What will the world look like after COVID-19?


Progress Namibia - What will the world look like after COVID-19?
20 April 2020

We are all living in deep uncertainty right now. Lock-down. Discussions are taking place within teams tasked to decide each country's strategy to flatten the curve without crippling the economy. We know that this virus is essentially a feedback mechanism from our current modus operandi (i.e. the global economy). I have been facing real fear lately seeing some of the stimulus packages out there supposedly there to make sure quality of life remains stable. It seems we are using exactly the same tactic that caused us to get into this mess in the first place. This situation humanity is in right now needs to be seen as a lesson, and an opportunity to change. At citizen and community level, already there are many stories propping up that show just how people can come together and support each other.

Last week I shared a report written by Multiverse that looked at prototype scenarios that humanity could find itself under in the not-so-distant future. In a moment of crisis, there is an opportunity to shift the system. The reality that emerges in the next few weeks will seal our fate for years to come. That report outlines a framework to understand the overall current state and scenarios that may emerge next.

Gunderson and Holling's Panarchy described that the evolution of complex systems goes through the following cycles:

Exploitation, so rapid expansion and growth.
Conservation; slow accumulation and stability as the system reaches carrying-capacity.
Release; rapid entry of competition or changed conditions (like covid-19, either way we were going to face release in some way - this is the first way it has presented itself)
Reorganization; rapid process of adaptation, selection, and reconfiguration of the system.

Our socio-economic and political systems were overdue for a release and reorganization. It is only through maintaining inequalities and symptomatically dealing with wicked problems that we have remained in the conservation state until now. I will lay out the four scenarios as shared by this report. It is important to remember that there is a flexible spectrum here, and there are a range of possibilities within each scenario - these may play out in parallel, or in connected versions of each other.

It is reasonable to expect both positive and negative outcomes - reorganization means something new will emerge. The purpose of the scenarios is not to predict the future, but rather to use complex prototypes to better understand how to manage the situation today and in the near-future. Though the four scenarios/modules are in their own category, it is likely that they combine with each other to construct new possibilities.

One important thing to note is that as we reorganize and look at the options on the table, we need to be careful of stakeholder agendas. There are plenty of people who benefit from broken systems, including the world we are now leaving behind. We always need to examine motive and intention carefully.

And now, here are the four scenarios:

1. CONTINUATION: BUSINESS AS USUAL/GROWTH

Yes, this seems to be somewhat the direction in which we are going. We see policies that will continue to benefit the wealthy. WEF/Davos style solutions are taken to deal with our health-care challenges. There are temporary relief measures with deadlines. Decreased regulation and oversight of corporations. Increased donations to political campaigns. Self-serving agendas and policies are hidden in emergency bills. There are some resiliency measures but with an eye on "economy-first" solutions. In countries facing elections, these are either be delayed or there are high voter suppression efforts. Businesses open and double-down on bottom lines. There is a hyper overdrive of sales and marketing - black friday-style sales. There are massive bailouts for corporations with dying industries clinging to life. There is an increase in "capsule" purchasing (e.g. in wardrobes, pandemic kits). Behavioural data analyses is sold in masses. There are prolonged recessions and more support for unions. There is commoditized panic. More unethical corporate behaviour without changes in policy. Increase in paranoia - "others" versus "unified" mentality. There is a brief moment of a renewed appreciation of 'normal'. There are denial versus reality-check camps. We see more 'gurus', lifestyle coaches, financial coaches as people try and find meaning and order in their lives. There is an increased desire to volunteer. But there is also growing disillusionment, more ostracized fringe groups form. The environment takes a back seat in the name of rapid growth. There is escalated resource extraction and waste. There is reduction in CO2 and a false calming of climate change without dealing with ecosystem health and other problems (like, e.g. plastic polllution). Climate change brews, impending next disasters lining up, and a weakened response to the next disaster. There is more and more privatisation in the health sector. There is a boom in remote-work, communications tech. Effective measures in general are dismissed as overreactions. Some mistrust in science remains. There are increases in dystopic films and music with nature themes, art therapy, more desire for comedy and anything "light". Indie artists rise. Death of the "American Dream" myth. Gender plays itself out with feminism taking a step back (women staying at home, child-care without the care economy to back it). Mass protests, state of anger and a rising desire for change among the populace. There is growing demand for alternative lifestyles.

2. DISCIPLINE: ORDER AND CONTROL

Precarious/sovereign democracies start to form, leaning authoritarian. There is a single, impoverished class, with some elites. Stricter state of emergency laws, with wartime policies. Constant border controls with no immigration. There are political shifts with migration away from dense zones. Redrawing of national borders for already volatile states. Crackdown on non-complicit persons. We see military coups, with declarations of war. The conscription of frontline relief and civic duties. Strict consequences and fines for disobedience. There are refugee, marginalized population concentration camps. There is expanded power and role of law enforcement. We undergo depressions: bartering, informal, dark web, and vice economies. Only nationalized essential services. No more brands, state-owned companies only. There are home-spun businesses operating quietly. There is a community tax, seizure of offshore assets. There is a rise of do-it-yourself and fix-it-yourself economy. Suspension of all patents, supervision of all supply chains. Home delivery for necessities: restrained consumption. There is aftershock management with staggered relief funds. Modern takes on pre-industrial work, roles and services. No individual ownership, possessions seized as needed. Government and quasi-government are the only white-collar jobs. There are diminishing choices and freedoms, a state of paranoia. Surveillance state under guise of public health. The end of privacy: freedom traded for safety and security. Me and mine-first values. Power grab by religious extremists. There is a revived patriotism against the ‘invisible enemy’. General state of distrust, high mistrust of ‘foreigners’. Loss of trust, sense of self, elder wisdom, etc. Tyranny of self-sufficiency; rebuilding survival skills. There is a significant change in views of life and death. Wealth equals selfishness, luxury equals greed. Controlled economic shutdowns for environmental benefits. There is a staggered energy supply (leading to staggered work hours). No interference or connection to unsanctioned nature/animals. There is less light, noise and air pollution. Crumbling infrastructure, lots of retro-fitting and repurposing. Toxic disinfectants are released with spray-downs. There is systematic animal culling for potentially infectious animals. Always-on emergency management precautions/teams. There is high anticipation for environmental disasters, little preparedness. Sustainable strategies e.g. repair, repurposing, reusing. Improvements to wildlife populations. Tension: resurgence in coal versus off-grid options. Live off land: more organic, grown, harvested materials. Touchless and augmented reality tech. Unregulated blockchain communities: global medical connectivity. Vaccines come with state-owned biometric trackers. Always on monitoring, tracking, and control AI and algorithms. “Clean Eating”: there is a push for lab=grown foods, high-tech home gardens. Security, protection, biometric surveillance, policing tech. Wartime-style medical tech innovation is prioritised. Proof of isolation is required to receive care, non-isolators are denied. There are high status scientists that are known names. Heavy investments in research and development. There are mandatory health checks and swabs. Dark web flourishes with underground medical supplies, services. High strain on healthcare systems, emphasis on saving the young. There is more homemade entertainment, everyday dystopias, role-playing. State-owned celebrities hired to distract the public. There is a nationalized streaming service. There is increase in government propaganda. More animated shows and films (distanced work). Increased interest in role playing games. There are at-home projection mapped immersive environments. New metaphors: invisible enemies, 'we're the virus'. ‘Practical arts': cooking, making, building, growing. Depression propaganda. Waste/trash art rises.. We see more hypo-chondriac connections and cleaning rituals.There is delayed family planning and/or choosing not to have children. There are quarantine driven disorders, and a mental health epidemic. Humanitarian aid through labour only. Pragmatic marriages (more resources, less love). There is high social shaming, with neighbours reporting on each other. Repressed youth/generation. There are mandated curfews, registered small gatherings. Permission-based, strategic global travel; restrained local travel. Prescribed virtual connection. Less pollution related deaths. Prolonged homeschooling.

3. COLLAPSE: SYSTEMIC BREAKDOWN

There is a full breakdown of governments who lose all power. There is anarchy, laws are discarded, reinvented. There are self-proclaimed leaders/strongmen; there is a return of feudal lords. There are sealed compounds, underground, island communities. Breakdown triggers civil wars, creates a vicious circle. There are no more global connections, focus on local only. Non-existent global organizations who wither away. There are some functioning communes with utopic ideals. Every style of leadership and rule of law emerges in pockets. Tribal mentality abound. End of democracy. Money is meaningless. The rich hideout in undisclosed bunkers. Outsiders and "others" are feared. There is extreme nostalgia and longing for our lost world. High spirituality versus dangerous cults emerge. Seeds, cigarettes, and batteries are new currencies. No more corporations. Agriculture and sanitation become important. Spoils to the survivors. Dispersion of belongings. There are master and apprentice relationships. There are hardened life perspectives; meaning in surviving. End of days rhetoric. Fear rules all. Destructive versus benevolent misogyny. Virus as a modern 'flood'. Rapture versus cleansing versus salvation. Hope of new utopia, chance to rebuild. End of social trust. Return to indigenous knowledge. Distrust of dirt; cleanliness as an act of worship. Burials as offerings back to the Earth. Distortion of truth: trying to understand what really happened. Return of paganism. Unexpected natural disasters further decimates society. Nature is seen as punishment. Nature flourishes, the Earth begins to recover. World without oil emerges. Most life is off-grid. Sustainable living is the only kind of living. Solar and wind technology is precious. Heightened understanding of natural cycles. There is a lot of migration amongst survivors. Fertile land is coveted and protected. Cities abandoned, with as much converted for food as possible. Equally or more harmful mutations: Covid-20-21-22. Internet goes down. Doctors, nurses become 'prized possessions' of the strong. Pseudoscience and alternative medicine. Relentless environmental disasters devastate cities. Other diseases flourish as Covids clear the way. Humanity escapes from nature in underground compounds. Artificial everything: filtered air, sunlight. Survival of the fittest is the ruling natural law. Healthcare breakdown makes all diseases untreatable. Battery run tech rebounds. Great art hoarded or stolen. Practical applications: making and using. Art becomes a connection to the lost world. Music and oral stories survive. New religions mix with old (wrathful God versus Earth mother). Books are prized possessions. Singers are coveted. Historical fiction flourishes. Natural materials used more (e.g. clay). Return of old world films and filmmaking processes. Mass death decimates all fabric of society. End of equal rights, with movement towards hyper-hierarchy. Increase in violence and devastation. Return to hunting and gathering. People move in small packs, settle in protected communities. Death sentencing for the sick. End of international travel. Small communities on islands, underground. Intentional social relationships, with strategic outside disconnect. Libraries are raided. The sick and mentally-ill are abandoned. There is stock-piling of weapons.

4. TRANSFORMATION: WE NOT ME

We see a rise in democratic socialism. Policies for lower and middle-class (debt forgiveness). People, planet before political parties (so we have more issue-based voting). Enshrined essential services (e.g. farming, frontline workers). Essentials are socialized public services (e.g. meals). Acting local, thinking global (e.g. changed role of UN). Affordability measures are implemented (e.g. new housing laws). Socialized education systems rise. Internet becomes a human right (with ban on telecom gauging). Global scientific accountability enforceable by law. There are privacy laws that protect individuals’ health records. New anti-establishment candidates rise. Universal Basic Income introduced. Wealth dispersion mechanisms are put in place e.g. anti-hoarding laws. Mandated for-benefit corporations rise, with community participation funds. Local supply chains, supported by global cooperation. There is a shift away from manufactured consumerism. Redefined shareholder benefits: pro-social mechanisms. Shift from GDP to Affordability and Resiliency metrics. Wealth and wage caps (e.g. CEO salaries, inheritance). Increase funding social services, mental health. There is restrained support for high profit companies, tax dodgers. We see decentivized, diminishing billionaires. Community-first mindset and values. There are new symbols of social status (e.g. tax paid versus income). Science equals status: there is a renewed respect for academia. Diminishing power of corporate America. Renewed activism for climate change to mitigate disease. Realignment of values around collective good. Truth triaging, there is a rise of journalistic integrity. We see the demilitarization of patriotism. Growing voices of indigenous populations. We see dissipating ‘hero entrepreneur’ myths. Eco-reverence and respect. Thought leadership diminishes as real experts rise. Protective measures around natural resources. Climate change mitigation with understanding that Covid-19 falls under this. Sustainable consumption habits, with less waste. Push towards a post-carbon society. Rise in community garden and local farms. We relinquish our dependence on oil. Organic, disaster-proof infrastructure. Clean-up of tourists sites, with controlled visitations. The significant benefits reaped from economic shutdown continue for nature. Reimagined structures and infrastructure (e.g. hive homes). There is a greater push towards vegetarianism, lab grown meats. At or in-home farms and gardens. Increase in funding for infectious diseases, and health institutions. There is a boom in medical knowledge and innovation. Open-sourced science rises, Wikipedia models for journals. Global cross-collaboration on Internet 2.0. There is a rise in care-tech. Multi-player role playing games to study scenarios. Climate change is taken much more seriously. Renewed interest in STEM with influx of university applications. Rapid digitization of public services. We see new blockchain innovations that distribute real-time information. Fully resourced support systems for healthcare providers. 3D, 4D, organic printing boom to support real-time response. In terms of art, there are ongoing narratives of community and oneness. Collective creating and story-telling. More everyday utopias. There is increased interest in speculative/science fiction. We see a diminished celebrity culture. Highly diverse art and expression forms. More global digital collaboration. We celebrate new heroes (e.g. care and service providers). New metaphors and myths (e.g. techno-Gaia narratives). Creative economy is taken up as a revitalization strategy. We see a flourishing arts community, supported by universal basic income. Different languages and cultures provide inspiration. Augmented social services, with a focus on wellbeing. Tight-knit neighbourhoods share resources e.g. community banks. New literacies, social capacities (e.g. financial, futures, etc.). Education reform: essential/creative skills, new hours/structures. Equality and diversity (different ideas and experience valued). Libraries become the heart of communities. Conscientious travelling with an eye on carbon footprint. Rise of Eastern and Indigenous spiritual practices. Dispersion of urban centres, reorganized suburbs. Open, transparent global communication. Mass adoption of habits, rituals, norms from other cultures. We see more multi-generational learning (especially from wars).

I am sure I do not have to guess which future you would choose from the four above. Some seem radical, but this is the uncertain world we are leading into. Things will shape up differently in different placed, but globally, there will be leaning towards more dominant systems (likely, in most cases, the first one, unless we make a concerted effort for number four). We all have a role to play in forming the new system (or clinging to the old). In George Monbiot's words, "a thousand books and films and business fables assure us that the fairytale ending to which we should all aspire to is to become a millionaire. Then we can isolate ourselves from society (which is, after all, the purpose of extreme wealth) in a mansion with high walls, with private healthcare, private education, and a private jet. The commons envisages a opposite outcome: finding the meaning, purpose and satisfaction that amount to a good life by working together to enhance the lives of all."

We are coming up to a monumental moment in our history as a species. Sometimes when I discuss sustainability with people, they rightfully say "no such thing". Eventually the sun will burn out and we will all cease to exist. Likely we will cease to exist much, much sooner than that. Change is the only constant in evolution. However, the question isn't about this. It is about the precious time we have been given on this Earth as a species. How do we choose to spend that time?