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Blog: The coronavirus as a planetary boundary effect

Date:06 May 2020
Dr. Kees van Veen
Dr. Kees van Veen

An interview with Sustainable Society's Scientific Director dr. Kees van Veen on how the coronavirus affects his area of expertise.

What is your area of expertise?

I would label myself as an economic sociologist with a strong interest in organizations and management questions. Over the last few years, I have mainly focused on corporate governance, top management teams and international networks. In my new job as Scientific Director of Sustainable Society, I increasingly focus on societal challenges and sustainable development in general.

How does the coronavirus, with all its consequences, affect this area?

The coronavirus is first and for all a serious personal health issue with grave and widespread human suffering. But the consequences of this new virus branch out in multiple domains of life and affects us all. Firstly, the acute health and epidemiological issues were on top of the news agenda. Especially the lack of PPE and ventilators in the ICs received a lot attention when the virus spread from China to the richer countries in the EU and the US. You can see that the issue changes by the day, and that the attention in the media therewith continuously changes too. You see the social and economic consequences starting to move up in the news media. People have had time to think about what the consequences could be over time. Epidemiological aspects are more and more connected to other side effects of the government measures taken to protect their citizens. More and more questions, but hardly any answers.

What are the short term challenges? What are the questions people face related to your area of expertise?

Short term challenges are enormous of course. One of the biggest economic questions is that no one has a clue who is hit how hard, which companies will survive, how much help is needed and can it realistically be expected that governments can deliver this ? Companies and citizens with a lot of cash have time to wait and see what happens. But as soon as these are dependent on ‘expected transactions’ in the near and further future, big question marks appear. You see these problems already emerging quickly in sectors with big companies like airplane manufacturers Boeing and Airbus. These are in deep trouble. Air traffic is decimated without a clear prospect for short term improvements, so future orders are cancelled massively. Who wants to buy an airplane when most of them are grounded and no one knows when and under which conditions air traffic will start again? But the millions of small firms face similar problems too due to their strong reliance on a continuous cash flow. The economic suffering is enormous.

It is difficult to look into the future, but what do you think will be the consequences in the long run from the perspective of your field?

The corona virus confronts us rather unexpectedly with a global problem that affects humanity as a whole. Without a quick, effective and really cheap vaccine, the virus will have an effect on our way of life for a long time. For instance, global tourism will be an enormous challenge and the ongoing epidemiological risks related to it will be unacceptable the next few years.

But I think the virus uncovers a few problems that run much deeper. The pandemic is also another expression of the fact that humanity pushes the planetary boundaries. The growing world population increases the chances that someone somewhere will be affected with a new and dangerous virus. These chances increase due to the fact that humanity exposes itself more and more to different virus ‘habitats’ by penetrating the biosphere deeper and deeper. Combined with our very efficient and global transportation networks between densely populated urban areas, viruses can spread very quickly and new accidents are waiting to happen.

From a larger distance, the pandemic shares a number of characteristics with a few other planetary boundaries that humanity is pushing the last few decades. The most pressing ones are climate change, loss of biodiversity and the nitrogen crisis. In a densely populated and globalized world, these are the first and biggest ‘collective good’ problems humanity as a whole has ever seen. Each of them can only be solved by acting together, while countries, companies and individuals have a lot of incentives to leave the problems to the others. These problems might feel less acute now, but they will not go away by themselves.

We humans know that the world is round for some time, but we have treated it as being an endless resource anyway. Humanity is now confronted massively with the idea that this seemingly endless round world, is actually a shared space with limited resources and a few boundaries. And this space is pretty small, if we look at the complicated networks of mutual dependencies.

On top of that, each of these problems is unevenly distributed in terms of its causes and consequences. It took a few developed countries only a few decades to bring us all close to a few planetary boundaries. It is not the developing world that created climate change to start with, it was the industrialized world. On top of that, the poorer countries are the ones that suffer the negative consequences the most. To bring it back to the coronavirus, discussions in the news in rich countries about shortages of PPE and ventilators are valid. However, I am pretty sure that this kind of equipment is completely out of reach for people in the slums of Mumbai, Jakarta, Lagos, or Rio de Janeiro. And even within the richest countries this inequality is visible. In the United States, especially the poor African American communities have a higher infection rate, and mourn a relatively high number of covid-19 victims, compared to other societal groups.

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