Climate change, Coronavirus epidemic and the present human condition: Where does Sri Lanka stand? | Daily News


Climate change, Coronavirus epidemic and the present human condition: Where does Sri Lanka stand?

Health officials monitor airline passengers and check  their temperature as they pass a thermal scanner monitor upon arrival.
Health officials monitor airline passengers and check their temperature as they pass a thermal scanner monitor upon arrival.

Today the people across the world are faced with several serious challenges that threaten to disrupt their long established ways of life. On the one hand, slow moving climate change creates environmental conditions that threaten established ways of life almost everywhere. On the other hand, the public health epidemic created by coronavirus continues to disrupt social and economic life of people in many parts of the world.

Both these challenges together threaten to disrupt the global socio-economic order that came into being over the last several decades. Yet, these developments did not happen suddenly. On the one hand, unrestrained economic growth under globalized capitalism not only in already developed countries but also in the emerging market economies of all regions of the world.

While globally mobile private capital reached out to almost all corners of the world to make use of the natural and human resources for all types of commodity production for an expanding global market, increasing incomes of people absorbed by new production processes began to promote mass consumption of all sorts of commodities and services. The expanding production and consumption in turn resulted in the rapid increase in the use of non-renewable resources like forests, minerals and land. The expansion of the global economy facilitated by the increasing circulation of labour, commodities and consumers gave rise to a worldwide network of large and small cities interconnected by transportation networks, communication channels and trade links.

What is obtained above happened over the last five decades or so, despite the warnings given by environmental and the scientists in the early 1970's that there were obvious limits to economic growth set by ecological constraints. Yet, most countries pursued rapid economic growth leading to unsustainable exploitation of natural resources without paying much attention to negative ecological consequences such as environmental pollution and increasing emissions from industrial factories, power plants, transportation networks, energy intensive cities, deforestation, etc. These developments contributed to climate change that has dire consequences for the entire world population and other living beings.

Coronavirus epidemic

The present coronavirus epidemic that originated in China has already spread to many other countries across the world. Given the highly interconnected nature of the world today, its spread across the world is not unexpected. On the other hand, the threat posed by the epidemic has already had a highly significant impact on the global economy and international exchange relations, in particular, mobility of people across countries. As long as the threat persists, economic down turn is more than likely to continue with serious consequence for the whole world, in particular, for more vulnerable countries like Sri Lanka.

Responding to conditions created by both climate change and the coronavirus epidemic at national level has become urgent as its adverse effects are felt by almost everybody in the country. Yet, our approach to dealing with the emergent situation has to be based on not just an assessment of the evolving ground situation today but also a comprehensive analysis of the longer term implications of the two global challenges. The purpose of this short article is not to make an effort to provide such an assessment and analysis is beyond the scope of the article but indicate how we might want to move forward as a country to be prepared to face the short term and long term impacts of both climate change and global public epidemics.

As for climate change, it is clear that the whole world has failed to heed the warnings by natural and social scientists regarding the mindless pursuit of economic growth at the immense cost of the damage to the earth's eco-system.

The result has been steadily increasing temperatures leading to diverse negative consequences. On the other hand, increasing global inequalities that accompanied the expansion of the globalized capitalism economy resulted in a race for economic growth and prosperity among both developed and developing countries alike. Rapid ascendance of China, India and many other countries as economic powers of varying sizes has been the result. Rapid increase in the production of commodities and the increasing mobility of labour and industrial and other goods across the world immensely contributed to the problems mentioned above.

With the opening of Sri Lanka’s economy to the outside world in 1977 and what followed thereafter, the country become totally integrated into the world economy. The result has been a steady restructuring of the local economy in line with domestic development policies, external economic pressures and the responses of different segments of the local population to the changing social and economic conditions. While liberal economic policies facilitated the emergence of a largely Colombo based private sector focused on the production of a few export commodities, export and import trade, urban service industries like retail trade, telecommunication, tourism, private health, education and transport services and all sorts of financial services. Traditional rural agriculture stagnated and long established import substitution industries collapsed in the face of competition from imported industrial products.

Public and private services

More and more people moved into urban centres like Colombo find income opportunities and other facilities. Many people also began to migrate to other countries for more lucrative employment opportunities. Increasing incomes of a significant segment of the population created the demand for private health, education and transport services largely concentrated in urban centres. On the other hand, inadequate public investments in publicly provided education, health and transport services led to a widening gap between public and private services. This situation has persuaded many people, irrespective of their income to rely more and more on private services, encouraging more and more people to move into more lucrative jobs with the hope of earning more money.

The decline or stagnation of productive economic activities such as agriculture and rural and urban industries led to a widening gap between exports and imports in the country. Since earnings from commodity exports became increasingly inadequate to pay for increasing imports, the country became increasingly dependent on worker remittances, tourism and foreign borrowings to bridge the widening trade gap, making the country heavily dependent on the outside world.

It is this situation that prevails in the country today, at a time when even international mobility of people has become quite difficult due to Coronavirus epidemic.

On the other hand, climate change poses an equally or even bigger threat, both at home and in the rest of the world. But, we cannot say that the world was not warned about such possible developments. As alluded to earlier, it was in 1972 that the Limits to Growth report was published by an expert team (Dennis Meadows,, sending the clear message to the world community that reckless economic growth beyond ecological limits could lead to serious consequences for the whole world. On the other hand, well known German sociologist, Ulrich Beck published his first book on Risk Society in 1992 that warned that we were moving into an era when human societies were bound to face grave risks from multiple sources. This is exactly where we are today.

Sri Lanka is among the few countries with the greatest risk due to climate change. But, then, Coronavirus shows that risks can emanate from any corner of the world. But, where is the public discussion in Sri Lanka on these lines?

How can we prepare people and the country for difficult times and avoid catastrophic situations based on careful planning our steps ahead, if the leaders do not show any interest in such thinking? When science is overlooked, people will have to look up to divine powers for solace. We have to admit that our politicians have at least created the space for divine interventions when people feel that they are in trouble!


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