The Lowdown Hub

The darkest hour is before dawn – 2020 could mark humanity’s sunrise instead of its sunset

The Covid pandemic is both a troubling glimpse into what our new normal could be and a gateway to change

This year has defied all expectations. Whole countries shut down. Events canceled: weddings, holidays, the Olympics. Many wore a face mask for the first time or distinctly remember the last time they were hugged.

The Covid-19 pandemic is both a troubling glimpse into what our new normal could be and a gateway to change.

We’ve experienced how advances, in travel and technology, leave us more vulnerable to viruses and misinformation. Oceans and borders no longer act as protective barriers. The richest countries weren’t necessarily the most prepared.

Instead, countries like Rwanda – supported by 50,000 community health workers – and Vietnam – which shares a border with China – have shown you do not need to be wealthy or an island to crush an epidemiological curve. A new UN report further affirms how progress has become a double-edged sword. Humans live longer, safer, and richer lives but are now destabilizing the very planetary systems we rely on. Inequality is eroding our societies and is only getting worse, as demonstrated by billionaires getting exponentially richer during the pandemic while their employees lost jobs, many never to return and often leaving them without access to health services.

This consolidation of wealth at the top enables the most powerful to increasingly block action to flip the pyramid on its head. At the same time, it is getting harder for those with the greatest needs to change how the world works, as their agency is eroded. These power imbalances fence humans in as we acidify oceans, pollute our water supply, and compromise biodiversity – with the climate crisis increasingly impacting our everyday lives.

Reading this, you might feel the battle is already lost. Far from it. Consider that Covid-19 is only a chapter in a bigger but lesser-known saga, marked by humans becoming the dominant force shaping the Earth. Scientists call this emerging era, the Anthropocene.

The Anthropocene gives people the power to turn imagined futures into reality. But finding these new possibilities requires a fresh lens for measuring progress.

For the past 30 years, UNDP has released a Human Development Index, ranking all the countries in the world by their health, education, and standards of living – a proxy for whether people in those countries have freedom and opportunity to live the lives they value. Last year, 62 countries featured in the highest category of the Index, signifying their populations – as a whole – enjoyed the good life.

But constrained by mostly pre-pandemic source data, the 2020 index risked irrelevance. So, we decided to try something new. This year’s index includes an experimental metric – national carbon dioxide emissions and material footprint. The result is a less rosy but clearer-eyed analysis of human progress. The Planetary Pressures-Adjusted Human Development Index is a pilot, embodying the principles of the great transformation we’re calling for.

Plotting out the index – mapping countries vertically based on their material footprint and horizontally according to the traditional human development index – reveals its most profound insight. There are countries leaving a minimal imprint on the planet (A) and there are countries with prosperous populations (B). But not one nation in the world sits in both camps and so, we have an ‘empty box’.

This untouched frontier shows that not a single nation is behaving in a way in which freedom and opportunities grow for everyone without contributing to making our planet uninhabitable. However, many are on the right path. For example, Costa Rica shoots 37 places up the index. The country has harnessed hydropower to decarbonize its electricity and citizens earn a living wage while replanting mangroves and protecting turtles.

It taxes fossil fuels, a fiscal rebuke to the $5 trillion that publicly financed fossil fuel subsidies cost the world in a year. It uses the revenues to tackle poverty and inequality and replenish forests that had been lost to an appetite for beef, bananas, and timber. Yet there is more than beauty at stake in protecting and reviving picturesque landscapes, there is power.

The destruction of nature at the hands of humans is more often than not about power, with its inextricable link to inequalities and often with deep roots in colonialism and racism. People who have more capture the benefits of nature and export the costs, choking opportunities for people who have less and minimizing their ability to do anything about it. Look southeast from Costa Rica to the Amazon. Though land stewarded by indigenous peoples in the Amazon absorbs, on a per-person basis, the equivalent of the carbon dioxide emitted by the richest 1 per cent of people in the world, indigenous peoples continue to face hardship, persecution, and discrimination.

Moving towards that empty box on the re-ordered global graph is not about choosing between people or trees. It’s about choosing to do things differently. Solutions abound, based on nature and changing norms and incentives, but the biggest challenge is in overcoming the gross imbalances of power and opportunity that tie hands and rig games.

The stark contrast between the fates of different countries and communities under Covid-19 demonstrates how different our not-so-distant futures can look. Human decisions have shaped the pandemic, whether governments tested and traced, whether masks became as uncontroversial as seatbelts, just as they will shape who gets access to a vaccine and by when.

But throughout history, humans have coaxed phoenixes from the ashes. It's said that the Polynesians built and navigated their sophisticated canoes to escape the constraints of living on islands with limited resources. Faced with the plague, fourteenth-century Italians established health boards to manage quarantines. Multilateralism and the United Nations followed in the wake of the Second World War. With no fault in our stars, the lesson is clear: imagine unprecedented solutions and fully commit to them. We are the first generation of the Anthropocene; we have the means to decide our legacy. The darkest hour is just before dawn.