Founder’s Letter for 2021
2020 brought devastation to societies around the world. This new year holds great promise to be a time of rebuilding and reinvention. We must, of course, build back better, investing in strategies that eliminate the threat of the very disasters now converging on us.
The way back, the way to better, is defined by these hard truths:
- Democracy must be defended.
- COVID-19 is not going away.
- Food insecurity is spreading.
- Economic hardship and inequality are becoming entrenched.
- Systemic injustice threatens all of us.
- Climate disruption is getting worse.
Democracy must be defended.
Human rights are not a luxury; they are the reason societies are formed. The violent insurrection against American democracy is just one indication of how much the social contract has frayed. In this time of multiple compounding crises, participatory process is even more urgently needed.
National and international decision-makers can only access so much information on their own; allowing people and communities to participate in the design of solutions makes it easier to align those solutions with local needs and capabilities. Global goals may be rooted in universal principles, but local applications may vary widely.
In 2021, the places that most successfully align national and global need with local experience and capability will more quickly emerge from the compounding COVID threat.
In the US context, we need more of the kind of non-partisan public service we have seen from some quietly heroic election officials. We also need to confront directly the deep-rooted racial inequities and systemic injustice that led to the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and so many others, and to the catastrophic loss of life in communities of color.
Democracy is not only a right to vote, or to expect justice.
It is also the systematic and untiring realization of the right to know—not rumor and innuendo, but to have direct personal access to genuine evidence of what is real. Every person has a transcendent right to know whether they are putting something in their bodies—breathing air, drinking water, eating food—that might be toxic. Every person has a right to know whether structures in their everyday life are a threat to their long-term wellbeing and life expectancy.
COVID-19 is not going away.
The vaccines are an incredible scientific achievement and presage a return to normalcy, but they are unlikely to reach even 25% of the world’s people until 2022. Meanwhile, new variants of the virus are emerging, one of which is 50% to 70% more transmissible. It could lead to many times more infections and prolonged COVID safety restrictions.
Solidarity strengthens societies and reduces vulnerabilities. Vaccines need to get to everyone; no person anywhere should be denied access, for any reason. We all need everyone to be less likely to contract and transmit the virus. We need individuals, businesses, communities, governments and institutions all doing their part to stop the spread and contain the threat.
There is, however, a worrying trend emerging, where vaccinations lead people to relax their own COVID safety measures, even as more contagious or vaccine-resistant variants spread. This risks not only prolonging the crisis, with more economic devastation and loss of life, but the possibility that one or more of the COVID variants could become endemic and persistent.
Food insecurity is spreading.
Scientists warn we face mounting risk that multiple breadbasket regions will fail simultaneously. COVID has slowed and blocked supply chains, collapsed incomes, and made it much more difficult for hundreds of millions of people to find food. Starvation conditions have spread from 130 million to 265 million people from March through December 2020, while tens of millions more Americans now require food assistance.
Climate-smart agriculture is one of those high-value, high-efficiency areas of needed realignment. Healthy food is also one of the best ways to reduce the vulnerability of human populations to novel pathogens like the SARS-CoV-2 virus (which causes COVID-19). Addressing food-related environmental impacts will protect the food supply, stabilize the foundations of organized societies, and create the best possible future for human beings at all levels of income.
Our food systems can be more resilient, if they are more aligned with the health and resilience of natural systems. We can achieve sustainable health for more people far more routinely and affordably, if healthy natural food is available to everyone as a standard everyday expectation. We must aim to surround all people with healthy, sustainably grown food, and steer our supply chains toward resilience-building practices.
Doing this could amount to an even bigger worldwide investment opportunity than the internet, smart phones, or the clean energy transition.
Economic hardship and inequality are becoming entrenched.
Banks and financial institutions are designed to sustain everyday economic activity, not to steer whole nations through this much prolonged, pervasive disruption. Systemic vulnerabilities revealed by the COVID crisis are also contributing to the catastrophic effects of the crisis and worsening chronic economic inequality.
Investments that degrade value far beyond the scope of their intended activity are of degraded value. Investments that enhance value beyond their scope are of enhanced value. This simple, decisive insight needs to be made visible to financial decision-makers. If it isn’t, the systemic risks we see converging in early 2021 will become part of the root system for a prolonged period of costly economic disruption.
The convergence effect of multiple crises compounding each other’s risks and costs will also increase the likelihood of nonlinear forces leading to new systemic shocks. The less prepared the vulnerable, the less prepared we all are. Reducing inequality is a critical step to building resilience for everyone.
The right combination of metrics—including conventional financial metrics and environment, social and governance (ESG) ratings, networked to active Earth observing systems and other social value data platforms—will help us to assess the resilience value of specific practices. With better resilience value information, we can then invest more intelligently to prevent and respond to major shocks, and to protect lives and livelihoods.
Systemic injustice threatens all of us.
The pandemic, climate disruption, food insecurity, and systemic financial vulnerabilities all contribute to a significant risk of widespread scarcity for billions of people around the world. Scarcity degrades all capabilities flowing out of that circumstance. And that means scarcity quickly turns from inconvenience to emergency, and from there it can become a major security threat.
Investing in the enrichment and empowerment of people and communities now, while aligning short-, medium-, and long-term planning with the best possible future of sustainable shared prosperity is the surest way to future prosperity. Systemic injustice stands in the way of that better way.
No law can be fully and fairly implemented, if some people are denied the protection of their basic rights, or equal justice. No economic surge can be sustained, if most gains go to those who least need them, and most people continue to live on the edge of calamity.
We need to build back better, and eliminate the seeds of devastation from our everyday economy and from the structural constraints of everyday society. COVID recovery strategies need to envision a world in which competition for scarce resources is not the driving logic, and where the thriving of the most vulnerable is valued as a safeguard for everyone’s wellbeing and opportunity.
Climate disruption is getting worse.
Meanwhile, global heating is advancing, global decarbonization efforts are still far too slow, wildfires now ravage entire regions year-round, critical tipping points keep getting closer (as with the vanishing of Arctic ice), and dislocation of climate patterns is threatening production capacity of major farming regions.
We are also seeing what happens when climate disruption collides with outdated planning and infrastructure. In spite of its energy wealth, Texas is now experiencing a devastating energy system failure, as the Polar Vortex—a wind pattern usually kept in the Arctic by clear definition of climate bands—hits homes and power plants with snow and ice storms and sub-freezing temperatures.
COVID recovery strategies should direct the unprecedented flow of new investment to climate-smart sustainable priorities. This will result in the most efficient allocation of resources over the coming decades and help to protect against nonlinear threats emerging from environmental devastation.
The shift to decentralized, zero-pollution smart energy systems will build human capital, protect natural capital, and expand the overall value-building potential of every dollar of investment from the public and private sectors. We need the big decisions, including major investments and national long-term planning, to align planetary-scale cooperation with the way Nature works and with the experience of people at the human scale.
Our best possible future is achievable only if we recognize that addressing each of these challenges makes it easier to succeed on the others.
Let’s make 2021 the year we restore, by action, our faith in the power of solidarity.
Listen to our podcast, Earth Intelligence.
Dean Rachel Kyte – Resilience and Policy – Geoversiv – Earth Intelligence
Visit Earthintel.org for all episodes and related reports.
2020 New Year’s Letter
2019 New Year’s Letter
2018 New Year’s Letter