Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Will the Corona pandemic be the societal disruptor we’ve been waiting for?

Björn-Ola Linnér

The Corona pandemic and the ensuing recovery packages seem poised to bring about disruptions that will define world politics over the coming decades. Ultimately, the disruptions may trigger transformations of the world’s societies as we know them – for better, for worse.

A societal disruptor is an occurrence that interrupts a system or a process from continuing as normal or as expected, for example a new technology, a political event, an environmental disaster, or a virus. In times of societal crises, structures and routines are called into question. A disruption, meaning to break apart, can uproot and fundamentally change how me make sense of our world, learn, behave, and interact.

The pandemic may force up to 60 million people into poverty, double the amount of humans in severe hunger and lead to more than 300 million lost jobs, according to UN bodies. The United Nations Development Programme foresees that human development globally could decline for the first time since the concept was launched in 1990. Multilateral cooperation is challenged, and based on the carbon track-record of previous economic recovery packages, the prospects for the Paris Agreement look grim.

Nevertheless, political and business leaders throughout the world portray the Corona pandemic disruptions as once-in-a-lifetime chances to trigger sustainable transformations through carefully designed green stimulus packages. For example, the European Union’s unprecedented stimulus package is heralded as an historic opportunity for a green transformation by the European Commission and some European leaders, like Angela Merkel.

Human societies are systems characterized by dynamic complexity. The interactions between different events and societies are subtle and multifarious and differ over time and in different locations. Thus, we can neither predict nor fully command the effects of disruptive events. Still, there are some grounds for these hopes that the response to the pandemic can be turned into a leverage for transformation.

Historically, we see how social disruptions can become defining movements. It can lead to frustration, social alienation, polarization, social unrest and escalation of conflicts. But it can also spur new perspectives and new practices and lead to the emergence of new cultural expressions, power relations and resource distributions. The transformative shifts that social disruptions can spur in our deeply rooted perceptions rarely come as ‘aha’-moments or sudden epiphanies. Rather, through disruptive events some of our preferences and perceptions surface as more urgent or desirable, whereas others seem less important. And in this process, a new social and cultural foundation for how we live our lives and organize our societies emerges.

So, while disruption can bring disorder, the underlying expectation is that it also enables a quantum leap in social and economic practices by breaking with path dependencies or by creating legitimacy for radical societal change. Disruptors create windows of opportunity for perspective shifts, new priorities and exploring, experimenting and developing social and technological innovations.

In Sustainability Transformations: Actors and Drivers across Societies, my co-author Victoria Wibeck and I analysed sense-making of societal transformations toward sustainability around the world. Being published before the Corona pandemic, the role of disruptors was discussed only theoretically in academic papers, policy documents, the media and in our focus groups with lay people. Although most reflected a view that deliberate societal transformations emerged out of an inevitable realization that current societies are unsustainable, three views on the role of disruptors emerged. Some see the sustainability transformations necessitated by the collapse of present societies or civilizations. Others emphasized that disruptions could be windows of opportunities. For instance, the devastating cyclones that brutally hit Fiji could, at least in part, be used as opportunities to enhance human development by restructuring and improving more decarbonized and secure energy systems. A third strand saw a risk of decision-making under disruptions bringing rushed decisions and a lack of democratic deliberation that may cause a backlash.

While few in the current Corona debates see the nightfall of civilizations after the pandemic, the two latter perspectives mirror a transformation juncture that the Corona disruptions have led us to. The pandemic could be tipping the scales of the Paris Agreement. We may see a turn toward more isolationism and persisting state surveillance restricting civil liberties, as well as pollution-intensive boosts to economies. Such developments could unsustainably transform the environment and the basis for our societies.

Yet, the pandemic may also spur geopolitics of generosity, new perspectives on what we treasure in life, and offer a timely opportunity to try new pathways toward greener, healthier and more resilient societies. The role of narratives in societal transformations are receiving increased attention in academia and among civil society movements. And rightly so. Based on a growing body of literature and our own analyses, we can assume that the extent to which political leaders, industry and union representatives and civil society actors succeed in formulating such narratives – making them credible and desirable, and stimulating transparent deliberations around them – will be critical for the prospects of turning the Corona crises into a leverage for adaptive learning, experiments, and social and technological innovations to guide sustainability transformation aspirations.

About The Author

Björn-Ola Linnér

Björn-Ola Linnér is Professor of Environmental Change at Linköpings Universitet, Sweden. He leads internationally recognized research on transnational climate governance and geo...

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