An embroidery work illustrating the early course of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States—more images of which are posted here at the Sidewalk Museum of Congress—follows the exponential growth in number of confirmed cases. The cumulative number rose very slowly through February, reached 100 on March 2, then leaped to 1,000 by March 11 and blew past 10,000 a week later, on March 18. It took just six more days more to surpass 50,000.
By March 14, it had already become impossible to embroider fast enough to keep up with the exponential growth in cases. The embroidered work, halted at that time, is 17 feet long. Had it been possible to continue for one more week, it would have reached 155 feet in length. In one more week, it would have stretched a quarter mile.
Given the woefully inadequate testing that has been done in the United States, we can be sure that actual numbers of people infected with the novel coronavirus are several to many times the numbers above. Dealing with this huge and growing catastrophe will be a grueling and tragic experience.
Reverse Gears, Wrong and Right
In the absence of effective action or coordination by the Trump administration, state and local governments in hard-hit U.S. locations are adopting drastic measures aimed at limiting transmission of the virus—policies that only weeks ago would have been unthinkable, given their impact on local economies. And people everywhere are acting on their own, staying home and keeping their money in their pockets.
By throwing growth into reverse in all major economies, these governmental, collective, and personal actions aimed at slowing the spread of the virus have together accomplished what the Paris Agreement and other climate initiatives could not: a reduction in the rate of greenhouse emissions. This was no surprise. Past declines in economic activity, such as the worldwide financial crash and recession of 2008, also brought sharp but temporary emissions reductions.
This sudden, dramatic economic retreat is illustrating on a world scale the well-known, tight link between nations’ or regions’ Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and their greenhouse emissions. They rise and fall together.*
The economic growth pursued in normal times by governments worldwide, like the increase in COVID-19 cases, follows an exponential curve. (The adjective “exponential” is too often misinterpreted as “really fast” when it actually indicates multiplicative, accelerating growth.)
While existing in a wholly different time scale—3 percent per year versus 30 percent per day for the virus—the kind of growth required to make capitalist economies happy is as dire a threat to humanity in the long run as the COVID-19 pandemic will be in the short run.
An unmanaged economic decline triggered by a pandemic is of course a terrible means of reining in greenhouse warming. Many millions of low-income and marginalized Americans will endure horrendous suffering and hardship in the coming months.
Once this ordeal is finally over, economic activity will be restored, but that should be done in a way that achieves health and economic security for every household in the country, without returning the national economy to its insupportable expansionary path.
Now it has become apparent that Donald Trump, more concerned about the stock market than the death toll, wants the country to go back to business-as-usual by Easter. The goal, shared by many red-state officials, would be to steepen the curve, not flatten it, getting the pandemic over with quickly so the crippled economy can supposedly get going again.
The business-as-usual route, if followed, would cause unimaginable misery, creating a flood of critically ill patients by May-June, overwhelming the nation’s ICU-bed capacity 30 times over, and causing 2.2 million deaths.
Fortunately, Trump won’t get his way. State and local governments will press ahead with policies to stem the pandemic. Most likely, the nation will become an unsatisfactory mosaic, as blue state governments continue working to flatten their curves (with no federal help) and red states allow their curves to steepen catastrophically. That will produce no national recovery from either COVID-19 or the economic meltdown for the next year to year and a half.
Meanwhile, there is already a scramble to restore economic growth by, in part, rescuing ecologically ruinous industries (air travel, cruises, oil and gas). If, post-pandemic, growth is restored, emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and other global-warming gases will return to their own dangerous growth trajectories.
Exponential growth of 3 percent annually, if restored, would double the size of the world’s affluent economies within 25 years, supercharging global warming. (That will happen in the same decades during which the international scientific community says greenhouse emissions must be reduced to zero if catastrophic warming is to be avoided.)
The Curtain Is Ripped Away
Millions in the United States have been rendered especially vulnerable to the coronavirus’s exponential growth by steep declines in workers’ rights, the lack of economic security for low-income and marginalized communities, and, of course, the absence of a universal health-care system. These failures have resulted from the pursuit of exponential growth in private wealth for the affluent minority through exploitation of the majority.
Both the virus and the economic impacts of efforts to contain the virus are laying bare the need for policies that shift economic power away from the owning and investing classes to the struggling majority and the public good.
It is often said of the suffering and destruction caused by hurricanes and earthquakes that there is no such thing as a “natural disaster.” The trail of sickness and death being left by the COVID-19 pandemic is likewise a highly unnatural disaster, a product of greed and exploitation. in the longer term, material resources and human labor must be directed not toward capital accumulation by the few but rather toward provision of basic needs and a good, healthy quality of life.
A functional government in Washington, if we had one, could learn from this terrible episode that its primary goal can and must be to achieve economic sufficiency for all and excess for none while at the same time driving fossil-fuel extraction and use down to zero, by law and on a deadline. All of that will require redirecting the nation’s resources away from wasteful and superfluous production toward ensuring economic security and good quality of life for the nation’s non-affluent majority.
Above all, COVID-19 has torn away the curtain of obfuscation and made the desperate need for publicly funded, universal health care and a robust public health system blindingly obvious. Amy Kapczynski and Gregg Gonsalves (professors of law and epidemiology, respectively, at Yale) recently wrote, “The Medicare for All component has been well mapped out, but less obvious, and just as crucial, is a new infrastructure of care. Envisioning a better, more just, and fairer response to coronavirus points us to what a new future would look like.”
They continued: “Ten days ago we joined a group of experts in writing an open letter to our federal, state, and local leaders, setting out the vast range of responses that we need to quickly expand our social immunity and protect the most vulnerable. It highlights many of the things that we need to do, but also need to abstract from to bring about a new politics of care.”
Spain is nationalizing all its private hospitals. The U.K. government has announced a plan to pay 80 percent of wages of workers being laid off, to keep them in their jobs whether they can work or not. Meanwhile, the U.S. government is set to send big bailouts to Big Business while just nibbling around the edges of the hard-charging crisis that’s hitting ordinary people.
As our country stumbles its way through the pandemic, Lucy Diavolo, an editor at Teen Vogue, has compiled stories of groups and communities from all over who are moving ahead on a broad front to keep society functioning and prevent a humanitarian crisis.
Also check out the site It’s Going Down, a “digital community center for anarchist, anti-fascist, autonomous anti-capitalist and anti-colonial movements,” which offers a wide-ranging list of mutual aid groups mobilizing across the country in the time of COVID-19. These efforts are focused on people who are incarcerated, immunocompromised, economically insecure, homeless, isolated, homebound, and/or needing access to food or medicines. They are proliferating across the country, and we all should jump in. That is the kind of growth we need now.
* Most “green growth” strategies depend on the assumption of rapid efficiency increases to reduce demand for energy and materials. But growth always undermines such efficiency gains. Improvements in the quantity of economic output per unit of resource input may impress at first, but they necessarily slow and eventually cease as they bump up against physical limits. As exponential economic growth proceeds, the material and energy resources required to support that growth will inevitably increase. See James Ward, Paul Sutton, Adrian Werner, Robert Costanza, Steve Mohr, and Craig Simmons, “Is Decoupling GDP Growth from Environmental Impact Possible?” PloS One 11 (2016): e0164733. The paper explains why the asymptotic efficiency curve becomes swamped by the exponential GDP-growth curve, concluding that “GDP ultimately cannot plausibly be decoupled from growth in material and energy use, demonstrating categorically that GDP growth cannot be sustained indefinitely. It is therefore misleading to develop growth-oriented policy around the expectation that decoupling is possible.”