In March, when countries began going into lockdown due to COVID-19, I would catch headlines saying that the global economy would be badly hit. At the same time, I also read positive news about the environment — e.g. how the air pollution over Wuhan was improving.
We are now in May, and we have a few months of emerging data on the impact of the pandemic on society and economy, as well as the environment. On the one hand, we see statistics of rising death toll, unemployment, poverty, domestic violence, suicide, and other ills; on the other hand, we also read of better air quality, lower carbon emissions, and improved waterways and aquatic life.
We are told that humans are uncontrollably crossing over the tipping points of global warming and warnings by environmentalists are not making enough of an impact. So it seems like the only solution to long-term systemic global repair is a pandemic-level slowdown of human activity; and with it, great human suffering in the immediate term. So I am asking myself:
How did we get to this place where we need to suffer so badly in order for us to repair and safeguard our long-term well being?
That’s just the first question. The second more significant question is this:
How am I being called to respond?
To answer the first question, I had to apply my mind as a family scholar to a subject I barely passed when I was 19 years old: economics. Thankfully, we are no longer in 1986 and really good, succinct knowledge is accessible on YouTube! For economics, I watched, rewatched, and rewatched again, Ray Dalio’s explanation of how the economic machine works.
Like a good grounded theory, Dalio’s summary makes a lot of sense: CREDIT is what allows us to grow exponentially. Being credit-worthy means that lenders believe borrowers have the capacity to produce beyond what they borrow. As global debt continues to grow beyond $250 trillion (with debt-to-GDP ratio at 322%), we are, essentially, living life based on the belief that there is no limit to our productivity.
In addition, I learned about FOSSIL FUELS. According to National Geographic, “these non-renewable fuels, which include coal, oil, and natural gas, supply about 80 percent of the world’s energy. They provide electricity, heat, and transportation, while also feeding the processes that make a huge range of products, from steel to plastics.” It is as if we have harnessed a mutant power in this natural resource, allowing us, in the last century to grow at an unnaturally rapid pace.
I am neither an economist nor an engineer, so I have to articulate it in very simple terms. Based on what I have learned, combined with my understanding of human behaviour, it seems to me that the reason why we are in this sorry state (refer back to my first question) is because we have designed modern living around fossil fuel power and credit boosts. These two powerful resources (plus technological innovation) have allowed us to build big cities to live in, fed by big agriculture, and ported around by big transportation!
The human race is richer than it has ever been, but what are we doing with all our wealth? The answer is: we use our credit-boosted, fossil fueled wealth to consume value-added goods and services. And to make it all go around, we invest in advertising that makes us believe that all this value-added consumption is a necessity: the new car, the best clothing, the latest TV, the MBA degree (yes, I confess, this reflects my own patterns of consumption)!
Interestingly, after 4 weeks of lockdown with limited access to value-added services and getting used to a different kind of living, it became painfully evident to me that we could use another term to describe these value-added goods and services that we consider to be normal: non-essentials!
I also wondered: Isn’t this why masses of rural poor move to cities looking for jobs? They too, must believe that it is normal to consume value-added goods and services — enough to uproot themselves and move to the big cities in search of a better credit-worthy, fossil fueled, value-added life. But now, when the jobs are no longer available due to the lockdown of non-essential services, the cities can neither house nor feed them, and some (such as those in India) have no choice but to walk long, long distances back to their villages.
In the cities, the comparatively wealthy who possess a heart of compassion are reaching out by offering food to the urban poor — the daily wage earners who live from paycheck to paycheck, some with families to care for. I wholeheartedly support reaching out to the poor, but my mind has been consumed with searching for answers to a deeper issue, one I could not quite put my finger on, until now.
It seems to me that we have, over the last century, designed ourselves into an unsustainable pattern, and we are psychologically stuck to believing that this unsustainable pattern is normal and even desirable! But the credit system and natural resources are both unsustainable. Our uncritical reliance on them has polluted our minds and our earth, resulting in us moving towards a social, economic, and environmental global disaster. We need a terrible wake-up call to do something about this, and COVID-19 could very well be that wake-up call, if we choose to heed it.
It’s just like when I was in my mid-30s. My lifestyle was one of high, continual stress (working 120 hours a week) and managing that stress (to fuel my productivity) by consuming fatty carbs, deep fried meats, and caffeinated drinks. By the time I was 39, I weighed 233 lbs (106 kg) and I was so unfit, I couldn’t walk up a flight of stairs without panting. I needed a wake-up call and a drastic change.
When I finally checked my BMI on my 40th birthday, I realized that I was no longer just a fat person, I was obese! With that wake-up call, I faced my shame and embraced change. Slowly and steadily over a year, with a helpful process from Weight Watchers, I lost 40 lbs (18 kg). When I went in for a full medical checkup in January 2020 (12 years later), the results showed that I belonged in the category of healthy middle-aged men.
In order to maintain my health over the years, I have had to be mindful that my productivity has limits. I cannot fuel overwork and stress by pumping myself full of unhealthy substances. I must accept my limitations and choose activities that line up with the natural, biological rhythms of my body. Put in systemic terms: I have to live in harmony and balance with the ecology of my physical body. I think we can apply this same principle to how humans ought to live on earth:
We must adapt and live in harmony and balance with the ecology of our planet.
So now that I have the answer to my first question, how do I answer my second question: How am I called to respond?
I am not a politician, so I can’t influence a whole nation as Jacinda Adern can. But I am a therapist, and therapists know how to ask questions. So I asked myself some fundamental questions:
- What would my life look like if I stripped myself of non-essentials?
- If another (worse) pandemic happens in the future, could I live on food grown in my own land and work from home for months without needing to go out?
- What would the world look like if it was designed differently, not around credit and conspicuous consumption, but around sustainable farming with R&D applied to enriching human living whilst protecting our ecosystem?
As I asked these questions, I found myself researching and watching TED talks, documentaries, and YouTube videos about permaculture, conservation agriculture, smart cities, and even off-grid tiny houses. Although I was learning a lot, these were large ideas and projects. What about something really practical for me? Something I could do right now as a response to our current unsustainable design of modern living?
I wrote to some friends who farm to get inspiration, and then, I happened upon a video by Rob Greenfield. The title piqued my curiousity: NO GROCERY STORES FOR A YEAR! How apt for a lockdown situation. I watched it, and watched it again. He did it! He was able to live without going to the grocery store for a whole year. Then I had the idea that maybe I could set a goal for myself:
If I could grow food in my home to the point where I could live sustainably eating my own produce if I chose to (with enough to give to others), then I would be on my way to a post-COVID-19 new normal!
I am inspired and I am ready to start. But since I have been a city boy all of my life and I love my variety of foods from all over the world, this is not going to be easy — I will need some help. Thankfully, I can access people who provide consultation (e.g. ESR) to get me started.
One person growing his own edible garden is not going to change the world immediately. But I know this: unless I allow myself to be impacted first, I am never going to impact others. So I start with me.
This journey I am embarking on is not just about growing my own food. Growing my own food is the first step towards becoming more knowledgeable about the earth and how to live in harmony with it. I will also need to learn about composting, energy conservation, waste and water treatment, and much more. If I can find some solutions for myself on how to live sustainably, I will be joining others who are already doing this, and collectively we can grow this important movement that is already happening.
If you’re still not clear why I’m doing this (maybe because my post is so long and convoluted), then just imagine this: a world where no child or family has to go hungry, because food is being grown everywhere, abundantly and sustainably.
Watch Rob Greenfield’s video below, and let me know what you think by giving me your comments below.
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