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A message for the timid, fearful and selfish

Rod Oram offers three examples of how to break the mould in redesigning our economies and societies in the aftermath of the Covid-19 rupture

If we want a better future, we’ll have to fight for it. Better means for all people and the planet. Fight means to overcome, by all ethical means, those seeking a return to the pre-Covid status quo.

Many people hope such profound improvement is underway. The great rupture caused by the virus makes blindingly obvious the weaknesses of our economic, social, political and ecological relationships; yet it also shows us how people can come together to cope with the coronavirus epidemic in ways magnificent, creative and effective.

But hope is not a strategy. Fatigue, fear or yearning for the familiar could see us slip back into our often good but always inadequate ways. Better would elude us.

Conversions from selfish to selfless are rare. Those who benefited the most from the status quo will fight hard to restore and enhance their position. Examples abound in this crisis.

To cite two from the US: Its airlines are receiving more in tax-funded bailout money than they lavished on shareholders over the past decade; and Harvard University, which has a US$41 billion endowment fund, had to be shamed into returning US$9 million of public crisis-relief money.

Examples here are rare so far. But here, vested interests are strong; some people are naturally conservative and resistant to change; and the journey to a better future seems so hard.

This past Wednesday gave us a 50-year, global perspective on these dynamics. April 22, 1970 was the first Earth Day. Launched in the US, it was a response to rising public alarm about pollution of air and water. That day some 20 million Americans, 10 percent of the US population, took to the streets and public workshops to demand change.

And they got it. That year, President Richard Nixon with bipartisan support from Congress established the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Wisely the EPA commissioned a photographic record of how bad things were. Looking at some of those startling photos today, it’s hard to believe that people put up with such squalor in what was the wealthiest country in the world.

Over the following few decades the US made real progress. But far less was achieved than was needed because of a rapid breakdown in the political consensus.

President Nixon “wasn’t all that excited about environmental issues,” Keith Woodhouse, a professor of environmental history at Northwestern University in Illinois, told me in an interview for my 2016 book Three Cities: Seeking Hope in the Anthropocene.

Nixon and Congress thought they could respond to the public pressure by dealing with identifiable, measurable local pollution.

“They didn’t realise the potential of their laws to challenge fundamentally the way economics and industry were working.” When they did, some fought back, as they still do today. Donald Trump, for example, has all but destroyed the EPA and is rapidly rolling back environmental legislation by Presidential decree.

Citizens split quickly too. Those worried about over-population pushed for birth control and abortion, which riled religious and cultural conservatives. Urbanites back east fought for protecting public lands in the west, causing ranchers and other westerners to rise up in what became known as the Sagebrush Rebellion. Many businesses lobbied against any controls impeding their freedom to operate.

These days there are far more people on the planet, making life for us and it far more complicated. Economic, social, political and ecological failures have become deeply intertwined and interdependent. The only way to solve these co-crises is to improve our values and remake the systems in which we put them to work.

Examples of how we can do that are vitally important. They break moulds, change thinking, and encourage many. They give us a destination to head for, a map to get there, sustenance for the journey and companions to share experience and knowledge with. Here are three:

- From the Yunus Centre in the business school at Griffith University in Brisbane comes a model for developing a regenerative economy. “Stimulus and rescue measures will be critical to recovery. We have a choice about how to shape these measures however. We could apply rescue measures that seek to get us back to where we were and likely achieve a degraded ‘business-as-usual’ economy, with a significant fiscal hole to fill,” the Centre writes.

“Or, we could intentionally design these measures to reshape our economy for recovery plus regeneration. This would mean an economy in better shape to withstand the longer term effects of the pandemic, and also deliver a broader range of outcomes for people, places and planet into the future.”

Among the experts the Yunus Centre cites is Marina Mazzucato, the professor of Economics of Innovation and Public Value at University College, London. She wrote in a recent essay entitled Capitalism’s Triple Crises:

“Rescue measures absolutely must come with conditions attached. Now that the state is back to playing a leading role, it must be cast as the hero rather than as a naive patsy. That means delivering immediate solutions, but designing them in such a way as to serve the public interest over the long term.”

- From Volans, the British sustainability adviser to global corporates, long-led by John Elkington, comes the Tomorrow’s Capitalism InquiryIt aims “to accelerate the emergence of a regenerative economic system where companies thrive because their business model – and financial value – is inextricably linked to creating social and environmental value.”

Among the resources it offers is the book Green Swans; and this forum, which it held in January. The video of John Fullerton’s presentation is particularly helpful. He is the founder and president of the Capital Institute, a US think tank.

- From Kate Raworth, the British economist, comes a city-scale application of her work on regenerative business, economic, social and ecological systems. This draws on, and takes to a deeper level, her insights in her 2017 book Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist.

She began working with Amsterdam’s council, businesses and citizens long before the Covid crisis broke. The result, launched recently, is a deep insight into the city’s challenges and how it can solve them. This report summarises the work; and this blog post by Raworth explains how they got there and how the insights have wider application.

Including to New Zealand. Raworth came here last year to share her knowledge and to learn more about us. This past Monday, she was “back” in a live online video conversation on the Aotearoa Town Hall. This is an excellent initiative of Tamatha Paul and Thomas Nash, the councillors holding the climate change portfolios on the Wellington City Council and the Wellington Regional Council respectively.

The conversation between the three of them is essential watching for anyone wanting to help create our better future. Hopefully it might also persuade the timid, fearful and selfish that they too can contribute to and benefit from this vital project.

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