Jaume Freire | ENT Foundation
Covid-19 has provoked a disruption in economic and social systems at a global level. Scientists are already discussing the causes of this global pandemic. As it is a zoonotic disease, the most likely cause seems to be human consumption of wild animals. This is an obvious direct cause. However, it is not new that some groups of humans eat these kinds of animals. Somebody eating an animal in China is really the reason that I am confined at home since last month? Or that the economic system is wobbling? Is there something else? Some environmental scientists defend that ‘good environmental conditions’, or ‘good ecosystems health’ reduce the risk of this kind of event. These ‘good conditions’ is a complex concept, and current ‘bad conditions’ (whatever this means) come from many individual and collective actions taken throughout many decades. The pandemic could be seen then as illustrative of many environmental undesirable and unexpected consequences from (most of them) apparently inoffensive actions.
Not only this, we can go beyond and observe how actions or policies with a specific aim can provide the opposite rather than the expected result. For instance, we know that, counterintuitively, resources efficiency and conservation may not reduce the use of them. Their use can even be increased (!!). This extreme case is called Jevons’ Paradox. This effect is not usually observed by policy-makers, as it requires a different perspective from approaches coming from social, psychological and environmental sciences.
Focusing on environmental policies, how many of them are not providing the desirable results? Promoting ‘green economies’, instead of deeply rethinking the way we consume, produce and distribute resources, will it produce a healthier environment with happier and healthier people in the mid/long term? Will this strategy really reduce the use of resources and solve the climate emergency? If so, are we trying to articulate these new socio-economic structures considering the complexity I was talking about? Environmental and social sciences show us that all is interconnected. This way of thinking has, however, not permeated in mainstream policy decision circles, which are too rooted in old intellectual paradigms and other short-term interests.
For instance, decarbonizing the transport system—aka changing combustion engines to electric ones in current policy terms—seems a good policy to tackle climate change, but some studies show carbon emissions may not be reduced much considering their life-cycle, not to mention the higher pressure on other natural resources needed to produce the new engines, plus changes in social and ecological conflicts from modifying global extraction, production, distribution and consumption patterns, plus changes in lifestyles and culture delivering new relations with the environment, etc.
Despite the increasing efforts in implementing resource and environmental policies, according to the Circularity Gap Report 2020, in five decades, the global economy has gone from using 26.7 billion tons/year of materials, in 1970, to 100 billion tons/year in 2019 (50.8 Gt are minerals, 10.1 Gt are ores, 15.1 Gt are fossil fuels, and 24.6 Gt are biomass). This means they have increased by a factor of 3.74. According to the International Resource Panel, the total amount of resources used by 2050 will be between 170 and 184 billion tons. This suggests environmental policies related to resources are not ambitious enough, or are not correct, or both.
It is not possible to fully understand complex phenomena without using different multidisciplinary (many disciplines), that give a specific weight to interdisciplinary (cross fields) approaches in policy decision processes. This may lead to take other kinds of policies, or at least, have a better understanding of the reality. Each discipline has a part of the puzzle but not the whole picture. Sometimes is not necessary to understand the whole picture, but is indispensable to include as much perspectives as possible if you want a policy to obtain the expected results.