Water lilies explain the world crisis

April 09, 2020

By Steven Good,
Sealand family member and Corporate Law Advisor with a Masters in Futures Studies

We have, overnight, all become familiar with an exponential curve. 

Exponential growth is hard for us to understand. A quantity that increases with a rate proportional to its current size grows exponentially. It is like a superpower and is why coronavirus is so difficult to manage. The deceptive nature of exponential growth is demonstrated by the example of a single water lily in a pond. 

Imagine that this lily reproduces once a day, so that on the second day, there are two lilies, on the third day, four lilies, and so on. If it takes the lilies 48 days to cover the pond completely, how long will it take for half of the pond to be covered? The answer is 47 days. Moreover, at day 40, you’ll barely know the lilies are there.

For a while, we can ignore the steady exponential growth of the lilies. And then, as if overnight, they smother the pond. If we want to halt the spread of the lilies, we cannot delay, not by even a day. Aside from the coronavirus pandemic, the most destructive exponential growth processes which confront the world today are those associated with climate change.

water-lillyPhoto by Man Dy from Pexels

The Challenge of Covid-19
The UN has confirmed the coronavirus outbreak is the biggest challenge confronting the world since World War II. We are in the early stages of an event whose far-ranging consequences we can only begin to imagine. Already, however, we can recognise some of its immediate impacts that have resulted in us relooking the way in which we live our lives.

Our illusion of security has been shaken:
We have been reminded of the simple truth that life is fragile and provisional, and that we are governed by biology and physics and are ultimately at the mercy of our planet. We cannot insulate ourselves from natural threats. The biggest things can change in an instant.

We are part of one species, one family:
The pandemic is proof of our interdependence to each other, the notion that we are all in the same boat and right now are facing down a ferocious tempest. We are only as strong as the world’s weakest health system. Global solidarity is not just a moral imperative, it is in everyone’s interest.

We created this virus:
Covid-19 is just the latest infectious disease arising from our collision with nature. Three out of every four new infectious diseases in people come from animals. Covid-19 joins the growing list of zoonotic diseases – that is those jumped from animals to humans – which includes HIV, Ebola and SARS. This list is growing because of changing boundaries of habitats and decreased biodiversity. Air pollution increases our vulnerability to a respiratory illness such as Covid-19. 

National governments are critical and have enormous capabilities:
The pandemic has put national governments front and centre. The drastic measures governments have taken in recent weeks underline the power most states have when they decide to act boldly. In most of the world, our immediate security and wellbeing has been shown to depend more on strong and well-funded public services than the private sector.

Across the world, people have overwhelmingly complied with the directives of their governments even though these have utterly changed how they live and work. This shows how we will accept any policy which we believe will protect us against an urgent and existential threat. 

Sustainable development efforts are likely to be negatively affected:
A prolonged global economic slowdown will adversely impact the implementation of the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Coronavirus is but a fire drill
Right now, near-term survival is the priority for all of us. In time, however, this pandemic will recede into the background. Therefore, we must be sure that the actions we take today, to address the immediate exigencies, are optimal for a post-Covid 19 world. 

We must recognise that previous global crises have not always led to positive changes. We must guard against societies going down darker paths of nationalist isolationism, greater protectionism, increased xenophobia, racial scapegoating and the like.

As to what this optimal for a post-Covid 19 world, we must recognise two incontrovertible facts –

  • Despite the magnitude of coronavirus and its impacts, it is dwarfed by the threats posed by climate change and the destruction of biodiversity.
  • We are the last generation able to make progress on climate change and in halting the loss of biodiversity. This profound responsibility falls to us.

We must use the lessons from this pandemic and seize the opportunity it presents. Everything we do during and after this crisis must have as its ultimate objective a more sustainable planet and human family.

As with coronavirus, despite the dire predictions of the scientists, governments have failed to take the requisite action in relation to climate change and loss of biodiversity. Although the impacts of these global threats are, right now at least, less directly felt than those of Covid-19, we do not comprehend or appreciate when these impacts will overwhelm us. This is because of our collective failure to understand the exponential rate of their growth.

What day are we at, in the water lily example - in relation to climate change? Day 35? Day 40? Even worse? Is the climate change curve about to straighten upwards dramatically?

In a matter of weeks, we have changed the way we live, work and travel. Why can we not do the same to counter the climate change and biodiversity emergencies? Why are governments not adopting the same war footing to confront these even more terrifying challenges which are careening down the track, gathering speed – exponentially – as they approach us? 

We must seize this opportunity by recognising coronavirus for what it is - a fire drill for the fallout from climate change, something that will unleash one crisis after another, year after year, as heat waves, fires and floods destroy all human systems and networks. There will be no vaccine to save us.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Spreading the lesson of the water lilies:
Each of us is an agent for significant change. The choices we make everyday shape history and now more than ever we must urgently seize the responsibility we have to confront these devastating challenges to our humanity. 

For our part, each of us within the Sealand family commits to doing all we can, in each of our daily activities, to promote and support the sustainability of our planet and our human family and to insist that everyone we interact with does the same. Global threats do not recognise borders. Nor should we as we meet our generation’s responsibility to counter them. 

More than this, we hope to promote change and support and agitate governments to recognise climate change and the loss of biodiversity as the emergencies they are. The outbreak of coronavirus shows us the consequences of denial and delay. We must demand that governments immediately adopt the same urgency they have shown in responding to coronavirus to deal with these clear and present threats to our livelihoods. Let us address the causes of these threats rather than attempting to deal with the devastation of its full consequences.

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