Intellectuals, economists, and activists united for change. The views of those who are looking for alternatives to the destructive relationship between humankind and nature in an exclusive dialogue with CitiPlat
“When we move from the rubble of the Coronavirus pandemic to a new world, no one will want to take fossil fuels with them. The new world will be made of sustainable energy, which will also create new job opportunities,“ said Muhammad Yunus. Among the many voices denouncing the inadequacy of the current energy production system stands out Nobel Peace Prize winner, Muhammad Yunus, creator of microcredit for community development and founder of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh. According to Yunus, today's public health emergency has made it very clear that our economic model has not generated well-being but only deep inequalities. At this point, it becomes essential to change the paradigm. “The present financial system,“ explains Yunus, “has led to the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few individuals, while it should have offered opportunities to everyone, from the richest to the poorest.“ [Read the full interview with Muhammad Yunus here].
A recent research study, carried out by the Americans for Tax Fairness Organization with the Washington Institute for Political Studies, confirms Yunus's thesis. In the United States, from the beginning of lockdown March 18, 2020 until May 19, 2020, the assets of more than 600 American billionaires grew by 15%, equivalent to 434 billion dollars. Their combined wealth has grown from 2948 to 3382 trillion dollars. This data was gathered from index of the richest in the US of the Forbes magazine.
According to the study, the wealth of the five riches men in America - Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Warren Buffett, and Larry Ellison - has increased by 75.5 billion dollars or 19%. In two months, five of them have concentrated 21% of the new wealth of American billionaires.
Some personalities from the business, academic, and political world have told CitiPlat how important it is to reconsider the economic and social structure of our world from scratch. First of all, in these years, it will be necessary to face the most difficult challenge that humanity has ever faced: climate change. “Today's pandemic is the consequence of the relationship between man and nature,” says Livio De Santoli, Vice-Rector for Energy Policy at La Sapienza University of Rome, “if we continue to dramatically change this relationship, as we have done in recent decades, epidemics will be more and more frequent”.
However, the same risks and difficulties can also suggest a way out. “There are so many problems in the world,“ notes Yunus, “but each of them can also be seen as an opportunity. All things that produce unhappiness also feed the imagination necessary to overcome it.“
Yunus elaborates on his vision saying, “change originates in a feeling of inadequacy, and is fueled by a sense of injustice, the idea that there is a socially unacceptable gap, the feeling that there is something wrong, and the desire to correct it. Or it can result from the desire to begin a new adventure, led by imagination. So, how can it come from the inner question 'why not?'.” For Yunus, the starting point could also be to pinpoint an opportunity - social, financial or technological - that others do not see. In this regard, the Nobel Peace Prize introduces the concept of Social Entrepreneurship, based on the idea that we need to identify a new economic-financial model, which aims for resolutions to global challenges and not the profit of individuals. Each entrepreneur is free to define their own production system, but under only one condition: it must be sustainable and must do no harm to humanity or the environment.
Therefore, this economic model that involves the creation of companies that are meant to solve people's problems. Of course, it will be up to governments, and in general institutions, to promote initiatives and investments for these companies, so that we do not have to go back to previous economic models but continue to invest in social justice. The support of the institutions is crucial, as those who promote the transition to new models do not have the necessary political and financial strength yet.
“This is where the voice of the citizens becomes important”, Yunus says. “Citizens have a very strong case. The world that others want us to go back to was a world on the verge of disaster.“ Moreover, “there is an issue on which everyone, even all governments with only one exception, agrees, and it is global warming.” He is referring in particular to the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, signed by all governments and then abandoned by the Trump administration in June 2017. “If we work on this consensus, we can create seriously the conditions to start building the structure of a new world,” concludes Yunus.
Evidently, the task is tough. The process will be hard and fraught with obstacles. However, Luigino Bruni, economist at LUMSA University and promoter of the Civil Economy reminds us, “We cannot believe, under any illusion, that we will all now focus on economic issues with greater attention to the environment. Crises are not enough to change the course of things. The risk is that once the crisis is overcome, we will return to life exactly as before, only a little poorer”. But something has changed. Today, according to Bruni, there is definitely more listening because “people understood that we ran too much, that we forced nature too much“.
Bruni reflects on bringing finance back within a broader economic science. For this reason, he urges young people interested in these subjects to not only study the North American economy, but also that one of more humanistic schools, where they also talk about philosophy, history and law, and not only graphs, tools and techniques. “When finance becomes the last word,” Bruni stresses, “it often becomes inhumane, but when it becomes a word next to the others it is a good word that serves everyone, especially the poorest”.
Change must then focus on the rights of individuals and their communities. In several countries, the Covid-19 pandemic and the consequent economic crisis have revealed how much certain sectors—especially education and health—are underfunded. These sectors could be better served by diverting resources from polluting industries such as armaments, considers Francesco Vignarca, head of the Italian Disarmament Network. “The production of weapons,” explains, “is inefficient and destructive, both from a human and environmental point of view. Reconversion is possible, but as long as states collectively demand more investments and tools for health, education and sustainable industries”. According to Vignarca, in Italy the vast amount of resources used regularly for the production of armaments could fill the gap caused by public health cuts. It is also important to remember that weaponry has a significant environmental impact. Vignarca states, “The toxic remains of wars show all the environmental devastation. It happens in abandoned and untreated places of conflict, but partly also in the production cycle and in the testing phase. Think about Sardinia, for example, which has more than 60% of the military servants in Italy, and it is used as a polygon not only by our army and our companies”.
Another very relevant matter, which holds together the current health crisis and the urgency of developing a new economic paradigm, is the possible relationship between pollution and the current pandemic.
The Italian Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Economic Development (ENEA) in collaboration with the Higher Institute of Health (ISS) and the Higher Institute for Environmental Protection and Research (ISPRA), announced the launch of a study to deeply analyze the possible connection between air pollution and the spread of the virus SARS-CoV-2. Some of the most affected areas are also some of the most industrialized and polluted regions on the planet, such as the Lombardy region in Italy. It is known that a particularly polluted environment negatively affects people's health, especially when it comes to non-communicable illnesses, including heart and respiratory diseases. The possibility that fine particulate matter can be a vehicle for the spread of the virus is now being investigated.
In 2016, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared that air pollution was responsible for 4.2 million deaths globally. It is estimated to be the cause of about 16% of lung cancer deaths, 25% of deaths due to chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases (COPD), 17% of ischemic heart diseases and strokes, and about 26% of deaths from respiratory infections. According to the WHO, “particulate pollution is an environmental problem that affects the health of people worldwide, but especially in low and middle-income countries.“
According to Federico Testa, President of the ENEA, the new ecological approach to the economy, which should characterize the period following the current health emergency, “should not be seen as an appendix of happy decline but on the contrary it will have to be seen as a competitive tool at international level“. The ENEA says that Italy has seen a 20% reduction in polluting emissions during lockdown compared to the same period last year in its bulletin on the energy analysis of the first quarter of the 2020. The cause can be found in the forced halt to mobility and the decrease in industrial activities. An analysis recently published in Nature Climate Change estimates that the reduction in CO2 emissions was one billion tons compared to 2019 and reached its lowest point on April 7th.
However, some experts believe that this trend is unlikely to continue with the resumption of production activities, and the forecast is that the decline will not exceed 7% anyway. In this case, the main parameter to take into account is the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The Keeling curve, which since 1958 has been monitoring the trend of CO2 concentration related to the current season, shows that in order for its effects to be visible and concrete, the reduction should be much more consistent than how it has been in recent months. The United Nations, for example, argue that to successfully counteract the effects of climate change, CO2 emissions should be reduced by 7.6% each year for at least ten years.
De Santoli says, “To lessen CO2 emissions, we will need to modify our energy system…we will have to move from globalization to localization, giving importance to communities, in this case to individual energy communities“. According to De Santoli, the conversion should focus on “local networks rather than a national monopoly“, in order to create territorial networks that avoid the formation of monopolies that are harmful to small territorial production realities. For its part, decision makers will have to commit themselves to investing in industries that deal with environmental sustainability, welfare and health.
Young people can play a key role in this process of change. Yunus tells the new generation, “Now that you are visible, no one can ignore you. So, keep making yourself heard and don't step back. Now that you have gained positions, make sure that your ideas are accepted and put them into practice. And I recommend, be careful because the system is very used to covering up requests that come from below with great promises.“
Yunus does not stop there. He reminds young people that the demonstrations and protests of the last period are just the tip of an iceberg that must be brought entirely out in the open. Yunus ends by saying, “You are doing an excellent job with governments, international organizations and the media but do not forget your families and the families of your friends or neighbors. Together you represent the whole world. They lead businesses, financial institutions, government agencies, universities, schools, and media. You are in every family. Bring everyone on your side. You might even be angry with some of them, but without their support it will be impossible to get what you want”.
by MICRI students Rachele Casorati, Nicolò Daniele, Maria Vittoria Genovesi, Francesca Paradisi and Carlotta Ruocco (*)
(*) MICRI is the Master in Communication for International Relations at IULM University, Milan, Italy
Coordination and Italian editing by Emanuele Valenti - English editing by Mina Zahine