Is this pandemic crisis an opportunity to change the world for the better?

The New Ism conversations

Mel Young and Alexandra Matthews, the founders of The New Ism, are practising social distancing at home in Edinburgh and London respectively: we wanted to take the opportunity to discuss how this time of change and reflection could be harnessed to create a New Ism when all this is over. As members of different generations, we have different experiences and perspectives, but share a desire to create a new way forward.

Mel: Alex, these are very challenging times. We have to ask ourselves what the world will look like after this pandemic passes. It is an opportunity to raise the profile of New ism because there is a strong possibility that people will be looking for a new way of living and for a new system to underscore that. 

So, as founders of New Ism but coming from different generations, we might have a different perspective on what should happen next. I am older and possibly my views are set, so I’d like to ask you, as a younger person, what you would like to see emerging from this crisis?

Alex: I agree that this is an opportunity like we’ve never had before – how often does society and the economy just stop? It’s much easier to analyse and examine something when it is paused rather than when it’s business as normal. However, I fear that the desperation to ‘get back to normal’ will mean that we squander the opportunity.

One thing I would love to see is whether we can move away from our obsession with growth. As the economist Kenneth Boulding said, ‘Anyone who believes that exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.’ The success of countries is based upon how much they grow, but the earth only has finite resources, which means that the world’s success is essentially based on how much we have destroyed the planet. There must be another way to measure success?

MY: I agree with you, but this is easier said than done. When I was your age, the issue of the environment and the planet were way down the agenda, we were more focused on issues like equality and so on. But your generation has the planet as the number one priority. I think this makes complete sense, but if we are going to move away from this “obsession with growth” as you put it, then our entire lifestyles will have to change. We will have to slow down for starters, and measure things differently – as you say. Are you ready to change your entire way of living around another creed, which might mean that you are less well off and more uncomfortable?

AM: I agree that we have to transform our entire way of living – but we have been forced to do that in just a couple of weeks. Things are certainly slower now, and we don’t have all the distractions – restaurants, pubs, bars, cinemas, theatres, gigs, shopping etc – that we are used to. We have demonstrated that, when push comes to shove, we can change our behaviour dramatically – and that gives me hope. Perhaps this time of reflection and boredom will have enabled people to reflect on what’s really important – and buying the latest pair of trainers or a new kitchen perhaps isn’t included in that list. 

MY: Understood, but physiologically we are weathering the storm and we are holding ourselves together because we believe it will come to an end and then we “can return to normal”. Maybe you’re right, there have been some reflections on the way we live our lives, but staying indoors like this isn’t pleasant over the long term. So, when the storm passes, are we going to come up with a new vision which we are going to sign up to, and change our lifestyles accordingly? I mean, many people will have lost their jobs – how will they survive, how will we make sure people are looked after without returning to our consumption mentality? 

AM: I agree that the way we are living now isn’t doable for the long run, we will all go nuts, especially considering the way of life we were used to until a couple of weeks ago. But I think there are lessons we can learn and build upon. Perhaps it’s a conversation that the government needs to start having with the people – that we know that the planet is a mess and, separately, we have just been forced to live through very difficult times. What have we learned about ourselves that can be applied to save the planet? We know we are resilient, we know that we can make changes when necessary. How do we apply that to creating a society and economy that doesn’t exploit the planet?

Of course, we definitely won’t have a fully formed vision that we can sign up to when all this is over, but I think leaders need to take the opportunity to engage people in a conversation about how we can create permanent change.

Regarding how we look after people who have lost their jobs – I think it’s really interesting that the government, at least in the UK, has essentially rolled out a form of Universal Basic Income (UBI) to help people who have lost their jobs as a result of coronavirus and social distancing. Many tout UBI as a way to value humanity rather than what humans produce, and could replace the benefits system. We’ve seen that it is possible. Is this something that could be rolled out on a wider basis?

M: Yes, I think that UBI is an interesting concept which should be followed up. We need governments to be much bolder and to provide leadership rather than constantly bickering. They need to embrace ideas like UBI from the point of view of saving the planet, as well as other perspectives, but it is a concept which could fit into an alternative to growth. Governments need to provide thought leadership about how the world will operate after this storm passes.

But we, as citizens, also need to take leadership roles and change our lifestyles. I think you are right that people are reflecting on the way the world is at the moment. I mean, pollution has dropped dramatically during the past weeks and this has to be a good thing. So perhaps we will think, ‘when the storm passes, I am going to walk to work rather than drive’. But I worry that this might be like our New Year’s resolutions, where we make all these commitments which disappear by mid-January as we return to our old ways. We all have to change the way we live – are we all going to sign up for that?

AM: Yes I worry too that we might slip back too easily into old ways – and I think that’s why governments need to get involved and make change less optional. But for that to happen, we need to trust our leaders – and I think trust, particularly from my generation, is sorely lacking. But that’s a conversation for another day! We should talk about that next time. 

MY: For the New Ism, we need to build it on some core values and trust is certainly one of them. Trust in government for sure, but also trust in everything. So, we need to continue this discussion: I look forward to our next discussion so that we can build on the enthusiasm and innovation of younger people.

Header photo by Andrew Gook on Unsplash


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