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The Next Economy
Sustainability Is Dead. Long Live Sustainability (or, Redefining the Term in a Post-COVID World …)

In moments of crisis, we return our focus to the base layer of Maslow’s famed pyramid and seek to secure a safe home, enough food for our families and basic physical health. But we get to choose what the world will look like when we open our doors in three…six…twelve months’ time. Will we choose Human 101 or Human 3.0?

Oh, what a difference a few months makes …

Everything that was so important even a few weeks ago — like, how to convince people to stop flying so often, how to break our over-reliance on plastic, how to stop deforestation, how to wean us off fast fashion — all of that feels like it’s on the back burner for the moment.

For an academic rationale of what’s going on, we could trot out good ol’ Maslow’s hierarchy of needs:

Image credit: Thought Co.

In moments of crisis, we return our focus to the base layer of the famed pyramid and seek to secure a safe home, enough food for our families and basic physical health.

When the world as we’ve known it feels like it’s collapsing around us, that seems a sensible option, yes?

Except that we don’t live in a two-dimensional world, progressing steadily in a linear fashion up Maslow’s pyramid toward self-actualisation. We are nuanced and complex creatures, capable of holding multiple and often-competing goals in mind at the same time.

So, we can be worried about job security and the state of marine plastic pollution. We can have anxiety about the lack of loo roll, as well as the dwindling supply of fossil fuels. We can fret over our elderly parents in the immediate future, as well as the state of the world we’re leaving our children.

We can still care about sustainability as we seek to meet our immediate physical needs.

Our Chief Creative Officer, Julian Borra, sums up the current feeling nicely: “We have all been smashed into the immediate now.”

Instead of the global playground we’ve become used to, our lives are now confined to our homes. Instead of doing business with colleagues and customers or hanging out with our mates down at the pub, we are working from home and having virtual cocktail hours. Air travel has ceased, the roads are almost as empty as the supermarket shelves and free-market capitalism is being severely tested.

But perhaps it’s time to redefine sustainability for a post-Coronavirus world — to focus on how we can sustain ourselves, our families, our local communities and the wider society in a world that is rapidly changing.

We can use this as a chance to hit the RESET button and really think about how we want to emerge from this crisis. To return to the people and relationships we love. To reconnect with a sense of community. To achieve a more balanced life. To work toward a healthy life in every aspect.

We get to choose what the world will look like when we open our doors in three…six…twelve months’ time. Will we choose Human 101 or Human 3.0?

Human 101 is a return to the closed tribalism of an ‘us vs them’ mentality. It’s fearful, selfish, prioritising immediate needs and extracting maximum value in the short-term.

Human 3.0 is open, intimate and empathetic. Collaborative and hopeful. Focused on the future and ensuring there is enough to go around.

It’s our choice.

Assuming we opt for Human 3.0, what does the next iteration of sustainability look like? We think there are three integral parts:

The individual

It’s time to clarify what sustains us, what gives our individual lives meaning. It is natural during a crisis that we turn to hearth and home, to the people we love.

But we also turn to beauty, nature, music, art, conversation, creativity. To wine and good food. To prayer or meditation. We look after our health and wellbeing — physical, mental and spiritual.

These are the things we should hold onto moving forward. They are what we should prioritise and protect.

The community

At the moment, COVID-19 has reduced our community to our four walls and immediate streets, giving us a chance to get to know those closest in proximity to us. This experience is teaching us about empathy and connection, about asking for and giving help, and about sharing resources and a laugh.

It’s a new operating model for citizenship and one that we can scale out to our cities, nations and global communities as the threat from the virus passes.

The natural world

Despite the decrease in air pollution over China, the clearing of the waters in Venice’s canals and other examples of nature bouncing back as human activities pause, the problems the planet faces still exist and they are still urgent.

But we can choose to resume our lives with renewable energy instead of fossil fuel, continue long-distance meetings via Zoom or Google Hangouts, switch to a plant-based diet for the health of ourselves and the planet, and maintain a life of less consumption.

We can also focus on biomimetics — human innovations based on nature’s long evolutionary success story that can help us solve some of the most pressing problems of our generation.

What’s needed is a shift in mindset; and perhaps, in terminology.

Where the term “sustainability” can conjure images of protecting and conserving and guarding against loss — whether that’s ice caps or the rainforests or the nutritional value of our soils — what is needed now is actively creating value by restoring ecosystems and building up society and cultural norms. It is what Lorraine Smith calls a “regenerative economy.”

Instead of “do no harm,” it’s more like ‘leave it better than you found it.”

A sister to a circular economy that seeks to design out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use and regenerating natural systems, a regenerative economy has three important elements:

  • Capturing more carbon than we emit

  • Restoring biodiversity

  • Generating quality of life through just and inclusive measures

This is the new normal we should be choosing.

So, what does this means for business, brands, organisations and movements?

At a time when ‘sell-sell-sell’ is seen as crass insensitivity, brands need to redefine their value and demonstrate how they can help individuals, communities and the natural world find meaning and thrive.

It’s time to dig deep into the why behind your business and use that to empower people in the new regenerative economy — to truly leave the world a better place.

In a recent speech that Smith gave at a circular economy conference in Brazil, she shared a quote from her friend, Fabricio Muriana, that really resonated with me.

“Although the future might look pretty bad, we still have a lot of present …”

We none of us know how the future will play out. But we can be sure that this is our moment to act — to choose a way of life that leaves the world around us better, stronger and more capable of renewal.

To stand together as one community and greet the new dawn with hope.