Pandemic as Opportunity

Apr 09, 2020 by Ervin Laszlo
Pandemic as Opportunity
by Ervin Laszlo

A global pandemic is an opportunity for global change—for rapid and effective change to a better world. Even if some people are depressed and do not see the light at the end of the tunnel, the pandemic we are experiencing is temporary; it will pass into history as all the previous pandemics did. But the change it brings may be lasting. It can be change for the better, or change for the worse. Making it a change for the better is an opportunity we cannot afford to miss. 


We are in the midst of a “bifurcation”—the process scientists call a sudden forking in the evolutionary trajectory of a complex dynamic system. We are living the global systems-shift we have discussed and anticipated for years. We have learned a few things about such a shift. It is one-way, it cannot be reversed. But it is not predetermined—it allows choice. In a bifurcation, we can choose the way we go. For the first time in history, we can consciously and purposefully choose our destiny. This could be a bright destiny; the dawn of a new era of sanity and flourishing. But whether it will be that is not determined. It is up to us. 

Bifurcation creates crisis, and crisis, as we know, is both danger and opportunity. Either way, it is a prelude to change. The challenge is to choose the change that leads to a sane and flourishing world. This is a real but non-recurring opportunity. Failing to seize it means returning to where we have been: facing the prospect of our collective demise. Because for the past several decades we have been exposed to a plethora of crises, and these are likely to be as global as the pandemic, but not necessarily as temporary.

They include conditions as bad or worse than a pandemic. For instance: millions dying of starvation and penury—and through epidemics and violence taking further millions with them. Hordes of displaced refugees tearing apart the fabric of more and more societies. Droughts turning fertile verdant land into arid, lifeless plains. Rising sea levels flooding a third of the human habitations on the planet. Violent storms destroying the homes of rich and poor alike. And local conflicts escalating into regional wars and turning into a global nuclear confrontation. The list could be extended, but the conclusion is clear. The unsustainable processes we have created could reach fateful tipping points— points of irreversibility. We either learn to live sanely and sustainably, or we leave the stage of history. This is a lesson we have learned on the level of theory. Now we are facing it in practice.

Returning to business as usual, to the norms and practices and the values and assumptions of the past, would be suicidal. Fortunately, it is not possible. This is just as well: another way is now open for us. The social, economic, political, and cultural systems that have been framing our life have been shaken to their roots. Disruptive change happened, and it is a prelude to fundamental change, whether constructive or destructive. 

In a way, the pandemic is a blessing in disguise. It made us realize that we are a single global family: an interdependent and either co-evolving or co-devolving living system. If we fail to make good use of the opportunity this gifts us, we expose ourselves to a plethora of crises. But if we make good use of it, we can create a better world. 

There is an important lesson to learn here. In his Inaugural Address, president Franklin D. Roosevelt told us that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Applied to the condition of the world today, this conveys a relevant and true message. We can build a better world if we stop being fearful. A better world is available to us; it is waiting to be built. There is nothing to fear but fear itself.

What is it, then, that we need to do? It is clear that we need to think constructively—dare to hope, and dare to act to realize our hope. But we also need to act differently; act as if we were part of the web of life on the planet. Because we are that, even if most of us neither realize nor act like it. We have been harming the planet, and so harming ourselves.We have ignored the interdependence and ultimate oneness of life. We need to adopt better goals. It is not “our people, our nation first”—not even all of humanity first. It is the web of life first, as it exists and evolves on Earth. When that web is safe and sound, we are safe and sound. Then we can flourish, instead of having to fight crisis after crisis. 


“We can build a better world if we stop being fearful. A better world is available to us; it is waiting to be built. There is nothing to fear but fear itself.