Many people see only the dark side of the pandemic: the human toll, the liberties withdrawn, and the harm to the economy. They are right, but there are also moments of great success to consider in this story. The triumph of science, with different people from different parts of the world contributing to research and developing tools that can help protect us, is a good example.
We have avoided the worst consequences of a medieval-style plague although we all know that the punishment has been more severe in countries with lower incomes. In higher income countries, most people accepted restrictions that were designed to reduce contact between people and cut transmission of the illness, mainly to help others, both in health care systems and the more obviously vulnerable. This was always about helping others. The cost of this effort was, broadly speaking, mutualised, shared amongst all the citizens through government intervention, and once again there are lessons here to be absorbed and many of them good lessons. None of this glosses over the misery and suffering seen in almost every corner of the world but, in my circle of friends and acquaintances, I have found myself at odds with a surprising number of people. And I have to confess, some friendships have not survived this tension and I can not deny that this has been the source of considerable sadness.
Some have denied what is considered scientific consensus or said that since information available kept changing and was contradictory it can not be trusted. Others have felt that they somehow were immune to danger because they possessed “good genes.” Others have decided that their social lives could not be hampered, that it was unreasonable and causing them distress to cut back, and in many ways continued meeting people in private despite requests not to do so. And all this within a circle of people from a relatively well off part of West London, so I can only barely grasp how complicated this will all be as we look at all parts of society and the community of nations.
These differences may have strained friendships but, to be honest and considering the scale of the challenges, this is the least of the concerns beyond the fact that having different points of view about matters this serious will strain everyone from individuals to entire nations. What matters a lot more is how we can nurse back society to a position where collective action can be taken in a determined way without fragmenting again into all kinds of groups that just focus on their very specific needs and agendas.
We have a challenging road ahead, particularly as we think about COP26, the urgency that many people feel, and the urgency that many wanted our national leaders to feel as they negotiated at the conference and, let's say it now, did not quite do enough. And recently I read an article that made reference to Oxfam research where it is pointed out that by 2030 the top 1% in terms of income worldwide will account for 16% of all carbon emissions. One thing we have learned from the pandemic is how data is a valuable tool, how it can be obviously manipulated but also looking at it in different ways can provide new insights. So, looking at data from this perspective, the 1% are equivalent to the largest of countries, they are equivalent to the largest sources of the problem by category and therefore this number has the power to stop people in their tracks.
Whenever the expression 1% comes up, many people in my industry make their excuses and leave. 1% catches a surprising number of people in wealthy societies, as well as the very wealthiest in poorer societies. So the percentage does not necessarily mean an elite although they are clearly the 1 in 100 when looking at all of humanity. And many of these people play an important role in supporting art, crafts, music, theatre, all things that enrich humanity, and they do so through their consumption as well as their financial support. In addition, many support causes that are for the greater good; some causes have even started to gain traction amongst this small group of people before achieving broader acceptance by society and the international community.
I am not going to comment here on the accumulation of wealth, whether it is an essential requirement for progress, and whether redistribution, which happens anyway in most societies although to different extents, is sufficient or necessary. There are far better minds to debate and look at the evidence and help find the balance between a dynamic society and one that cares for all. What interests me is how to motivate people, how to get them onboard, and then deliver and make genuine changes or sacrifices, if we want to call them that.
If I look at the pandemic, and I know it is early to pass judgement so this is just an initial observation, fear played a role in the initial moments. But when some people became less afraid, their behaviour returned to normal and restrictions were not for them. So fear does not seem to be the most useful tool. And solidarity is a curious concept, if I may say so. Many people will feel it, in the 1% and elsewhere, but somehow make excuses when it comes to the moment of truth. Solidarity, or perhaps love for our neighbours, sounds compelling and appealing but we have to confront that in many of the fragmented modern societies, this is in short supply.
What other emotions are there to appeal to? Responsibility? Legacy? If we are going to get this right, we need to find the key to better communication and achieve higher levels of commitment. I think enlightened self interest combined with a broader trust in science can lead to assuming positions where responsibility is felt and assumed and change can be promoted to ensure the legacy of each individual is protected. It all starts with a new approach to data and science where we have to stop for a moment and marvel at the vast scientific community that spans the globe and every nationality, that is in constant contact with other members of the community and where specialists work on projects and look at data constantly but have their work scrutinised by colleagues elsewhere. We need to trust that this dispersed and decentralised community does not fall prey to manipulation, that it is a self-checking system that is always seeking to improve, to push boundaries, to question established principles where there are doubts. And that consensus is not easily reached and when it does it represents the best answer we have right now to a problem and should not be ignored. What looks like an innovation or discovery is often the result of years and decades of cumulative research by many different people, as happened with the mRNA vaccines which many concluded had appeared out of the blue. This could not be further from the truth and is a misunderstanding of how science is developed today.
Armed with this knowledge, many of us in the better-off parts of society need to stop thinking that what we do is of little consequence because the reality is that, backed by sound science and data, many people around the world can reach similar conclusions and that is when change takes root. We need to ask ourselves how we permitted a world that relies on depletion of resources to take place, a world where the externalities which are the economic costs that we have pushed away to others are not considered. Our “good genes” will not help us, our individual actions will not be without consequence. And to quote a recent lecture by Joseph Grima, we can build a “non-extractive” world and leave it for the next generation, an intriguing set of words that I think speak for themselves. From this point, we need to look around to our children, our nephews and nieces if we have them, the children of friends if we do not, and ask ourselves what legacy we are going to leave them. A world where we have been a plague of locusts, devouring everything we can find, or a world where we have lived in equilibrium with nature around us? A world completely out of balance that then wreaks havoc on all of us, punishing even more severely those who can not defend themselves and who, in almost every instance, have not contributed to this problem? Where does our enlightened self interest truly lie?
An aside about sacrifice. Sacrifice means surrendering, giving up, losing out — to some. But it can also be about giving, enabling and delivering benefits to the individual, too. Here I am going to quote a recent interview with Arnold Schwarzenegger, whom I suspect most of you did not expect me to quote. But he, too, questioned this concept of sacrifice saying that with changes to his diet and lifestyle, his doctor now praises him for his improved health, so how can we call this a “sacrifice”, he asks.
So start now, dear reader. Change your diet, change how you move about and what kind of travel you engage in, demand and move towards the electrification of as many services as you can, knowing that renewable energy is really the only energy worth harvesting and consuming. And look at your consumption carefully; think before you buy just about anything. You have more influence than you think if you start taking science seriously.
ILLUSTRATION BY RIMA STUDIO