The Covid-19 pandemic and ensuing global lockdown have forced the world and its populations into a reset. While stories about swans and dolphins returning to deserted Venetian canals were charming fabrications, the anecdotal stories of South Africa’s wildlife revelling in its newfound peace appear true.
What is also true is that while CO2 emissions are lower, they will not be low enough for long enough to avert a climate catastrophe.
For the first time in living memory, we have a collective opportunity to take stock of where our world is and what our roles have been in bringing it to this point.
Could we use this Covid-induced reset to imagine a different future for ourselves?
This is precisely what John Sanei, a “futurist obsessed foresight strategist”, and acclaimed economist Iraj Abedian set out to do. They have co-authored an electronic book called FutureHow: The Covid Reset and Reimagining Our Collective Future, putting their minds together to try to understand how prevailing narratives, particularly in the financial and economic space, have led our society to the state it was in before the pandemic – and, critically, what we can choose to change in order to move forward as a global community.
In an online webinar hosted by award-winning Business Maverick journalist Ray Mahlaka and sponsored by Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, the pair articulated what a new reality could look like and why we need to re-imagine things.
Before we imagine the future, says Sanei, we have to know what it was about our past that we did not like. “On an individual level, do we want to go back to lives in which we were pulled from pillar to post in a frantic struggle to balance our careers, business interests, relationships, family lives, physical health and personal growth?”
On a macro level, polarising ideologies are rife across the world, with demagogues feeding off these at the highest levels. Women and children are not universally respected and protected, while governments and big business abuse resources and power. Covid has nothing on the global corruption pandemic. And, of course, we continue to disrespect our environment, the precious vessel that sustains us.
This is not to belittle the idea of human progress and the general upliftment beyond the financial wellbeing of humankind over the centuries, says Sanei. “There is a lot we have done that is right — poverty is reducing, health is improving, women have choices about childbirth. Yet, at the same time, the disparities between poverty and wealth are growing and the 1% just grow richer.”
How do we find solutions to these problems on an individual, business and governance level?
“Capitalism, while it has helped to create wealth and uplift a middle class, has grown stale in recent decades, launching a tiny minority towards exorbitant wealth, while holding back the majority,” he says.
But if capitalism is not the answer, and communism died a while back, and socialism has been in the ICU over the past few decades, what are we left with?
“We are not suggesting a communist or socialist financial system, but what might be best (though still inadequately) termed a new, humanist expression of capitalism, one that is more conscious and heartfelt because it is equally just and sustainable,” says Abedian.
Three months ago, when you spoke about social workers, community workers and NGOs, business and government rolled their collective eyes as if to say “who them?”
But now, more than five weeks into South Africa’s lockdown, these are the people who are revered for being at the frontline of what is an increasingly heroic battle against the pandemic and the hunger it has brought, says Abedian.
“There are lots of capabilities in society that we have not respected, cherished and found important. In our homes, we do not encourage our kids into the service of humanity. Society has not been structured to cherish our spiritual, moral and humane side, the side that ensures people are supported and cared for at the moment of desperation.”
Covid-19 has highlighted one of many ironies in our prevailing economic and financial system: that the nurses, health workers and all essential services staff don’t get remunerated in proportion to the value they bring to the society. Rather, we value the CEO and financier far more highly.
“It represents the crass failure of the capitalist system,” says Abedian.
Looking back to see what is wrong is one thing, but how does one imagine a different future?
The authors agree that rethinking our roles as part of a collective —
“one planet” — and being open to change is a beginning.
Hierarchical structures need to be shifted. “We have societies where ‘a king and his subjects’ mentality dominates,” says Abedian. “This comes from a history where some people ‘know better’ about things than you and, if you are patient, ‘it’ will be handed down.
“The new world order must be built on a new power structure that is more flat, where we all have access to information and we don’t need a CEO with 15 layers before we get to the bottom.
“This is why the top cannot relate to the lived experience of those at the bottom.”
Both Abedian and Sanei are careful not to prescribe the answers; they are adamant their book is but the first draft of a deeper conversation that everyone will contribute too.
As Mahatma Gandhi said. “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” BM
Iraj Abedian is director of Inkululeko NPO, which houses Scorpio, Maverick Citizen and Our Burning Planet
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