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Dare to know: how sustainable development can thrive on vulnerability

It’s a strange feeling…being alive, when we’re counting the sick and the dead, every day. The coronavirus is extremely violent. I think of all those who have left us and their families. We will not be able to forget them any more than the heroes who have risked their lives to save the sick. Or the people who have had to wait for the Covid-19 emergency to subside before they could be treated; some of them have already passed on. It’s unbelievable…

 What are we going to do about all this?

Mobilize, together, for a more balanced and sustainable world.

Still dumbfounded by these events, I try to connect the dots. I wonder how it is possible that a virus, invisible by nature, can create, so quickly, a world health crisis, a world economic crisis, and a world social crisis. 

This seemingly fictional scenario has become reality. We have realized that death can strike anytime, without a warning, and we have witnessed the vulnerability of the model on which our lives are based. 

We must write the sequel together. May we use common sense and humanity to build the future for us…for the coming generation, and for all those who have lost their lives.

This has to be a wake-up call.

 

Vulnerable before Covid-19

To fight global warming, we require the development of a low-carbon economy. The emission of CO2 into the air is one of the main causes of global warming and carbon emissions result mainly from the way we live, and thus, our model of development.

Although capitalism has helped reduce world poverty and achieve unprecedented technological advances, it has also created serious imbalances, such as the loss of biodiversity, pollution, and social inequality. For more than thirty years, the countries of the world have been working together to find an alternative, knowing that the Marxist currents that oppose capitalism have already shown their limits. They have defined the notion of sustainable development. Most countries share this new approach to ecological development, which concerns living beings, their living environment and the relationships they have with each other to form an ecosystem. It is a global paradigm shift. 

At the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 21), countries went a step further. They defined 17 sustainable development goals. This is a reference framework that allows everyone to question the quality of their actions. Sustainable development is an approach based on ideas to adopt satisfactory solutions for living things in the long term.

 World leaders are aware of the gravity of the situation. They are also aware that governments, the private sector, and civil society, all need to adopt the principles of sustainable development. No one can say that they are unaware of the urgency to address the climate emergency. Yet we are not changing; no one has really stepped up their climate action – mainly for reasons of short-term economic interests. Also, because we tend to want to label everything and put them neatly into boxes, whereas sustainable development requires a global, long-term vision and a cross-cutting approach, and we have not learned to think like that. 

 In 2019, when global emissions reached a record level and showed no sign of levelling off, we were still unable to be free of our dependence on fossil fuels and limit our consumption. UN Secretary-General António Guterres had called on all leaders to attend the Climate Action Summit in September 2019, in New York, with concrete plans to enhance their nationally determined contributions by 2020. This was to be in line with reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 45% over the next decade, and to achieve zero net emissions by 2050.

At the same time, we were living with the uncertainty that a new financial crisis heralded, even though we had not yet overcome the “bank bailout of 2008” following the subprime mortgage crisis. 

That was the situation before the pandemic.

 

The pandemic teaches us something about ourselves, our life, and our system. It’s a reminder of our vulnerability.

The response to the pandemic has been the extraordinary outpouring of solidarity. In fact, it is the first thing we should learn from it. The whole world united across borders, despite their closure. Of course, there will always be a few errant behaviours that will be highlighted (toilet paper, theft of masks) but these are marginal, as compared to the immense wave of generosity, cooperation and support that we have seen. Humans are, in essence, made to cooperate and help each other. 

Globalization has brought us much in recent decades but it has also shown its limits, whether it be the rapid spread of the virus or the loss of sovereignty of States to meet the basic needs of the population (e.g. protective masks). This does not mean that we should condemn it. Instead, we must improve the way we do things together, probably on a different scale. The development could be regional with the coming together of ideas on a global scale.

At the economic level, we were reluctant to implement the objectives of sustainable development so we could preserve short-term economic interests. However, we now understand that our short-term economic models do not allow us to preserve humanity. Indeed, the economy slows down one quarter and everything collapses like a house of cards. We have had to inject several thousand billion dollars of debt (ECB and FED), which will have to be repaid.

And yet, we are entering a period of recession. In three months, carbon emissions have fallen to the levels as recorded in 2006 as a result of the slowdown in the global world economy. This is, however, not a good reason because this effect could be ephemeral.

Ways are emerging to say ‘never again as before’ and to rethink the world afterwards. It is true that it would be better not to make mistakes in our medium and long-term investment strategies and to learn our lessons from the current crisis. It is also true that in 2008, in the wake of the financial crisis following the madness of a few, we also said ‘never again’. We all believed that we were going to protect ourselves by developing a greener model.

However, this was not the case. We left with our heads down, “business as usual”. The recession has not reduced CO2 emissions in the long term. We have missed an opportunity to install the principles of sustainable development in our societies and their regional and local ecosystems of development. And as always, the most vulnerable are not the most responsible.

 We managed as well as we could and adapted to the crisis.

Of course, we could have handled the crisis better. Yes, we lacked a sense of urgency, and it’s obvious that one death by Covid-19 is one death too many. But flogging ourselves won’t get us anywhere. Let’s accept our shortcomings. Each of us did the best we could at our own level. Together let us grow out of this crisis that has taught us so much about ourselves.

A surge of solidarity and mutual aid is taking place within the communities and this is what already unites us. Each of us has to take care of the other, through simple gestures and by paying attention to small details (wearing a mask, keeping a social distance, listening, supporting, giving).

Companies have opened up, under duress, to a new organisation of work. They have put their trust in their employees. Teleworking has been facilitated by new technologies and by the quality of employees. And it has worked rather well. In times of crisis, it is quite possible to work from home to ensure continuity. This is rather good news and a change in mentality. Of course, this does not mean that we should ignore those who have suffered social isolation, loneliness or depression resulting in mental health issues. For we were not all subject to the same conditions of working from home. We have to consider this.

The students – those who were lucky, were able to follow their education online.

Businesses are also adapting by enabling online orders and home delivery services. Again, we see that in times of crisis, this can work. I think we, as consumers, need to recognize the courage of those who are fighting and innovating to save their businesses, big or small, so that it can survive. 

Technology has also made it possible to take care of others by tracking our whereabouts and by making it possible to alert those we have come into contact with, in the event of infection. This is encouraging and one can imagine the possibilities for the future, although we will have to put some limits on it.

With Covid-19, we have made a choice – the choice to choose humanity over the economy. This has not failed to whet the appetite of the Internet giants who are grabbing everything in their path and, at the risk of creating a new bubble, gobbling up entire startups every week to avoid seeing them grow and compete. 

These Internet giants, the GAFAMs (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft) and the smaller ones, the NATUs (Netflix, Airbnb, Tesla and Uber) as well as their Asian counterparts, the BATXs (Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent, Xiaomi) are taking advantage of this crisis. Worldwide, tens of millions of people have switched to teleworking, and digital networks and channels are breaking audience records. Digital capitalism seems to have the wind in its sails. 

This is the situation now.

 

Can digital capitalism become our model for the future?

 It is true that the idea is partly appealing to GAFAM, BATX, and NATU, who reacted really promptly and took by surprise the countries that haven’t had much time to react and adapt. The more the people behind their computers, telephones and tablets, the more profitable their business model is. Personally, I don’t believe in the durability of these models over the next fifteen years. I think the effect is like fashion that keeps changing – the disenchantment is not far away, and we’re going to get tired or weaned, depending on the people. 

If working from home were to become the norm, this might encourage the use of agile skills for the company, depending on the kind of expertise they need. Companies may become too restrictive and put people in boxes – not allowing them to use other potential skills. Employees will become independent. The organisation of work would take the form of temporary work assignments, which would increase financial instability and social isolation. An explosive cocktail for the future. 

 With the trend towards e-business as a lifestyle, local businesses would be replaced by delivery trucks in the cities and tons of additional packaging waste would have to be managed. This is the trajectory we are currently taking, with businesses going bankrupt due to lack of cash flow and the increase in home deliveries. 

We have adapted to new technologies in a hurry, without having the time to anticipate. Even if they can bring people together by interposed screens, not everyone has access to them for various reasons (e.g. lack of training, lack of means, no electricity, no Wi-Fi).  We entrust our personal data to private companies. The use of malicious data can have serious consequences (manipulation, population control, hacking). Such an important subject should be supervised to avoid possible abuse. If the technologies are promising, they are only tools and must remain so.

We need to ask ourselves why the GAFAMs are starting a non-sustainable competition to collect data, if not to monetize it. I believe it is urgent to regulate or let it go if we fail in doing so. The GAFAMs are 20 years old; humanity, 2 million years old.

If we do not find an ethical and equitable governance framework, we will drop the case on the ground, for technology will never replace the precious necessity and transmitted energy of physical human interaction, the face-to-face exchange. 

Crisis management is not the norm.

 

An ecological path to sustainable development.

 Our vulnerability can become a collective strength that benefits everyone – first, and foremost, the most fragile. That would be the greatest tribute, I think, that we could offer to the deceased and their families. 

Since we are rethinking our lifestyles, let us together reaffirm the principles of sustainable development; they are validated and co-constructed by the international community. For this, we would need a real training and communication strategy at the international level to explain and promote it. 

The principles can be implemented at all individual and collective levels. They must be adapted to each situation, which requires common sense and innovation. An idea on the margin can become mainstream.

 

Sustainable development is a model of ideas.

 Good governance is necessary. The roles and responsibilities between politicians, public actors, and the economic world must be clarified. Trust must be restored. To do this, promises must be delivered and institutions must enable their fulfilment.

As citizens, we have a duty to entrust with power, political leaders who care about the common good, who are optimistic, sensible, accessible, empathetic, and above all, honest – as New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Arden so aptly embodies. Today, the population seems to trust a GAFAM boss like Bill Gates, for example, more than an elected President like Donald Trump. It is not normal and this tendency is found not just in the United States. 

 With good governance and public support, let’s invest in the sailboat industry and solar-powered boats to transport goods and even people. Let us work on product quality, not quantity. Let’s invest and innovate in recycling and limit waste. The sun and wind are freely available; let’s use their energy to meet our needs. Let’s rely on intelligent urban planning and a 360° vision to preserve the territory and biodiversity and to satisfy the needs of the population. There are so many exciting and significant things to achieve together, in partnership, through cooperation. To unite people and not divide them.  

 

What is the risk if we don’t dare?

To not go beyond the stage of our vulnerability, to stagnate, to close in on ourselves rather than open up to others and to the world.

And, if we dare?

We will redirect our creativity, our energy, our investments and our policies by using life as an economic and social lever.

 This is a collective responsibility and we can all contribute to it at our level. If our political leaders are preoccupied with special interests, if their behaviour is inappropriate, if they are greedy, let us remember that yes, a handful of us are greedy. However, most of us appreciate wisdom and human wealth. Individually, we can move the line, no matter what. 

 Perhaps that is the first thing we should be aware of – having confidence in our worth and ability because we are part of a whole, and our path matters. And if you have read my article all the way through, maybe that’s the main idea I’d like you to remember. 

Let’s not waste this crisis. If we don’t dare…we will never know.

 

At Ergapolis, we believe sustainable development can thrive on vulnerability. If you have any questions or comments regarding the same, do get in touch

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