The other public health crisis: What the global economy can learn from our response to coronavirus
Around the world, many of us are experiencing huge upheavals to our daily lives, as new rules and measures kick in to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The extent of these changes shows what’s possible – but what if we took a similar root-and-branch approach to our economic and climate crisis? Tom Rippin, founder and CEO of On Purpose, on what modern capitalism can learn from the anti-viral response.
The response to the coronavirus is both impressive and thought-provoking. Governments, organisations and people around the world are taking peacetime actions not known in living memory. And rightly so. The projections of human loss the virus could cause are chilling. Nevertheless, I have not been able to stop myself wondering: Why do other crises not generate the same level of action, even when we know they are associated with equally or even more devastating projections?
I have often compared the state of our economy to a body that is suffering an advanced stage of cancer. This is, I realise, a shocking analogy to use, but bear with me: it can provide a new lens through which to look at our economy.
Imagine the cells in your body represented organisations, hard at work producing all the services and goods you need to live a healthy life. Cancerous cells, unlike healthy ones, grow and replicate as fast as they can – at the expense of the body that hosts them. In our economy, growth has become just as prevalent at all levels: nationally we grow GDP, organisations maximise profits and individuals accumulate wealth and possessions.
And this has real consequences for human health. Air pollution – a direct consequence of how we choose to organise our economy – has overtaken smoking as a cause of global deaths. Consumerism and the addictive algorithms behind social media are eroding our mental health; worklessness and low-paid, insecure jobs are driving people to hunger, as evidenced by the huge rise in foodbanks across many countries.
What would happen if we took the same approach to the economic crisis that we are taking to the coronavirus crisis? The anti-viral response has four phases: contain the infection at source, delay its spread, conduct research to understand its behaviour, find a vaccine and mitigate the effects of the virus spreading.
When it comes to our global economy we have, sadly, long passed the contain phase. Cancer-like behaviours have been spreading for decades. In the UK, for example, the 1990s saw a wave of mutual building societies converting to shareholder-owned banks. Banking regulations that split retail and investment banking (such as the Glass-Steagall Act in the US) were repealed in multiple countries around about the same time.
Immunising organisations that operate with a different set of values is an urgent priority
Containing the economic cancer at source is no longer possible. We can no longer surgically remove the tumour because it has already spread. However, we can still protect some areas from becoming infected, those that run with a different ethos: the UK’s National Health Service and its public broadcaster are two examples, the Swiss railway (SBB) is another. The co-operative movement has long conformed to values that include co-operating rather than competing with other co-operatives, democratic control and economic participation (that’s profit sharing) for all members – although sadly it has not been immune either, as the part-takeover of the UK’s Co-operative Bank shows. Immunising organisations that operate with a different set of values – whose genes have not yet suffered cancerous mutations – is an urgent priority.
Delaying the spread of cancerous behaviours is the next priority. There are multiple approaches that can be taken here.
Business schools and management consultancies that educate and influence decision-makers have become amplifying feedback loops for the unfettered growth ideology. Happily, some are now starting to engage seriously with the need for new approaches to management and leadership, which will slow the spread of this kind of thinking.
Other delay mechanisms include representing workers on company boards (as happens in Germany), and publishing CEO-to-worker pay ratios (now mandatory in the UK), which can curb the growth of top salaries.
Any serious attempt to combat our economic cancer must understand its root causes. Human cancer is caused by mutations in our genes – the manual for our human bodies that is stored in every one of our cells. Similarly, our economic cancer is caused by how our economic manual – the values that underpin our economic and management practices – have evolved.
Labs are conducting thousands of experiments as they race towards a vaccine for the coronavirus. Similarly, in every part of our economy people are trying out doing business according to different values
At this very moment, labs all around the world are conducting thousands of experiments as they race towards a vaccine for the coronavirus. Similarly, in every part of our economy people are experimenting, trying out doing business according to different values, conducting gene therapy in which they replace harmful values with healthy ones.
In Germany, Purpose is trialling new models of ownership; In the UK, Operation Upgrade is tackling company law to weaken the power of shareholders; complementary currencies such as the Swiss WIR have operated in parallel to mainstream finance for decades; Common Future is creating more regional and community based economies in the US; B Corps are testing lots of ways of using business as a force for good; and even multi-national corporations are committing to a net positive impact on our climate, Microsoft and Interface being just two examples.
Mitigation is arguably where most effort has been going for a very long time. The raison-d’etre of many charities and public services has, for centuries, been to mitigate the worst excesses of our current system. Looking after those who have “fallen through the cracks” of our welfare system, cleaning up environmental pollution or protecting endangered species are all mitigation activities.
In recent times the Deep Adaptation movement is providing more sobering advice on the consequence of climate change that is already inevitable.
Mitigation is necessary and often the only compassionate and practical course of action. But we mustn’t let fighting the symptoms distract us from tackling the root cause of the disease. Unlike the coronavirus vaccine, the values and behaviours we need for a healthy economy are already among us today; but we need to spread them quickly. Values – even collective ones – reside in people. This is why, at On Purpose, we work with people who want to learn how to apply healthy values in the real life of their everyday work.
We mustn’t let fighting the symptoms distract us from tackling the root cause of the disease
We are learning a tough lesson in how quickly a virus like corona can spread around the world. Viruses, as it happens, are also the vehicle by which gene therapists smuggle healthy genes into cancerous cells – one of the newest approaches to tackle the root causes of cancer. This gives me hope that fundamental change can happen more quickly than we think. We are already seeing the rapid spread of healthy viruses – from school climate strikes and veganism to the anti-plastic movement. I believe these are the trailblazers for many more gene therapies to come.
Tom Rippin is the founder and CEO of On Purpose.
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