The US Government Has Failed In Its Response To COVID-19. Can Cleantech Lead A Different Way?

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Noam Chomsky is calling out the US government for what he says is ineptitude in its planning and prevention of major pandemics, including the response to COVID-19. In a recent interview, the noted linguist and social activist claims that “the US has the worst record in responding to the crisis.” Partially, that’s due to the feds washing their proverbial hands of tasks that are now deemed better accomplished by business, like making ventilators.

Yet, when governments turn manufacturing over to private companies, the products that result must reflect those companies’ goals to maximize profits. That’s the way capitalism works, right? But can magnifying profits help a country prepare for future crises? And can cleantech companies take a different approach, offering innovative pathways so that financial viability is side-by-side with the common good?

Why Cleantech Needs to Follow Science

I first encountered the work of Noam Chomsky when I was an undergrad at UConn. I took several courses in linguistics to fulfill analytical thinking requirements, and Chomsky’s Transformational Syntax was one in which I excelled — kinda the algebra of sentences. Many years have passed, and we now find ourselves in a world that’s totally unfamiliar to us. Hundreds of thousands are infected with COVID-19, with the sadness of deaths due to the virus reaching many communities across the globe now.

As death tolls accumulate, the capitalist mantra of the market being able to right itself is upside down. A global depression is now nearly inevitable, and one or more national bailouts is underway. We’ve come a long way since Ronald Reagan remarked, “Government is the problem.” The inherent notion of government decision-making handled by the business world is transparently problematic.

Chomsky reminds us that business “is devoted to private profit and is free from influence by those who might be concerned with the common good.” He describes how, with COVID-19, “one effect is the shockingly belated and limited testing, well below others, making it impossible to implement the successful test-and-trace strategies that have prevented the epidemic from breaking out of control in functioning societies. Even the best hospitals lack basic equipment. The U.S. is now the global epicenter of the crisis.”

As I read the Chomsky interview, I thought about the role cleantech companies have been playing to alleviate the desperate lack of medical equipment and materials needed to fight COVID-19. It is definitely one bit of good news in a really dark season.

I also wondered, can cleantech companies fight against what Chomsky calls the “neoliberal assault” on US? “Scientific understanding is not enough,” Chomsky admonishes. “There has to be someone to pick up the ball and run with it.”

Let it be cleantech.

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What Can Happen When Intelligent, Technically-Oriented People Coalesce in Times of Need?

Novelist Arundhati Roy notes that COVID-19 has “mocked immigration controls, biometrics, digital surveillance and every other kind of data analytics, and struck hardest — thus far — in the richest, most powerful nations of the world, bringing the engine of capitalism to a juddering halt.” Many cleantech companies are very busy these days with reinventions and redesigns of manufacturing equipment in efforts to mitigate effects of COVID-19 across social and demographic groups.

  • An Italian 3-D printing startup, Isinnova, accepted a plea and designed respirator valves for Chiari Hospital in Lombardy after the usual supply lines dried up.
  • TechCrunch reports how an open-source hardware project has produced a prototype ventilator using 3D-printed parts and readily available, inexpensive material. 300 engineers, medical professionals, and researchers joined into online collaboration.
  • Fuel cell manufacturer Bloom Energy responded to California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s request to repurpose old ventilators. The company is currently working to identify and refurbish out-of-service ventilators nationwide.
  • The IBM 2020 Call for Code Global Challenge has altered its original focus to take on COVID-19. While they “remain steadfastly committed to combating climate change,” they are also calling on developers and problem solvers to join them “to build open source solutions to make an immediate and lasting impact.”
  • Tesla’s engineers have been working on developing their own ventilators — specifically, one based on Tesla car parts.
  • Apple CEO Tim Cook announced the company will design and produce face shields to protect healthcare workers in the US as well as to donate 20 million in total.

In a New York Times opinion piece, an epidemiologist describes how existing digital tools can quickly be turned into “epidemic-monitoring instruments — and without intruding into people’s lives.” Can cleantech next move to develop solutions that will establish human immunity to the novel coronavirus?

Final Thoughts

Chomsky decries the Trump administration’s handling of public services.

“Trump has reacted during his years in office in the manner to which we have become accustomed: by defunding and dismantling every relevant part of government and assiduously implementing the instructions of his corporate masters to eliminate the regulations that impede profits while saving lives — and leading the race to the abyss of environmental catastrophe, by far his greatest crime — in fact, the greatest crime in history when we consider the consequences.”

Chomsky asks us to compare “the circus in Washington with Angela Merkel’s sober, measured, factual report to Germans on how the outbreak should be handled.”

The US snake oil salesman-in-chief has abdicated his responsibility to protect people in the US, so it’s up to companies like those in cleantech to re-envision ways that business can embrace social consciousness while staying fiscally sound.

Lockdowns, quarantines, and various measures to enforce physical distancing are reducing the spread of COVID-19. The damage to economies and peoples’ psychological states of well-being are forecast to be wrenching. Right now, what we can hope for is that more cleantech companies reinvent themselves — both in future product manufacturing and a realization that profits must accompany the common good.

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Substack:

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