Could it be possible that the solution to getting rid of dental cavities, COVID-19 and the impact of climate change have something in common? Far-fetched perhaps, but what if the pain, social reaction and above all the results share some common ground?  

I found myself comparing what dentists have done with dental care and what should be done with climate change, albeit far-fetched and perhaps a little silly. According to my daughters (6 and 9 years old), it’s still very boring to brush your teeth so often, for so long, all in an attempt to avoid future dental pain – but it seems to work!

And when the ailment called decay arrives, like the vile COVID-19 virus that occupies the world at present, we must have the courage to go see the dentist, and admit that we perhaps have consumed one sweet to many, that we badly brushed our teeth, and that we now should tolerate the pain of intervention and corrective action. I have memories of the time before anesthesia when as a child, I pinched myself very hard in order to experience more pain in the area than in my teeth, a self-inflicted response to deal with the consequences of my actions. Similarly in dealing with the consequences of our own actions today, it might be necessary to accept an irreversible “filling” and mourn a once immaculate smile, while promising ourselves a future that is more consistent with renewal than decay. Sometimes mind you, it works and some patients learn from their mistakes and move towards a tomorrow without cavities. Sometimes, on the contrary not much is learnt, and we grab the nearest bag of sweets at the first opportunity and get stuck on repeat!  

The results speak for themselves. In 2020, in some of our “developed” countries, we can see that cavities have become much rarer than it was 40 years ago, so it would be safe to say well done to an effective “dental care” system. Could the same be achieved with the climate change system? 

First of all, let us remember that we do have the luxury of  40 years in retrospect but in effect every day counts. Dare to compare the unthinkable, what if COVID-19 was a cavity? Yes they both hurt very badly. To be treated, it requires at least the mobilisation of great medical competence, and during the cavity period (illness + care + recovery). This greatly modifies our individual and social behaviour. One can get a  dental cavity from “ bad luck ” but also and above all probably from inadequate eating and hygienic dental behaviour. COVID-19 is a result of “bad luck” as well – but most probably from too much interference with nature that is linked to the organised destruction of biodiversity for demographic, economic and climatic benefit. All other things being equal, the more the climate deteriorates, the more likely it is that viral risk will increase.    

Consider this. What if the climate system (science, politics, the economy and population) were inspired by the dental care system, with greater or faster success rates? The person who eats a candy in the middle of a caries crisis experiences so much pain that they still remember it years later. Nothing else matters as long as it hurts. With the pain and the fear of having even more pain, behaviours change very, very quickly to implore the dental care that we then subsequently rediscover as a consequence. Some actions need to be sharply reduced and others need to be increased. Sugar is an enemy and yet it tastes so good that it can easily cloud our judgement. The dental system is a friend, yes the dentist in green with the roulette wheel, he’s a friend …. and promptly we promise not to do it again, because of the painful consequences. 

For several months now we have rediscovered the vital trade-offs and desired behaviours alone capable of supporting our lives during the COVID-19 period. Nothing else matters as long as you are in pain (e.g. sick and wondering whether you will survive) or as long as you are afraid it will hurt even more. Behaviours were eventually changed very easily with some discipline guided by scientific understanding. The virus, and everything that spreads it (e.g. a frantic circulation of humans and goods), and everything that generates it (e.g. the destruction of biodiversity, greenhouse gas emissions) must become the enemy. Anything that heals, anything that allows us to survive during the crisis, anything that will allow us to live (differently) after the crisis must therefore become a friend.

So, as far as the climate change crisis is concerned, who and what represents the enemy, the “sweet, unhealthy candy” that we should learn to live without?  

The answers are well known : it is anything that emits greenhouse gases, anything that increases demographics, anything that is not frugal. The bulk, frantic consumption of materials, the reduction of material activity to the bare minimum – even though it was fun at the time, needs to be stopped! Fossil fuel based heat or power, fossil fuel based transportation, meat, imports for consumption to mention some of the most obvious ones.    

On the contrary, what constitutes the dental system, who should we view as friends? In order to fight and to hope to avoid new, even more serious crises in the future, it is necessary to recognise the enemy and no longer promote and allow it to destroy. We can no longer imagine a candy commercial sponsored by the government, can we? I for one, can not wait for the mention of a car or steak commercial and the mention of its connection to the destruction of the environment at the same time! There are many more similar examples that are oh so sweet, yet so utterly dangerous over the long term. Conversely, the climate system must promote and support all that actively fights against environmental degradation and slower and more local lifestyles should once again become popular and more “in fashion”. In bulk,  the actual renovation of buildings or local wealth production and local redistribution, the active deployment of the bicycle system or individual electric mobility,  scientific research to replace highly carbonaceous materials with materials from living organisms, population control around the world, and so forth, it all starts to make much better sense.     

 Amazingly, the reduction of CO2 emissions due to the economic crisis and the management of COVID-19 worldwide at present, is roughly what needs to be done if we want to hope for anything more sustainable in the future. We need to continue doing this on a regular basis as none of us are in the mood for COVID-20 and COVID-21 and all that may follow it in the same vein. 

Imagine the day we emerge from the COVID-19 crisis , what do we do next, stuff ourselves with candy like fools or brush our teeth? We did it with teeth, can we not do it for the rest of the planet and our own survival?