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Morality play on coronavirus motifs

Published by Maria Filipe
March 27, 2020 @ 4:44 PM

Inspired (as always) by recent CIONET’s articles about the coronavirus, I decided to join the conversation. Even at the risk of being accused of excessive exaltation, I cannot resist the impression that today's pandemic is not only a huge medical, economic and logistical challenge, but also an epic, civilizational morality play.

We, humans, have built our self-awareness of Primates on the indisputable achievements of our species: we mastered the fire, invented the wheel, microprocessors, the theory of relativity and quantum physics, antibiotics, the Internet, Sputniks and chess, and later the machines that play them. We created the 9th Symphony, Mona Lisa, Lego blocks and Thermomix. Now we’re being attacked by an organism, which is essentially a single strand of RNA encased in several proteins, unable to live independently outside its victim's cell. With a human genome about 2 meters long, with over 43.000 genes, this makes it biologically extremely primitive. And yet, let's be honest, this organism’s attack is literally tearing humanity apart, despite all our phenomenal knowledge, sophisticated technology and algorithm-driven logistics. There is hope that this is only temporary. However, the multiple consequences at all levels of social and economic life will remain catastrophic for a long time.

Some (unfortunately too many) say that "Man was created to subject Nature to him." In this way, they justify Man’s right to violent interference in the environment – deforestation, animal slaughtering, changing the course of the rivers and poisoning the atmosphere and oceans with vast variety of pollutants. The current pandemic should definitely remind us of our actual, highly unstable place in the ecosystem and, more generally, in evolution.

This may sound disappointing to many, but the Homo Sapiens is actually an imperceptible episode in the history of our planet. On a fancy calculator in the form of a turtle borrowed from my grandson, I counted meticulously that we are present on this planet for about 0,0065% of its existence. So, the Earth's ecosystem has been developing (happily) for billions of years – without a Humans! If we ever become extinct, the ants (about 22.000 species, 2,20% of Earth time) will not even notice it. Sharks (about 500 species, 9% of Earth time), on the other hand, will be very happy because the smartest biological creation on the planet – Homo Sapiens, in its top version – the Macho, kills about 273 million a year (see Journal of Marine Policy, 2018). Mainly to cut off the fins (throwing away the rest), because he thinks they are a nice aphrodisiac. This is not because the shark fin soup cannot be replaced by something equally tasty, and certainly not in self-defense, because sharks kill only about 5 people a year. Sharks don’t seem to be very vindictive. They are not as intelligent as we are, obviously.

To further deepen this disappointment, during the meeting of the Royal Geographical Society of London (2019), the Earthwatch Institute announced that bees, not us, are the most important species on Earth. Firstly, because they depend on 70% of the Earth's harvest, and secondly, because they are the only biological species that does not carry any pathogens (in contrast to Humans). By the way, it was mentioned that in recent years we, the Homo Sapiens, have managed to liquidate 90% of their population (see ‘Bees Declared To Be The Most Important Living Being On Earth’, Chardynne Concio, Science Times). How smart.

Perhaps, however, we should not worry too much, because, as Australian climatologists warn last year in a dire report: "human civilization will probably fall by 2050" (see ‘New research: human civilization will likely collapse by 2050’, Victor Tangermann, if we do not do something really radical on global warming.

Ironically, there’s a good message, though: The Sun will go out in some few billion years. So maybe a new Homo Sapiens 2.0 civilization will manage to evolve after us? And if this one also falls, then there will still be plenty of time left for the creation of the next ones. If we are unable to do anything better, then let's at least leave them a lot of information about our history so they can learn from our mistakes. Wouldn't it be terribly bewildering for the creators of those fabulous monuments on Easter Island, if they knew that today we still have no idea why and how they did it and why it was so important to them? And we’ll probably never manage to find it out, because none of them are there anymore to tell us. How sad.

Returning to the coronavirus and the underlying morality play: it is better not to forget that we are (can easily become) a historical episode – a brilliant mega-civilization, which in a short time grew phenomenally and then quickly defeated itself because its achievements made it vulnerable to the problems it has created on its own. It would be such a Napoleonic macro Waterloo case.

In a global world, global technologies create global problems that must, therefore, be solved globally. However, there is no indication that we are capable of or even want to understand that. We are constantly trying to solve global problems using our own egoistic micro-rationality. Vladimir Putin (2019): "We are actually happy about global warming. We will save on heating, we will need less icebreakers and there’ll be more land and soil available for agriculture." Donald Trump withdrew the U.S.A: from the Paris climate agreement, Poland didn’t join the EU climate neutrality plan, and Brazil continues to cut down rainforests to produce palm oil, because it’s needed to produce chocolates and chips. And these, as it is broadly known, are very essential for watching Netflix.

All this takes place under the auspices of the difficult to challenge, especially by enthusiastic liberals, democratic mechanisms. Hence, both shocking and puzzling is the postulate of the famous (rightly!) recent researcher of superintelligence Nick Bostrom (Oxford Univ.): "Only mass surveillance and total power will prevent the destruction of our civilization by technology. Humanity needs a cyber ruler" (see ‘An Oxford philosopher who's inspired Elon Musk thinks mass surveillance might be the only way to save humanity from doom’, Aria Bendix, Business Insider). Yes, I know – as the famous comics series character Grouchy Smurf used to say – “It can't work!”. The idealistically and narrowly understood ‘instant democracy’ seems to be more important than long term survival. The worse for us, the better for the sharks.

Donald Tusk, former president of the European Council, in an interview with Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza says: "The cure for the virus: a more united Europe". True, but only partially. The only cure for the virus and other major global problems is a more united world. But this is a problem in itself (see above).

I think that the coronavirus, despite its primitive RNA thread (compared to our phenomenally clever DNA) is quite resolute and rightly assumes that the Homo Sapiens will not come together globally to fight it. They will merely flex their muscles locally. The coronavirus is, after all, an opponent of a completely different generation than the current market players - interest groups, national states, governments, hierarchies, international corporations, with all their prejudices, stereotypes, sentiments, local politics, etc.

Today, we are living in the world of notorious Black Swans. The coronavirus is just one of many to come, albeit quite severe, indeed. As Tim O’Leary rightly stated in his recent book: “We’ve come to singular moment in history, in which just about everything makes us say WTF?!” It is turning our yesterday’s understanding of the world literally upside down, requiring not the usual “thinking outside the box” but rather “thinking in entirely new boxes”.  Remember Mary Poppins: “When the world turns upside down, the best thing to do is turn right along with it”.

The coronavirus embodies the startup-dream of all the startupers in the world: infinitely scalable, ruthlessly rational, deadly effective. As all business theorists and practitioners know, new players require new strategies of fighting back. And, regretfully, we do not seem to have them today, yet.

Is there a chance that we somehow figure them out and put into successful action before we’ll make the sharks happy?

Now you can see for yourself what a lot of idle time in closing and drinking wine before noon can do to a man’s mind!

Greetings to all healthy, suspected and sick (those most!) friends from CIONET!

This article was written exclusively for CIONET by Professor Piotr Ploszajski , former head of the Department of Management Theory at Warsaw School of Economics, lecturer in several Executive MBA programs and visiting professor in many international universities and research centers in Europe, United States, Japan, India, New Zealand. Professor Piotr Płoszajski is also an active member of CIONET Poland’s Advisory Board.


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