Are we sharing enough data?

Written by Sjoerd Bakker
October 22, 2020

The world is rapidly digitalizing, and the deployment of data offers many opportunities for economic development, achieving sustainability and a better quality of life. There are, however, considerable concerns about the misuse of (personal) data and undesirable outcomes of unbridled use of data. These concerns are legitimate, but we’re also running the risk of becoming too defensive when it comes to data, missing out on big opportunities and, more importantly, our selective opposition to data sharing may have undesirable effects.

Our observations

  • The implementation of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) has, according to an evaluation by the European Commission, worked well when it comes to “empowering” consumers and giving them more insight into and control over the use of their personal data. At the same time, this regulation is expressly targeted at minimizing risks, and with that could lead to an all too defensive attitude on the part of governments and citizens that could, for instance, stand in the way of innovation.
  • The so-called privacy paradox plays a large role in this. We consider privacy to be highly important but time and again show willingness to exchange data for access to information or services. This applies most when the reward we receive is immediate and beneficial to us as individuals. It’s therefore likely that a more defensive attitude towards data sharing will lead to lower willingness to share data for collective purposes (e.g. relating to public health).
  • The recently launched Dutch coronavirus app was long-awaited, partly because of a painstaking approach to the privacy risks. The chosen solution, as developed by Apple and Google, minimizes the storing of privacy-sensitive data, but also limits the possibilities for researchers and policymakers to ascertain matters such as where contaminations took place (when location data is lacking). Ironically, some governments therefore actually asked for less protection of privacy than the tech parties were willing to offer.
  • When only or mostly contextual data is used, the risk of bias increases, along with the risk of undesirable consequences such as discrimination and the reinforcement of socio-economic inequality. This happens, for example, when predictive policing leads to higher deployment of police services in neighborhoods with above average crime rates, which then almost unavoidably leads to higher rates of reported crime. Another example is that theft insurance costs more in neighborhoods or cities with a bad (statistical) reputation, even when the individual takes all the necessary precautions to secure their belongings.

Connecting the dots

Like the great technologies of our past, digital technology enables us to increase our wealth and, more importantly, actually improve our well-being. On the one hand, technology can have direct financial benefits, such as cheaper services or more efficient use of energy and resources. On the other hand, and perhaps more crucially, technology enables us to improve our quality of life by facilitating matters such as better healthcare or a cleaner living environment. Opportunities are arising in our own daily lives as citizens and consumers, as well as in the public space, where we can organize matters more intelligently, better, more honestly and in a cleaner way. Data is the most vital resource in this, as data and the knowledge and insights it yields can help us to make existing processes more efficient or otherwise smarter and better. Along with all these promising prospects the datafied society offers, the other side of the coin is that there are great concerns over the use of (personal) data and the possible violation of our right to privacy and, worse, our civil rights. The societal and political knee-jerk reaction to this is to limit data sharing as much as possible in hopes of eliminating as many risks as possible. It’s questionable, however, whether this is the right and most productive approach.

First, this is causing us to miss out on great opportunities, for individuals and society as a whole. This can never be a valid argument for releasing all possible data to solve any problem that needs fixing. We have to be more fastidious about this issue and ask ourselves to what purposes we’re willing to allow the use of our data. At the moment, there seems to be an imbalance, in that we are willing to offer up our data to various (relatively anonymous) tech companies without asking any questions or setting conditions. Though this yields clear “rewards”, these rewards are often not related to the data we release or generate. In fact, we often don’t even know what they (can) do with our data, outside of personalizing the ads we see. We’re much more cautious with parties closer to us (such as the government or health insurers) and with applications in which the purpose of using our data is clear, visible and more concrete (such as the coronavirus app). In other words, the clearer and more concrete the value of our data is, the more reluctant we are to release it. That might make sense, because it’s easier for use to imagine our data being misused (e.g. resulting in higher health insurance premiums), but it should also be clear how this, most valuable, data could work to our own or collective advantage.

Second, we’re running the risk that, in the absence of reliable and/or individual data, inaccurate, incomplete or contextual data will be used, potentially resulting in disadvantageous decisions. That is, the role of data will certainly expand because of the promise it holds and the ubiquitous tendency to ascribe importance to anything that’s measurable. Conversely, we also have the tendency to reduce “problems” to what is easily scaled and solved by means of (digital) technology (which Evgeni Morozov calls solutionism). This implies that it’s clearly in our best interest to make sure that data about ourselves is in fact complete and accurate. If it’s not, we will be subject to judgment and treatment based on non-specific data that’s publicly accessible (e.g. features of the neighborhood we live in).

As mentioned, the promise of the datafied society is now at odds with concerns over the use of personal data. The only possible way to reconcile these two will be to develop systems that enable citizens to explicitly release data to parties that will use it for something of value, without relinquishing all control of their data. It’s also imperative that it becomes much clearer what these parties use the data for exactly and how this benefits the citizen or society as a whole. Many initiatives have already attempted to develop this kind of system and fix the internet, but there hasn’t been any real breakthrough as of yet. Hopefully, our (selectively) defensive attitude towards data sharing will eventually make way for a more wholehearted embrace of these systems that enable us to get the best out of our data.

Implications

  • There is a growing need for data management systems with which citizens can govern the use of their personal data and the data they produce through their everyday practices. Governing should not necessarily imply a strong focus on privacy or not-sharing of data. Individuals and society as a whole have a lot to gain from sharing data with others and allowing third parties to cooperate on the basis of such (possibly anonymized or aggregated data)

  • Developing and managing such a system is not necessarily a task for private companies or governments; there are good reasons not to trust either of them to the full. Both may be involved to maintain a balance between interests, but solutions fully owned by users (e.g. using a decentralized infrastructure) may also emerge.

Human death as a boost for the use of ecological materials

Written by Jessica van der Schalk
October 7, 2020

This autumn, the first human was buried in a coffin made of mycelium, the root network of mushrooms and nature’s biggest recycler. It ensures a highly efficient transformation of remains into nutrients for the soil. The product ties in with a larger trend of using alternative materials that, contrary to stone, steel, wood, polymers or glass, are more compatible with the ecological processes of nature and/or are produced in an environmentally friendly way. The product has met with worldwide interest and could boost the reception of this controversial material. In some cases, it could even stimulate new uses and rituals.

Our observations

  • We’ve written before that global problems such as climate change, the depletion of natural resources and waste call for sustainable, circular and adaptive solutions. Studies on organisms such as bacteria and fungi show that nature has a very efficient way to produce its basic elements such as lipids, protein and complex chemicals with minimal waste. Progress in areas such as biotechnology, bioinformatics and synthetic biology is making it increasingly easy to use these insights for our own production methods.
  • In the West, the interest in the workings and possibilities of fungi is relatively new. According to biologist Merlin Sheldrake, there are two reasons for this. First, technologies for scientists to fully research the world of fungi have only recently become available. Second, historically, there has been a deeply-rooted prejudice against fungi, which mainly invoke fear and disgust in us. For example, fungi were only recognized as a separate kingdom of life in the ‘60s. Before that, scientists studying fungi were classed as botanists, rather than as mycologists (fungus scientists).
  • Fungi now appear to play a more important role in the carbon cycle than was previously assumed. Studies show that when plants cooperate with certain types of fungus, they can store up to 70% more carbon in the ground, which contains more carbon than the atmosphere and vegetation combined.
  • Scientists are using mycelium more and more often to make all kinds of products, from packaging to plant-based meat, and even frames to grow new organs in. It also has great potential in construction, as an alternative building material that is both practical and benefits the climate. At last year’s Dutch Design Week, a building made of mycelium was displayed.
  • The ecological footprint of conventional funerals and cremations is substantial. In the U.S., cremations account for about 360,000 metric tons of CO2 emissions per year. In India, emissions are much higher, and millions of trees are cut down each year to cremate the dead. The use of wood for coffins in the U.S. accounts for about 4 million hectares of forest per year, not to mention all the steel, plastic and toxic materials used to produce the coffins that end up in the ground. Moreover, a coffin delays the decomposition process, causing the body to produce toxins that also seep into the ground.

Connecting the dots

Mycelium feeds through hyphae, fungal threads, on the organic remains of trees, plants and dead animals. It can also neutralize the toxins that are released in the decomposition process. It’s the fundamental link in the process of turning (organic) waste into nutrients for nature. The advantages regarding the sustainability of a mycelium coffin as opposed to a traditional stone or wood coffin, are considerable. It stimulates the decomposition of the body as well as the conversion into nutrients for the environment, and the process can be complete after only one year. By comparison, a wood coffin in fact delays the decomposition process (on average, it takes ten years), causing the body to produce toxins which eventually end up in the ground.
Furthermore, no glue, lacquer, paint, metal or plastic is used in the production of a mycelium coffin, also sparing the soil some toxic pollutants. In addition, a chipboard or wooden coffin on average needs a year to decompose and a mycelium coffin is absorbed into the soil after 30 to 45 days. Finally, mycelium can be produced very sustainably and locally, using organic waste and without carbon being released. In that sense, this product ties in perfectly with the trend of environmentally conscious products such as meat substitutes, sustainable materials in fashion such as bamboo or hennep and energy-saving systems. The mycelium coffin was thus developed from a practical perspective on the ecological footprint of our final resting place.

There are, however, long-standing traditions surrounding the process after we die. Jews, for instance, bury their loved ones in a raw pinewood coffin, Muslims bury the dead on their right side, wrapped in a white cloth and without a coffin, Hindus often opt for cremation as it is the fastest way to return to “the source”. Additionally, in many cultures, it’s customary to give the deceased various objects and to create some type of permanent memorial. In secular funerals, many of these customs have remained. With this alternative option for burial, dominant values around sustainability gain prominence in this domain, and it brings its own, new uses and rituals. For example, it’s possible to give the deceased seeds so that the body can provide nutrients for the new life that will issue from the seeds. The use of a tombstone or other permanent memorials does not appear to be consistent with this new form of burial, which is meant to correspond to the biological processes of nature as well as possible.

The idea of life after death thus maintains a place in our secular worldview, albeit in a very singular way. With this, we’re breaking with old values of, for example, Christianity or certain Chinese practices and rituals in this context. In these practices and rituals, it’s of the utmost importance that the soul of the deceased is treated a certain way after their death, in view of the afterlife. At first sight, this new type of burial doesn’t appear to be consistent with these principles, and it seems to mostly be in concordance with the secular values of sustainability.

According to a study by the Pew Research Center, globally, the religious population is growing. And yet, the alternative of the mycelium coffin has been met with worldwide interest, including in non-Western countries such as Thailand and India. It’s not the first time religious people have shown the willingness to make concessions to sustainability when it comes to burial rites. Certain communities in India, for instance, have accepted a non-traditional but sustainable manner of cremation that requires only a fourth of the wood required in traditional cremations. Generally, modern values have often been known to affect religious customs.

Implications

  • In the U.S., among other countries, cremation is now more often elected than burial, mainly out of the desire to be environmentally friendly. If the mycelium coffin turns out to be a significantly better alternative to traditional burial than cremation in that respect, people might revert back to burials. However, traditional burial grounds don’t have sufficient room to accommodate a large increase in burials. But because this form of burial purports to benefit the soil, regulations on which locations may be used as burial grounds might be adjusted. Governments’ desire to plant more trees could, for example, play a role in this. In this way, new values could emerge with respect to the final resting place of our loved ones.

  • The mycelium coffin is the first applications of living mycelium that could be relevant to everyone. After all, every person dies sooner or later, and this is one of the first scalable, sustainable and affordable alternatives to traditional burial or cremation. This product could therefore have an important impact on our acquaintance with and subsequent acceptance of mycelium as a usable material in our living environment.

The outdoor economy

Written by Sjoerd Bakker, september 25 2020

To prevent the spread of the coronavirus, we’re moving many activities out of doors. This goes for food and drink, of course, but is also exemplified by the vogue for outdoor sports, the revival of the drive-in cinema and the growing popularity of cycling and walking. For now, this is a temporary effect of the pandemic, but part of the rediscovered “outdoor economy” will remain in the coming years. This is partly because some will feel lasting fear of the coronavirus and other viruses that dwell indoors, but also because we’re learning to revalue the fresh outside air and are unlikely to relapse into our old indoor practices.

The outdoor economy is strongly dependent on (extreme) weather conditions and this is part of the reason why accurate weather forecasts are rising in value for consumers, governments and business. In the long term, this movement may also give shape to new (and at the same time traditional) architecture, in which the sharp distinction between inside and outside will dissolve and the public space will once again be organized with a (weather-proof) life outdoors in mind.

The automobile is on its way out

Written by Sjoerd Bakker, august 26 2020

The car was one of the most important drivers of growth in the twentieth century. Yet we’re now coming to the realization that we’ve given the car too much space, both literally and figuratively, in our lives and living world. That’s why there’s growing momentum for reducing car ownership and use worldwide. This is a technological, institutional as well as cultural battle which will slowly unfold during the twenty-first century.

Our observations

  • The rise of the combustion engine and motorized transport was initially widely embraced and many saw it as a solution to societal problems. This was no wonder, as the car was universally introduced by manufacturers and newly established interest groups (e.g. ANWB in the Netherlands and the Automobile Club of America and the American Automobile Association in the U.S.) as the standard-bearer for progress and modernity.
  • The car was given all the necessary space and more and investments were made in highways. This was done out of political considerations regarding the stimulation of economic growth (partly as a component of the New Deal) and (as in Europe) to enhance political unity. Streets and entire cities were taken over by the car at the expense of other road users, but also of other infrastructures (e.g. bicycle highways in Los Angeles and public transportation such as trams). Especially in the suburbs (made possible by cars), the car was (and is) the only practical form of transportation.
  • The ousting of other road users and the growing number of (fatal) car accidents led to large-scale protests in the 1920s and ‘30s, both in the U.S. and in Europe. Car drivers were seen as an elite group that made life miserable for a much more diverse and larger group of non-car users with their “devil wagons” and “toys of the rich”. In some cases, tensions even led to violence against car drivers.
  • The American car lobby succeeded nonetheless, through education and other means, in convincing the population that the streets and roads were mainly meant for cars. Children were taught to be careful when crossing the street, as opposed to the driver exercising caution, and learned that they basically didn’t belong on the streets. While rules for car drivers were developed as well (such as maximum speeds, driver’s licenses and stoplights), the emphasis was on rules and bans for other road users.
  • In the Soviet Union, political ideology led the state to expressly prefer the development of public transportation (i.e. subway, trams and buses) and the (individualistic) car was given much less space. Many European countries also elected a more modest role for cars than they had in the U.S.

Connecting the dots

In hindsight, we can say that most countries gave the car too much space and that, in organizing our lifeworld, we’ve inordinately accommodated the motorist. As a result, the car, aside from all the good it has brought us economically and societally, has also led to large structural problems; unlivable cities, unsafety in traffic, unhealthy lifestyles, segregation, air pollution and climate change. Looking back, we can thus now say that laws and regulation for cars and other motorized traffic have remained too limited to solving or preventing (relatively) small problems and that we, society as a whole, have been insufficiently attentive to the structural problems increasing car use would cause. It is questionable, however, to what extent societies had any choice in the matter (in light of the economic and societal promise of this technology) and what measures they should have taken. Furthermore, a problem such as climate change (and to a lesser extent, local air pollution) could not conceivably have been foreseen.

Now, we’re experiencing the problems mentioned on a daily basis and momentum is growing to correct these historical “mistakes” and, with a certain sense of drama, one could even say that we’re waging a war against the car. Partly, the solution may take the form of technological fixes, such as the electrification of mobility (which would at least reduce direct pollution) or robotization (which could make the deployment of vehicles much more efficient), but we’ve also come to the understanding that technological fixes are nearly always limited and lead to other issues in turn.

There are also many initiatives to strongly discourage car use by means of charging motorists fees and car-free zones. Years ago, Barcelona introduced the model of “superblocks”, whereby four or nine residential blocks are made car-free and car traffic can only use the adjacent streets. In Utrecht, they’re developing a neighborhood of 10,000 houses (virtually) without parking spaces. In response to the corona crisis, London has chosen to make many of the city’s streets car-free in order to create space for the pedestrians and cyclists that, for fear of corona, want to avoid public transportation. To further discourage the car as an alternative to public transportation, the rush hour rate has been raised for cars in the inner city. Paris too, has invested in separate bicycle lanes at the expense of space for cars, which has led to a 54% increase in bicycle traffic in one year and a (much smaller) decrease in car use. Naturally, these kinds of measures lead to much resistance among car drivers (on practical and cultural grounds), but young people seem to be more open to new, cleaner, shared and more flexible forms of transportation with more room for bikes, mopeds and motor scooters, as well as traditional modes of public transportation.

In the longer term however, the total demand for mobility will also have to drop for the desire for cars to dwindle. A society with fewer cars will probably only be possible if we can manage to organize our daily lives on much smaller surfaces. This could be done by bringing physical destinations closer together in more compact cities instead of vast suburbs. In an extreme variation on this principle, China is currently working on so-called “15-minute life circles”,  in which nearly every imaginable destination (such as work, stores, education and healthcare) is within fifteen minutes’ walking distance for residents. This principle is applied, among other places, in the Tianfu New Area of Chengdu, a city of millions meant to serve as an example of a green megacity with high quality of life for residents. Possibly, virtualization can contribute to a structural decrease in our demand for mobility (hypomobility), as it enables us to engage in more practices from home.

Implications

  • Slowly but surely, space will arise for new mobility models that until now have failed to achieve a breakthrough (such as car-sharing), but the solution will mainly lie in renewed appreciation for old modalities such as bicycles and trains (which will increasingly become an alternative to short-haul flights).

  • It’s not nearly everywhere that the car has taken up such a dominant position (yet) as in the West. The (developing) countries where it hasn’t, may be able to leapfrog to cleaner and smarter forms of mobility without ever being encumbered by a car-dominated culture and infrastructure.

  • The history of the car may also teach us to more critically reflect on technology today. For example, in the debate on digital technology (and artificial intelligence in particular), there is strong emphasis on regulating excesses, but we don’t often enough ask what impact this technology will have in the long-term and to what extent we can put a stop to that if necessary. For this technology as well, a (more cautious) European approach could benefit our quality of life in the long-term, even if it is at the expense of economic growth in the short-term.

My plant the therapist

Written by Jessica van der Schalk, august 26 2020

What happened?

Among young adults, who often live in small spaces in cities, the popularity of indoor plants has grown strongly in recent years worldwide. Internet search data shows that interest has increased tenfold since 2010. The sales of indoor plants has also increased strongly, especially among millennials. So-called plant influencers on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube are getting more and more followers and offers from major brands in the plant sector. The Covid-19 lockdown has given this interest an extra boost, because people have started to pay more attention to home.

What does this mean?

Several reasons are given for the growing popularity of indoor plants. For example, research shows that the presence of greenery, even if it is only a few plants in the house, can reduce stress. What is more, plants have the ability to lower the carbon dioxide content and remove pollutants such as formaldehyde, trichlorethylene. Finally, it is indicated that plants offer millennials, who often start a family later and live in small houses without a garden, the opportunity to take care of a living being, which gives a sense of homeliness.

What’s next?

The growing popularity of indoor plants among millennials in particular, fits in with a broader trend of healthy eating and activities that reduce stress such as yoga and mindfulness. With the global pandemic, an economic crisis and climate change, the need for things that offer peace of mind in everyday life will persist. This trend is also consistent with the idea that people will never get used to an environment in which little nature is present, such as in cities.

Trump’s 2020 strategy

What happened?

The Asia Times recently interviewed Steve Bannon, an important advisor of President Trump. Bannon explained how he helped Trump to power in 2016, and what form the campaign in 2020 will probably take. He introduces a contrary perspective on the elections in November, one that’s more alive to the less measurable elements of the electoral cycle.

What does this mean?

The essence of Bannon’s argument is his contention that the 2020 elections will revolve around China. According to Bannon, Trump’s success in 2016 could be explained by nationalist (anti-establishment) sentiment directed against the American political elite. But in 2020, this nationalist sentiment could be redirected towards China (and “Beijing Biden” instead of “Crooked Hillary”).  An important point Bannon makes is that Trump’s campaign (both 2016 and 2020) begins about 150 days before the elections, while his smear campaign of the Democratic candidate doesn’t start until about 90 days before the elections.

What’s next?

Bannon sheds new light on the 2020 elections. Although Biden is far ahead in the polls, he’s less suited to our Zeitgeist of distrust, he hasn’t had any momentum, and the Trump campaign is not underway yet. These are less measurable elements of the electoral cycle (compared to polls and “betting odds”), but they may become increasingly important as the elections draw near.

Devolutionary internet memes

What happened?

Karen” is a pejorative term for a person claiming the right to ask for and demand more than would be considered appropriate or necessary in the situation according to societal standards. It’s the stereotype of a white middle-aged woman who displays aggressive behavior whenever she doesn’t get her way and adopts a very exacting attitude in these situations (e.g. “I want to speak to your manager!”). During the corona crisis, the term is mostly applied to women who refuse to abide by social distancing rules (with the signature demand of getting a haircut). Then there are “Kyles”: angry teenagers riled up from drinking large quantities of energy drink and gaming a lot, but not really getting anywhere in the real world.

What does this mean?

Karen was born on social networks such as Twitter, Facebook and particularly Reddit, making her an internet meme and part of online culture. An internet meme is an information pattern that rapidly spreads among a large group of users through the internet, often as a normative witticism. By replicating and building on other memes through creative reproduction (“liking”, reposting and sharing a meme online), using the “power of repetition” and intertextuality (i.e. a generic meme can be applied as a pattern, to different situations, persons, objects, etc.), internet memes are used to quickly spread the underlying message to large groups of people. As the gene is the unit of evolution in biology, the internet meme is the unit of the digital cultural evolution. And memes have long stopped being a niche of online culture, they’re now even an integral part of campaign strategies.

What’s next?

In his research, Joseph Burgo shows that shame is an important socio-psychological determinant of individual and collective human behavior and thinking. However, this works best when concrete behaviors and acts are concerned. The risk of internet memes representing an archetype, such as Karen, is that they are probably not productive in the normative sanctioning of positive behavior. On the contrary, memes can lead to polarization when they generalize or even stigmatize. And considering their viral nature, the most popular memes are likely to be the most extremely stereotypical, leading to further polarization. This means that memes can also contribute to a regressive cultural development on the internet and social media, which is risky, given the fragility of the current cultural balance in our post-corona societies.

The resilience paradox

All over the world, citizens, policy-makers, entrepreneurs and governments are asking themselves how they can become resilient. The corona crisis seems to be leading to an apotheosis of this popular ideal that has become prevalent in our society in the past decades. The notion of resilience therefore teaches us something about the spirit of the times and the way we relate to the world and ourselves. There are valuable aspects to the ideal, but dangers lie in the unilateral fixation on resilience.

Our observations

  • There is no clear definition of the term resilience. As is elaborately discussed in this article by correspondent Lynn Berger, it’s become a key concept in all sorts of domains and used to refer to several different things. A very generic description would be that resilience is the ability to continue to function as usual during times of adversity. When further specification is required – and this is where disagreement generally arises – the state of equilibrium (homeostasis) of a system is emphasized. Resilience is about optimal temporary adjustment to an external stressor (allostasis) with the subsequent rapid recovery of the original homeostasis or the establishment of a new homeostasis.
  • The term resilience has long been popular in psychology and mental healthcare. In psychological resilience, the emphasis is on mental defensibility: the ability to successfully respond to significant setbacks, traumatic events or other stressors. Mentally resilient people are able to adapt well and quickly become their old selves again.
  • In ecology, resilience originally referred to an ecosystem’s ability to adapt to severe disruptions in climate, such as enduring drought or heavy rainfall, without losing its equilibrium in the long run. Nowadays, the possibility that ecosystems can eventually become stronger or reach new states of equilibrium is more frequently highlighted as well.
  • Resilience also plays an increasingly large role for entrepreneurs, investors, economists and overseers. They regard resilience mostly as the ability to respond adequately to downward cycles, loss of demand or recession. Since the financial crisis, banks are regularly subjected to stress tests to establish their resilience. And organizations are focusing on the redundancy and buffers of their balance, diversification of the value chain and strength of cash flows, under the guise of resilience.
  • Authorities around cities and countries are not impervious to the ideal. All around the world, chief resilience officers are appointed, tasked with ascertaining whether their city is in fact resilient. Rotterdam, for example, recently launched its strategy for becoming a resilient city.

Connecting the dots

A crisis is making the call for resilience more urgent, but resilience was on the rise in our society long before the corona crisis.
First, this rise and popularity of resilience can be understood as an inevitable side effect of a different way of looking at the world. Resilience goes hand in hand with a world view characterized by complexity and uncertainties. This world view is the result of a scientific transformation but is also linked to the processes of globalization and the real or subjective threats of natural disasters, economic crisis and terrorism. Resilience is part of perception of life in which we feel as if we’re in a permanent state of crisis. In our hyperconnected, complex and uncertain world, unexpected dangers and disrupting events always loom, making the call for resilience all the more urgent.
But we haven’t just changed our perception of the world, we’ve also come to view ourselves in a different light. After WW II, the ideal of resilience mainly gained popularity due to psychology and ecology, but it also has roots in the biological thinking of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. For Darwin, adjustment to living conditions was of course already one of the most important drivers of evolution. And in the early twentieth century, there was renewed interest in the self-regulating ability of organisms in relation to their environment. To survive, systems may temporarily become unbalanced due to external influences, but they also have a natural inclination to restore equilibrium. Scientific insight into this mechanism has allowed us to help “nature’s” self-regulating system to bounce back. This applies to our own bodies, but this point of view has also proved valuable in understanding, for example, a political or economic “body”.
This new understanding of ourselves and the world has made it possible for us to remain healthy during uncertain times, because we increasingly understand how to deal with stressors without having to predict or control the future. With a resilient system, it doesn’t matter what happens, it can stand a bit of turbulence. We can learn mental skills that increase resilience, apply the right liquidity buffers to companies’ balance sheets or increase the biodiversity of an ecosystem, to enable these systems to better absorb shocks and restore themselves to a state of equilibrium (homeostasis) or even emerge stronger from the battle.
The ideal of resilience therefore undeniably have valuable aspects. But in the past years, there has been increasing criticism of the term, because it’s become a buzzword, used with abandon, often making it unclear what exactly the term refers to and how to measure it. Besides this debate about its definition and its overly loose application, there are a number of more substantial points of criticism.
The resilience of individuals, for instance, is not always beneficial to the community or the world. This became clear in a study into the emotional consequences of extreme weather Lynn Berger refers to. This study shows that persons that are resilient are less inclined to do something about the causes of extreme weather.

Scientists have dubbed this the resilience paradox: individual resilience may be at odds with the resilience of a group or community and can even thwart it. Resilience and indifference are therefore dangerously close on the same continuum. Another objection to resilience comes from, among others, psychologist Paul Verhaeghe. He has pointed out that the ideal of resilience is frequently employed by policymakers, organizations and psychologists to increase individuals’ resilience, without due consideration of individuals’ societal context. If a work environment leads to chronic stress, it’s convenient for organizations to increase the resilience of individuals. However, if they succeed in containing the burn-out epidemic, they will be less inclined to investigate the potentially unhealthy nature of the working culture. Health becomes largely one’s own responsibility. This also results in a resilience paradox: resilience goes hand in hand with systems thinking, but at the same time, it can also be counterproductive to finding systemic solutions.
Finally, there is the more cultural-philosophical criticism that resilience may also contribute to a hostile or tense, distant stance towards the world. By constantly focusing on our own resilience, we come to regard the world and the other more often and more consistently as a hostile source of danger, uncertainties and potential stressors. We find ourselves in a permanent and rather stressful state of alert. Healthy protection against the world could then descend into unhealthy isolation from the world, causing us to detach from others and the communities we belong to.
Oddly enough, this excessive protection actually makes us vulnerable and our mental health may suffer from this, as shown in a study into the effects of overprotective parents on children. It results in another resilience paradox: protection from one thing makes us vulnerable to other things. We endow ourselves and our children with a protective shield, but this makes it difficult for us to achieve intimacy, build trusting relationships and it makes us vulnerable to depression and other mental illnesses.
Resilience is a valuable and interesting concept – especially during the current corona crisis. But it’s important to practice moderation in working on our resilience and not to lose sight of the pitfalls of unilateral fixation on this popular ideal. A one-sided focus on resilience during the corona crisis can also lead to indifference, further individualization of care and a hostile and distrusting relationship to each other in our everyday lives.

Implications

  • We arrive in a difficult period of the corona crisis where the resilience paradox is clearly visible. The first phase of urgency and common spirit is behind us, but we are far from normal. In the “new normal”, social distancing is making us as society resilient in the short term, but we risk a lot for the long-term in terms of mental health. For instance, loneliness is bad for the immune system and an isolated life reduces life expectancy drastically.

  • The corona crisis reveals the resilience paradox is prevalent in the economy as well. Since the financial crisis, the attention for the stability of the financial system has grown. Banks which become to big make the system vulnerable, i.e. the too big to fail mechanism. Nevertheless, the economy as a whole is currently struggling with the same problem. Big companies have – to guarantee the preservation of existing jobs – an implicit bailout in their operations. The focus on stability of these companies in normal times is making us vulnerable during economic turmoil.

Our collective brain

What happened?

The corona crisis is showing us how alike we are in our thoughts. In early March, on the same day, virtually all of us came to the conclusion that there actually was a crisis and that we should hoard toilet paper and hand sanitizer. A few weeks ago, we also apparently all concluded that it was OK to go out in droves, without any announcement from authorities. Meanwhile, during the lockdown, we all spontaneously decided to work out, ride our bikes and go rollerblading outside. None of these phenomena, trends, hypes or crazes are unique or new, but this crisis does confront us with these new forms of collective thinking.

What does this mean?

There are new rules of play and we have to learn to deal with them. We’re exploring the boundaries between what’s allowed and what isn’t and are keeping a close eye on each other in the process. It’s no wonder then, that we’re learning from each other, mimicking each other or that we just happen to arrive at more or less the same idea. Furthermore, many of these ideas are of course put into our heads by companies and their marketing channels. At the same time, this is also a morally charged period, making us extra aware of our own behavior and others’; who is breaking the rules and who is slightly exaggerating? On the beach, therefore, it’s not just crowded, it’s dangerously crowded.

What’s next?

This heightened awareness of our collective behavior can evoke different responses. We can accept the situation and possibly even derive a feeling of solidarity from it. After all, we’re all in the same boat, going through the same struggle. On the other hand, it’s conceivable that we’ll look for activities and products that still do make us feel original and authentic. This could lead to increased demand for more personalized products and services and, as soon as it’s allowed again, even more exotic holiday destinations.

Our post-corona relationship to nature

Each crisis in our modern existence has a clear human component. Most of them are even almost fully man-made, such as the financial crisis, the migration crisis, trade wars and conflicts. But the corona virus originated in the wilderness and took modern man by surprise. The virus, however, was not what caused the pandemic. Large-scale ecological destruction by humans most likely contributed to the rapid spread and deadliness of the virus. Will this crisis change the way we relate to nature?

Our observations

  • Scientists point to the high probability of the virus having spread from bats to a wild animal species before spreading to humans. This would make banning the trade of these wild animals a possible measure, but that would not contain the risk of future virus outbreaks. Trade in these wild animals is merely a link in the chain of causes of the pandemic. Scientists warn that the degradation of ecosystems and the decrease in biodiversity could increasingly lead to epidemics. These factors result in vulnerable species dying out sooner and others with a more ‘live fast, die young’ nature (such as bats, which harbor many pathogenic viruses) experiencing uninhibited growth and spreading their pathogens to humans faster. Deforestation especially enhances the chances of this so-called “species jump”.
  • One Health is a concept that’s being used by more and more scientists and policymakers, in which the health of people, animals and the environment are monitored integrally. In this integrated system approach, public health is not detached from the health of animals and environments. In line with this, the EAT-Lancet report appeared last year, in which for the first time, the optimal diet for the health of humans AND the environment was calculated. The bottom-line was that we should eat fewer animal-based and more plant-based foods.
  • Dutch scientists are arguing against returning to “business as usual” after the corona crisis, and for preventing further ecological consequences of economic growth. They emphasize that the current economic model will lead to, according to the WHO, 4.2 million people dying annually of air pollution, that the consequences of climate change are expected to cause 250,000 additional deaths per year between 2030 and 2050, and that further degradation of ecosystems will heighten the risk of new and more powerful virus outbreaks.
  • We’re far from global reaching consensus on the cause of the pandemic, even though it likely originated in wild animals but was successfully spread and made deadly by humans. A globalized and strongly urbanized world helped the virus spread so rapidly and air pollution probably made the virus even more fatal. While these causes are not confined within the borders of any one country and international cooperation is needed in this crisis, the discussion on the virus has become strongly politicized and countries are arguing about where the virus originated and who is to blame.

Connecting the dots

Crises in modern societies are often man-made. Take, for example, military conflict, financial crises, trade wars. The corona crisis on the other hand, is neither solely caused by humans nor is it a purely “natural” phenomenon like famine or the climate crisis. The possibility of a sudden and swift emergence of a new, deadly virus in our modern, globally connected lives, was a risk that was barely acknowledged by most of us. The new virus has awakened the realization that humans are a part of a complex world, in which human and non-human life are connected. Furthermore, it has raised questions about how man relates to his natural surroundings. COVID-19 is a zoonotic virus, meaning it’s transferrable from animals to humans, putting into question how we relate to other, non-human life and, more broadly, how we as humans relate to natural ecosystems.
From the onset of the outbreak, the virus has not only exposed the differences and rivalries between countries but has especially shown which ideas are predominant in our consideration of the way humans relate to nature. The corona crisis has not only fueled discussion between political leaders, the pandemic has also been taken up as ammunition in the defense of several ecological stances, often in order to identify guilty parties. The pandemic is said to be a “warning of Mother Earth”. These interpretations comprise largely Western and modern views on nature, dividing the world into man versus nature, the moral division of nature as harmonious and good and humans as harmony-disrupting and wicked. Supposedly, mankind, not the virus, is the disease ravaging mother Earth, as is shown by the position that mankind is the cancer of the Earth in the second report by the Club of Rome. The Cartesian relationship between subject and object, between culture and nature are clearly highlighted in this. It gives humans a central role in life on Earth, and with that, the possibility to control this life. The corona crisis provides insight into the flaws of these apparent contradictions.Even before modern man, there was no harmonious natural order, the earth has always been an inhospitable

place where live organisms are continuously exposed to disease, parasites and natural disasters. But modern man mostly considered himself to be separate from nature and romanticized living in harmony with it.
Karen Barad’s concept of intra-action offers an escape from this way of thinking about nature, which is failing us in the corona crisis. She defines intra-action as the mutual constitution of intertwined agencies. This means we should not just understand the corona crisis in terms of a corona virus, but as a phenomenon that has arisen between human and non-human actors and the virus itself. It’s unlikely that everyone on Earth will be exposed to the virus, but it’s a given that everyone will have to deal with the corona crisis, dividing responsibility among constitutive entities. Intra-action questions the artificial boundaries that characterize our thinking and our actions (subject-object, culture-nature). In an ecological system, each part is connected to the others by countless relationships, and these relationships define life, just as social contact between humans humanizes.
Barad’s concept is also in line with the Gaia hypothesis of James Lovelock, who, despite his ecological outlook, also broke with the environmental movement, due to his view that it invariably oversimplifies reality, putting all the blame on humans. He understood the earth to be a superorganism that we’re part of. This undermines micro-perspectives on the virus. The virus and its spread can be perceived as part of a complex system, just as much as humans can. Both the concept of intra-action as well as the Gaia hypothesis acknowledge humans as an integral part of a complex and dynamic system that humans cannot control but are (partly) responsible for. In this sense, this kind of thinking is reminiscent of metamodernism. It foregoes the modernist subject-object opposition, nor does it succumb to post-modernist relativism. It urges us to acknowledge the complexity of life on Earth and to take responsibility for it. The current pandemic makes it necessary to embrace this type of thinking.

Implications

  • With respect to measures, quarantine is somewhat paradoxical, as it may help to isolate humans and prevent them from becoming infected, but is hardly a tenable solution in the long-term, because it negates precisely those relationships that constitute our life. To contain the risk of future large-scale outbreaks, preventative measures will also need to be taken that do justice to the complexity of systems. Involving multiple disciplines (not just virology) will help in thinking about these measures.

  • Furthermore, complexity thinking, holistic research agendas and innovations surrounding the theme “one health” will be vital in devising solutions to this crisis.

  • Since many infectious diseases, such as Ebola and swine flu, spread through animal feed, the corona crisis will be associated with factory farming and give momentum to the transition from animal-based to plant-based protein sources. Deforestation, which is linked to the production of cattle feed (such as soy), will also face more scrutiny because of this crisis.