Preemptive versus post hoc: pandemic decision-making and measuring economic trade-offs

A million tourists or new luxury hotels may sound appealing, he added, “but is that sustainable? Is that going to help us in the long run?”

The Washington Post‘s expose today 18 Dec 2020 on the few island nations that are still 100% COVID-19-free discusses the economic meltdown that has occurred as tourism has collapsed, especially as many of these island nations have imposed what the Post calls “preemptive lockdown” and “most drastic anti-coronavirus travel ban in the world.”

The Post insinuates that this is a bad thing — that had Micronesia been a bit more permissive and welcoming of the pandemic, they would have had less devastating economic losses. But perhaps this framing is backwards. Instead, what it reveals is the unsustainability of exogenously-sustained economies. That islands have become completely dependent on the global business model of travel and tourism. Long term, this is fragile, instead of anti-fragile (in Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s description). John Rawls in his Theory of Justice even devotes an entire section on resource sovereignty and not needing external imports to sustain oneself (an implicit ecological argument — for my analysis on this elsewhere, see “The Threshold Problem in Intergenerational Justice“). In a sense, this is the opposite of Kant’s notion of Cosmopolitan Citizenship in Perpetual Peace, where trading makes us all so reliant on one another, that peace reigns because fighting each other destabilizes our economic and metabolic dependencies.

But instead of focusing on retooling these island nation’s ability to provide for themselves, to go back to their permaculture roots, they are given a false gambit: open up and woo biological misfortune, or stay closed and woo economic disaster. This is a great teaching moment.

Biological integrity is a thing. It has been swept under the rug for the last century, as elites, and a trickle down of upper middle class jet setters have drummed up an entirely just-in-time global logistics network where most of the food we eat and resources we use come from far, far away. It’s nice to eat bananas and avocados — I’ll admit. But would I give them (and many other things up) for a healthier world? You betcha.

If the choice is between being a potato-eater and being able to work and hug, versus getting exotic fruits in a closed-down quarantined life, I’ll choose the former any time.