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Foundations for the Future – Towards a More Sustainable World

Foundations for the Future – Towards a More Sustainable World

28 July 21
 | 18 MINS

In planning for a more sustainable world, a key learning from the current crisis is that we must increasingly imagine the world in an interconnected global sense.

Responding effectively to the COVID-19 pandemic has elevated the importance of securing the well-being of our ecologies, societies and public health collectively.

In planning for a more sustainable world, and mitigating the effects of the next pandemic, a key learning from the current crisis is that we must increasingly imagine the world in an interconnected global sense, and that the foundations of environmental and human security must be underpinned by the principles of solidarity and transnational cooperation.

Ecosystem precarity and health security

Our current era of human activity, the ‘Anthropocene’, has been typified by far-reaching ecological impacts on the planet sustained in the wake of unrestrained capitalism since the industrial revolution. Alerts to the dangers of overstepping environmental boundaries in the process of excessive capitalist production are not new – the World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned for decades that climate change, biodiversity loss and habitat degradation pose significant risks in terms of the proliferation of infectious pathogens, for instance.

A key challenge lies in documenting and understanding the scalar connections and relational geographies of environmental stress and consequent precarity. One of the most important connections between capitalist productions and ecological effects to illuminate relates to ‘Big Farm’ agribusiness and how we ethically and environmentally produce food. In the wildlife food sector, for example, agribusiness played a central role in the emergence of COVID-19, and indeed in many of the other deadly pathogens we have seen in recent decades. In the hugely profitable exotic food sector, opportunities for infection are facilitated by increased encroachment on wild forests. Given the zoonotic nature of coronaviruses, further outbreaks are inevitable. The ecological and pathological corollaries of unregulated agribusiness are clear – their exposure is vital in addressing the origins of COVID-19 and planning for mitigating the effects of future pandemics.

In terms of public health, the impoverished understanding and functioning of what constitutes ‘security’ was exposed in the overwhelming inadequacies of healthcare infrastructures globally when COVID-19 hit. Environmental and health security – core elements of the UN’s vision of human security and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – had not previously featured sufficiently on the security agenda of nations and intergovernmental organisations across the world. They had not been prioritised, and crucially had not been invested in and resourced, historicising this fact is important.

The failure to prepare for COVID-19 did not just start in December 2019, but was in fact programmed decades ago.

We also have persistent gender and equality blindspots in terms of the imbalance of predominantly male-centred, decision-making in Ireland.

Critical blindspots

Other key blindspots have emerged since then. In our new appreciation of interconnected global precarity, we need to be mindful of how precarity is differentially experienced across class, race, gender, sexuality, disability and other social hierarchies. In other words, geography matters. In Ireland, we have the added spatial challenge of the Irish Border, which has elevated the import of monitoring human health pathways in a transnational context.

The Shared Island initiative is a welcome move in the right direction, but more immediate action will be required to address the health crisis in both jurisdictions on the island, and there is an opportunity to learn from experiences further afield on how best to manage border zones.

We also have persistent gender and equality blindspots in terms of the imbalance of predominantly male-centred, decision-making in Ireland. All of the principal, visible decision-makers involved in crafting and enacting policy during the pandemic have been men in the arenas of politics, health, public expenditure and the economy. It is becoming clearer too that COVID-19 has placed further hurdles for career progression in the way of both men and women who have additional caring responsibilities, but for women especially. And the evidence also points to COVID-19’s inflated detrimental impacts on mortality outcomes for our BAME citizens, and on the future educational and life prospects of our children. COVID-19 did not create these structural inequalities in our society but it certainly brought them more into view.

Learning from the pandemic

COVID-19 has prompted new, greener and more holistic modes of living and working. Virtual meetings reducing the need for travel, the opening up of digital working hubs, more exercise, walking children to school rather than taking the car, are all trends that hope for a more sustainable future. The pandemic has reminded us of the difference between what is ‘necessary’ and ‘unnecessary’.  It has highlighted the difference between ‘existing’ and ‘living’ and has signalled what we need as humans to thrive as individuals and communities.

Since April this year, the Moore Institute COVID-19 Response Group has hosted a webinar series exploring various aspects of the societal and political impacts of the pandemic. Core themes such as the role of national cultures in shaping state responses to the crisis, the enduring task of supporting public health systems, and how we can effectively strategise for solidarity and collective cooperation (are we all really in this together?), came to the fore in discussions with our Irish and international speakers. The key issue of how to build consensus on managing the virus also prominently emerged, with reflection on educational access and science literacy in our population in particular. Science is communicated to the public primarily through language.

Therefore, any successful programme of public health management must entail clear, carefully tailored and concise communication. This task is equally important for effecting vital climate action initiatives in, and with, communities. In bringing common-sense expertise into the public realm, and furthermore into informed government policy, Arts and Humanities research can play a leading role of engaged public scholarship that showcases why reflective critical knowledge counts.

There is now an opportunity to globally press the ‘reset’ button

Foundations for the future

There is now an opportunity to globally press the ‘reset’ button, to innovatively and creatively plan for a more sustainable future. Universities are the ideal spaces for such re-imaginings (of education, health, work, the environment, and the capitalist web of life) and in this task, interdisciplinary research and teaching – spanning STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and AHSS (Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences) scholarship – will be crucial.

The pandemic has shown us that combining scientific and social scientific knowledges (and especially their creation with, and application in, communities) is hugely important, and a key narrative in securing buy-in from the public has been the idea of building a better future.

At NUI Galway, a potential new interdisciplinary Centre for Future Studies has the capacity to bring together work from across the Arts and Sciences to address future challenges that our people, places, and planet will experience in the coming decades.

In the academy, we not only have a responsibility to lead in rebuilding in the immediate wake of the pandemic, but also to lead in building forward a better future. Universities are uniquely positioned to do this, and a future sustainability agenda incorporating the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, for instance, has to be built into the fabric of that. To this end, we can certainly do more to coalesce STEM and AHSS scholarship in an integrated vision for collaboratively and instructively informing public policy on a range of vital global challenges.

We have surely reached a human and planetary tipping point in the precarity of our capitalist system.


UN Secretary General, António Guterres, recently declared that COVID-19 has reminded us of ‘the price we pay for weaknesses in health systems, social protections and public services’, and that now is the time to ‘redouble our efforts to build more inclusive and sustainable economies and societies.’

For Guterres, the recovery must result in a new social contract and a different, greener economy. He points to the UN’s 2030 agenda and sustainable development goals as the roadmap. Inspiring declarations such as these become simply rhetoric, of course, unless they are activated in tangible and legally binding ways. This requires strengthening and resourcing the global governance architecture of UN agencies such as the WHO with the necessary measures to effectively oversee states and corporations complying with global conventions. And this must happen at national levels too, where the connection between governments and their citizens needs to be underpinned by trust in governance.

A further challenge lies in effecting multilateral solidarity across nations that offers something more hopeful than the exceptionalism displayed by many governments throughout the crisis, especially in the Global North.

We have surely reached a human and planetary tipping point in the precarity of our capitalist system. Global solidarity and collective responsibility for safeguarding the planet, and our future on it, is more important now than ever before. To this end, a broader sense of how we conceive and resource human health and environmental security, holistically, is vital.

For a healthier and more sustainable future, we must regulate how we manage the planet in a way that does not see it as simply a resource to be exploited in an unconstrained economy. Politicians may speak of a world where ‘hope and history rhyme’, but the moment to bring the lessons of the past and our aspiration for a sustainable future together is very much with us in the here and now.


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