Set a value for Sustainability

This is the first of a series of reflections from the Centre for Sustainable Healthcare team about coming out from the COVID-19 crisis.

By Raluca Vestemeanu
I have been self-isolating for over 2 months now. I feel extremely privileged to be able to work from home, but I do worry about my parents, who have both lost their jobs since the pandemic started, and for my brother, who might need to restart his first year of university. We were not ready for this because in our current social and economic narrative there was no place for a mass epidemic amidst our over-exploitation of the planet’s resources.

When the Coronavirus crisis started, the public narrative tone was alert and short-term oriented. As a digital campaigner focusing on behavioural communication I could see that the tone, words used and ideas conveyed made that first shock-wave-swiping-us-down-from-our-feet-in-front-of-the-unknown almost palpable. But after the first couple of weeks, something began to change. Public discourse shifted in a more long-term oriented narrative. Articles began talking more and more about the links between health and environment, the pressure that our current economic model is putting on biodiversity and the topic of planetary health slowly making its way in the mainstream.

All these stories about the need to change, from the way we eat to the way we work or the way we create policies and make politics have the same underlying idea - though nobody calls it by name - sustainability.

What is sustainability?

I believe we could define sustainability as a process by which biological systems tend to maintain stability while adjusting to conditions that are optimal for survival, but this definition already belongs to homeostasis.

Homeostasis is the continuous process in the search for stable optimal survival conditions that applies to everything – from our bodies to our environment, to the whole evolutionary selective process that has happened on this planet for millennia. If homeostasis is successful, life continues; if unsuccessful, disaster or death ensues.

In our search for sustainability, we admit that as biological beings part of an ecosystem our current development models have fallen out of homeostasis - the state of stability. This can be seen from a personal perspective: the surge in mental health related issues, or a global perspective: climate change. We are not a sustainable species (yet) and Coronavirus is just one of the many alarms.

How do you set a value on sustainability?

In his book Self comes to mind: Construction the conscious brain, Antonio Damasio talks about the concept of value from a biological perspective. He proposes that value relates directly or indirectly to survival. The values that motivate us on a personal level are directly related to the intrinsic mechanisms of reward and punishment, also connected to survival. Therefore, we can say that value also relates to the quality of our lives in the form of well-being.

And here, we have the answer. If what motivates us is the search for well-being, and our current system is failing us by being unsustainable, then all we have to do is find new ways that appeal to the reward centre of our brains in order to change the paradigm.

An awareness of the interconnection of health and environment is developing, as we continue to learn from our past mistakes. People nowadays are not motivated only by financial gain in their professional lives. They are looking for other ways to get value: non-financial benefits, flexible hours, remote working and a good work-life balance. They want to live in a society and work for companies that have strong ethics and are have environmental practices put into place. This is the value sustainability needs.

Changing paradigm

Yuval Harari points out in Sapiens: A brief history of humankind, that we drove to extinction about half of the planet’s big animals before we even invented the iron tools. We have never been an environmentally friendly species and this still applies to us today. We are living through the 6th mass extinction with almost 200 species of insects, plants and animals disappearing every day. But whereas the first five ones were produced by natural causes (glaciation, volcanic activity, meteorites), this one is of our own making. The planet, with its finite resources, cannot sustain the concept of infinite growth.

Change towards a sustainable society is still slow and shy and partly responsible for this is the inertia of the present cultural and economic models we have created. We can see few successful examples, such as New Zealand or Iceland prioritising well-being over economic growth. But in the context of climate change, this needs to be done faster. Coronavirus has shown us that if wanted, humanity can make swift and drastic changes to the way it operates.

Every year, the fossil fuel industry hits record low. Recently, there are talks of degrowth and divestment bringing alternative ideas to the table. I believe we have reached a collective maturity as a species to move towards a sustainable future. Of course, the worse is still to come as the current economic model put in place will come to bite us back as there are talks the world faces the worst recession since the Great Depression.

Moving forward

For the past 10 years our work at Centre for Sustainable Healthcare has been that of innovating and pushing forward a new narrative that places sustainability at its core, making a clear connection between our health and the health of the environment we live in. We have been working with health professionals not only to reduce the costs of the NHS, but also its carbon footprint. But our team is small and there is only so much we can do.

But more than ever now, we have access to information, access to one another and the means to change the paradigm. It’s up to each of us to imagine the future we want to live in and get involved in making that a reality. Sustainability has a value and that is that it’s priceless.