An Anticipated Pandemic & Post-Covid Design Economies

By Joanna Boehnert

In an ideal world, designers would create ways of living to meet human needs and desires without undermining the climate system and contributing to the sixth extinction event. In the political system we inherited, designers work within an economic context that harnesses our skills to reproduce unsustainable conditions. Unsustainable practices are the context of the corona virus pandemic. The pandemic emerged from activities and industries that destroyed habitats and brought viruses from the animal kingdom into the human biological system. As COVID transforms daily life throughout the world, new sensibilities and even new belief systems are emerging. These dangerous times are already catalysing new political realities. Designers have a role to play in shifting the current trajectory. A reconstruction of priorities depends on the political economy of design.

This Economy is Anti-Resilient

The capitalist political economy obscures its most virulent dynamics by situating resilience at the individual level. But all metasystems (including economic systems, public health and ecosystems) rely on the wellbeing of all parts of the system to determine the wellbeing of the whole system. Governments and social institutions that situate prosperity as arising from individual achievements and successes reward exploitative activities and undermine our collective resilience. Coronavirus has revealed how dysfunctional extractive ideologies and modes of governance are for public health. Resilience is enabled at a structural level before it becomes matter of personal coping strategies. No-one is safe until social structures are built on the foundational understanding that safety is a collective condition. The most powerful people on the planet are vulnerable. We are all connected in ways that neoliberal ideology does not acknowledge. Wellbeing for each of us is dependent on widespread ecological and social justice and wellbeing for all.

Virulent Ideologies and Economies

Coronavirus has emerged as a result of virulent ideologies and modes of governance. These ways of organising eco-social relationships have enabled zoonotic diseases to endanger individual lives and entire economies. Political systems governed according to individualist and exploitative assumptions have proven to be incapable of organising effective public health responses. The ideological assumptions of the US and UK governments and the social institutions committed to framing everything through a particular reductive economic lens are responsible for some of the highest international covid mortality rates. The vast reserves of wealth in these two nations cannot solve this fundamental ideological problem. The same broken ideology is propelling accelerating climate change and other converging eco-social crises.

Exploited, but Agile

In sharp contrast, countries accustomed to being on the brunt end of the extractive logic of globalisation and Western intervention have been far more capable of recognising the dangers of the virus and planning accordingly. Historically exploited nations have created resilience when far richer nations have created fragility. Countries such as Vietnam, Ghana, Kenya, and South Korea have all responded with policies that contain the virus and as a result have far lower covid death rates and less economic damage. The difference in mortality rates per million makes the ineptitude of neoliberal, extractive and exploitative modes of governance evident.

Extractive Logic

Corona virus is revealing the dysfunction of ordering civilisation according to the logic of capital accumulation above all other values and priorities. Many of us are complicit in reproducing historically constructed modes of organising social relations based on the erroneous assumption that nature and humans can be endlessly exploited to enrich an ever-shrinking few. Accelerated capitalist logics are making the slogan ‘socialism or barbarism’ ever more popular, as coronavirus and other eco-social crises rip through the social fabric. The market’s extractive logic destroys capacities for robust public health policy. Modes of governance that seek efficiency at the expense of care destroy capacities for both wellbeing and prosperity. The same broken logic will destroy the climate system if we do not change trajectory.

An Anticipated Pandemic: The Nexus of Power and Denial

Scientists and environmental scholars warned that deadly pandemics would come. We have been warned that an economic system built around the assumption that nature and humans could be endlessly exploited would create deadly pandemics while undermining the ecological stability of civilisation as we know it. Meanwhile, the extractive logic of capitalism has seen wealth and power amass around those least equipped to respond to system crises. Those who reap the benefits from a system that rewards exploitative behaviours, cannot maneuver outside the blinkers created by living in bubbles of privilege. Meanwhile, scientists and environmentalists who warned of the pandemic have even more consequential warnings.

Covid as Catalyst, or not

Coronavirus is exposing the fragility of institutions and modes of governance that dismiss the ecological. Like all crises, the coronavirus crisis could be a catalyst for change. There is no guarantee that change will be for the better. Even more authoritarian forms of government are emergent. Where some governing forces use disasters to consolidate wealth, each crisis leaves ever more degraded climate systems – and fewer resources for regular people to fight back. Popular movements that reject science and academic knowledge create even more dangerous situations all over the world. Non-fascist movements are the hope for the most important socio-political transformation civilisation has ever known.

Emergent Knowledge and Non-Extractive Ecologies

With greater collective awareness of the dynamics behind these upheavals, the potential to challenge the dominance of the current order is increasing. But neither learning, nor deeply felt sense of injustices are enough to shift trajectories on problems as complex and systemic as climate change, biodiversity loss or social injustices such as racism. Those who are paying attention and want transition on a scale that will make a difference must both wrestle power from those who are currently hoarding it and offer a coherent analysis of the problems along with roadmaps for possible solutions. Other worlds are possible, but non-extractive and regenerative economies will not design themselves until there economic contexts that rewards regenerative, rather than exploitative, behaviour.

Non-Extractive Design Economies

Designers play a major role in reproducing social relationships by creating the communications, services, systems and artefacts that currently embody and reproduce extractive and exploitative logic. Design practices could be oriented towards different goals within different design economies. Design is entangled with exploitative economic dynamics. As designers work within contexts with increasingly powerful types of technologies, planetary boundaries are crossed. Coronavirus and climate change are both a result of an extractive and destructive political economy. Design is implicated facilitating the reproduction of fragile design economies when we need robust and regenerative design and design economies.

Pathways to a Regenerative Political Economy of Design

The political economy governs design economies and determines the so-called “unintended consequences” of processes of production, shipping, use and disposal. Refocusing attention and redirecting design depends on an interrogation of how extractive priorities can be dismantled and redirected toward different priorities. Designers committed to making just and sustainable futures possible can help transform the capitalist political economy with regenerative design economies where different priorities can be established.

Post-covid Design Economies must be Regenerative

Redirecting the political economy and enabling regenerative values is a viable strategy that is already in use by social movements. An expanded political economy of design, moving from narrow economic goalposts to expanded social and environmental values, is a foundation for transitions to sustainable futures. All pathways to sustainable futures involve a redirection of design economies towards regenerative values including environmental and social justice. Pre-covid design economies created covid and climate change with their extractive logic. Post-covid design economies must be regenerative.

Dr Joanna Boehnert, author of the book Design, Ecology, Politics: Toward the Ecocene, is a Lecturer in Design at the Loughborough University.

By Joanna Boehnert