Lessons from a Crisis, Lessons for a Crisis

Edwin Hooper on UnSplash

There are important lessons to be learned from the immediate crisis on our doorstep that can help us deal with the much greater crisis looming on the horizon. The Covid-19 health crisis and the impending financial recession caused by the dramatic lock downs are, of course, the immediate concern for us all. However, we also know that the impact of our human activity is exceeding the planet’s limits and, if we don’t take active measures to avert climate change, the potential for loss of life later this century is many times greater.

The pandemic has had devasting effects: tragic loss of life, disruption and unemployment. Our immediate priority must be an effective response: stopping its spread, easing the suffering of those affected, protecting front line workers, and mitigating the economic distress that has resulted from the lockdowns.

Yet, is it all bad news? Our streets are much quieter, the air cleaner, our carbon emissions drastically reduced. We are connecting with others in spite of our physical isolation, finding time to learn new skills, innovating, finding new ways to create community. “We’re all in this together” has echoed around the planet. What can we learn from this period and how can we extrapolate those lessons to the next chapter of our lives? When we begin our re-entry into the post-isolation world, will the goal be to return to “normal” as quickly as possible? To start up the engines of industry in a “business as usual” world?

The worldwide response to the pandemic has demonstrated that we can act dramatically and in a coordinated fashion at a global level when drastic circumstances threaten our health and well-being. We have seen huge shifts in all facets of our lives that seemed inconceivable a few months ago. Governments have acted boldly, communities and businesses have come together in innovative and caring ways, and individuals have shown a willingness to make major changes to their lives to respond to an existential threat. This seismic shift in the world’s awareness, resolve, and action could hold the seeds for our next big challenge: responding effectively to climate change.

A well-known Chinese maxim states that “out of crisis comes opportunity.” The current health and financial crisis is a transformative event for our society that offers us the opportunity to alter our society’s DNA and reorder our priorities. Will we seize that opportunity?

Government Leadership

Governments have put in place wide-ranging and dramatic measures to respond to the pandemic, including isolation protocols which have created a dramatic shock to our economic system. To help buffer the severe consequences of this economic pain, they are in the process of pumping vast sums of money into the economy with huge spending programs to get people back to work and to restore confidence. In the pending restructuring of our economy, we have a historic opportunity to reorder our priorities and to shift our economic system to a more sustainable one—financially, environmentally and socially.

The economic crisis we are facing has been compared to the Great Depression, and governments are now preparing to undertake major infrastructure projects, as did FDR, to create employment. The New Deal built dams, federal buildings and highways. In the 1930s, major capital expenditures were needed to restore confidence and get people back to work. We will need a similar effort now. But now, rather than simply crank up the old system, our new investment can be used to encourage an emergent green economy. In effect, it would be a New New Deal for our times—one designed to put people back to work in a meaningful way that also reduces our environmental footprint.

Our economy must evolve to one where we learn to add value to our precious resources rather than just extracting them. We must develop renewable energy sources to reduce our carbon emissions. We need to build transit that aligns with density, develop a public realm that encourages people to walk and bike, build better quality and more affordable housing, encourage local food production to improve supply chains and increase access to healthy food options . . . and so much more. Government leadership should establish a framework, set policies, and provide economic tools with the proper alignment of incentives and taxation to encourage and reward good environmental behavior. The federal government should provide funding to beleaguered municipalities who already have resiliency plans and carbon reduction plans in place and are well-positioned to deliver “shovel ready” projects that have multiple triple-bottom-line benefits.

But change cannot be effective if it is solely directed from the “top down”; it must also come from the “bottom up”—from community action, education, research, corporate innovation and individual actions.

Business and Community Action

The response to the pandemic has demonstrated very strong community spirit, innovation, fresh thinking and resiliency: designers making facemasks with their 3D printers, factories quickly retooling to provide critical goods and services, supply chains reordering to strengthen food security, businesses innovating using new technologies to deliver goods, office workers transitioning to remote working, and enhanced communications systems replacing travel. Schools and labs have pivoted to apply research into finding a vaccine, investigating more effective testing and developing protective equipment. Cultural groups and artists have used on-line platforms to communicate, entertain and create a strong sense of community to ease isolation, as well as to fundraise in support of those in need.

As we begin to rebuild our society and economy, we have an opportunity to reset our compass and adjust our priorities to find ways to lighten our collective footprint. Our industries can be retooled to build a more circular economy, to create local employment, and to replace blue-collar jobs with green-collar jobs. Companies can increase research and development, and improve supply-chains to provide more resiliency and self-sufficiency. We can all rethink our workplace and travel patterns. Schools that have demonstrated great agility to respond to the health crisis can focus their resources on reducing our carbon footprint. Cultural groups can inspire and encourage us to focus on the urgency of our task. Decisions can make both economic sense and ecologic sense if values are aligned. Saving energy also saves money. Durability increases buildings’ lifespan. Recycling and reusing means consuming fewer resources, as well as saving money. Healthy living promotes, well, healthy living. Surely that’s something we all understand now.

Individual Initiative

The pandemic has demanded a drastic change in our individual lives and a cultural acceptance of new norms that seemed unthinkable a few short months ago. Who could have imagined that we would change our behaviour so dramatically in such a short period of time? Of course, the onerous curtailment of our usual freedom and liberties is an extreme condition and can’t be supported for long in a free and democratic country. However, it has demonstrated a willingness to take individual responsibility, to alter our patterns of behaviour in support of a greater cause, and to consider the impact of our individual actions on the wider community.

We have slowed down from our frantic pace, learned new skills, cooked and baked at home, planned gardens. We’ve curbed our appetites to buy more, travel more, and consume more. We’ve found more time for friends, family and neighbours. There have been porch concerts, fundraising events for front-line workers, and numerous volunteer groups providing help to those most affected by the pandemic.

We have faced an existential threat and learned valuable lessons as individuals. People have had time to think about what is truly important to them, what they really need to lead fulfilling lives, the value of friendship and community. Those personal lessons can inform our behaviour as we turn our minds to the next challenge that awaits us when the pandemic subsides.

The Next Chapter

Governments can leverage their new spending programs to provide leadership and vision in building a greener economy.  Businesses can continue to demonstrate creativity, initiative and innovation in responding to the challenges we will face in the next chapter.  Communities that have demonstrated such resilience and commitment will need strong support to continue their critical work.  As individuals, we have seen the powerful impact that our actions can have, and we’ve demonstrated a remarkable willingness to adapt to new circumstances.

We are in the midst of a crash course in how to think globally and act locally to respond to a planetary threat. Now we need to direct the thinking, resolve, commitment and action that we have developed from this crisis and apply it to our slower-moving but even more critical climate crisis. As we emerge from this pandemic, we have the potential to embed sound environmental values in our economic system to build a future that is enduring, healthy and sustainable for us and the generations to come. We should not miss this historic opportunity.

Alex Speigel is an architect and developer with a strong interest in sustainable design. He is a partner with the Windmill Development Group committed to changing the way we build to incorporate a triple bottom line: people, planet and prosperity.