Sustainability in times of corona


The world is held captive by the corona crisis. As we are beginning to bend the trend in the Netherlands intellectuals rush to make sense of how it will affect the world. Mostly in predicable fashion, the corona crisis is functioning as their final exhibit in a well-rehearsed plea. Yet in actual fact the jury is still out: it is very much unclear what the world will look like after this crisis.

While we contemplate what the future may hold, our nurses and doctors frantically and courageously struggle to save lives, and many people, in particular in the global South, suddenly find themselves without income and will suffer in ways that may defy the imagination. May it serve as a reminder of our privileged position.

At the same time it is crucial to actively think how we give meaning to what is happening.

A change may be just around the corner

In the environmental field we are accustomed to ‘wake-up calls’, indicating how possibilities to come to grips with the climate crisis or to halt biodiversity are sliding. Yet the corona crisis is not only a wake-up call; it is as much a ‘time out’, a unique meditative moment which allows us, quite suddenly, to see the world differently. There is less traffic in our streets, no planes in the (blue) sky; we have time in our hands and are much more aware of the birds singing; it is Spring, after all. An ideal situation to contemplate what we deem really important.

The corona crisis has brought the world to a near halt and that implies we can now also break out of ‘business as usual’. The point is this: ‘business as usual’ no longer is a matter-of-course, it now requires an active choice. And that surely is an opportunity, indeed, a responsibility. Several world leaders have likened our predicament to what the Second World War did in terms of disrupting our lives. Following that comparison, trying to find our way back into a ‘business as usual’ mode is like trying to continue the colonial rule in the postwar era, i.e. completely missing the signs of the times.

‘Business as usual’ no longer is a matter-of-course, it now requires an active choice

For us as sustainability scholars this opportunity is even more relevant. We experience what in discourse analysis is called a ‘dislocation’: it is as if society is temporarily lifted out of its proverbial hinges and, depending on what we do now, depending on the meaning we give to this particular moment, society will either fall back in its old structure or we will readjust and find ourselves moving to a new equilibrium. Ironically, that was precisely what we discussed at our third Pathways to Sustainability Conference, held on 5 March, at a moment we now recognise as the silence before the storm, a day at which we tried not to shake hands, clumsily and apologetically. You will find it all in the full multimedia story of the conference, including links to all the individual elements of the programme. Listen again to Tim Lenton, for instance, talking about tipping points, not only in the biophysical system but also as ‘social contagion’, suggesting well-engrained habits may also change.

Our new ballet on the pavements is a small indication that well-engrained habits can indeed change rapidly.

Indeed, here we are, a month after the conference, and we see our social practices have changed. Our new politesse of physical distancing has created a new ballet on the pavements, in which we all emphatically respect each other's one-and-a-half meter corona. It is a small indication that well-engrained habits can indeed change rapidly.

The historic moment we now experience is one in which we, by actively sharing our knowledge and insights, can help guide the societal debate; by signposting the severe consequences of inaction, by trying to think of viable alternatives, and by sharing our scientific understandings of the pathways to get there. I am encouraged to see many colleagues take up that role in society already and I am open to any suggestions how we, as strategic theme Pathways to Sustainability, could further enhance our role in that regard. As we suggested at our Pathways conference on 5 March, a change might indeed be just around the corner.

Maarten Hajer, Scientific Director of Pathways to Sustainability