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.

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

We are living in unprecedented times. This period will go down in the history books, and today’s children will be telling their children stories about times of climate change and COVID-19. How the stories end is in great part up to us, now.

It is a tale of two emergencies. They are really intersecting rises. Only one is being responded to with urgency, but they are both connected to each other, and both entail unprecedented threats to humanity.


COVID-19 has led us to a deeper understanding of how we are connected to each other and to nature. This highlights the urgent need to radically address climate change to ensure the health of that relationship.


The World Health Organization has affirmed that there is an increase in infectious diseases, particularly zoonotic viruses making a jump between animal hosts and humans, and that there is a link between this and climate change. Not only will biodiversity loss due to climate change makes pandemics more likely, but we will have reduce capacity to tackle global health crises due to the intersecting nature of more extreme weather and environmental events on human health.


We know that climate change puts pressure on many species to move to new areas due to loss of habitat and food sources. This puts more animal and bird species in contact with human populations, increasing the risks of novel virus spillover.

According to a recent study, by 2070, around 4,000 mammal species are “predicted to aggregate in areas of high human population density…sharing novel viruses between 3,000 and 13,000 times.”


It is not yet know the definitive links of findings such as this and the potential for global pandemics, but science suggests the risks are high. For such reasons, the IPCC is currently modelling the links between climate change, biodiversity loss and future pandemics to include in its next assessment report in 2021.


Regardless of the science, we know that the wellbeing of the natural environment affects human wellbeing and vice-versa. It is this society-nature continuum, that often gets forgotten and is in danger because of human activity and the continual search for developmental ‘progress’.


We live on a finite planet. The constant, unrelenting quest for economic growth is creating more ecological destruction that we cared to imagine at the start of the industrial age. Because of this we are now living a climate planetary emergency. This has been internationally acknowledged and declared in over 1,750 jurisdictions worldwide, yet the political will to address the climate emergency with as much urgency as the health emergency is still lacking.


Nonetheless, COVID-19 has demonstrated that we have a chance for a social and ecological reset. This gives us the possibility to address climate change in the process. But, how?


I will discuss further in the second instalment of this post

The sustainability of work in the ‘newmal’

The sustainability of the workforce has been one of the many issues that have been highlighted from the changes brought about by COVID19. I’m not talking about keeping people working, I’m talking about social and environmental wellbeing.

Many people are asking: but what if we never go back to the old ‘normal’? What if we embrace the new normal, the ‘newmal’? In capitalist societies, we have turned work from a productive activity for livelihood and improving quality of life, to a sprint for the gain of material wealth – many people spending a great deal of time commuting to urban centres for employment, and often at the detriment of leisure time.

One of the keynote speakers for this year’s OzWater conference Simon Kuestermacher spoke of the problems associated with the centralisation of the workforce. With a map of Melbourne he illustrated the areas of population growth, which were mainly central and peri-urban areas, contrasted to the growth of the workforce, which is primarily in the central CBD area. The problems then associated with a commuting workforce are multiple. It encroaches not only on work-life balance, but it also creates a sustainability conundrum.

What would be more efficient, Simon says (no pun intended), is for a commuting workforce to look more like an anthill than a star with a central point. This got me thinking about the ways we can utilise the changes forced upon us during COVID19 as an opportunity for a more sustainable workforce, and greater social and environmental wellbeing.

Instead of employers demanding employees to commute to centralised locations, they could support a more flexible employment environment by providing choice to employees to work from sustainable coworking spaces closer to home for those unable to work from home for logistical, space or other personal reasons.

The popularity and use of coworking spaces has been on the rise in recent years. They often serve as places where workers (and thus innovation) thrive. Many are based on principles of sustainability, in both their running and their architecture.

While most coworking spaces are member-based, state and local governments are beginning to support these projects by providing funding to community groups, local businesses and entrepreneurs to transform under-utilised or empty spaces, like Victoria’s Regional Coworking Spaces and Creative Places program.

Of course, there are always those who cannot work from home or decentralised locations, but flexible working arrangements for those who work in an office environment, and can work from a distance is beneficial to both workers and the environment.

In effect, you would create a decentralised workforce – clusters of decentralised work commutes, where employees could work either from home or close to home, decreasing emissions and high energy outputs related to both commuting to work and the running of large office environments; and increasing work-life balance, and therefore employee wellbeing.

The workplace commute is responsible for an average of 98% of employees work-related carbon output. According to a US study, a typical office for 90 people emits approximately 234 tonnes of CO2e per year, compared to a three person household which emits 1.39 tonnes of CO2e per year.

Creating local coworking spaces in peri-urban and rural areas also introduces more local employment opportunities, which can be based on local needs, and in turn forge stronger communities.

Stronger communities and higher levels of wellbeing amongst workers would be a win-win situation. According to a survey by McCrindle 28% of Australians would be willing to earn 5% less for greater working flexibility, and 14% of Australians would be willing to earn around 10% less if it meant access to remote working opportunities.

This finding supports the call by degrowth proponents for fewer working hours and more flexible working arrangements. These kinds of changes would mean a shift away from our growth-oriented society, towards one balanced on the wellbeing of people and the planet. After all, there has been substantial research into the fact that economic growth is not making us happier, it is instead turning us into “slaves of material things” – to quote one of my key informants in Ecuador.

Buchs and Koch (2018) said “In a co-evolutionary process, a range of institutions developed which are now coupled to a growth-based capitalist economy, including the nation state, representative democracy,the rule of law and current legal, financial, labour market, education, research, and welfare systems. These are based on philosophies which emerged to justify and give meaning to these institutions, for instance on individualism, freedom, justice, sovereignty, or power. The embeddedness of the growth-based capitalistic economic system in these co-evolved institutions and ways of thinking makes it difficult to transition to a degrowth system because the change of the economic system would need to involve a parallel transformation of those coupled systems.”

Here’s the thing: COVID19 has fundamentally challenged the workings of those institutions and questioned the basis of those philosophies. This leaves us with an unprecedented opportunity to change our approach to many aspects of society, including work.

To really think radically, what would this look like if governments extended the free childcare for working families introduced by the Australian government during COVID19 (or at least lowered fees to help more parents rejoin the workforce after having children) and provide more childcare options attached to these decentralised coworking environments?

We would potentially have more people in paid full or part time employment, working closer to home, with lower stress levels, more time to spend with loved ones, healthier and stronger communities, less environmental stress on urban environments, and fewer associated environmental emissions.

This is just one vision of what the future of work could look like for greater social and environmental wellbeing – a more sustainable workforce for a better future. I’ll leave this open for comment. I’d be interested to hear yours.