All over the world, calls for strategies to return to a normal life after the Covid-19 crisis are emerging. Due to the severe economic cuts and the terrifying losses of lives and livelihoods, ideas to transform the economic system towards sustainability run the danger of becoming drowned by those voices pressing for a fast return to the pre-crisis economy. These voices ignore that the economies were ailing already before the pandemic. We should not forget that our ways of production and consumption had already run into crisis before Covid-19.
1. Let us pay attention to wicked problems
Covid-19 is currently the most prevalent economic and societal threat, unveiling and aggravating other lingering wicked problems such as inequality and poverty, hunger, and populism. These problems are “wicked” in the sense that they are extremely interconnected and embedded in the social, economic, and environmental systems in a way that is almost impossible to capture. Trying to solve one of these problems may even make another one worse. This is one of the reasons why these and other interrelated processes compromise a humane way of living on Earth. Current responses to the pandemic once more reveal that economic growth, sales, and profits are played off against other sustainable development goals (SDGs) such as good health and wellbeing, no poverty, and climate action. For a very short time, governments have prioritised citizens’ health. Now that the various effects of lockdown become increasingly palpable, the rift between the SDGs deepens.
2. Let us recognise this crisis as a window of opportunity for change
Accordingly, there are many conflicting and competing visions for a post-pandemic economy. These range from restarting or recovering the old economic system as quickly as possible to a variety of different post-growth concepts of an economic system where profits serve people and planet (and not the other way around). Despite these divergent visions, many agree on the fact that action of unprecedented scope is required immediately.
We are rightfully shaken by the hardship and the losses caused by the pandemic. But Covid-19 also forcefully shows us how quickly societies can adapt to necessary change: Especially those of us living in the Global North who previously believed many habits and practices to be a given, have now been disabused. A few months ago, it seemed inconceivable for many to consume less, abstain from flying, work from home, and to agree on concerted policy interventions on a global scale. This shows us that besides the many terrifying negative effects, the sudden lockdown has afforded a potential window of opportunity for re-thinking petrified practices, worldviews, and paradigms.
3. Let us take the opportunity
There is a growing acknowledgement by societal groups such as the Fridays for Future movement and various scientific bodies that we must give up doing business as usual. The current momentum could be used to bridge the rift between the SDGs and co-create viable economies built on knowledge about the deep connection between human social systems and the Earth system.
The window is still open. It is not too late to decide whether we use it for deep, long-term transformations, such as sustainability transitions, or let it close again and return to the old status quo – or even rebound – after overcoming this immediate threat. To use the opportunity for deep change, we must ask ourselves: what do we want to transform or sustain, by and for whom, and, eventually, how?
4. Let us not “go back to normal”
Humans tend to stick to old habits. In the current situation, however, we should think twice if we really want to go back to normal, because “normal” has been the origin of many of our problems, Covid-19 being only one of them. This is exactly the reason why “restarting the economy” with all of its faults will be disastrous in the long run. Policy measures that aim to bring us back to “normal” as fast as possible, to reach the same economic growth rates and consumption levels as before the crisis, are downright reckless. A new “normal” must be found in the sense of alternative systems that are dedicated to quality of life, inter- and intragenerational justice, and a viable balance between social and ecological systems. Thereby, we can leave behind the old “normal” dedicated to profit maximisation and shareholder value.