Pandemic and Response

All across the world, covering nearly all countries, there has been tremendous state activity declared as a need to deal with a very momentous health crisis related to contagion.

However, the actual death toll from this viral infection, covid-19, hasn’t actually been shockingly high. While this is undoubtedly something to be grateful for, it does raise some questions about the severity of the response.

  1. At one level, the speed and intensity of the response may have led to lowering the absolute numbers of deaths. The global leader in absolute terms is the USA, where the extent of response has been both slow and patchy, ranging all the way to complete denial, while countries like New Zealand have almost fully stayed clear of effects, and from conversations I’ve had, have very limited application of risk avoidance interventions such as masks and social distancing.

  2. At another level, the tremendous slowdown in many kinds of industrial activity, including spin-offs such as the transportation of raw materials and intermediates, has seemingly had a salutary impact on several climate change factors, such as the ozone hole.

It appears to me that the one intervention that is truly missing from the conversation, or simply not audible enough, is the re-engineering of industrial world work activities.

Some amount of routine office work has moved to remote interactions, it is true. But these seem to be in the nature of workarounds, not genuine re-engineering. The reason I’m stating this, is that the palpable reaction to the possibility of the early stage vaccine rollout actually is a sigh of relief that things will soon go back to the way they used to be.

But the way things used to be is a terrible way, by most all reckoning. Not only is it a vast consumer of non renewable resources, but the rate of consumption has long since reached the halfway point on several critical resources. This means that humans need to be reducing the rate of consumption rather than speeding up or continuing at the same rate, if any critical product or service depends on one or more of such items.

The very obvious solution, to my mind, is critical re-engineering. Processes need to be designed from the ground up that minimise or eliminate the use of depleted resources.

One of the critical resources, however, is not a material good, it is a storage capacity. This is the storage capacity for heat energy. The planet has a finite capacity to absorb heat, before it begins to result in a steady rise in planetary temperature. Most climatologists agree that the rise has already begun, and, what is more important, it has got very near the point before other heat-dependent processes go into runaway mode, entering a feedback loop that will accelerate the rise.

We know from the study of nearby planets, namely Mars and Venus, that planet temperature is a fairly narrow band, for the sustenance of the kind of life that characterises humans. Both those planets are negatively impacted, and our kind of life cannot live naturally on either.

Given this situation, the most obvious path for sustenance of our kind of life on Earth is a substantial re-jigging of the way we do things. Since the industrial society is a major component of any economically advanced society (nation) right now, if we continue to believe that economic success is a valuable addition to society in general, we need to rework how industrial society functions.

Hopefully, this is the first post on a conversation on doing that.


Industrial activity - the driver of economic success - requires massive amounts of energy input. Even if energy were produced in a 100% replenishable process there remains the need to store /recycle the waste heat. Greenery does this job quite nicely. Expanding forests is a hard task given the constant need for land, agriculture being the biggest land consumer and with a huge negative environmental footprint. Vigorous use of modern techniques that are frugal in their requirements of water, fertilizer, pesticides and labour is one way of returning land to nature without compromising our needs from agriculture.

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We already have a concept called frugal engineering.

Perhaps what is also needed is more vigorous labelling of methods and processes that are wasteful, both of materials and of energy.

We use the term frugal to denote holistic efficiency, but it has no discernibly recognised economic value. We need to call out, in financial and economic terms, waste.