COVID-19 is the chance for a social and ecological reset….but, how? Part II

In the first part of this post, I discussed the links between climate change, biodiversity loss and future pandemics. In Part II of this post, I’d like to talk about the consequences of COVID-19 and how we can use the lessons learned to tackle climate change.

It is really a tale of two emergencies, one has come upon us with startling rapidity, and the other has been more of a slow-burning crisis. In my article in The Conversation, I talked about a few key lessons we could take from the COVID-19 crisis, in particular: act early, slowing down and localising more, and spending on environmental sectors like renewable energy and sustainable technologies.

COVID-19 has taught us the importance of swift action. At the start of the pandemic we really pulled the emergency stop brakes. We could clearly see the way this was heading and therefore that we needed urgent action.

This slowing down of life globally has resulted in a slowing of the economy. Some say it’s an unintended degrowing of the economy.

This has had both positive and negative consequences. The negatives were things like massive job losses and jump in unemployment globally. Pandemics and climate crises alike hit the most vulnerable the hardest. They act as poverty multipliers because of the way they force people into extreme poverty.

Where this is a disadvantage for climate change is if we address these issues with the same system that has caused the problem in the first place. If decision-makers seek to ramp up production, stimulate economic growth, and expand extractive industries this will all but ensure timely action to avoid climate catastrophe.

These negatives highlight the inherent problems with the current economic system – problems that we already saw with the GFC, that when there is a crisis, the whole system goes into chaos. To justly tackle these social problems, we will need to take a good hard look at the root of the problem, and take effective structural action.

But there have been positive impacts for the environment. In the first 4 months of the pandemic emissions dropped more than a billion tonnes from the same period in 2019.

This has illustrated the significant positive impacts we can have if we slowed our pace of life, and started localising more, including trade, business, production, food, socialising, and travel.

The International Energy Agency estimates a 5% drop in emissions in 2020. This means that if we continue on this path, we will reach net zero emissions by the target of 2050. But even this is too little too late. The UN Emissions Gap Report in 2019 said that to keep warming closer to 1.5 degrees, global carbon emissions need to fall 7.6% per year until 2030.

So, in terms of action for climate change, the environmental consequences of COVID-19 provide us with a chance to reset the way we do things, to reset the economy, if we are willing to abandon the old normal and embrace the ‘newmal’, as it has been called.

This is where ideas like degrowth come in. While the slowing of the economy from COVID-19 is unintended, it provides a window for policymakers to seize the opportunity to introduce intended policies that are socially and environmentally just.

Because degrowth has always been considered a radical approach, no country has shown the will to implement it, but this unintended degrowing of the global economy has started the wheels in motion for change in that direction.

The key word is intended. Sustainable degrowth is not the same as a recession, and if done correctly it can lead us to more socially and environmentally just outcomes. This is because there are accompanying social policies to counteract less wealth accumulation in society. It would mean scaling back the environmentally damaging sectors of the economy but strengthening others like healthcare, sanitation, education, aged care, renewables etc.

This requires decoupling from carbon to prevent climate-related crises from having such a profound impact. So we need to look to more sustainable ways to revive the economy. From a degrowth perspective, that might involve things like a universal basic income, more money in health systems and sustainable technologies, greater small-scale renewable energy rollout, reskilling workers in green jobs.

By effective policies investing more in people and environment focused industries and less in extractive industries it will not only have a positive runoff on climate, but we will also be more prepared to tackle any future pandemics or crises related to climate change.

So while we need a shift in policy, we also need a behavioural shift towards collective action, collective wellbeing and away from individualism, which we have started to see during COVID – this strengthening of solidarity and a shared sense of humanity, that we are all in it together.

Degrowth pushes away from the capitalist economic system from a policy perspective, and then this has implications for our way of life, like a reduction working hours, more leisure time, reducing consumption and this consumer culture we have. It short, it means less stuff, but more time and freedom and therefore greater wellbeing. We would all need to jump onboard. This requires a shift in society as well as in policy.


Many people have seen the benefits of a slower way of life and many people are saying they don’t want to go back to normal, because ‘normal’ was the problem. This is where Buen Vivir comes in.

Buen Vivir is a Latin American concept for people-led wellbeing and sustainability. In this blog you will see me write about it quite a bit. It is my particular area of expertise. I have spent the last 7 years trying to understand it, analyse it, study it, write about it. I have spent time with Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in the cloud forest of Ecuador in that aim. Because through my preliminary understandings, I strongly believed that we can learn a great deal from them and their philosophy of Buen Vivir in seeking to transform the trajectory of our Earth and its peoples.

Buen Vivir has similarities with degrowth in its aims, but it is slightly different. Both degrowth and Buen Vivir are complementary, and in fact if Buen Vivir is attained, degrowth is a consequence of the changes made, but not the explicit aim. Where degrowth is policy-oriented, Buen Vivir shifts the power to the people.

Under a Buen Vivir approach these changes are pushed from the bottom up. Change is put in the hands of the people so they can decide on the direction to meet their needs. Needs, is a key word here. We are talking fundamental needs – basic and emotional needs, not materialistic desires for more consumption.

Like degrowth, Buen Vivir advocates for a move away from an extractive and consumerist economy, towards more equity in social and economic systems.

Where Buen Vivir is pertinent for action against climate change and future health pandemics, is that is calls for less anthropocentrism in recognising this vital connection between the health and wellbeing of nature and that of our own. So, it is biocentric, meaning that all life matters equally. Not humans first and foremost, and we worry about the environment later once the consequences start to impact our own wellbeing. After all, we are intimately connected to nature, and our survival depends on the health and wellbeing of the natural environment.

One of the biggest lessons from COVID-19 is this connection – how we are deeply connected to each other and the earth. As a society we must start to internalise this more, and act on it mindfully through our decisions and choices to make sure we have both strong healthy communities and a healthy environment.

So while Buen Vivir is people led, it is important to recognise the symbiosis between policy and society because we can’t achieve ecological sustainability and wellbeing alone, we need effective and supportive policies. So, this brings me back to policy post-COVID19, and how policymakers need to aim for both human and environmental wellbeing to avoid more global catastrophes of this kind.

One way to protect this relationship at the policy level, is through a legal recognition of the rights of nature as has been done in some jurisdictions. Nature can no longer be a resource to exploit, but it must be a relationship to nurture.

This last part, we can all consciously and mindfully practice through the decisions and choices we make every day. Thinking our way to a better planet by doing.

I spoke of these issues in this webinar with The Conversation, the Hawke Centre and the Embassy of France.

Let’s embrace traditional knowledges for climate and social justice

When I was seven years old, I visited my grandmother in Kenya. I remember a story my father told me, that he had built her a Western style house of bricks and mortar, and she outright refused to live in it. She was more comfortable in her traditional hut. She knew her land, how to cultivate it, how to rear her animals, all of this impacted by the seasons.

Nowadays, climate change has wreaked havoc on the seasons. Traditional knowledge has had to adapt, but Western knowledge relies on science and technology which often involves time and a steep learning curve through scientific research.

What if we decolonise knowledge and practices of ecological management and development, to incorporate more traditional knowledge into environmental practices, health and wellbeing, agriculture and disaster management? What if we really embrace traditional knowledges in mitigating and adapting to climate change related threats?

Traditional knowledges have been passed down for generations and include skills, practices, knowledge systems of particular local communities, cultures, and geographic and geological areas. They understand the challenges and have the capabilities to confront them.

Traditional cultures and Indigenous peoples globally have a complex interconnected and spiritual relationship with nature. The belief is that “if you look after Mother Earth she will look after you”.

For Indigenous peoples, the delicate maintenance of biodiversity underpins belief systems, wellbeing and cultural heritage. For generations their knowledge has sustained the biodiversity of their lands, but these practices are being lost through Western development.

Every year we are facing more intense and more challenging threats to our environments and wellbeing. Isn’t it time that we brought back these traditional knowledges as part of wider policies and practices for environmental management?

The 2019-20 Australian bushfires devastated World Heritage areas across the country. More than 6 million hectares of land has been burnt devastating lives, biodiversity and the environment. Up to 100 threatened animal and plant species were affected, and an estimated 1 billion animals were lost.

This was a tragedy of historical proportions.

Not only could the intensity and duration of the fires have been lessened by incorporating Indigenous knowledge and practices into policy, but cultural burning also enhances biodiversity. In the age of climate change we are facing new challenges; old ways of approaching sustainable land management no longer work. To come back to my earlier question: yes! It is time to incorporate traditional knowledge to better preserve our global biodiversity.

It is not only a question of ecological management, but also of climate justice. Traditional and Indigenous communities are likely to be the most affected by the impacts of climate change, yet they are the ones who have caused the least ecological damage.

“Climate justice recognises the wealth of Indigenous knowledge that exists in relation to ecological management, and the coping strategies that Indigenous peoples have already developed in order to deal with climate stressors over the thousands of years that they have managed the land” (IPMPCC 2011).

There has been much research into the decolonisation of traditional and Indigenous knowledge, particularly as both climate change and mitigation, and also for climate justice. Yet, policymakers are still failing to fully embrace them.

Since the bushfires this summer, there has been a renewed push to look to Indigenous cultural practices for bushfire management. So, this is starting to change…but, slowly. Last week, as reported by the ABC, Western Australian state government had made progressive steps in that direction.  In a new program run by WA’s Department of Fire and Emergency Services, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous staff and volunteers will be trained on Indigenous cultural burning techniques. It’s a great start, but we need more.

While indigenous knowledge in ecological management is vital, it is crucial that we also extend this practice to all parts of development practice and traditional knowledges. Traditional knowledges will be an important aspect of tackling climate change and related social injustices going forward.

The 2019-20 bushfires highlighted the fact that we must decolonise knowledge to achieve real change.

The neoliberal approach to the environment, to ecological practices, social equity and economic development has not and is not working. To ensure that we change the status quo, policy has to follow.

This type of hybrid knowledge and practice type approach is akin to what is advocated under Buen Vivir. It’s about decolonising knowledge and environmental practices, away from neoliberal and colonial mindsets about what is ‘right for the land, its biodiversity and it’s people for that matter.

 Incorporating traditional knowledges into policy and merging them with Western scientific and technical knowledge can lead to not only safer, but also more environmentally and socially just outcomes.

Want to read more on traditional and Indigenous knowledge? Here are some resources:

International Indigneous People’s Forum on Climate Change http://www.iipfcc.org/home

Adapting Agriculture with Traditional Knowledge PDF

Protecting our Pollinators through Indigenous Knowledge CSIRO

Vulnerability and Resilience in a World of Change UNESCO

Gupta & Katti 2009, Indigenous ecological knowledge as social capital: How citizen science can help us replenish the bank in Nature PDF

Celebrating Biodiversity, means Respecting Nature as Equal

Today, June 5, is World Environment Day. The theme for 2020 is “Celebrating Biodiversity”. What does that mean exactly?

Biodiversity is the complex web of more than 8 million species on this planet that are vital to our existence. One million of these plant and animal species is facing extinction if we don’t change our way of life.

Every species on the planet is important in maintaining healthy and balanced ecosystems. Every. Single. One.

Protecting this biodiversity is essential for our health, wellbeing, livelihoods, protection and security. We are part of nature. Our lives literally depend on it.

According to the IPBES, the five main drivers for biodiversity loss are: land use change; overexploitation of animals and plants; climate change; pollution; and, invasive species introduced through globalisation. These drivers are all human induced.

The UN says, “Nature is sending us a message: to care for ourselves we must care for nature. It’s time to wake up. To take notice…it’s time for nature”

Yes, it is time for nature. It is time then to start recognising and respecting that nature is not just a resource to be exploited exponentially for our own human wellbeing. There is a nature-society continuum at play. If we do not respect nature as equally as we respect ourselves, we throw out that delicate balance.

This is what we have been doing. One of the consequences is climate change and its related impacts.

In 2008, Ecuador made the historical decision to give Rights to Nature. This afforded a legal status to nature that recognised nature as an actor. The Rights of Nature has since resulted in a global movement to move away from the idea of nature as property under the law, towards a legal recognition that “nature in all its life forms has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles.”

Affording nature rights, is more than just a legal protection, and it is certainly more than just a symbolic gesture. It is also a call for civilizational change. In Western society, we are all so used to seeing nature as a resource for our own good use, that we forget what might happen if it no longer exists.

This means that at a societal level, we also must recognise the wellbeing of nature as equally as our own, and change our habits, behaviours, attitudes and practices accordingly. After all, we need nature, more than it needs us. It is impossible to imagine life on earth without clean drinking water, land to cultivate and harvest food, trees for oxygen…

We just have to look at how nature has started to recover during COVID-19 lockdowns to be able to imagine how nature would do just fine without us.

As the UN also says, “it will take not just one, not just a village, but an entire global community to change this trajectory.” It involves rethinking our role on this planet and what we can do to ensure sustainable change.

Want to learn more? Here are some resources:

Earth School http://www.ted.ed.com/EarthSchool

Reduce plastic pollution http://www.cleanseas.org

Reduce your carbon footprint http://www.anatomyofaction.org

Reduce waste http://www.myzerowaste.com

Learn about the Rights of Nature http://www.rightsofnature.org

Climate emergency requires changing the value of the environment

Last June Hobart City Council joined 623 other jurisdictions and local councils (including 22 in Australia) in 13 countries to declare a climate emergency, becoming the first Australian capital city to do so.

So what exactly is a climate emergency? Many political and climate scientists state that emergency policy measures towards zero emissions are a necessary measure to try and stay within the ‘safe operating space’ for the climate at around 1.5°C warming or 350 ppm of atmospheric carbon concentration. Declaring a climate emergency means making a commitment to radical carbon emissions reduction. It means that government puts climate and environmental policy central, rather than as an add-on.

Although there is no single definition of a ‘climate emergency’ making a binding commitment to an urgent speed transition to zero emissions is a significant step in climate policy. By declaring a climate emergency, local councils like Hobart City Council demonstrated leadership to act on climate change that is lacking at the federal level. Local councils can start the ball rolling on climate emergency initiatives, putting pressure on state and federal governments to do the same, proving a promising avenue for wide scale urgent climate action.

Declaring a climate emergency is not just a symbolic act of recognition, it requires making some tough decisions that break away from ‘business-as-usual’.

A departure from ‘business-as-usual’ means major shifts in policies (not limited to) for manufacturing, transport, land use, tourism, and economic investment; as well as vast changes in individual social and consumer behaviours, which in turn requires a focus on education. Including climate change and ecological values in curriculums is vital in educating our next generation of climate leaders. This policy and behavioural shift means not taking the most cost-effective option in public spending, but making choices that value the environment over the bottom line.

With so much political recognition of the need to put the environment and climate change front and centre of policy, a declaration of a climate emergency can be a pathway to make transformational change in the way local governments approach development, scaling that up nationally, and ultimately having an impact on the role the environment has in the human world.

A climate emergency requires all of us – individuals and governments – to rethink our relationship with nature.

The traditional approach of viewing nature as a commodity has proven itself to be far from sustainable. Take, for example, Buen Vivir which in Ecuador led to a world first development policy recognising the Rights of Nature. This approach steers away from the wellbeing of human beings at the centre of decision-making, valuing environment and human wellbeing equally.

In other words, we are no more important than our environment, and unless radical action to safeguard the latter is taken urgently, life on this planet is under severe threat.

The changes that need to be made are not necessarily going to be uncostly, but one just needs to compare the ultimate cost of not acting on climate change. Governments have the opportunity to integrate some of these costs into post-COVID stimulus plans.

It is no longer a radical utopic idea, but something that needs to happen – especially relevant under the declaration of a climate emergency.

There is a joint policy-behavioural responsibility to act, though governments, particularly at the local level must facilitate that through policy action including looking at the structures and spaces that allow for transformational change, not just rhetoric. The economic challenges related to the current global pandemic might result in the latter. It is up to all of us to push for change.

That said, we need a substantial amount of political will combined with people power to tackle the climate emergency; and it is the actions of both our political leaders, and of individuals thinking collectively that will help determine what this looks like in the coming years, especially faced with challenges like COVID-19.