The world has been turned upside down, and the economy has come to a complete standstill. After three weeks, we appear to be getting used to our new reality. Working from my home office, I’ve felt the need to reflect on the current situation for some time. I don’t want to draw unnecessary and sensitive parallels with the sustainability crisis, because we’re dealing with other priorities right now. As the daughter of a parent who has an autoimmune disease, I am fully aware of the dangers of this virus; as far as I’m concerned, ‘first things first’ certainly applies here.
And yet, with my sustainability advocate hat on, I notice a certain consciousness emerging that could ultimately be helpful for our sustainability approach – after all this is over, of course. We might have to wait a while, but I am cautiously positive that as a society, we can learn some valuable lessons. Here they are, in no particular order:
- Appreciating nature. In the first few weeks after catering establishments were closed, we noticed that people were going out in droves – to the beach, the forest and other nature reserves. This brought with it some concerns, of course, but secretly, I thought it was wonderful that so many people were looking for the beauty that the Netherlands has to offer, especially in the midst of a crisis. Some strange birds appeared in my own garden last week; further investigation of their red heads in white dots on the tail led me to discover the goldfinch.
- Working at home can work. Almost every office worker in the Netherlands made the switch to working from home, literally overnight. For working parents, this came with some challenges, and there has been a lot of understanding and sympathy for them. There are other challenges too – I miss having real contact with my colleagues, clients and friends, and as an entrepreneur, I am very aware of the consequences for the economy. But I also see great potential. Traffic jams have disappeared from almost every major city, and the global mobility index has dropped rapidly to about 10% (Citymapper mobility index, 2020). I can’t help but wonder, what if just 20% of us continued to work from home after the crisis?
- The power of connection. Invariably, when I ask my friends what they miss the most in these times of quarantine, first place goes to ‘real connection’ with other people. It’s not shopping for the latest summer dress or taking a weekend trip to the hippest city in Europe, it’s seeing friends. Hugging your vulnerable mother. Really knowing how your colleague is doing. When all this is over, let’s remember this realization: that the most valuable things in life are not for sale.
- The immense creativity that blooms when we’re restricted. I’ve been really surprised by how creative people can be within these kinds of limitations. Like the restaurants that deliver en masse to your home, the digital turnaround education has made; last Sunday afternoon, I watched the digital Tour of Flanders with my cycling fanatic husband (a former rider himself) – thirteen top riders sweating buckets in an online gaming environment. All this would have been unthinkable in a ‘normal’ year. Historically, epidemics and pandemics have led to social innovation, business magazine Forbes writes, and there has been much discussion about the biggest innovations to emerge from this crisis.
- The economy is not sacred. As a ‘sustainability movement’, we have already been talking about the need for economic reform for some time. And although these are stressful times for me as an entrepreneur, the idealist in me is hopeful. We now see that people’s health is (or is becoming) more important than economic growth. I don’t want to spark ethical discussions about how far to take this; I’m simply drawing the cautious lesson that we as humanity are able to put non-financial values such as health at the top of our list of priorities. Now we just need to address the health of our living environment…
- A change in behavior will lead us out of this crisis. In the Netherlands, we are following the government’s requests en masse – the request to stay at home, to keep 1.5m away from each other – because we all want this crisis to pass quickly. We need to change our behavior – all of us – to emerge from a crisis (including the sustainability crisis). Or is it the other way around – do we need a crisis to adjust our behavior?
- The vulnerability of our global economy. More than ever before, we realize that our global economy is not a given; it is vulnerable due to the long and fragmented value chains we have created over the decades. Many of the products with ‘Western’ names are manufactured in other countries, and their components come from a multitude of other (often low-wage) countries. For example, at the end of February, NOS reported (in Dutch) that one of the largest Dutch webshops had increased its prices and stopped advertising “… to prevent items from being sold out” – all as a result of production in China being stalled due to the lockdown. When things don’t go as planned, we become more aware of the dependencies in our economic model. And we may be in for even more shocks in the future, partly due to the consequences of climate change. Is this our chance to reform our economy, as a local, circular one?
- We finally understand what exponentiality means. A single infection in Wuhan has spread into a worldwide pandemic – a real-life example of the butterfly effect. In mid-March, Dutch celebrity Jaap van Dissel was pessimistic because the average COVID-19 patient could infect two or three other people, and those figures had to be lower to slow the exponential increase in cases. There was a lot of #flattenthecurve talk on social media, which makes me hopeful – the average Twitter user now understands exponentiality, the dangers of which we have been talking about in the sustainability world for a long time, in connection with all kinds of ecological and social developments (see the figure below). #Letsflattenthesecurvestoo!
When I take stock of myself, I draw hope from this crisis: hope that we will appreciate the ‘small’ things more; hope that we will seek more connection, with each other and with nature; hope that we will dare to challenge the status quo and hope that we will find a new medium in which to grow sustainability.
And lastly: stay healthy! Who knows what creative ideas could emerge from our quarantine?