COVID-19 and a Better Model for Society: How Globalization and Urbanization Created the Perfect Storm

Society Health Economy Environment

The overconcentration of populations in large cities and the move to a borderless world provided the ideal conditions for a global pandemic. To overcome this unprecedented crisis, the time has come for a shift away from mass production and mass consumption to a more sustainable model of society.

Paralyzed Economic and Social Systems

A little more than half a year since the COVID-19 pandemic spread around the world, we find ourselves in the midst of a bewildering maelstrom of chaos and disorientation. Some people still believe that all we need to do is to wait patiently until a vaccine arrives and everything will soon return to normal. I cannot share this optimism.

Throughout the world, new social rules have restricted travel and placed strict limits on large gatherings and crowds to prevent the contagion from spreading. As a result, economic systems have ground to a halt across much of the globe. Some people argue that the best we can do is to try to balance these mitigation measures with some semblance of normal economic activities, putting up with the new restrictions on social life until effective treatments and a vaccine become available. Unless we are extremely lucky, however, it is likely to be 18 months or more before medical treatments become widely available. This means that the current situation could well continue until the end of 2021.

I am not a specialist on the economy, but it is hard to imagine that many companies will survive if the current restrictions on business activities continue until then. We may well face a situation in which many firms will collapse or be forced to radically change their business models to adapt to the new reality by the time a treatment becomes available.

Another major concern is what happens next in countries like the United States and Brazil that have chosen to prioritize the economy over preventing the spread of infections. These countries are already facing serious problems, including the possible collapse of healthcare systems and widespread protests as people see their livelihoods increasingly squeezed. If the crisis drags on for another year and a half, there is a real risk that the authorities might lose control of the situation, triggering even more serious social unrest and perhaps even international conflict. Why has this happened? World leaders insist that the virus is the “enemy of humankind,” and call for joint efforts to “defeat the virus.” I believe this the wrong way of looking at the problems we face. The real explanation for what has happened lies with human societies themselves—specifically, with the way in which we have created social and economic systems that are extremely vulnerable to an outbreak of disease like the current pandemic.

Perfect Environment for a Deadly Outbreak

Many factors contributed to this vulnerability. First, globalization has allowed people and things to travel the world with remarkable speed and freedom. The new coronavirus spread from a single region of China to affect every corner of the world within just three months, hitching a ride on its human hosts and spreading quickly and efficiently on planes and ships. The living world is formed of a complex web of ecosystems. In normal circumstances, it is no easy matter for a given organism to move from one place in this web to another, due to the territory staked out by competing organisms or the limits to its own adaptability. For a number of years now, “borderless” has been one of the defining terms of our times. But the idea of making the world “borderless,” so that people and things could move freely around the world, was never anything more than a parochial human interest. Having arrogantly forced this idea onto the living world, we have now reaped the whirlwind in the form of an explosive and virulent new disease.

Another contributory factor has been the excessive concentration of human populations into massive cities. In Japan, it is no accident that the biggest concentration of cases has come in Tokyo. By its very nature and structure, a megacity like Tokyo, where many millions of people live close together, provides an ideal environment for viruses to spread. These vast modern cities have invested huge amounts of money and effort into building an invisible infrastructure of public hygiene, from water and sewage systems to a diverse range of antimicrobial products. It is thanks to this invisible infrastructure that rich consumer cultures could flower and flourish even in these densely packed, overpopulated urban environments. (Tokyo’s mazelike entertainment district of Kabukichō is a classic example.) For a virus, an urban environment in which millions of human hosts live in something close to a pathogen-free environment offers the optimal environment in which to proliferate. It is not surprising that the economies of major cities around the world have been paralyzed by the pandemic.

Destruction of the International Food Supply Chain

In the global food supply chain, we have already seen evidence of how increasing scale and efficiency have caused fragility in the system—fragility that the pandemic has now brought into stark relief. In late April 2020, employees at several food processing facilities in the United States tested positive for the virus, forcing the plants to close. John Tyson, the chairman of Tyson Foods, the world’s largest food producer, placed ads in the New York Times and other media, warning that the “food supply chain is breaking” and that “as pork, beef, and chicken plants are being forced to close, even for short periods of time, millions of pounds of meat will disappear from the supply chain.” The news made the reality of the situation apparent to people around the world for the first time. Multinational agribusiness firms have built up a vast food supply chain that spans the world; suddenly, the virus has exposed unsuspected fragility at the center of this supply chain.

In pursuit of efficiency and profit, agribusiness giants have concentrated their business in huge, centralized processing plants and distribution networks. But this meant that an outbreak of COVID-19 in any of these facilities turned that plant into a bottleneck, paralyzing the entire network. The virus thus scored a direct hit on the most susceptible point of this vast global food production chain.

Seen in this way, we can understand how the pandemic has brought destruction to both the system of mass production (the global supply chain) that produces economic wealth and the system of mass consumption (consumer behavior in the big cities) that feeds off of it. Some people may feel this the word “destruction” is too extreme. But I think that it is fair to say that these systems were truly crippled by the crisis. Remember the words of John Tyson: “the food supply chain is breaking.”

Shifting to a More Sustainable Model of Society

Given this analysis, what are the likely scenarios for how the crisis is likely to develop from here? No matter how optimistic our projections: three looming crises are now almost inevitable. The first of these is a second wave of the virus itself. At a meeting of the Japanese government’s coronavirus taskforce on August 21, members of the panel suggested that the country’s second wave might have peaked in late July. I am not convinced. It seems likely to me that this second wave could become prolonged. In that situation, the kind of extreme shut-downs of economic activities that were imposed during the first wave would be unsustainable. This raises the unpalatable possibility that the wave could have an even bigger impact on the economy than the first.

Second, starting in the second half of 2020, we are likely to enter the “worst recession since the Great Depression,” to borrow the term employed by the International Monetary Fund in its projections for the world economy, published in June. And the third of our brewing crises is the likelihood of increasingly frequent extreme weather incidents and the damage they bring, caused by global warming.

But if this turbulence seems almost inevitable, this only makes it even more vital that we come up with a vision for overcoming these challenges in the medium to long term. I believe that the only realistic form this vision can take is a dramatic shift from our current mass production and mass consumption model of society to one that is more sustainable. If we simply surrender ourselves to the coming chaos without any plan for mitigating it, there is a risk that we might repeat the mistakes of the twentieth century, when demagoguery and a lack of guiding vision led to the tragedy of world war.

The general principles for the transformation to a sustainable society were laid out as long ago as 1972, in a report published by the Club of Rome think tank, under the title “The Limits to Growth.” The basic ideas are these: stop prioritizing economic growth over all other considerations, avoid population growth, and minimize consumption of energy and other resources. It is nearly half a century since that report was published, but its proposals have never been turned into reality. Now is the time to accept the challenge and to get serious about addressing these issues at last.

A Return to Values Once Taken for Granted

I think many people in Japan are becoming aware that things cannot simply go on as they are. Some people are starting to take steps toward a sustainable society. The pandemic has spurred a widespread return to the habit of cooking at home, and more people are starting to grow their own vegetables. There has been a huge increase in the number of people considering relocating from the cities to more rural regions. I do not mean to suggest that we should totally reverse the globalization of the economy that has taken place over the previous decades, but the time has surely come to dial back on the large-scale, rapid movement of people and things. We need a new model for our economy—one based on the principle of producing and consuming locally as much as possible.

In particular, we need to increase our food self-sufficiency. Currently, Japan produces only 37% of the food it consumes on a calorie basis. This is the result of a policy built around exporting mass-produced industrial products and relying at the same time on massive imports in the fields of agriculture, forestry, and fisheries. If these imports were ever interrupted, it is clear that the country would be plunged almost immediately into a severe food crisis shortage. Japan’s agricultural policy has pursued globalization, including a push to boost exports of high-quality agricultural products. The current crisis should be used as an opportunity to move away from this policy. Instead, we should look to produce locally as much of the food we consume as possible. This will involve providing comprehensive support to all the people who make up our agricultural sector, including small-scale cultivators, as well as assistance to encourage new entrants to the sector.

An example of what can be done comes from the city of Isumi in Chiba Prefecture, where the local government introduced a policy to shift to using locally grown organic rice exclusively in the school lunches provided at all the city’s elementary and junior high schools. Cultivation of organic rice in the area dates back only to 2013, when just three farmers were engaged in its production. At the time, there were just 0.2 hectares or so of paddy under cultivation, with a yield of just 0.24 tons. But these figures have steadily increased year by year. By 2017, 23 farmers were cultivating a total area of 14 hectares, producing an annual harvest that had grown to 50 tons, more than enough to supply the 42 tons of rice needed to feed the 2,300 pupils at the city’s public schools. The switch to organic rice reduced the amount of food waste left uneaten by children at the schools, and has also made a useful contribution to their nutritional and dietary education. Of course, Japan is so thoroughly integrated into globalized economic systems that it is not reasonable to expect it to shift overnight to being a self-sustaining country that produces and consumes locally. But the only way forward is to put a brake on the way things have been heading until now and make a new start, putting forward a clear vision for a new policy and implementing it step by step.

The time has come to reexamine the way we live. Yamashita Sōichi, a farmer and writer from Saga Prefecture, has written that “coronavirus infections have been heavily concentrated in the large cities; there have been far fewer cases in regional cities and towns, and hardly any at all in farming villages. The chaos and upheaval brought by the pandemic have reminded us of the safety and security of life in the country and the strength of the foundations we have in terms of producing and holding our own food.” In fact, according to a Cabinet Office survey published in June, around one in four people with experience of working from home said they were increasingly interested in relocating away from the cities. We should look again at the values of the lifestyles that were once taken for granted around the world, of a life where people are born and grow up in safety, live and work in security, enjoy peaceable old lives in retirement, and eventually end their lives supported by the communities where they grew up. The pandemic is pressing all of us to reexamine our lifestyles and the values by which we wish to live our lives.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: Rice paddies in Isumi, Chiba Prefecture. The city has gained attention for its decision to switch to using organic, locally produced rice in its school lunches. Officials say the new policy has led to a dramatic reduction in the amount of food wasted in the city’s schools. Photo by the author.)

economy consumption agriculture sustainability coronavirus COVID-19