Crisis Means Danger and Opportunity

John Scales Avery

In written Chinese, the word “crisis” is represented by two characters. One of these, taken alone, means “danger”. The other, by itself, means “opportunity”. A crisis nearly always leads to great change. There is a danger that this will be a change for the worse. But there also is the opportunity to change society for the better – to reform and improve it. Both paths are present in a crisis like our present one. We must strive with all our strength to make society take the right path.

Our present crisis
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is in itself a crisis, many American cities have erupted in massive protests over the senseless killing by police of yet another black man – George Floyd. The country is deeply divided. Throughout the world there have been anti-racist protests, partly in sympathy with the US protesters, and partly because racism exists in many countries.

Donald Trump, who was elected on an openly racist platform, and who has been a racist in both word and deed during his term of office, has reacted by threatening to use the US army against citizens of his own country, calling the demonstrators “lowlifes and loosers”, and telling governors, “If you don’t dominate, you are wasting your time”.

After hiding in a White House bunker, Donald Trump ordered officers to clear a path for him so that he could be photographed holding a Bible in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church. The forces used tear gas and flash grenades against peaceful protesters in Lafayette Square.

Trump’s threats to use federal troops were too much for defense secretary, Mark Esper, who insisted that military personnel “be used as a matter of last resort, and only in the most urgent and dire of situations”.

Another rebuke came from Trump’s former secretary of defense, James Mattis, who said, “Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people. We know that we are better than the abuse of executive authority that we witnessed in Lafayette Square. We must reject and hold accountable those in office who would make a mockery of our constitution”.

What will happen if Trump loses the 2020 election but refuses to give up the White House, claiming that the votes were counted incorrectly? Will the military support him? This danger has to be considered. We must remember the testimony before Congress of Trump’s former associate Michael Cohen, who said, “I fear that if he loses the election in 2020, there will never be a peaceful transition of power”.

The Great Depression brought Hitler to power
The present COVID-19 pandemic has had an enormous economic impact. Economists fear that it will produce a depression comparable to the Great Depression of the 1930’s, It is interesting to compare what happened then with what might happen today.

The Great Depression brought Hitler to power. Before the economic depression struck, the Nazis were a very minor party, winning only 3 per cent of the votes to the Reichstag in the 1924 elections. But in the 1932 elections, the Nazis won 33 per cent of the votes, more than any other party. In 1933, Hitler was appointed chancellor, and head of the German government.

In Denmark, the Great Depression lead to social reform
In sharp contrast to what happened in Germany, the crisis of the Great Depression led Denmark to the social reforms that have made the country so prosperous and happy as it is today.

On January 30, 1933, representatives from labor and management met in the apartment of the Danish prime minister, Thorvald Stauning. During the entire day, and late into the night, they discussed possible solutions to the economic crisis, but they could not agree. Finally, after midnight, Stauning offered his exhausted guests some whisky, so that they could relax a little. As if by magic, the whisky seemed to dissolve the differences separating the delegates, and an historic agreement was reached. It proved to be the model for the Danish welfare state.

Denmark has very high taxes, but in return for these, its citizens receive many social services, such as free health care. The taxes are sharply progressive so the rich pay very much, and the less wealthy very little. Thus the contrast between rich and poor is very much reduced in Denmark. This is a form of socialism, but at the same time, Denmark has a market economy.

If they qualify for university education, the tuition is free, and students are given an allowance for their living expenses. Mothers or alternatively fathers, can take paid leave of up to 52 weeks after the birth of a child. After that, a creche is always available, so that mothers can return to their jobs. When the child becomes too old for the creche, day care centers are always available.

For children of school age, after-school clubs are available where children can practice arts and crafts or other activities under supervision until their parents come home from work.

In 2017. Denmark ranked 2nd in the world (after Norway) in the World Happiness Report. In a number of other years, Denmark has ranked 1st. In compiling the report, researchers ask people in a given country whether they are happy, and record how many say “yes”. Interestingly, in Denmark, women are the most happy of all.

Denmark has also been one of the leaders in addressing the climate emergency, thus demonstrating that the widely discussed Green New Deal strategy can actually be put into practice.

Which path will we take?
The present crisis will undoubtedly lead to great change, but will it be takeovers by neo-fascist leaders such as Trump? Or will the change be social reforms, such as those initiated in Denmark by Stauning? Will the Green New Deal be part of our recovery from the present economic crisis? We stand at a critical point in history. Each of us has the duty to strive with all our strength to persuade our societies to make the right choice.

John Scales Avery is a theoretical chemist at the University of Copenhagen. He is noted for his books and research publications in quantum chemistry, thermodynamics, evolution, and history of science. His 2003 book Information Theory and Evolution set forth the view that the phenomenon of life, including its origin, evolution, as well as human cultural evolution, has its background situated in the fields of thermodynamics, statistical mechanics, and information theory. Since 1990 he has been the Chairman of the Danish National Group of Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs. Between 2004 and 2015 he also served as Chairman of the Danish Peace Academy. He founded the Journal of Bioenergetics and Biomembranes, and was for many years its Managing Editor. He also served as Technical Advisor to the World Health Organization, Regional Office for Europe (19881997). He can be reached at To know more about his works visit this link.


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Jun 12, 2020

John Avery

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