COVID-19: Dying for Sustainability?

The current pandemic might temporarily slow down environmentally destructive economic growth. However, claiming that we are dying for sustainability is dangerous. The global sustainability crisis is not just driven by uneconomic growth but also increasing global inequality and social stratification.


Suggesting that COVID-19 is a pathway to sustainability is tempting. Transnational oil corporations have halted production. Oil prices have tumbled. Plans for new oil explorations have been halted. Shale gas companies are folding up. Air travel has plummeted. So has road travel. Consequently, emission levels have dropped. Skies have cleared. Rare and remote species of animals appear to be back in sight. As recently demonstrated elsewhere, some of this optimism is based on questionable information. Others can be questioned for comparing long-term socio-ecological change with short-term outcomes of a pandemic.

Still, humanity seems to have rediscovered its sacrosanct relationship with nature. The ramifications are wide-ranging. Some employers now recognise that work can be done from home. With so many virtual conferences now taking place, it appears that international travel is not so much needed. Maybe not so many people are needed either. Australian philosopher, Peter Singer, welcomes the death of so many old people who are no longer productive. Perhaps the reduction in unsustainable population growth could also be welcome. A world that is small and serene has come.

Is this a plausible pathway to start the journey described in The Limits to Growthfirst published in 1972? The update of that work suggests that whatever the pathway, we must have limits to growth. That is evidently the argument made by political economists such as Ezra Mishan who coined the name ‘growthmania’ in The Costs of Economic Growth, published about a decade before The Limits to Growth.

Growthmania has become even more problematic in recent times.From this perspective, only a pandemic, a major rapture like COVID-19, can disrupt the path of unsustainable growth. Humanity appears to be dying for sustainability.

Over the years, however, the critique of the degrowth movement, suggests that the story is not as simple. The current socioecological crises are far more complexUneconomic growth, as Herman Daly calls it, is only one of them.

Limits to Inequality

Inequality is, perhaps, even more fundamental to the sustainability crisis. For the Global South, addressing inequalities has been the central sustainability challenge. This point was echoed in the famous Brundtland Report which declared that “This inequality is the planet’s main ‘environmental’ problem”. The report promoted ‘sustainable development’ as an antidote. Yet, this idea was, in effect, sustainable economic growth. Such contradiction in ambitions can be seen in the current SDGs as well.

Growthism has taken a strong resurgence. Critics have, consequently, blamed the pursuit of sustainable development as the primary reason. Not only has sustainable development come to erode, corrupt and dilute the lofty ideals of ‘limits to growth’; the argument goes, it has also expanded and justified more growthism. The catechists for growth have, accordingly, been enabled to hide behind the poorer world for their own gains. Consequently, ‘limiting growth’ has become a major preoccupation of many environmentalists and activists.

Yet, the centrality of inequality  to socio-ecological crises needs to be recognised and addressed.  Limits to inequalities is what the South demands; not limitless growth. The rising movements around the world are, in fact, against the rise of the 1%, a shorthand for inequality. Thomas Piketty’s book, which has had world-wide acclaim, is on inequality. The MeToo Movement and Black Lives Matter are both about addressing inequality. This demand is theoretically sound. Widely endorsed by Herman Daly, Richard Wilkinsonand Kate Pickett, considering the ramifications of Maintaining status is one way of fleshing it out. Analysing the tendencies for  Catch Upand reflecting on the effects of monopolising Privilege (three crucial indicators of inequality) on the environment can offer even more clarity.

Consider Maintaining Status. Inequality fosters consumerism. The wealthy seek to maintain their status. Temptations to buy more and more set in. When the world is unequal, binge purchases and consumption sustain unsustainable volumes of production meant for the wealthy. At the national level, such processes are quite well-known, but similar comments apply to global inequalities too. Status shapes global consumerism. Among the wealthy countries of the world, there is a race to show position: whether it is spending more on arms, going to space, or building more transportation systems. This desire to succour the leisure class, as Thorstein Veblen once called them, is widespread. However, it is especially pronounced among the very rich countries and the middle-income ones. Yet, maintaining it is bad for the environment. When such a practice becomes rampant, it sets in motion problematic forces of mimicry.

That is one way to explain why catching up is related to maintaining status. So long as inequality persists, the concern among the middle-class and some poorer countries is to seek catching up as progress. Often though, this maintenance of privilege gives world development organisations, usually located in the same wealthy nations, the power to impose these standards on the poorer nations. Catching up becomes development. With this dynamic in place, opportunistic pressures to pollute to similar levels as the wealthy lend themselves. In this process, polluter pays arguments are transformed. They become Western payments for nature, carbon sinks drilled in the Global South apparently save the planet.

Yet, this transfer of land from the South to the North, disguised as a way to ensure ‘catch up’, is, in fact, another way of cementing the monopoly of privilege. Globally, absentee landlord states  and their transnational corporations continue to monopolise the land commons in the Global South. Not only do they control the global value chains and the global commodity chains, they also control the downstream transport and petroleum industries. They make decisions and influence world mineral pricing. They manipulate the demand, and supply of such resources. They transport fossil fuels over long distances. After refinement, they return the waste products to the South. Significant pollution and dispossession arise from this inequality of ownership and control. Increasing rentierism, absentee ownership, dispossession, and systemic environmental accidents arise. These processes attest to the environmental pandemic that arises from unequal property relations.

Within nations, the concentration of land in the hands of a few raises serious concerns. The resulting rent increases generates unsustainable national transformation. Rental increases drive sprawl and longer commuting patterns. Land concentration also explains widespread insecurities. In turn, uncertainties drive the rise of gated housing estates. This trend is concerning. Not only does the building sector, dominated by a small powerful hierarchy of transnational corporations and absentee estate developers, generate 30 per cent of global annual emissions, it also consumes 40 per cent of global energy pool.

These inequalities have become more complex with time. So have the ecological crises. Both are intertwined. These socio-ecological problems, in turn, create social stratification. They tear communities apart. Broken, society cannot be sustainable. When farms are replaced with fences and fences with gates, where the desire for rent drives the pursuit of land, and when more and more land is concentrated in few hands, what is needed is not just sustainability; but a just sustainability.

Beyond Limits to Growth

There cannot be any sustainability without equity. The emphasis on growthmania as the central and only problem of sustainability has brought us far, but it can take us no further. Continuing to insist on it prioritises environmental sustainability over social and economic sustainability. Growing inequality and social stratification undermine environmental sustainability. Ecological justice suffers. Placing limits on inequality and stratification is, therefore, crucial. For holistic and fundamental transformation, what is needed is not just sustainability but a just sustainability.

If there is any useful analytical lesson from COVID-19, it is that our methodologies need to be holistic and our analysis historical. Without these transdisciplinary approaches and transformation in how we study sustainability, we risk overlooking just sustainabilities and reifying environmentalism.

Thus, if more research is needed on COVID-19, it should not only be on finding a vaccine and empirically ascertaining its effects on economic growth. Although important, what is urgent is research on sustainability and COVID-19 within the context of limits to inequality.

Franklin Obeng-Odoom leads the HELSUS Global South research theme. He teaches in Development Studies, and he is the author of Property, Institutions, and Social Stratification in Africa.


Many thanks to Drs. Kaisa Korhonen-Kurki, Michiru Nagatsu, Jussi T. Eronen, and Andreas Exner for excellent feedback. Voices for Sustainability team deserve special thanks for their patience and constructive suggestions.

Photos by Travis Saylor from Pexels. This post was first published on the Voices for Sustainability blog.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s