology; formerly Chair of Royal Society Science Policy Centre; formerly President of the Commission on Data for Science and Technology (CODATA)

Heide Hackmann

Dr. Heide Hackmann is the CEO of the International Science Council, having previously been the Executive Director of the International Council for Science (ICSU) since March 2015. Before joining ICSU, Heide served eight years as Executive Director of the International Social Science Council (ISSC).


Photo by Thijs Stoop on Unsplash

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