The hard stop.
March 24, 2020
It is a particular piece of cosmic humour…. that we have a pandemic that forces each of us to be an island in order to realise what it means to be human together.
– Ben Okri
The Virus: unprecedented. Incomprehensible. Also predictable, and predicted – many, many times over.
Crisis brings clarity. As the dust settles on a week which has never felt so much like a surreal pre-history of the present, this is what we are left with: a cut-glass view of the fault-lines of a world we have designed so carelessly for maximum extraction, not a safety valve in sight.
China has coughed; the world has caught a fever; and our way of life has unraveled like an afterthought.
But the fish are swimming in the rivers again. The air is clearing.
The human world is collapsing, and the natural world is rejoicing.
We have come to a sudden, hard stop. And in the eerie still beneath the panic, as global systems and cities grind to a halt, there is no more spin. It is time to look, unblinkingly, at the point of imbalance we’ve reached.
The crux of the risk, in our present moment, is a question of hardware: the vaccines, the ventilators, the surgical masks, the supplies stripped from shelves. But the bigger risk is one of software: the connective tissue of culture, values, habits of thought, ways of being that have conspired to overwhelm, in mere days, the things we revere as the pinnacles of human achievement: the most sophisticated health systems on the planet, finely calibrated financial markets, heroic systems of supply and demand, rarefied cultural institutions. Life as we’ve known it is on ice until we fix the hardware. But until we also recognize the cultural software we’ve encoded in ourselves – nakedly illuminated by this virus in every literal and figurative way – 8 billion testing kits and vaccines would not be enough to save us from ourselves.
Nobel prize winning behavioural economist Daniel Kahneman bought us the concept of thinking fast and slow to describe the critical but divergent functions of the human brain: the thoughtless, instinctive, emotional responses that give us fight or flight survival skills, and the conscious, deliberate, calculated capacity we have for strategic, long-term action. One is instinctive. One is effortful. Both are essential to survival.
This is a crisis where speed is of the essence. We must think fast. We must race to preserve life, moving faster than we’ve ever moved, martialling resource that – like adrenaline pushing us to impossible physical feats in the fight of our lives – seemed unfathomable only days ago.
But in this hard stop, we must not race to preserve our way of life. We must think slow. We must embrace science, expertise, and community. We must see the wider context of climate emergency as absolute inherent to, not distinct from, the solution. We must recognise the debts we try to forget that we owe to those who nurse, feed and fend for us. And when we do, we will see a system of mutuality that for the first time in living human history, we have the common cause to bring into being.
The risk is that we simply act fast while moving too slowly. As global leaders mobilise to cauterize, there is already talk of diverting funds away from the climate emergency; an ‘either/or’ that Christiana Figueres, among others, condemns in the strongest terms as a mere deepening of crisis and the loss of our most significant opportunity for resilience.
My good friend Sir Ronald Cohen this week called on the leaders of the impact movement to rise to this global call and help national economies both survive and revision – to embed at their centre the sustainability and mutual responsibility the previous century did so much to design out of our human systems. This is also a call to investors, everywhere, who understand that moments of crisis are also moments of transformation; who see that we will rise together or fall together: you have a chance like never before to create a strong, inclusive, prosperous world by investing for impact.
Ronny’s call is just one of many reminders of the momentous and unknown task that lies ahead. It is time to muster our resource. We have been forced inward, away from the theatre of our lives, to confront ourselves. It is unsettling and essential. The destiny of nations, Ben Okri writes, resides in the vigilance of citizens. To lead, we must embrace the hard stop; enact it in ourselves; take this time to think, and reflect, and reimagine. To see clearly what it has been possible to lose; to behold this sandcastle we built at the mouth of a crashing wave.
But look at the power of the wave. Look at the eco-systems we have proven so able, so quickly, to channel and harness. Think about the collective systems of information and resource we can and must enshrine for all to survive and to thrive. This is our moment, as philosopher Yuval Harari notes, not simply to nationalize our systems, but to humanize them; to put impact, sustainability, and collaboration at their heart.
Look at the fish swimming in streams of renewal.
Breathe deep. And think slow.