HomeNewsDirector’s Almanac: The chance to #buildbackbetter

Director’s Almanac: The chance to #buildbackbetter

Want to feel better about the state of our country and planet today? Search social media for the hashtag: #buildbackbetter.

I did – and what I saw strengthened my conviction that the dogma of “returning to normal” from the COVID-19 pandemic is not the right way to tackle the problems at hand. Instead, we should be striving toward a new normal that is more sustainable, just, and prosperous than the socio-economic system we’ve been living with for the last 50 to 100 years.

I mentioned this possibility of a “new normal” in a recent interview with Tony Loyd on his podcast, Social Entrepreneur. Because, in fact, that new normal and the environment have a lot to do with one another. I told Tony that, to my mind, we can group the connection between COVID-19 and the environment/sustainability into three buckets.

The first bucket is the connection between humans and wildlife – including deforestation, human encroachment into wild areas, and the trade of wild animals. Scientists have known for some time that these things make us vulnerable to the outbreak of new diseases (e.g., this study), and we’ve largely ignored their warnings. If “normal” is the status quo, we’re just inviting the next pandemic. (A lot of people are thinking about this, which is why we invited some of them to a public conversation and Q&A next Monday.)

The second bucket is a feature that the spread of infectious disease shares with every environmental issue – the complexity of interconnected systems. Humanity and nature are deeply interwoven in ways that don’t match simple notions like the linearity of supply chains (instead of their circularity), the rigidity of national borders (that natural systems don’t obey), and “wellness” reduced to a metric of GDP. Stewarding complex systems requires a strong understanding of leverage points and feedback loops. If we saw the world in its full complexity – if that were part of a new normal – we’d have a better shot at sustaining our health and planet.

Thirdly – and this is top of mind for so many of us right now – there’s an economic link between COVID-19 and the environment. Part of this link you may have already heard: There are bears peering in the windows of a shopping mall in Duluth, Minnesota; there are blue skies in New Delhi; pollution in U.S. cities is markedly lower; and greenhouse gas emissions are down worldwide. The momentary reduction in energy use and other activities, thanks to stay-at-home orders, shows how much we affect our environment, but these changes are temporary. Nothing about how we “normally” power or organize our society has fundamentally changed.

But if we wanted to, we could change those processes. We could rebuild our economy to be better than the one we had before. We could make a “new normal” and #buildbackbetter.


First, we would need to face the truth that the consumption of fossil fuels, release of chemical pollution into our environment, sprawling land use, and other harmful activities are flourishing in our current economy. We’ve been coming to terms with these harms and their “normality” for some time, after compiling overwhelming evidence and discussing it for decades. Yet, we direct subsidies to harmful industries and fail to monitor, regulate, or compensate those who bear negative consequences of these harmful behaviors.

We let this happen pretending that doing better is either too hard or too expensive. Because of the pandemic, however, cost is no longer an argument for inaction. Economic losses are happening already, with massive accumulating costs, whether we want them or not.

But we do have the tools to do better. We have solutions to many socio-environmental problems already in hand, from technologies such as solar and wind power that are alternatives to fossil fuel-based electricity production, to techniques such as cover crops that reduce nutrient runoff and soil erosion on farms, to policy tweaks such as carbon dividends that create incentives for shifting our economy. These strategies are shovel-ready; they can be deployed at scale given funding and labor. Other strategies are still under development but would benefit from real-world demonstration.

Meanwhile, millions of people and thousands of businesses now need economic assistance to stay afloat. And this need for economic stimulus provides an opportunity to invest in doing better. For example, local, state and federal governments could put conditions on bailouts to industries hard-hit by COVID-19. We could require carbon-reductions in exchange for bailouts of the airline industry, as was done on fuel economy for the auto industry in 2009. We could compensate for agricultural losses with payments for soil carbon storage or other ecosystem services. We could invest in public infrastructure such as neglected city water systems that provide clean drinking water and protect streams and lakes from contaminants. And all of these projects would employ labor.

In a healthy economy, this could seem to some like government overreach, but our economy isn’t healthy. It needs an influx of financial capital to help it get back on its feet, and there’s no reason we can’t work on the problems it already had while we’re at it.

These are just a few example ideas, and there are many more out there. Which leads me to a final thought, one I neglected to share in my conversation with Tony…

To my university colleagues, to community organizers, to innovators and entrepreneurs and other dreamers: Dust off your best ideas and share them widely – again. Epidemiologists are modeling this engagement for us right now. They’re building scenarios to assist policymakers, and they’re floating ideas to manage the spread of disease. We also need great ideas for economic stimulus – ideas that allow us to #buildbackbetter. Let’s speak up.

In planetary prosperity,

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