New Economy Working Paper – Change only through crisis?

A new study by Laurie Laybourn-Langton reflects on the strategies for a paradigm shift in an age of coronavirus and environmental breakdown.




11. DECEMBER 2020



The emergency measures undertaken in response to the COIVD-19 pandemic constitute an unprecedented break from the norms and practice of the prevailing political-economic paradigm—the predominant set of economic theory, policies and narratives. As in other periods of crisis, many actors across society wonder whether such changes will endure beyond conditions of emergency, precipitating an epochal shift in the political-economic paradigm. Whether observing or urging change, perspectives on how crises can shift political-economic ideas and practice are partly founded on historical experience of this happening. Much commentary on the priorities for economic policy coming out of the pandemic have drawn on historical analogies pertaining to previous periods of crisis and change.

Public health has always been a major driver of changes in political economy.

This is because public health as physical reality, discipline and practice is systemic, providing a particularly effective mechanism for conceiving of and acting against the failings of socioeconomic systems to meet human needs. Human health cannot be separated from the health of our societies and the wider world; ill health, from pandemics or otherwise, acts to pointedly expose the intersections of social, economic, political and environmental forces. Consequently, in recent years, a large body of literature examining the social, commercial and environmental determinants of health have provided emphatic proof of the inadequacy of the prevailing political-economic paradigm to meet human needs to acceptable standards or even at all, and, as they have done throughout history, provide us with insights that can help chart us away from a present—and future—of persistent and compounding societal ills. It is in this way that pandemics in particular and public health in general can be seen as a special case of those crises—drivers of change—that can precipitate enduring shifts in the prevailing political-economic paradigm.

However, the nature of crisis is changing.

Human activity has altered the functioning of biogeochemical cycles that regulate the Earth’s life support systems, making humans the dominant driver of the overall environmental state of the planet. The resultant environmental destabilisation encompasses more than just climate breakdown, stretching across many areas of nature and natural systems—including soil, biodiversity and the oceans—driving a complex, dynamic process of overall ‘environmental breakdown’ of unprecedented scale and pace. The resultant increasing frequency and severity of environmental shocks will be transmitted across socio-economic systems, which are already experiencing acute stress, destabilising them over a period in which they must undergo rapid structural change. As a consequence, the new ‘planetary state’ inaugurated by environmental breakdown requires those seeking change to question the use of prevailing heuristics of change, particularly current strategies of ‘change through crisis’, and to seek new skills and actors to form part of an ecosystem of influence capable of driving the necessary scale and pace of change under conditions of growing destabilisation.



The Corona pandemic poses new kinds of challenges for global economic and social policy making and has further intensified an already existing need for action. Economists are working hard on mitigating the economic effects.