There's plenty of speculation over the origins of the pandemic that has ground much of the world to a halt. But there's little doubt about who caused it. As a panel of international scientists noted in a release issued this week, "There is a single species that is responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic — us."
The statement — authored by professors Josef Settele, Sandra Díaz, Eduardo Brondizio and zoologist Peter Daszak — goes on to point the finger squarely at our obsession with "economic growth at any cost."
"Rampant deforestation, uncontrolled expansion of agriculture, intensive farming, mining and infrastructure development, as well as the exploitation of wild species have created a 'perfect storm' for the spillover of diseases from wildlife to people."
Now, the real question is how do we make things right in the world, while avoiding the mistakes that brought us here in the first place? At least one major political party thinks it has the answer.
This week, New Zealand's Green Party unveiled an ambitious plan to get the country back to work and the gears of industry turning once again, in environmentally friendly fashion.
And all for the tidy sum of $1 billion.
It may seem like a lot, but the cost pales in comparison with what we're paying in lost economic output from this pandemic. Early estimates peg that tally at around $2.7 trillion, which is about the entire GDP of the United Kingdom.
So what does a billion-dollar stimulus plan buy, according to New Zealand's Green Party? For one thing — and likely at the top of everyone's minds — the plan would create jobs. It promises to create employment for 7,000 people over the next three years, all in industries that have been pummeled by the pandemic. For New Zealand, that would be tourism. But the catch is these would be "green" jobs, with people working to help build and sustain the country's chief tourism draw: nature.
"These work opportunities are well suited to those who have worked outdoors such as tourist guides currently out of work, have people and project management skills or who want to quickly retrain and get their hands dirty helping nature," notes Eugenie Sage, a Green Party member who also serves as environment minister, in a press release.
"Our tourism industry depends on the health of our nature, and culture, and so it is important to invest in this critical infrastructure, rather than just bulldozers and asphalt."
The plan calls for plenty of building projects, only they would focus not just on reviving the economy, but also the environment. It includes funding, for instance, to save Raukūmara Conservation Park from the invasive deer and possums that have taken it over. As well, there are details on how to bring native birds back to the country. Other projects would restore the country's ailing freshwater reserves, create carbon sinks and natural buffers against rising sea levels.
"This investment creates thriving native forests and wetlands, assets that last centuries and suck carbon out of the atmosphere," Sage explains. "It will avoid future pest control costs, better buffer coastal areas from sea level rise and provide corridors for birds to come back to neighbourhoods.
"There are all sorts of exciting projects across the country that are planned and ready to go, and this funding could see them get started immediately."
That's not to say the shiny, green plan is guaranteed to become a reality. The party, which is part of a ruling coalition, has yet to officially present it to the legislature. For now, it's been adopted as Green Party policy. And, as Michael Nelson writes in the New Zealand Herald, "in the past, coalition partners have not been particularly friendly to some Green Party environmental proposals."
Indeed, the party's recent call for $9 billion to be spent on electric trains as a sustainable and practical alternative to cars may also face an uphill climb.
But then again, the New Zealand model, if adopted, could be just the fresh inspiration the rest of us need to reboot a post-COVID world. One thing, at least, is certain: we can't go back to the way things were.
As scientists noted in their statement this week, the world needs "transformative change" across the board. That includes fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values, promoting social and environmental responsibilities across all sectors.
"As daunting and costly as this may sound — it pales in comparison to the price we are already paying."