COVID-19: a model for global challenges?

A global crisis, a series of different responses, restrictions on some liberties for the common good, the need for a collective cultural effort to understand the reasons for its spread and how to emerge from it. The various aspects of our fight against the spread of the Coronavirus have raised profound questions for the whole of humanity regarding our near and long-term future. Will they also serve as models for the great environmental challenges ahead? How does the spread of Coronavirus relate to scientific, philosophical and anthropological ideas with regard to limits, and theories regarding the type of development models to pursue? We addressed these questions to some of the members of the Scientific Committee of the UNESCO Dolomites Foundation.

Annibale Salsa: “The scientific model is in crisis”

Annibale Salsa, anthropologist, former President of the CAI and member of the Scientific Committee of the UNESCO Dolomites Foundation offered the following thoughts: “It’s too early to describe the Covid-19 crisis as marking a turning point for our age, but I hope that it makes us more aware of the excesses and limitations of our current development model. Globalisation is first in the dock: we’ll have to reconsider many aspects of our lifestyle, as well as the dominant paradigms. We placed complete trust in the models offered by scientists and technocrats, but our risk culture was unable to predict what would happen. Please note: I am not talking about the scientific model, but rather that of the scientist, which elevates science to a form of ideology. Scientific culture is based on predictability: our failure to predict the size of the pandemic takes us back centuries. The spread of the Coronavirus and climate change are part of the same great wave of globalisation, and the COVID-19 crisis could signal its end. More specifically, it could mark the end of such things as our culture of making rapid journeys, which are the death of travel. And now we come to the repercussions for the mountains: many experts in tourism economics agree that we are now being forced to re-evaluate and promote local tourism, rediscovering places close at hand and the mountains we’ve disdained for much too long. We will start discovering the “exoticism of the local”, and this could be a radical shift, involving the exploration of some of the lesser-known mountains. The other revolution will a cultural one, involving our sense of limits: an alien concept in a society which has always viewed overcoming limits as its goal. Instead, we will need to distinguish between subjective and objective limits, including those we have to impose to contain climate change.”

Cesare Lasen: “The lesson needs to be learned”

“Our models have to be revised. We have no time to lose.” Cesare Lasen, botanist, biologist, ecologist, former President of the Dolomiti Bellunesi National Park and member of the Scientific Committee of the UNESCO Dolomites Foundation, has no doubts on this score. The models he is citing are those which govern our current society. “We’re consuming at unsustainable rates, as is demonstrated by the fact that we’ve already consumed the planet’s available resources by the middle of every year. The world’s ecosystem – the biosphere – can’t help but react. And the reaction consists in accelerating climate change and in spreading a pandemic, which is imposing some unexpected but very necessary limits. Primarily on us as humans: because it is man who needs nature and not vice versa.” Lasen believes it is vital to examine the overall response of the various systems, and this is the task of the ecologist. The study of cellular mechanisms, epidemiological statistics, research into possible vaccines and natural antibodies are all vital elements. However, Lasen emphasises that: “a holistic approach is urgently needed. We can’t ignore the fact that the planet is under stress and at least consider the possibility that we might have gone past breaking point.” Lasen believes that regardless which causes or complications are attributable to human action, it is clear that we are now receiving a final warning. “The process of unlimited growth based on the consumption of our remaining resources simply cannot continue. The planet is reacting and the lesson should to be taken on board.” So what’s happening instead? “The opposite is happening: the pandemic has reinforced our current model, including social disparities and threats to our natural heritage. Ideas for the post-COVID-19 situation are being proposed, aimed at waiving laws and rules in the name of reviving the economy.” In short, protected areas could be put at risk.

Roland Dellagiacoma: “less is more”

Roland Dellagiacoma is a forestry specialist and member of the UNESCO Dolomites Foundation Scientific Committee, and what he is proposing is not in fact a contradiction, in that slowing down means not repeating the mistakes of the past. As Dellagiacoma underlined: “The twenty-first century should be a time of ecology rather than economics”: a sentiment that recalls the Dobbiaco Talks organised by Hans Glauber, and the famous suggestion to change “Citius, Altius, Fortius” to “Lentius, Profundius, Suavius”, made by Alexander Langer in 1994. Has the current crisis exposed the fragility of an economic model based on unlimited growth? “We’ve realised that we need to acknowledge and respect certain limits”, explained Dellagiacoma. “We need to rethink our lifestyle: ruthless globalisation carries significant risks. Living in isolation all these months – like everyone else – I was able to recognise the pointlessness of many of our journeys, which seemed quite normal before.” This conclusion clearly also involves the tourism sector, whose model will need to change: “We’ve seen a large increase in the number of visitors but a reduction in the length of overnight stays. We can’t go back to the same system.”

Ph. Lorenzo Barbante