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Covid-19: An opportunity to reimagine a more sustainable future


Rudi Kimmie (PhD) is CEO at TSIBA Business School and Harald Witt (PhD) is an eco-warrior, consultant and former academic. They write in their personal capacities.

We need to envisage a way to a more sustainable future that does not simply replace one economic elite with another. This requires political and social will between trusting partners.

“I can’t breathe!” was the heart-rending cry from George Floyd that mobilised people globally against his brutal killing by a police officer in the United States. It is also the cry of people dying from Covid-19, and the cry of those suffocating under oppressive laws, bigotry, injustice and inequality across the world.

Covid-19 has significantly disrupted life as we know it. Social relations, modes of production and health systems have been placed under severe strain. Even with our sophisticated predictive instruments, our advanced technology and multi-billion dollar pharma industries, we were outwitted by a microcosmic, biological pathogen. 

The speed and scale at which the pandemic impacted global socio-economic and health systems are unprecedented in recent history.  

The virus pursued its purpose with relentless efficiency, exploiting a multitude of ways to travel across the world, infecting millions of people within a matter of a few weeks.  

Images of hospitals overflowing with the sick and dying, and countries going into lockdown, escalated the fear narrative, causing panic buying and prompting public officials to pass many nonsensical laws, resulting in thousands losing their jobs, ending up in food queues and facing an uncertain future.  

However, when we pause, reflect and look at the impact of the pandemic with an objective eye, we see something wonderful and meaningful that emerged. The bustling streets in many megacities had gone quiet; crime decreased; smog in many cities lifted and nature – plant, animal and marine life rebounded. Also, a new-found consciousness emerged and many people who paused to reflect on this became more aware of how their actions impacted those around them.

What our top business schools and artificial intelligence failed to teach us in decades, Covid-19 over a few weeks taught us with simple clarity – that our survival on the planet depends on the timeless values of solidarity and empathy. 

The pandemic presented us with a clear message that we humans are not the rulers of the planet. Despite our progress, we’re not so smart after all and that our meta narratives on which we have become so dependent for meaning – science, ideology, technology, economic theories – no longer provide all the solutions to our problems.  

As Peter Kingsley in Reality (2008) wrote, We have plenty of theories, endless discussions of problems about problems. But the simple fact is that through our minds we have not managed to understand one single thing. And the time for thinking and reasoning is over now. They have served their purpose. They have kept us busy, allowed our minds to grow, carried us a little way further on the route towards greater individuality and self-consciousness. The problem is that we know nothing.”

It is ironic that under the Covid-19 global lockdown, social media was awash with memes depicting global solidarity and empathy: scientists across the globe collaborating to create a vaccine; private and health sectors sharing resources; communities going into lockdown and through physical distancing, giving up hard-won freedoms to ensure that others stay safe.  

That human solidarity and empathy became such newsworthy events shows how far we’ve strayed from being “human”. As a gregarious species, our very survival depends on sharing, caring and cooperating. 

Unfortunately, modern industrial capitalism – with its sole purposes to make profit and to enhance shareholder value, the rampant pursuit for material wealth, the focus on individualism and the arrogance of religious and nationalistic ideologies – severed the connections between people.  This resulted in increased self-interest, alienation from each other, never-ending conflicts and blinded us from reality to seek solace in the digital and virtual worlds.

Increasing demand for economic growth spawned exploitative and extractive industries which wrought havoc in the natural world. These resulted in rampant exploitation of the earth’s resources, disempowerment of many communities through disrupting traditional lifestyles, and caused ecological and social devastation on an industrial scale and at a global level. 

With the exponential rise in natural disasters – drought, climate warming through carbon emissions, deforestation, desertification – humans are only beginning to realise that we live in a highly complex, intricately connected and interdependent world.

Regardless of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, it has provided a rare opportunity to pause for reflection and contemplation and, at the heart of this, to find a way forward socially, economically, ecologically and spiritually.  

In the words of Winston Churchill, “It is too good a crisis to waste.” The status quo cannot be maintained and while it will be difficult for industries to change mid-stream, the process of transformation needs to start. This has to be an embrace of true entrepreneurship which is characterised by informed risk taking.

So with many countries and economies coming out of lockdown, the key concerns shared by many are, how to be resilient, sustainable and innovative, how to repurpose value chains, live in the ‘new reality’ of physical distancing, remote working and how to develop recovery strategies for livelihoods that suffered as a result of the lockdown. But where do we learn this? It appears the answers are right in front of our eyes – in nature.

Symbiotic, adaptable, resilient and with intelligent design refined over billions of years, nature has withstood natural disasters, climate change and human onslaught time and time again. Therefore, although the cure to living with Covid-19 might reside in a chemically infused vaccine, at a more fundamental level, the essence of a more meaningful future may actually be found in embracing and understanding the deep wisdom and sustainability inherent in nature – the flora, fauna and in the earth. 

In other words, what lessons can be learnt from this complex, self-regulating and resilient ecosystem which – in a time when human social and economic systems have been put under immense pressure – has adapted and flourished. 

Physicist, Fritjof Capra (1994) ascribes the resilience of nature to its diversity, sense of community and interconnectedness. He wrote, “When you look at an ecosystem – say at a meadow or a forest – and you try to understand what it is, the first thing you recognise is that there are many species there. There are many plants, many animals, many microorganisms. And they’re not just an assemblage or collection of species. They are a community, which means that they are interdependent; they depend on one another.”  

The concept of “sustainable communities” as mentioned by Capra should, of course, be broadened to reflect all communities, be it the business community, the farming community, civil society, and so forth. The key point being that all are connected; everything is connected.

Many of our business schools teach business models that align to interdependence, network relationships, feedback loops, cyclical flows, flexibility and diversity. These are as common in the boardroom as they are in nature. The main difference is that in nature,  these terms are lived,  whereas in the modern business world, the exact opposite happens. 

The moment when we realise our interdependence on each other and the natural world and initiate action through our behaviour, relations and consumption, that is when we will ensure our sustainability. It is not surprising that the decline in human activity during the lockdown led to the resurgence of certain features of nature. If nature thrives, we thrive. If nature dies, we die.

In the South African context, viral pandemics are but one of many threats undermining the sustainability of society. A threat, equal if not greater than that posed by Covid-19, is the dire economy of the country. 

Poor fiscal management over many years, compounded by corruption, state capture and recently Covid-19, has placed our economy in a perilous state. Hence the biggest challenge, apart from managing the health sector, will be how to manage the economy post-lockdown.  

Perhaps this is an ideal moment to institute “radical economic transformation”, but not the “radical economic transformation” of Bell Pottinger infamy, but a genuine attempt to move away from replacing one economic elite with another. 

It must reflect a move away from a context typified by crass materialism, selfishness and self-absorption, towards an economy typified by integrity, compassion, solidarity, inclusivity and sustainability. 

Reimagining a way forward towards a more sustainable future is not new to intellectual and social discourse. It requires political and social will between trusting partners to make it happen. These partnerships must embrace and give full recognition to the fact that the conditions for sustainable human life are highly dependent on a fully functioning earth; a complex, meta-ecosystem.  

Many of our business schools teach business models that align to interdependence, network relationships, feedback loops, cyclical flows, flexibility and diversity. These are as common in the boardroom as they are in nature. The main difference is that in nature,  these terms are lived,  whereas in the modern business world, the exact opposite happens. 

Individualism, ruthless competition, self-serving practices, distrust, corruption, waste, built-in obsolescence, linear production systems and the totally unsustainable exploitation of natural resources typify the modern economy.

Covid-19 has jolted us out of our slumber and presented humanity with a unique opportunity to “reset” our destructive lifestyles. 

In a post-Covid-19 era, it is crucial that human economies and social lives recognise the interconnectedness of all systems – of all life. Our preeminent aspiration should be a vision of a good life determined by health, empathy, harmony, care, respect, a sense of community, solidarity, and vitality among humans and ecosystems. 

We have been given a glimpse of this over the last few months– the challenge is to build on this foundation. DM


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