Spend it Better: Creating a better world as we emerge from the pandemic
In her new weekly column, Catherine Cleary looks at how we can use our spending power to look after the world, and each other
The urge to nurture things during the pandemic gave us a better understanding of how the nurturing nurtures us back. Photograph: iStock
Start the world I want to get on again, at a different speed and with new music. I’m excited to see what we will do when we can gather in rooms together. Yet I love what we have cobbled together in the meantime: the greatness of the outdoors, rediscovered parks, sea swims, talking about real things, chatty front gardens and footpaths, how the small stuff sloughed off us like dead skin and what was vital snapped into view.
Joy is coming, we say. Gratification delayed bloody long enough. Pass me the marshmallow. Pass me all the marshmallows. We’re a tetchy herd of heifers butting woolly heads on a locked steel gate. What will we do when this meantime time ends?
Who has the stomach to ask, as the WHO’s Mike Ryan did at a Trocaire conference, whether we can return to the dizzy spin of writing cheques for future generations? Talk to any environmentalist before Covid and there was the big impossibility: mass behaviour change. When so many of us can live like there’s no tomorrow why would we dial back consumption? Use and toss is so much easier than care and repair.
A stop has been put to our gallop. The sacrifices demanded of us were a steep learning curve about responsible adulting. We’ve seen mass behaviour change, billions of people choosing kindness and throwing shoulders to the dead weight of this horrible wheel.
Inevitably the story frayed. We got tired and lonely and berated ourselves for the innocence of believing in each other. The storytellers got bored of the same old same old.The mass kindness project, they said, was single use, obsolescence built-in.
We are a huge messy family facing our deep-rooted dysfunction and trying to fix it.
Bertie was wrong. We didn’t all party during the boom. But we are all suffering during Covid, unequally in so many ways. Yet there is a sameness to the misery whether it’s mild dread, fever dreams, the sight of places and people hollowed out, the wretchedness of a ten-person funeral or the ache of social distance. Suffering has thinned our skins. Anguish feels more visceral. The deaths of George Floyd and Sarah Everard spark online outpourings of love and rage. It feels like a real hinge moment. We are a huge messy family facing our deep-rooted dysfunction and trying to fix it.
So much was broken before this catastrophe. I wept at the last largest school strike when a woman took to the mic to tell the army of children that they could stand down. The grown-ups, she said, were here now. Nearly a year later I told the story at a permaculture course on Suzie and Mike Cahn’s small farm in Wicklow. “There was this woman,” I said, eyes prickling again as I talked about how moving it felt. “And that,” Suzie said pausing for effect, “would have been me.” She was the woman whose words shifted something in me. We are all connected.
I have spent the last year surrounded (often virtually) by people working to move the needle from individual success to shared communities of thriving. So many bright people are trying to figure out how to nudge our dopamine-laced joy of shopping towards a model that will put more in than it takes out. A whole ecosystem of social enterprise is blossoming. Can we buy the change we want to see?
We have become kinder consumers. Yes lockdown made Bezos a bazillionaire but it also poured money into small producers and local businesses. We liked sending money through the air to someone who does a happy dance when an order drops into their inbox. The urge to nurture things gave us a better understanding of how the nurturing nurtures us back. Gardens gave us our victories, last summer’s tomato harvest on a WhatsApp group still a pinnacle of achievement. The mass kindness story might have grown threadbare but the kindness didn’t evaporate. It went underground and spread its tendrils.
If I do form an eco-order it will be called the Sisters of Clarity. Our mission will be to hack our way through the green guff and figure out how to pay it forward
And we can access a whole new set of kindness muscles. Those of us lucky enough to have money to spend are looking for ways to share that luck. We have to demand that our leaders put the cost of damaging consumption at the doors of the companies profiting obscenely from our destruction. We will look for ways to be part of a kindness economy. The Don Drapers of Madison Avenue appropriated human yearning and melded it to the desire for stuff. It’s a toxic relationship we have to untangle. We are not what we own and Covid has taught us that we are nothing without each other. Investing in young people, giving marginalised people new voices, strengthening the mesh of kindness so the next time catastrophe or opportunity comes we are more prepared. These have to be our priorities now.
But I will resist the urge to preach, to channel my Mother (Earth) Superior. If I do form an eco-order it will be called the Sisters of Clarity. Our mission will be to hack our way through the green guff and figure out how to pay it forward.
I will be writing about the ways I’ve been finding to do this in my own life as well as looking at the bigger picture, everything from running shoes to agricultural run-off. It’s not so much a sustainability column as a regeneration one because no-one wants to sustain a world as depleted as the one we’re in now. We want to build back happier. We’re calling it Spend it Better, read it here every week.