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Reshaping the world after coronavirus

May 26, 2020

The coronavirus has exposed the fragility of our societies and is a chance to build a more sustainable future, says transformation expert Maja Göpel.

Maja Göpel
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/C. Koall

The coronavirus crisis has proved that radical change can happen in a short period of time. But can we harness this awareness to bring about systemic transformation? Germany's leading transformation researcher says it's possible — and necessary. Maja Göpel works on strategies for change with a focus on political economy and sustainability. DW spoke to her for the new series of the environmental podcast On the Green Fence

DW: The coronavirus crisis is a unique window of opportunity in terms of transformation. What would you like to see coming out of this?

Maja Göpel: In an ideal world, it would be really good if we went back to understanding what our concept of value is, and — I think this is where corona really helped us — what are the things that are really important to us. So it is good relationships; it's our health; and it is reliable access to food and accommodation where we can rest our heads and be safe.

And then [we would rethink] how we measure value and count value creation in our societies. And I think this would be the one big lever we could [use to] correct a value concept in economics that has not looked at these qualitative bases, but has had monetary values that are hiding a lot of what's really happening underneath.

Read more: Can we consume less without wrecking the economy?

The green transformation

Is this the right time to try and push for such change, or is it the absolute wrong time because people are clinging to the familiar to maintain a sense of security?

Probably a bit of both, because it really depends on where you are in society right now, and which society you are in.

Germany is so privileged because we have, for example, opportunity and a social welfare state. We can just make a lot of government money for that purpose and put it into our economy. Even within the eurozone, we see that it's not so easy to agree on making similar conditions possible for all member states. And then obviously you have a totally different situation in many of the poorer countries.

I think that [UN Secretary General Antonio] Guterres is very good at saying the focus right now [should be about enabling] most countries at least to start putting out support for basic survival. This is something where we just need to stabilize people's lives. But that can only happen when we transform what we formerly thought about who should get access to money, under which circumstances. We're avoiding the term basic income, but we're basically talking about some idea of that kind.

Read more: Germany's Angela Merkel calls for 'climate-friendly' coronavirus response

Can we emerge from this crisis with more resilient systems, or will we just go back to the old ways? We are creatures of habit, aren't we?

Yes. But we are also very good at learning, and social learning is more successful than individual learning. So it really depends on the political responses. I think there should be something like a promise from the governments to say: 'This is not set in stone, the emergency responses are not going to be the defining force of what development we're going to have a long term.'

Masked women carrying sacks of food
Poor communities in India getting free food during the coronavirus. The pandemic could provide an opportunity for greater equality Image: Deepalaya

I mean, there's a lot of consensus to go towards more sustainable outcomes. There was a green deal in Europe. There was a climate law in Germany. There were pre-crisis consensus agreements on transforming the economic world and industry in particular. So we should not go back on those just because of corona.

In terms of creating a different society after this, if it comes down to government bailouts, which industries should not get bailed out?

Well, I think we have to stick very clearly and very strongly with the message that fossil fuels have to go. And we very clearly have to stick with the message that we have to change the way that we're using our land in order to be able to protect biodiversity and food security in the future. So we need regenerative agriculture and a totally fossil free energy system in the future, and to be very clear that we give money to those that are committing to go that way.

A wind turbine and an oil pump
We need to swap oil for renewable energy like wind, says GöpelImage: picture-alliance/All Canada Photos
Rainforest on fire
Land use and intensive farming are coming under increasing scrutinyImage: Reuters/B. Kelly

On a personal level for you, as a transformation expert: has experiencing this crisis changed any of your theories?

I felt that a lot of the things that were in my head have come to my tummy, just because you notice how ridiculous this is, the way that we've been running development and calling it successful development.

We're talking now about an economy being totally on the floor, at least here in Germany. [But] we still have food. We still can move around. We still have energy provision. We still have our houses. [Yet] the economy is seen as something in lockdown. So what it is that we really need in order to cater for people's material-needs satisfaction is so much lower than what we would always claim.

Read more: Coronavirus and climate change: A tale of two crises

Is that what drives your idea of transformation, moving towards a world in which we just have what we really need?

I think looking at need satisfaction should be a priority. What are the needs that we really have and what are the ones that are being constantly artificially created by our surroundings?

If we were to make sure that nobody had to worry about being able to survive, then we would have to reallocate a lot of the resources that we currently source from all over the place in the world in order to feed our high consumerist lifestyles. We would have to leave them to others. We'd have to make space.

So we'd have to be super creative and it would be a fantastic innovation agenda to ask: what is high well-being at the lowest ecological footprint?

I think we should get away from the idea of growth, because underneath what we measure as GDP, growth has a lot of things that stop growing. I think this new formula would make us so much more innovative.

Two people in a repair cafe fixing a food mixing wand
Repair cafes have sprouted up around the world to encourage people to fix their possessions rather than buy more Image: picture-alliance/dpa
A person holding shopping bags
How much of what we have do we really need, or perhaps even want?Image: picture-alliance/dpa/C. Rehder

Your ideas sound great, but right now, the world doesn't work like that. So how are we going to make the changes that will make that world possible?

Well, they are in all of us! I can't just wave a magic wand, but we are in this collectively. The more people who are starting to question what we're doing and finding it absurd, the more incipient cracks are basically coming towards us, and the more we experience cognitive dissonance where we feel like we're forced to be doing what we are doing, but it is not what we'd like to be doing anymore. And those are the moments where we start emancipating ourselves and we start questioning ourselves, and this is how evolution has happened.

Read more: Coronavirus inspires cities to push climate-friendly mobility

So just saying that we haven't done it so far, so we could never reach it now, is defeating ourselves already. And we never know when there might be a social tipping point. We never know when there might be additional crises where we might be very happy that we've learned to share much more now under corona. And we can share. I mean, that's the brilliant thing that we start learning that.

We can shape a totally different world. It's just going to be a highly political struggle. And so we're all in it. Not as consumers only, but as citizens and as educators and as future foreseers who can formulate what is possible.

Maja Göpel is Germany's leading transformation researcher and the Secretary General of the German Advisory Council on Climate Change (WBGU). The interview was conducted by Neil King and Gabriel Borrud for DW's environmental podcast, On the Green Fence. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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