Environmentalists, social entrepreneurs and green politicians have been warning of the need for a “just transition” to a low carbon, less damaging and more socially inclusive economy for as long as I can remember. Unsurprisingly those who advocate for radical change in how we do business, have been quick to point the finger of blame and to frame this unique moment in history as an opportunity for re-imagining society. In fact change was already underway before the pandemic arose. But it takes a long time to turn a large ship around. Redistribution of wealth cannot be at the expense of wealth creation. Blowing the ship out of the water is not the answer.
The dark stain of social inequity has often formed the basis for arguments against our prevailing economic system. Yet even the most ardent critics of capitalism agree that proportionally less of the global population live in (extreme) poverty than a century ago. The looming spectre of climate change has increasingly emboldened demands to discard capitalism and move beyond GDP as a measure of progress. Yet the already emergent transfer of capital away from polluting industries into regenerative, more socially responsible activities possibly offers the greatest hope of a cleaner, more equitable economy. Innovators and entrepreneurs are an important part of the solution. But this will not be enough on its own.
Today’s global public health crisis is symptomatic on every level of how political structures have failed to distribute the benefits and reduce the risks of a globalised economy. The highly corrupt and distorting nature of political systems in China, Iran, Italy and the United States created the breeding ground for this disease and allowed it to take hold worldwide. But plagues and looming environmental disasters are agnostic when it comes to politics. It is how we respond that is most important. Unfortunately failed governments, autocratic leadership and internal competition for resources do not allow for an informed and timely response.
Instead of tearing down the existing economic model, we first need to adapt political systems to a new way of working. There is no place for confrontational and divisive politicking during a global crisis. The lack of a coordinated response to the pandemic has been most notable in federations such as the United States and the European Union. It also illustrates the reasons why we are failing to address the problem of climate change. Self interest and exceptionalism by the militarily most powerful are materially inconsistent with wise stewardship of a globalised, highly interconnected economy.
Paul Spence is a commentator and serial entrepreneur, a recently exited co-founder of New Zealand based technology venture iwantmyname, a co-founder and director of Creative Forest and principal at GeniusNet Research. You can follow Paul on Twitter @GeniusNet or sign up for a free weekly digest of startup, tech and innovation related events curated by him through New Zealand Startup Digest.