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Human activity on the planet has deafened us to messages from nature. The pandemic has caused a pause in the noise. But will we listen?

June 2020 – As Covid-19 recovery plans are developed, Dame Polly Courtice, Director of the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL), reflects upon the need for a new contract to be negotiated between business, government and society. One that is built not just upon the resilience of our businesses and financial systems, but of the societies and nature upon whom we unequivocally depend.

"The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;–
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

From ‘The World Is Too Much With Us’ by William Wordsworth

From the earliest cave paintings to the artifacts of our modern lives the evidence of our dependency on nature - and our interdependency on one another - has always surrounded us. And yet in our modern age the disconnect has never been greater. It is as though the roar of our getting and spending has deafened us to the messages from nature - that we are destroying the natural and human capital upon which our very existence depends. 

The ferocity of Covid-19 - and its unpredictable path and impact - has momentarily imposed upon us a pause in proceedings. It is vital that we use this time to reflect and reset. The effects of the pandemic have been devastating for many. Not only the loss of human life, but the loss of human and social interaction, whether at work or school, though the heartbeat of a city, or the richness of cultural activities, or the excitement of a sporting event. These are the stuff of life that give us joy and connectedness, and their loss has threatened the wellbeing and livelihoods of many – often those who are least able to cope. The pandemic has, amongst other things, also revealed levels of inequality in society that we have been unwilling or unable to recognise. Demands for a reset are at an all-time high. The time for that has come.

And yet there have also been gains in these extraordinary few months. An auditory peace descended upon us of the kind that many of us have never known. Drastic reductions in the stress of road and air traffic noise gave us an opportunity to appreciate the value of tranquillity in our neighbourhoods and on our streets - a powerful reminder of the beauty of the countryside. Stories abound of nature returning to the spaces that humans have vacated, and marine scientists are reporting on the impact on ocean life free from the noise of shipping engines. The air that we breathe is cleaner, our journeys have been spared the battle against fumes and congestion; our clear horizons and night skies have taken on a quality normally the preserve of wilderness. And for many there is a new sense of belonging in a community that cares – whether for one another or for those who serve us. All this has reminded us - in this brief pause - of how the intensity of our human endeavour has all too often drowned out the beauty and the importance of society and nature with whom we share this planet.

Governments are willing to ‘do whatever it takes’ to prevent economic collapse, and leaders around the world are now discussing the need to ‘build back better’, perhaps recalling that the 2008 financial crisis did little to alter the trajectory of business as usual. The crisis has inescapably highlighted the shortcomings of an economic system that for many decades has been focused squarely on maximising efficiency and GDP growth, rather than building long-term resilience in the system and delivering outcomes that truly matter.

As recovery plans are being developed, armed with a new understanding about the possibilities of transformational change, there are glimpses into how we might take a systems approach to the existential threats of climate change and the destruction of nature, besides which the pandemic pales into insignificance. We are now more willing, perhaps, to test assumptions about political, economic, technological, and behavioural solutions that we have previously discounted as being unrealistic, despite the compelling scientific evidence. There is still time to act, but unless we do so now the resilience of many systems will be beyond our reach.

At a fundamental level none of the issues that the pandemic has highlighted are new – they are at the core of the sustainability debate that has been running for decades. In CISL our teaching, convening and research has always been built around helping leaders to understand and respond to these issues at a systems level.

Like others, we have recently been reflecting on what profound changes lie ahead, recognising that all the preconceptions about the future that we held just a few months ago may need to be radically rethought. We have been taking stock of everything we do, why we're doing it and how we ourselves need to change. And we have taken comfort from just how many members of our network of leaders in business, government and the finance sector are also deeply concerned about these issues, recognising not least, that you cannot do business in a broken world.

Last year we brought together 300 leaders in our 30th Anniversary celebrations to consider the major economic and societal transformations required for a sustainable economy and to help us develop a plan of action. The current crisis only serves to strengthen the need for such a plan, reflecting both the urgency for leaders to act, and the necessity for focus and collaboration across these complex systems to shift them onto a sustainable path. Accordingly, we will shortly launch our Transformation 2030 plan, which focuses on three major systems changes required over the next decade - in business, financial and industrial systems - to decarbonise the economy; restore and protect nature; and build inclusive and resilient societies. 

Our plan has been enlightened by over 1,000 suggestions for important questions that need answering in the Future we Want initiative, and we are now also developing a series of activities that will engage leaders in creating a more sustainable future. Throughout, we will continue to test CISL’s contribution towards these system changes, and encourage others to do the same, as we measure the impact of our work with leaders in organisations around the world.

What the pandemic has brought us all is a new sense of urgency and perspective, and the affirmation that the time has come for a new contract to be negotiated between business and society. One that is built not just upon the resilience of our businesses and financial systems, but on the societies and nature upon whom we unequivocally depend. 

We may think the signals from nature have been weak, but they have been strong and are becoming increasingly so. We must now amplify them and take action before our human noise drowns them out to the point where it is too late.

"What each one of us does in the next few years will determine our future in the next few thousand years. It will define our legacy to all future generations."

David Attenborough

About the author

polly

Polly Courtice is Founder Director of the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL), which since its foundation in 1988 has grown to become an internationally recognised centre of excellence in sustainability leadership. She is also Founder Director of The Prince of Wales's Business & Sustainability Programme, and Academic Director of the University’s Master of Studies in Sustainability Leadership. She is Chair of the Faculty Board of Engineering and a member of the University’s Environmental Sustainability Strategy Committee. She is a By-Fellow of Churchill College and an Honorary Fellow of Murray Edwards College, Cambridge.

Polly is a graduate of the University of Cape Town and has an MA from the University of Cambridge.

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Articles on the blog written by employees of the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) do not necessarily represent the views of, or endorsement by, the Institute or the wider University of Cambridge.