Six Sustainability Lessons from COVID-19
Hunter Lovins is the President and Founder of Natural Capitalism Solutions(NCS), a non-profit formed in 2002 in Longmont, CO. A renowned author and champion of sustainable development for over 35 years, Hunter has consulted on business, economic development, sustainable agriculture, energy, water, security, and climate policies for scores of governments, communities, and companies worldwide. Within the United States, she has consulted for heads of state, departments of defense, energy agencies and hundreds of state and local agencies.
Lovin’s 1999 book Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution paved the way for a significant change in how businesses understand their role in environmental and sustainable efforts. Now, Lovins continues her work consulting, writing, and teaching on sustainable development and serves as founding professor of Sustainable Management at the Bard MBA.
Today, we’re sharing Lovins’ insights on the COVID-19 crisis and what this pandemic tells us about the sustainability crisis.
We Are Living in History
Lovins begins her remarks by reminding us that we are living in history. These are not the end times, but this is a moment, an epoch in history about which we will tell our grandchildren. This is a time to journal, to reflect, and to soak up the extraordinary lessons from the COVID-19 crisis.
Lovins then reminds us that the lessons we can learn from this crisis will only emerge if we are willing to take in the wisdom, to absorb it into our hearts and minds. This is a time to listen.
In this video, Lovins speaks from her own experience and quotes from and reflects on recent writings from other sustainability leaders. Here are the six major lessons that she (and all of us) are learning from this crisis so far.
- It is possible to change. The COVID-19 crisis is showing us the kind of change we are capable of when we are convinced of the crisis. The response to the pandemic has transformed our economies, our lifestyles, how our public and private sectors interact, and it has done so overnight. Millions and millions of people are sheltering in place, working from home, and changing their habits of consumption and travel. These changes are the result of draconian measures to protect human life, but the fact that we CAN make these kinds of shifts demonstrates how much we are collectively capable of when danger is at hand. As a result of these changes, we have seen dramatic drops in air pollution in places like China and Los Angeles. Air pollution kills around 9 million people each year. It is possible that the changes in air pollution we are seeing due to the coronavirus pandemic will end up saving more lives than the virus takes. What is the lesson here? We are collectively capable of the kind of change we will need in order to address our larger climate crisis.
- We made this mess. It’s time to take a hard look at the human practices which bring about crises like this pandemic. Lovins refers to a recent article by David Quammen in the New York Times titled “We Made the Coronavirus Epidemic.” Quammen states: “We invade tropical forests and other wild landscapes, which harbor so many species of animals and plants — and within those creatures, so many unknown viruses. We cut the trees; we kill the animals or cage them and send them to markets. We disrupt ecosystems, and we shake viruses loose from their natural hosts. When that happens, they need a new host. Often, we are it.” This virus comes from our failure to respect these places and these ecosystems that not only need our protection, but that also threaten us if not cared for properly. What is the lesson here? Human activity and ecological interruption is the cause of our current pandemic and the cause of our ongoing climate crisis. The path forward must include greater care for the integrity of ecosystems.
- This is our training time. This virus is our current reality and our current crisis. Yet the challenges of climate crisis—loss of soil fertility, loss of ecosystems, the loss of biodiversity—are far worse than this virus. We need to be watching this crisis closely and learning lessons from the global response so that we can address the larger climate challenge. Lovins quotes the words of Alex Steffan, writer and futurist, to talk about the parallels between the coronavirus pandemic and the climate crisis:
“The huge sets of systems that make up the climate emergency—not just climate change itself, but the whole host of interrelated sustainability challenges of which it is a part—are already in a greater state of destabilization than most people understand. We're still talking about the climate emergency like it was a distant, possible disease threat—or, for the more advanced among us, as if a few cases had been reported in our nation—while in reality, the hospitals are already overwhelmed and whole retail districts are shuttering.The climate emergency has already transformed everything, but we continue to not take it seriously enough, blinding ourselves to the impacts that are already here, ignoring the seismic changes it is bringing to our economies, politics, communities and lives. One serious parallel is that in both, there is an inflection point—a moment where the nature of the situation, and particularly of the fact that a discontinuity has occurred, becomes unavoidable for more and more people. We've hit that point with the pandemic. When we hit inflection with climate reality is anyone's guess, but the nature of the situation makes hitting it inevitable.”
Our corporations and industries are already having tough conversations about how they will survive this quarter. But Lovins points out that this time of crisis gives businesses the opportunity to ask questions, not just about how they will survive the next quarter, but about how they will survive the next century. They are being given an opportunity to re-evaluate their supply chains, their employee policies, and their contribution to the health and well-being of humanity and our shared planet. The good news is that there is a tremendous business case for this re-evaluation. Back in 2014, the Carbon Disclosure Project found that “corporations that actively manage and plan for climate change secure an 18% higher return on investment (ROI) than companies that don’t.” Today, the business case for sustainability has only gotten stronger; companies who are focused on the integrated bottom line have lower costs, lower risks, an easier time attracting and retaining talent, higher customer satisfaction, and much more.
- We’ll get through this, and we’ll do it together. One of the most challenging learnings that is emerging from this crisis is that a pandemic is the sort of thing that has always happened. It is not an apocalyptic, end times occurrence. Lovins quotes at length from a Mark O’Connell essay in the New York Times:
“In the original Greek, the word apocalypse means simply a revelation, an uncovering. And so there is one sense in which these days are truly, literally, apocalyptic. The world itself is being revealed with a startling and surreal clarity. Much of what is being revealed is ugly: the rot of inequality in the bones of our societies, the lethal inefficiency of free-market capitalism, the bewildering cruelty and stupidity of many of the people in positions of apparent leadership. But there are beautiful things, too, being revealed with great clarity and force. Of these, the one that gives me the most hope in this sad and frightening time is that despite the damage done by the presiding ideology of individualism, there remains a determination to act out of a sense of shared purpose.”
Lovins points to the lessons emerging from this crisis: our reliance on neoliberalism and market forces to achieve the common good does not work. We need to embrace our common humanity and the reality that we survive best when we care for the group as a whole. The goal of sustainability efforts is clearer than ever: shared prosperity on a healthy planet.
- It is imperative that we act now to create a better future. Lovins talks about the necessity of using this time to dream and rebuild better than before. This is a time of learning, of dreaming, of co-creation for the world we want to live in. Lovins discusses a recent open letter from The Club of Rome to global leaders on which she was a first signatory. This letter makes the case for the possibility of re-invention in a time of devastation.
“How leaders decide to stimulate the economy in response to the corona crisis will either amplify global threats or mitigate them, so they need to choose wisely. The risk is making nearsighted decisions that increase emissions and continue to degrade nature in the long term. On the other hand, there is an opportunity to champion solutions that not only rebuild lives and spur economic activity in the immediate wake of the crisis, but also accelerate the transition to resilient, low-carbon economies and nature-rich societies.
We know what the solutions are: investing in renewable energy instead of fossil fuels; investing in nature and reforestation; investing in sustainable food systems and regenerative agriculture; and, shifting to a more local, circular and low carbon economy. These positive actions can also be a much-needed source of collective hope and optimism for life regeneration in these uncertain times.”
To all of us, Lovins issues a challenge: get politically active right now. These are times when big shifts are possible. Support your nonprofits, write to your congressional representatives. One big thing we’ve learned from this crisis is that there is plenty of money available when the need is great. We must stay engaged and ensure that bailouts go to investing in local communities, not to helping multi-billion dollar industries.
- Let fear speak to you in your stillness. Lovins closes with a call to use this time to learn lessons and sit with our confusion and fear. The stillness of this time is an opportunity to reflect on your relationship with the world around you. Lovins shares the entirety of “An Imagined Letter from COVID-19 to Humans,” a recent poem penned by Kristin Flyntz. In this moving piece, COVID-19 asks us: “Do not demonize your fear, and also, do not let it rule you. Instead, let it speak to you—in your stillness, / listen for its wisdom. / What might it be telling you about what is at work, at issue, at risk, beyond the threats of personal inconvenience and illness? / As the health of a tree, a river, the sky tells you about quality of your own health, what might the quality of your health tell you about the health of the rivers, the trees, the sky, and all of us who share this planet with you?
Shape Your Response to Crisis in Light of These Lessons
Lovins’ reflections on the sustainability lessons from COVID-19 cover the full range of our human response to crisis: we must embrace the possibility of change, we must take responsibility for our actions, we must train ourselves now for greater challenges, we must stay hopeful, we must act now, and we must carry the lessons from this time in our hearts and minds forever.
Thank you so much for caring, and thank you for being a part of the Bard community. We are grateful to face this challenge and the challenges ahead with you.