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Can coronavirus prompt the next evolution?

Neil King | Gabriel Borrud
June 2, 2020

The novel coronavirus is nature's way of telling us something, says environmental economist Pavan Sukhdev. He wants an economy not devoted to monetary wealth.

environmental economist Pavan Sukhdev
Image: oekom verlag

Lockdowns around the globe have afforded the natural world an unexpected period of respite. Lower emissions, less pollution: the positive impact on the environment has been well documented.

For environmental economist Pavan Sukhdev, a former high-level banker, the coronavirus crisis has made it clearer than ever that a dramatic shift in our relationship with the natural world is urgently needed.

He argues that pandemics like this one could be nature's response to its exploitation, and a way to redress the balance. DW spoke to Suhkdev for the new series of the environmental podcast, On the Green Fence.

DW: You believe the coronavirus is an instinctual response of our earth to keep us in check?

Pavan Sukhdev: Yes, and not just the coronavirus. This is the fourth of the major virus attacks that we've had [after SARS, H1N1 and MERS], all sort of jumping from animal systems into human systems. Maybe the system is telling us something, and it's trying to keep itself in check.

We are the main cause of the disturbance, we are the ones who are destroying forests, covering up wetlands, intruding into the world of wild animals, and basically making them part of our food system. Well, the system may be adjusting by releasing more viruses. That's the basic idea.

Read more: Coronavirus pandemic linked to destruction of wildlife and world's ecosystems

You've said for a long time that we need to correct our economic and corporate models. What kind of future world economy do you want?

It's a circular economy; an economy that, in the process of generating wealth for humans, doesn't generate costs at the same time, in terms of human capital, social capital and natural capital. Another name for it would be a green and equitable economy of permanence. Green, because it's not causing huge stresses on the environment; equitable, because its socially balanced, it's not just very rich and very poor people.

But that's at the macroeconomic level, the system level. What about the microeconomic level? Well, guess what? The single most important agent at the microeconomic level, basically, is the corporation. Two thirds of the economy today, globally on average in terms of who generates the GDP and who generates the jobs, basically is the private sector. So the question is: what can the corporation — which is the biggest engine of today's economy — do differently?

Human exploitation of nature and animals is fueling pandemics, say scientists Image: AFP/G. Ginting

They [corporations] basically ignore the fact that they are not just a machine to make money for shareholders, but also a huge institution because they are training and developing thousands and maybe hundreds of thousands of staff, so they are potentially creating human capital, they are also big engines of natural destruction, so they are mining, destroying forests, basically cutting, digging and burning. Can they do less of that? Can they be more efficient? Can they not do it in places where there are extremely scarce forms of biodiversity in existence? And finally, are they ruining social fabric, or are they building social fabric?

Read more: Life after coronavirus: 'We can shape a totally different world'

In other words, are they collaborating with their suppliers, with their customers, with the government to whom they pay taxes? Or are they always trying to nickel and dime the suppliers, are they always trying to sell rubbish expensively to their customers and use aggressive marketing and advertising to prey on human insecurities and convert them into wants, wants into needs, needs into demand, demand into production, production to profit?

What kind of corporation are they? If they are the kind of 'corporation 1920,' maybe it's time for them to change and become what I call corporation 2020, which is much more responsible, with a kind of win-win focus, saying, guys, we are going to do well for our shareholders, but we are going to do well for you, our employees, and you, our society where we operate, and you, nature, which is around us.

Isn't that too idealistic, given that human nature tends towards greed?

Of course we are greedy — and some of that greed generates innovation, so it's not entirely a bad thing, but the point is, you can't have unchecked and unbridled greed. So we need checks and balances, and that's what we're not doing.

Remember, the whole world is not only about private wealth. The whole world is not a marketplace. We do have families, we do have friends, we do have communities, and we don't measure their value in terms of profits or dollars. And that's fine, we measure their value in different ways. Nature also provides a lot: you can estimate the economic cost you will incur by losing nature's services.

The blind pursuit of profit at the expense of all else — it's simply a fool's dream. And sadly, we seem to have believed it.

A lone tree
Not everything has a monetary value, but we can estimate the economic cost of losing nature's services Image: AFP/R. Alves

Read more: Coronavirus: Can we still live sustainably?

So how do we stop? What's the first step to bringing down the corporations?

The mistake is the conception that somehow the corporations are the gods of our economy. That's not true. We are all masters of our own destiny. All of us, the common people on the ground, are the true leaders today. Let's not be mesmerized by the magic of markets, let's not worship CEOs as if they are gods. They are not, they are just normal people like you and me. That's step number one; create that awareness building.

Then, start measuring impacts, and say, where you have negative externalities — costs to society, to human health and so on — we can measure these in dollars and cents, and let's report them just as much as we report profits. Believe me, just that reporting of the negative impacts will make people change their ways.

Step number two: put in rules and regulations about things you really don't want happening.  If you don't want wet markets to have wildlife and normal animals at the same time, well, put in a rule for that, and then make the countries where you have these markets change the way that they organize themselves. Not very difficult stuff.

What animal diseases have to do with how we treat nature

The pandemic has given us a window of opportunity to think about these things – can we also see it as a chance to make some of these changes happen?

I'm an optimist, because, as Winston Churchill said, it's pointless to be anything else. The reason I'm an optimist is that I do see changes going on. I think the time has come for humanity to go through its next evolution, intellectually, emotionally, and recognize that we can be different, we don't have to go back to the same old ways, business as usual. Let's look at the new economy, let's look at renewable energy, let's look at sustainable forestry and agriculture, transportation which is public and not necessarily private.

Pavan Sukhdev is an Indian environmental economist. He is the founder & CEO of GIST, the Global Initiative for a Sustainable Tomorrow, president of WWF International and a UN Environment goodwill ambassador. Previously, he spent years in high level positions at Deutsche Bank.

Sukhdev was interviewed by Neil King and Gabriel Borrud for the DW podcast, On the Green Fence. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.