The economic pause we're currently experiencing due to the COVID-19 pandemic is a huge opportunity to relay the economy's train tracks in a different direction towards a sustainable future, argues Janet Stephenson.
Stephenson, Associate Professor and Director of the Centre for Sustainability at the University of Otago, uses an analogy of economies rolling along like trains on tracks, being locked into a pathway that's difficult to divert from.
"This pause really does seem to have enabled people to sit back a little bit [and] give them time to think. A lot of families are under a lot of stress, but as well as being under stress there has been a pause from their usual activities. So we're thinking about what is it that makes life important. And I think a lot of us are realising that our families, and that our health and welfare are the most important things," says Stephenson.
Whilst the COVID-19 pandemic is having major short-term economic shocks and social shocks, there are other longer-term risks as well, clearly caused by our current systems of production and consumption, she says.
Stephenson points to The Global Risks Report 2020 from the World Economic Forum, which lists the top five global risks in terms of likelihood as all environmental. This, she adds, suggests a lot of people around the world are taking these things very seriously.
The five are:
- Extreme weather events (e.g. floods, storms, etc).
- Failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation.
- Major natural disasters (e.g. earthquake, tsunami, volcanic eruption, geomagnetic storms).
- Major biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse.
- Human-made environmental damage and disasters.
Stephenson says these issues are "longer-term therefore they're harder for the human intellect to grapple with. But they are leading us ever more into a serious pickle which will see far greater consequences than a COVID-19 epidemic."
"Because we've got this pause and because we're going to be coming back into a situation where we're both pouring a lot of energy and innovation into reinventing the economy, ...what better time to [re]invent ourselves for a sustainable future whereby our younger generations are going to thrive."
Interestingly, featuring in the Risks Report's list of top 10 risks in terms of impact is infectious diseases.
Meanwhile, in terms of the opportunity to relay the train tracks, Stephenson says a need to create jobs doesn't mean they have to be jobs leading us back to the 20th century.
"They can be investments that lead us into a 21st century solution such as clean energy opportunities, businesses getting into [a] circular economy. Lots of new businesses have been already focusing on the changes in consumer appetite for more sustainable products and services. We're looking at investments in things like massively improving our building stock, which not only has health and welfare benefits but also long-term savings for everybody. [Also] investing in new forms of transport that are going to be future proofing us as opposed to creating even greater reliance on fossil fuels," says Stephenson.
"You can come up with lots of options of what the Government should be doing in terms of its shovel ready projects, through to what potentially councils might be deciding to invest in, to what businesses are doing right through to what individual families might be looking at. So at each scale there are many things we can be doing to be resetting our economy and society into a sustainable future."
"Given we're going to be facing a period right now where the local economies need to start building up, the more that we can actually stimulate our economies by buying local, by supporting our local businesses the better. And so I think localisation has an important role to play there. Not buying off Amazon but buying from your local store," Stephenson suggests.
She's also an advocate of a circular economy, where there's a focus on eliminating waste and continually using resources.
"It's trying to use our resources much more efficiently and to reduce the waste streams out of the far end of that," says Stephenson.
In terms of reaching a sustainable future, Stephenson lists what she calls seven whetū, or stars, she thinks of as a constellation.
"Those seven items really create a constellation that I'm suggesting all of us should be aiming to actually hit at once ... every time we make an investment decision, every time we try and make a decision about okay, what's the plan for our next stage, let's take those stars all into account as we plan forward," says Stephenson.
The seven are:
1. Radically reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
2. Preparing for the impacts of climate change.
3. Restoring the vitality of natural systems.
4. Increasing local, regional and national self-sufficiency.
5. Developing a circular economy.
6. Being socially responsible.
7. Working together.
*The video accompanying this article has a few ropy moments with both audio and video. Sorry about that.
*This is the sixth interview in a series looking at reactions to and potential policy responses to the coronavirus pandemic and evolving economic downturn.
The first interview, with staunch critic of the economic mainstream Steve Keen, is here.
The second interview, with director at economic advisory firm Landfall Strategy Group David Skilling, is here.
The third interview, with Motu and Victoria University's Arthur Grimes, is here.
The fourth interview, with Patrick Watson, senor economic analyst at Mauldin Economics, is here.
And the fifth interview, with Climate Change Commission Chairman Rod Carr, is here.