One advantage the Chinese have is they can plan far ahead. Their political system does not restrict leadership to envision change in four-year bite sizes. One day the Chinese Communist Party may be replaced by something approaching Western democracy, but until then they have the luxury to think in generational - not election - terms.
Regardless of ideology, in matters pertaining to social sustainability long-sightedness is of paramount importance. A political system can only endure if the society that supports it thrives. Otherwise, oppression, force, fear and control become the main tools necessary for survival.
The coronavirus pandemic has revealed that government is not the final authority. Nature can override it in an instant. We humans would be well-served to learn the lessons our host planet has been trying to teach us. Climate change is telling us loud and clear that we must bring the natural ecosystem back into a state of balance.
The ever-escalating need for energy is the single biggest culprit. Despite the growth of renewable energy sources, burning fossil fuels to power up humankind’s enterprise is, as the bard might have said, wherein the problem doth lie.
On the Kardashev scale, a method designed by Soviet astronomer Nikolai Kardashev in 1964, Earth isn’t even host to a Type I technological civilization. Using this measure, a Type I planetary species can utilize and store all of the energy available on its planet. Stellar and galactic civilizations aside, we can’t even harness the terrestrial energy available to us!
Still, by some estimations we’re not far off; perhaps the focus of the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) should rightly be upon a new energy paradigm to address this shortcoming. One doesn’t have to wander far off the reserve of conventional science to find potential solutions, but only far-eyed leadership can give us the requisite push to wean ourselves off fossil fuel addiction once and for all.
Cheap energy, in turn, leads the way to quantum leaps in the other critical resource that will soon be worth its weight in silver: clean water. In a dystopian future, wars will be fought over water, not oil. Even as we speak, the largest infrastructure projects are not airports or bridges, but rather the diversion of fresh-water resources. The Chinese aren’t in Kashmir for the melons, folks, they’re there to divert the Himalayan glacier run-off into the Tibetan plateau.
For what else can turn the Gobi desert into arable farmland but fast-flowing rivers and tributaries. That it would come at the cost of another billion thirsty mouths on the other side of the ridge is another story for a different day. Without arable land, people cannot grow the food they require to sustain themselves as a society. And the last time I checked, a king cannot rule without subjects.
So things have come full circle. Our entire species delights (or despairs) in the interplay of just these three things: (1) Cheap energy. (2) Clean water, and (3) Arable land. The end-goal of all our collective enterprise is just this: to treat water with the lowest-cost energy to make soil suitable for agriculture.
The benefits of this alchemy are many-fold:
1) Food security
2) Valuable real estate
3) Sustainable populations
4) Stable societies
5) Stronger nation states
6) Progressive humankind
The draw backs are singular: extinction.
Covid-19 has afforded us a unique moment for critical reflection. That upon which we choose to concentrate our collective consciousness - our hive mind, if you will - at this moment will determine the kind of future humankind will enjoy (or endure). Remediation of air, water and soil by abundant, cheap energy will bring about nothing less than the rebalancing of the natural ecosystem of planet Earth, our home, into harmony. For this lesson - should we ever choose to learn it - we can thank the coronavirus.