COVID-19, the Exponential Function and Human the Survival

It’s time for us all to understand the Exponential Function.

One of the hallmarks of COVID-19 is its exponential nature, with numbers of infected currently doubling about every 4 days in the US. This growth rate, plus the at least 14-day lag time, make it particularly difficult to fight, as efforts to respond tend to be based on apparent numbers today rather than the reality toward which it is heading. The pattern, from China to Italy to the US, has been to not react until it’s too late and numbers of known infected are already large and skyrocketing.

There is a famous story of the wise man who, when asked by the King what he desired in payment for his services, handed the King a chessboard and said: “All I desire, your Majesty, is one grain of rice on the first square of this chessboard, two grains on the second, four on the third, and so on; doubling with each square.” The King immediately granted the request but soon found that, long before they got to the 64th square, he had given the wise man all the rice in his kingdom. This is how the Exponential Function works: it creeps up on you imperceptibly and then suddenly leaps.

Perhaps the clearest and simplest introduction to the Exponential Function and its practical implications for the human species can be found in the lectures of Albert Bartlett, Emeritus Professor of Physics at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Professor Bartlett died in 2013 but videos of his lectures can be easily accessed on YouTube. Anyone interested in understanding the world we live in today and where we are heading would do well to watch at least one of these lectures.

COVID-19 is our introduction to the Exponential Function but it’s only the beginning. Greenhouse gas emissions are increasing on an exponential function, with CO2 rates currently rising by about 3% per year, and we see exactly the same pattern of government response playing out with Climate Change as with COVID-19. Global CO2 emissions have been continuously measured since 1958, when they were 313 parts per million (or PPMs) and have been rising ever since. In 2003, when they were 375 PPMs, we had the first extreme weather event (the European Heat Wave) that scientists specifically attributed to Climate Change. In 2012, when major Arctic ice melt were starting to visibly disrupt global weather patterns (‘such as through the weakening of the Jet Stream that contributed, among other things, to the creation of “Superstorm” Sandy and “Polar Vortex”). Emissions passed 400 PPMs. Today, with extreme weather and destabilization of seasonal cycles already recognized as the “new normal,” giant methane blowholes (“pingos”) being found in Siberia, lakes bubbling with methane like soda water, and underwater columns of methane streaming from the Arctic seabed, emissions are hitting 415 PPM. But, as with COVID-19, no serious action has been taken, even as the signs of exponential growth and its effects become increasingly obvious.

The growth of carbon emissions is of course linked to global economic growth; the famous ‘GDP’ that, we are told, is supposed to be as high as possible. GDP is measured in percentages and describes an exponential curve with a predictable doubling rate, like a virus. GDP is furthermore directly linked to the exponential curves of energy and resource use, waste production, habitat destruction and greenhouse gas emissions: curves that, if continued unchecked, will bring us past thresholds imposed by the finite host system in which we live. As scientists have been warning us at least since 1972, when the “Limits of Growth” report was published, the entire global economy functions on the logic of a virus, a cancer or a Ponzi scheme. The fact that it must grow simply to avoid collapse is proof enough that it is not just unsustainable but suicidal.

Yet one of the ironies of this crisis is that, with the temporary economic slowdown of China in particular, pollution and greenhouse gas emissions have measurably lowered. COVID-19 has achieved in a few weeks results that decades of intergovernmental conferences and treaties could not. The very fact that our economic system cannot suspend its frenzied activity for even a few weeks without going into visible signs of collapse exposes it for what it is: a deadly planetary virus. We are literally being brought to a choice between the supposed “health” of our economy and our own physical health as well as the health of the planet that truly sustains our life – and ironically this has been the real choice before us all along.

COVID-19 is bringing us into direct contact with viral logic. We’re seeing numbers of infected explode from tens to tens of thousands in a matter of weeks. We’re seeing national health care systems become completely overwhelmed by the sudden increase in patients. We’re seeing belated but necessary measures to flatten the exponential curve. But it is also revealing the true nature of our society. We’re seeing how governments will only suspend profit-making activities when they have a proverbial knife to their throats. We’re seeing the wellbeing of banks and corporations placed above that of ordinary people (even as proposals to help families meet their mortgage, student loan and health care payments stall in Congress, a $1.5 Trillion bailout to help the Fracking industry – one of the most environmentally destructive industries on the planet – from pay its Wall Street loans sailed through).

COVID-19 is exposing the Growth Economy for what it is: the greatest fraud ever perpetrated on humankind. It is showing us that the perpetrators of the Ponzi scheme are in charge and that, as long as they are, nothing that threatens their profits will get done if there is any way to avoid it. It showing us how we need to live if we are to have any hope of surviving as a species: buying less, producing less, moving around less, slowing down, and living more like the humans who thrived on the earth for hundreds of thousands of years before the insane ecocidal death machine that we call “the global economy” was ever invented.

Peter Cohen holds a Ph.D. in Applied Anthropology from Columbia University and has worked in International Development in more than twenty countries. He has taught, lectured, organized and delivered training events, and authored publications ranging from articles on the historical spread of African religions through the Atlantic Slave Trade to guides to working with informal recyclers, as well as essays on politics and social change.