Out of adversity comes opportunity, said Benjamin Franklin, the great political philosopher and a founding father of the United States of America. Covid-19 has been one of the most severe adversities faced by humanity in the last several decades. It has left a wake of loss, grief and pain in its path. But hopefully, there has been an awakening. If nothing, it has shoved a few glaring observations in our face that we just cannot afford to ignore. The point is, is there an opportunity here?
It does not need a stretch of the imagination to realise that we are experiencing a seismic shift to a new world order where nearly all rules are being ruled out. As the pandemic continues to rattle the world, the universe is crying out and asking us to reset our priorities. Whatever be your field of work, whether you are a CEO or a homemaker, a pilot or a waiter, you have a definite role to play in setting this right and this is your chance to act upon this calling!
As Dr Mukund Rajan, Former Chairman, Tata Global Sustainability Council, eloquently put it, “Covid is an example of so-called ‘Black Swan’ events that are happening more frequently than ever before. This is a clear message the natural environment is sending out to humankind that we need to be ever more cautious about the impact our activity has. Extreme climatic events are happening with greater frequency, including in parts of the world such as the Arabian Sea that are unused to it. We have to expect more such events and start acting now so that we are well prepared.” The impact of the pandemic is bound to influence the way in which we view the role of markets, the importance of preserving biodiversity, and our attempts to find solutions for environmental challenges within the natural environment itself. Rajan opined, “Our markets are not fully equipped to predict and cope with such events.”
Some of the trends or potential opportunities the pandemic has presented for a new and sustainable world order are worth taking a closer look as we ‘celebrate’ World Environment Day.
Scientists say that overconsumption is the biggest threat to sustainability and a drastic lifestyle change is necessary to solve the ecological crisis. Most consumption has a direct [typically negative] impact on the environment, across a spectrum of goods and services that the world population constantly consumes. These range all the way from food and beverage, clothing and footwear, housing, energy, technology, transportation, education to health and personal care, financial services and utilities.
One of the collateral effects of the pandemic is the decline in this overconsumption trend. Welcome to the world of “less is more”! Throwing lavish parties, expensive weddings, extensive wardrobes, big cars, luxury cruises and any display of opulence is fading fast. The word “essentials” has been redefined as well. As of last month, demand for non-essential items has fallen by at least 50 per cent, owing to tighter Covid-19 restrictions and uncertainty about the future economic outlook.
In contrast, in the pre-pandemic days, thanks to the growing consumer class with its rising disposable income, net spending on non-essentials was on a surge. In 2019, a warning on the climate crisis signed by 11,000 scientists from over 150 nations said economic growth is the driving force behind the “excessive extraction of materials and overexploitation of ecosystems” and that this “must be quickly curtailed to maintain long-term sustainability of the biosphere.” It almost seems like the pandemic heard this warning too. The new trend that seems to have emerged out of it is value-based shopping. One only hopes it continues!
Shifting indicators for economic growth
Consumers’ buying preferences and spending trends speak volumes about where the economy is headed. A recent scientific report by the United Nations stated that “economies have used up the capacity of planetary ecosystems to handle waste generated by energy and material use.” It is high time we made a shift to a world where, “economic activity will gain meaning not by achieving economic growth, but by rebuilding infrastructure and practices toward a post-fossil fuel world with a radically smaller burden on natural ecosystems.”
As all this is evolving, how is infrastructure upgrading itself to keep pace? One indicator is energy and water consumption and its fluctuations. The electricity board (BESCOM) and water board (BWSSB) consumption trends over the lockdown period is one good indicator. There is significant reduction of nearly 10-12 per cent according to the information we gathered from credible sources. This throws light on how work from home [WFH] can impact utility bills at the city level. This has other implications. The tariff for industrial and commercial buildings are higher and the utility companies are losing revenue. Are they changing their model fast enough? There is greater emphasis on quality and uninterrupted power supply. A dedicated helpline is being set up to respond to needs of WFH professionals. We have learnt the hard way that business as usual can be carried out without a fancy office or splurging of precious resources — be it electricity or air-conditioning. But homes have to be better equipped and have reliable power service to continue the economic activity.
Shift to the digital
People have shifted or are shifting to digital platforms for day-to-day needs. The pandemic has already made digital education, financial transactions, digital shopping and entertainment gain much wider acceptance. In the absence of alternatives, people adapted to digital ways. A big part of the population is getting comfortable with online video learning and are getting digitally educated. This is an opportunity to act upon this latent learning agility and use it for public good and sustainability transformations for improved health and well-being of our planet and its inhabitants.
Digital technologies can help us combat climate change through reducing emissions, increasing resilience to climate change, and most importantly, improving our capacity to act.
On the flip side, heightened use of digital tools is also smudging the boundaries between personal life, work life and social interactions. Also, in some developed countries, the digitalization has failed to leverage transitions towards sustainable economies, and instead, has led to resource and emission-intensive growth. However, we hope that we learn from those mistakes and deploy digitalization for desired positive societal and ecological impact.
Enhanced premium on life and time
Lack of time was a great excuse for not prioritising health. Not anymore. People are enjoying their quiet time. There is a new level of awareness around the preciousness of life and hence people are according top priority to health. Relationships within the four walls are being cherished. There is a realisation that true happiness is in spending time with your loved ones.
The pandemic gave us our ability to appreciate what is within our proximity. Our confrontation with the vulnerability of human life has made us realise how little we need to be happy and how the simplest of things could make a difference in our lives. The smile on a face, chirping of birds, a cuddle with your pet, the well-being of your loved ones is good enough to feel grateful! You may not always need a holiday in Spain to feel happy. Moving away from the islands that we sometimes tend to be, but swaying towards bonding and mutual dependence is the need of the hour. Simply looking at the raintree in one’s neighbourhood while sipping that cup of chai can bring extra joy.
Listening to the cuckoo’s cooing or the frog that is croaking rhythmically in the corner puddle are adding to simple daily pleasures. The outdoors have become a haven like never before. Dr Krithi Karanth, Chief Conservation Scientist, Centre for Wildlife Studies and Adjunct professor, Duke, summed it up by saying, “The pandemic has demonstrated how inextricably and intimately linked human well-being and state of nature are. We need landscapes that manage the matrix of human activities to minimise spillover of diseases, especially around wildlife areas. Zoonotics are here to stay and it’s time we took them seriously.” Dr Karanth calls upon humanity to deeply introspect and design lifestyles and livelihoods that are sustainable. “Technology cannot solve all problems. There are wide gaps in public health systems and infrastructure, which have to be rebuilt globally and in India,” she adds.
The comeback of DIY
The atmanirbhar trend is the other positive outcome of the pandemic that is here to stay. The daily chores that were outsourced have become routine. Dependencies have reduced or changed. With the inevitability of the situation, people have become their own carpenters and electricians. This has positive implications for the environment and use of resources. However, there is always another side to the story. In this case, it is lost income and livelihoods for countless domestic workers and related services. How can the citizenry and the system remain empathetic to the needs and survival of those whose livelihoods have been upended, while taking advantage of the positive impact on environment and resources? This empathy needs to extend to all other situations, from WFH settings to digital access, keeping in mind those adversely affected or excluded from the system.
Valuing health and wellness
As Dr Marcus Ranney, a Mumbai-based champion of well-being, says, “The grand realisation of 2020 is the competitive advantage that wellness plays in our lives. We have seen the impact at the individual and organisational level, and most importantly, at the global, systemic level. This pandemic is a side effect of our abuse of the natural world, and unless we systemically adjust towards a more sustainable approach to living, our species will face many more challenges in the decades to come.” His viewpoint reinforces the fact that self-compassion and self–care are replacing plain-old material pleasures.
Power of compassion
“There are more good people than bad people, and overall there’s more that’s good in the world than there is that’s bad. We just need to hear about it, we just need to see it,” said Tucker Elliot, in the book The Day Before 9/11.
During the pandemic, a definite and consistent theme that ran through us is the display of the very best of kindness, benevolence, and human compassion. All we need is to acknowledge and celebrate it in every possible way. How can we continue to grow and multiply this abundance of kindness and good deeds that we have seen?
Towards harmonious co-existence
Mohit Chauhan, the noted Indian playback singer and a big advocate of the environment, quite poignantly articulated, “The pandemic put a halt to the world we had created. Buzzing air spaces, highways, restaurants and parks went silent and empty. A new dawn arose for the environment and animal life to blossom. It showed how we had wrongly and unfairly dominated what belonged to the larger section of the natural world, all of which are precious co-inhabitants of earth.”
As we may (eventually) go back to the pre-Covid world, we must pause and promise to co-exist. The world would be a place worth living if all elements of nature co-existed with humans. Chauhan added, “This period also revealed how little we need to live happily and how misplaced our joy in acquiring has been. More buildings, less trees, more roads, less rivers, more kiosks, less birds... that is not how the earth can survive. That is not how it must”.
Moulika Arabhi, Advisor at Centre for Environmental Law, WWF-India, pointed out that, “We cannot deal with the environment using the same old conventional methods.” Drastic change in human behaviour has to ensure a new deal for nature, which has an amazing capacity to bounce to its original form. It just doesn’t need any interference. “So, let’s allow our only one planet to live and thrive!” pleads Arabhi.
The pandemic has held a mirror to the stark difference between our needs and wants. It has broken several myths and has brought us closer to things that really matter. Management of resources is within our control and not as hard as we once thought. Life goals that had little to do with life have lost their sheen. If we act on this opportunity, it is going to be a boon for our environment, society and economy in the long run. Indeed, the pandemic has demonstrated that simpler living, need-based consumption and deployment of technology for effective and equitable living can declutter our lives.
Gayatri Chauhan is the Founder of BuzzOnEarth and Gaia The Earth Foundation. Venkatesh Raghavendra is Senior Vice-President, Safe Water Network.