What if 2020 isn't cancelled? Big changes vs small steps

A Global Geneva Special Report for subscribers to our free email newsletter (1800 words).

By Peter Hulm

To outsiders Switzerland seems so fortunate — with its high standard of living, low unemployment, low crime rate, the greenest Parliament for decades, a semi-direct democracy that enables most laws to be challenged, community decision-making, good food, well supported farmers and one of the world's highest regarded airlines.

But bring together a panel of activists and innovators for a webinar on shaping the post-COVID world, and you'd learn that ordinary Swiss still think it has a long way to go before the country is paradise. I listened to them and heard each of these presumptions challenged.


'20 or 60? You're not in the same world'

One of the biggest political fissures distinguishable on the panel put together by Switzerland's Circular Economy Transition for a recent webinar was between the young and more middle-aged greenies.

Make no mistake. All the panellists in the two-hour discussion broadcast on 9 June 2020 agree that deep and fundamental change is essential going forward after COIVD-19.

Otto Scharmer of the U.S. Massachusetts Insitute of Technology (MIT), giving the keynote speech, laid out the challenges to the system on three fronts:

  1. learning infrastructures
  2. democracy: making democracy more direct, more distributed
  3. the economy: shifting from an "ego-system" to an ecosystem awareness.

Reimagining civilization

His prescription: we have to "reimagine and reshape not only our economy but also our civilization".

But with the current wave of protests in the U.S. and other countries against systemic racism he saw a chance that the world is "leaning in to the emerging future" produced by the climate crisis and other emerging shocks to the system — rather than simply rejecting change out of fear.

"Both of these things are happening," he noted.

How changemakers meet and greet in 2020

Seven acupuncture points for change

How it would end, he could not predict, Scharmer said. And rejection of the need for change currently "consumes all the oxygen" on social media, greatly amplifying its "toxicity". But he listed seven "acupuncture points" for change.

  1. Nature: from a linear to a circular economy, and from industrial to regenerative agriculture — "by far the most underattended impact on climate change"
  2. Labour: from jobs to entrepreneurship, and a universal basic income (UBI) decoupling of income and work
  3. Finance: from extractive to regenerative investment, from externality-blind ("think Wall Street") to externality-aware business
  4. Technology: "from surveillance capitalism to self-governance"
  5. Management: from hierarchical to ecosystem leadership: when only 35% of the labour force feels engaged in its work this constitutes "the declaration of bankruptcy of the old management model"
  6. Consumption and postgrowth policies
  7. Coordination and governance: from hierarchy, competition and organized interest groups to awareness, and feelings of connection, "particularly across the divides of race, of class".

This might sound utopian but, Scharmer observed, he sees indications that young people are taking public protest to "the next level of disruption", showing empathy for others that their elders have blinded themselves to.


Give youth a chance

The young moderator Patricia Matzdorf, senior partnership manager for innovation and soci-economic change at WWF Switzerland, which sponsored the webinar, quoted the viral hit poem by Leslie Dwight (23) as the key message from the discussion:

"What if 2020 isn't cancelled [...] but rather that most important year of them all?"

For Switzerland and the Swiss, however, the essential message may have come from Adèle Thorens Goumaz, a member of the Swiss Senate and Sanu Durabilitas Board, who has over 20 years political experience.

Supporting calls by the panellists to give young people a bigger voice in decision-making, she declared: "It's very necessary. You don't see life in the same way when you are 20 years old or 60 years old. It's really not the same world."

And that came out in a discussion about what to do next.

Starting small doesn't cut it

Several of the mainstream specialists — including Otto Scharmer — recommended small-scale action to start in reforming society after the coronavirus. The 20-somethings weren't having it.

Marie-Claire Graf, climate activist and "Swiss Youth for Climate" vice-president, countered:

"We have to [start] from the other way around."

Her response: the message to citizens should be: "We don't want to get into a global crisis again."

Greenies need to tell people a lot of global crises are in waiting, such as the biodiversity crisis as well as climate change, she said.

As for the problems of industrial agriculture, activists need to argue for serious action because "we don't want to get into a food crisis".

Against suggestions that we need to show we can achieve something by taking small steps after COVID-19's lockdowns had felt like massive restrictions to many people, she declared:

Honestly, the time is not allowing us to think about one shirt less or more, about one burger less or more. We really have to upscale it.

"Let's use this crisis and this solidarity we are feeling now to empower everyone to make the really really big changes happen. Because otherwise it's probably not going to work."

Empowerment, for her, is not just about giving voting citizens more decision-making power, though these are clearly good moves.

Marie-Claire insisted: "Young people [need to be] empowered. You need to give them the power to change the system itself. You have to give them a decision-making mandate."

Adèle Thorens Goumaz insisted the fissure is by no means an unbridgeable gap.

Her partners in Parliament are pressing for the vote at 16 and the proposal is now before the Federal Council (Cabinet). "It's a first measure," she pointed out.

Young people don't vote much

One problem is that "young people don't vote so much. Old people vote. We must convince young people to participate.

Adèle Thorens Goumaz: "We must convince young people to participate."

Ion Karagounis, WWF Switzerland's lead on future economic and environmental issues, suggested an even more radical shake-up to the Swiss system: limiting service in Parliament to, say, 12 years.

Marie-Claire indicated other problems the young face in Switzerland (and the young in Switzerland can be much older than elsewhere): she is clearly in the top hierarchy of Swiss education but "the whole education system [...] was not an empowering experience for me," she reported.

Adèle Thorens Goumaz observed that the Swiss Parliament has never been so green, young or had so many women. A proposal to enshrine circular economy principles in the Constitution had failed in the old Parliament but is now being re-presented in pretty much the same terms. "We never had so much chance to get results."

Outflanked by the Old Guard on SWISS

But even so, during COVID-19, she saw her sympathizers outflanked by the Old Guard.

For example, on SWISS. An online questioner asked how she felt about the flagship airliner being given a bailout without any environmental conditions.

"We were really really angry. We tried to have conditions. Other countries did this: France, Germany, Austria. We were the only one who told these companies, we give you money and you can do anything."

Because it was an emergency law the Greens could not challenge the decision with a citizens' initiative for a popular referendum. "It was very frustrating — and shocking."

Nevertheless, the environmentalists felt they had enough votes to push through a tax on aircraft tickets to discourage air travel from Switzerland (this finally passed). And Parliament is now working on a CO2 control law.

'Think big but start small'

Nancy Bocken, Professor in Sustainable Business at the Maastricht Sustainability Institute and co-founder of a Dutch startup to provide pay-for-use washing machines to individual homes, spoke out firmly for small steps first.

"Think big but start small. Make it small, make it something personal," she recommended.

Adèle Thorens Goumaz argued that in face of impending crises "we have to make understand people that the solution exists [...] and solutions are affordable. If you don't have a solution, you won't do anything."

Ion Karagounis urged more effort to show worried citizens that divisive populism and knee-jerk policies are not the solution: "My hope is that people see that 'populism' is not a way we can face problems, the big problems of our future. You really have to cooperate [with others]. We have to go more into depth [...] to solve our big challenges."

Have we learned nothing from COVID-19?

The panellists were answering an online questioner who asked whether we need a bigger crisis to make us aware of the urgent dangers because the COVID-19 pandemic does not seem to have changed the world.

Marie-Claire Graf shot this idea down immediately: "I think we are already in a climate crisis. People are already dying. We are just not seeing it in the news. Most people know it. We just decided [...] not to act."


Holger Schmid, director of the sustainable economy programme at the sponsoring Mava Foundation and a co-founder of the Swiss Circular Economy Movement, noted that "what we have just managed to do is dematerialize and decarbonize social interaction and collaboration."

Young organizers, at ease with the new technologies, had shown how to remotely organize "accelerated discussion and create knowledge".

"This could be the biggest impact out of the crisis," he suggested.

final snapshot
Fodd for thought? Saying goodbye after a get-together 2020 fashion


YouTube video of webinar

Lest anyone think this was just a gripe session against Switzerland, it's worth noting that the panellists were adulatory about Switzerland in many respects.

Professor Scharmer observed that in democratic practice "you guys in Switzerland are one of the role models there." Save the Bees Bavaria may be a German citizen movement that has won an international spotllight showing how people are applying ecosystem awareness but they represent "a small group of people applying what you already do in Switzerland — direct democracy — to the issue of sustainability," he said.

He also praised Switzerland for its efforts to offer a universal basic income: "Switzerland was the first country who brought up this conversation that is more and more becoming mainstream. You pioneered that."

Adèle Thorens Goumaz agreed that Switzerland was "the only country in the world that has experienced a popular, political debate about the circular economy."

She also said she was astonished to get a majority in Parliament for her proposal on a law to replace plastics, since this came from the previous groupings. A new law is being worked out, and she hoped it would lead to similar initiatives. "Step by step we can manage this."

Waste and work

It is perhaps not surprising that work as well as waste worries the industrious Swiss as well as the middle-aged and business academics.

Nancy Bocken reported that some companies these days are talking about "rightsizing" their business after COVID-19 rather than simply going again for growth. A Swiss questioner then followed up her remark to express worry that this would mean massive job losses.

"A typical circular economy question," Professor Bocken observed. "Other types of jobs can be created." These could include repair jobs for machines produced by large companies, even local repair networks, help for people to upscale their projects and work that would make the same product usable multiple times. These are all jobs not supported in the past, she pointed out.

She later added in an explanatory note to Global-Geneva: "Repair and maintenance jobs could work for any type of business (from clothing to appliances, electronics and cars), because the circular economy is about making products last longer (slowing the loop) before closing the loop (recycling)."

Professor Bocken's CircularX project is online here.

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