The COVID-19 crisis exemplifies the kinds of unprecedented and unpredictable change that we are likely to see as we move forward into turbulent futures. Dealing with such uncertainty is best done through cooperation and prosocial behaviors. Individualism is a product of industrialization, not an inherent trait of humanity. Historically, cultures that have engendered group cooperation outcompeted other groups [56
]. Mainstream environmentalism has been predicated on incremental change achieved through parliamentary reform, itself linked to the gradually changing behavior and value orientations of rational individual citizens. In appealing to rational and sovereign individuals, the cognitivist bias of mainstream environmentalists has engendered a default preoccupation with material or financial incentives and/or education. This commitment to ontological and moral individualism conflicts with complex systems’ perspectives on socioecological change that emphasize nonlinearity, ongoing cycles of growth and creative destruction, and cross-scale dynamics. But it also underplays the significance of unconscious motivations and substantive rationality evident in social psychology, cognitive science, and the anthropology of religion.
The inertia and self-righting dynamics of capitalist political economy are indicative of a deeply resilient system. This regime centers on the relationship between market and state processes, a dynamic that has defined the dominant left/right spectrum through which party politics is ordered. This ostensibly agonistic left/right dynamic obscures the fact that both market and state are predicated on a society of individuals and the absolute dependence of individuals on market- or state-based institutions for economic, welfare, and physical security—and the elimination of mutualist, community-, place-, and family-based “survival groupings”. An alternative modernity would see some re-emergence of the latter in the context of “livelihood”, gift economies, and localization.
Embracing a political economy of renationalization and localization could serve as a tipping point for planetary health. But this process will not be straightforward (see Figure 1
, developed during discussions between authors). “Green” liberals and traditionalist conservatives have different (and often conflicting) motivations for pursuing political–economic relocalization [57
] and use opposing tactics to accomplish their intended goals (e.g., Green New Deal vs. Nationalism [41
]). However, both pathways have the potential to generate common ground for sustainability at local, national, and global scales—for instance, by re-embedding markets within communities or lowering the ecological footprint of material goods by shortening supply chains [58
]. It implies disrupting global production chains without weakening global knowledge flows and connectivity. As we consider how the “COVID-19 shock” can be leveraged to provide opportunities for more prosocial forms of production, it will be important to ask:
In the event of a global-scale transition to a new socioecological regime, the most viable alternatives to industrial capitalism are unlikely to be found among the solutions proposed by mainstream green politics. Self-identified environmentalists working for change in the academy, in the new green economy, in government, and in sustainable development NGOs remain largely embedded within a cosmopolitan worldview premised on a global industrial division of labor. Their visions can only be achieved in a growth economy. In the event of a nonlinear change toward a new political economy, these mainstream green solutions will be swept away along with their supporting system, rendered meaningless by the constraints of a newly place-bound life.
6.1. Cooperative and Prosocial Example: Makers during COVID-19
The ontologies and practices with the most potential to take root in an alternative socioecological system may be those embodied by marginal prefigurative groups. For example, varied versions of Makers, people who take the power of production into their own hands, stepped up during the COVID-19 crisis to fill necessary gaps in supply chains, support parents who found themselves locked down at home with small children, and provided free designs for personal protective equipment. Makers did this for free, as a collective, and for no other reason beyond cooperative and prosocial motivations. Their rapid response was empowered by the collective and cooperative nature of the global Maker movement. During COVID-19, Makers exemplified the Stockholm Resilience Center’s seven principles for resilience [60
]. Makers were able to rapidly adapt to change through a decentralized governance structure that maintained diversity and redundancy. They do so through distributed peer-to-peer networks that are responsive and real-time to help all other nodes continuously learn as new needs and innovations are developed. This open network allows for broad and global participation and use of the ideas without barriers.
Modernity is defined by an enormous increase in per capita access to flows of energy and materials that have been both made possible by and made available a consistent pattern of innovation, new technology, and consumer durables that are synonymous with affluence. Until recently, this trajectory of innovation was inseparable from economies of scale, mass production and consumption, and the expansion of global markets. And for this reason, all new technologies and gadgets were associated with an enormous “complexity overhead”—and were expensive in terms of energy and materials. New micro-fabrication (e.g., 3D printing) and peer-to-peer production and innovation systems, characteristic of Makers and Makerspaces, now make it possible to conceive of uncoupling high technology and innovation from the logic of mass production, global in scale and waste. The critical but unanswered question is the extent to which such systems can reduce the unit energy–material cost of complexity.
While 3D printing started as a novelty, it is increasingly used in the healthcare industry, particularly around innovations in limbs, trachea splints, and brain models for surgical simulation [61
]. COVID-19 represents the first widespread and popular usage of 3D printers. Makers and those with 3D printers critically addressed the deficiency in personal protective equipment (PPE) production and supply chains, not only in innovative designs shared widely through open networks, but in local production and distribution of the products. The 3D printing community raised both spontaneous and coordinated efforts to help to reduce various shortages for frontline workers, including testing kits, face shields, face masks, and ventilators. For future needs of on-demand materials and devices, the peer-to-peer (P2P) community of makers is “a resilient advanced manufacturing network enabled by distribution of 3D-printing factories” that has great potential [62
]. Through its “digital diversity and quick prototyping”, 3D printing has been “demonstrated to be able to adapt to COVID-19 crisis requirements” [63
]. This is important as rapid and effective response to crisis signals resilience for future disturbances. Moreover, 3D printing and P2P networks are able to rapidly respond to the unknown.
Maker communities ask for nothing besides continued collective development of commons and communal knowledge creation. As a collective, Makers are finding ways to bring local production together with enhanced community orientation and resistance toward mass consumption. Modern making is backed by a rich history, beginning with movements against industrialization [64
]. Ruskin saw the unfolding of the sustainability crisis through conspicuous consumption. Mass-produced items had lost the beauty and spirit of artisanal ones. He wanted to see the return of handcrafted goods.
William Morris brought Ruskin’s ideals to a general level. He argued for social and economic reform via labor reform and bringing art back into society. He argued for simplicity and the return of nature in production and that we should have “nothing in [our] houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful” [65
Now, with over 135 million adult Makers in the US alone, 400 Maker Faires organized globally in 2015, and nearly 2000 Makerspaces worldwide [66
], maker communities show a thriving new future of production beyond 3D printing. Making has demonstrated a variety of social benefits [67
]. In a survey with over 3500 knitters, Corkhill found that crafters were “very happy” after knitting. Many had started to knit to alleviate stress, and those who took to the craft more frequently indicated higher levels of mental and emotional relief [68
]. Another study explored crafters 27–57 years old and found that crafting significantly reduces stress [69
These studies indicate that Makers as a prefigurative group contribute to wellbeing and quality of life. The effects of craft on the brain are like meditation or yoga, similar to Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow, which is a state of concentration and total absorption with an activity or situation, to the point where nothing else matters [70
]. This feeling of “flow” can help to regulate strong emotions. This means that making can help people who suffer from anxiety or depression to deal with their feelings and cognitive crossfires. It can also combat mental diseases associated with aging, reducing the chances of developing cognitive impairment by 30–50% [71
As a prefigurative group, they also directly challenge individualized property rights and ownership schemes on which mainstream economics sits. Rather, they celebrate co-ownership and co-production of both social goods and spaces [72
]. Everyone’s commitment to the network is simply for the wellbeing of all, rather than the development and success of a centralized node [73
]. These P2P maker networks are a prefigurative sociotechnical infrastructure that demonstrated resilience and effectiveness when the moment presented itself. This is followed by an increase in interest, further strengthening the prefigurative politic, so it will respond even better next time, and perhaps take on a more central role. While 3D printing may seem innocuous to some, the 3D P2P maker networks are a new postcapitalist mode of governance [74
]. This new model encourages both a global and local civic participation that Bauwens calls a “pluralistic commonwealth”, in which value creation is both shared and contextually dependent. These distributed producers have long prioritized the democratization of knowledge and open-source property rights—two important elements in a resilient postgrowth economy. COVID-19 gave the P2P production community a chance to demonstrate its cooperative and democratic civil organization to empower new modes of knowledge and property rights.
This vision of high-tech “Maker commoning” is highly disruptive of the habitual left–right political spectrum—or specifically the liberal order that straddles this spectrum. Thus, it presents a serious challenge to both neoliberal/neoconservative right-wing politics (market liberalism
) and the internationalist, cosmopolitan, and global solidarity of the left (social liberalism
). The potential of the domain of informal, embedded “livelihood” economies as balance to the market–state resonates with both radical green political economy in the tradition of EF Schumacher, localist conservatism, and social catholic distributism [23
6.2. Tradeoffs and Uncertainy in Complex Systems
Large-scale transition is inherently unpredictable, and its consequences are inevitably uncertain. For instance, ten thousand years ago, at the beginning of the agricultural revolution, populations expanded, social complexity rose rapidly, and there was a flurry of technological innovation. At the same time, nutrition declined, inequality set in, and devastating epidemics swept through densely populated settlements.
With the transition to modernity, life spans increased, infant and maternal mortality fell, and scientific knowledge deepened. Individuals were, for the first time in history, liberated (at least somewhat) from the circumstances of their birth, unprecedented economic growth and technological innovation improved quality of life for billions around the world, and the horizon of moral consideration expanded, sparking movements for greater equity and social justice. Yet in the midst of what was broadly perceived to be “progress”, the expansion of the market economy eroded community ties, individualization obscured the systemic causes of social problems, inequality became global in scope, and an epidemic of chronic disease and mental health problems gripped even the most affluent populations [77
]. Perhaps most troubling, so much environmental destruction has been wrought since the industrial revolution that we have now crossed ecological planetary boundaries into new socioecological territory, where the future of human civilization is profoundly threatened [79
]. All the gains made in health outcomes and quality of life in modern societies hang in the balance, and human survival on an anthropogenically altered planet has become an open question [81
The tradeoffs entailed in previous transitions raise the question of what changes a radical shift to something such as localism will bring. Here, we tread nervously because twentieth century attempts to carve out a “third way” did not go well. One reason for these failures was the propensity of the left to construe the problem as one-dimensional and “solvable”. The Enlightenment has always saddled progressive thinking with an intense rationalism, i.e., the assumption that if a sufficiently good model of the problem is understood well enough by the leading actors, it could be solved totally and finally. The elitist implications of this kind of thinking are obvious. But moreover, as Marx [82
] and later Schumpeter [83
] understood very well, a defining feature of modernity is the ceaseless internal propensity for change (“all that is solid melts to air”). Schumpeter’s highlighting of “creative destruction” carried over into modern complexity science and specifically Buzz Holling’s “adaptive cycle” heuristic [84
]. From the perspective of complexity science, a transition toward a prefigurative politics is often problematic because it embodies a series of paradoxes and dilemmas. Kaitlin Kish and Stephen Quilley [23
] identify the following tensions:
Steady states are always provisional and temporary: Any ecological or socioeconomic equilibrium produced by an evolutionary, path-dependent process is likely to be dynamic and generative of endogenous processes of transformation.
What is good for the system is not necessarily good for individuals or groups within that system: Wholesale system change involving “creative destruction” necessarily involves bad and even catastrophic outcomes for individuals. We are comfortable with this when talking about forest fires or fisheries, but less so when those involved are human.
Alternative pathways embody very difficult tradeoffs involving cherished values and priorities: Possible or conceivable political and socioeconomic configurations exist on a “landscape” that defines the relationship between different parameters and phenomena. Any particular configuration cannot occupy different positions in such a landscape simultaneously.
Viable alternatives may not be visible: What is perceived as “possible” or viable depends greatly on discourse (the hegemonic “common sense”) but also on the vantage point of the present state of affairs. Large areas of the landscape of the “adjacent possible” may not be visible.
The consistent driving force of capitalist modernization has been the commodification and privatization of the commons, the steadily increasing scale and scope of price-setting markets, and the disembedding of the “economy” as a visibly separate sphere with its own logic. A recurring phenomenon in this privatization of the commons has been the elimination of gift economies and the curtailment of reciprocal modes of integration. What Marx referred to as “commodification” means taking needs that were previously met freely through reciprocal gift exchange and creating goods or services that can be bought or sold. For example, child-minding by an elder sibling, as an aspect of the gift economy, can become commodified in the form of commercial childcare; informal learning in the home can become commodified as a function of both state (public schools) and market (private schools); water freely available as a common pool resource can be bottled, privatized, and sold; a culture of participatory musical performance in familial or community settings can be displaced by professional performance and merchandise. In each case, whereas the former does not register as an economic transaction, the latter contributes to GDP.
During the COVID-19 crisis, we see these tensions in real time, particularly regarding women. In Canada, the participation rate of women in the unpaid domestic sphere is 93% compared to 76% of fathers [85
]. While father participation increased by 25% from 1986 to 2015, mothers still account for just under two thirds of all unpaid domestic work. Full-time working mothers were more likely to have contributed to unpaid childcare than fathers who were unemployed. While great strides toward equality continue, there is still a gender divide within unpaid domestic work. The COVID-19 pandemic is widening this divide, threatening to limit, or even reverse, progress made on gender equality [86
]. There are quantifiable unequal effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on female scientists and those with young children and “the impact is most pronounced for female scientists with young dependents” [87
]. These effects will have long-term impacts.
From April 2020 to July 2020, Kish and Sanniti [88
] collected preliminary data from mothers in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario. Semi-structured interviews with 23 mothers in traditional heteronormative nuclear families with two or more children explored the degree to which women find themselves shouldering additional domestic burdens caused by lockdown measures. With this small sample size, the goal is not to answer any specific question but rather expose areas necessary for future research regarding the unintended consequences of economic contraction on mothers. In total, 30% of the women had to leave their job to care for children during school lockdowns. Slightly more than half of this 30% did not see leaving their job as a burden as they had no intention of advancing. The others commented that they had irreversibly damaged their careers. The husbands did not leave their jobs because they were higher paid, the women distrusted them as competent caregivers, or they refused to quit, citing that the obligation to do so is on the woman. In total, 21% of the women worked from home and all said that their productivity suffered. And while nearly all said that they feel as though they are working more than ever, they feel as though they are failing at both career and being a mother. Moreover, 8% of the women were unable to leave their job and instead switched to night shifts (7 p.m.–7 a.m.), then providing childcare and homeschooling during the day.
In total, 47% of the women reported anxiety related to the addition of unpaid care work and 26% started taking antipsychotic, antianxiety, or antidepressant medication since March 2020. Additional complaints centered on loss of personal time, inability to provide healthy food for their children due to lack of energy, resources, and time, and all expressed feelings of loneliness, disconnection, and loss of self related to their new role. These preliminary data suggest that contractions in the economy and movement to more localized livelihoods may put the burden of care work back on women without prefigured intervention strategies. While this preliminary research was conducted in Canada, the French minister for equality, Marlène Schiappa, stated that the pandemic will have long lasting impacts on women in France, and globally—particularly related to domestic abuse [89
]. The government of Sweden made similar remarks on issues related to abuse; this suggests that countries with more generous parental leave may face different kinds of gender-related issues [90