After the age of contagion, what’s the ‘new normal’?

Energy

Such a moment we’re in. Much of our social and economic fabric is in tatters — our toxic political discourse, our wobbly and inequitable economy, our fraying social fabric, our brittle infrastructure, an unraveling of relationships among the community of nations.

And then the virus hit. So, here we are.

It is a time of roller-coaster emotions. I seem to toggle hourly among several, my mood or mindset shifting along with the various hats I wear: as a vulnerable, over-60 citizen (anxious); as a journalist and analyst covering sustainability and society (fascinated); as an entrepreneur in a challenging economic landscape (determined). I’m guessing you have your own version of these.

There are days lately when you simply want the news to stop. But, alas, it seems to advance inexorably, becoming more frenzied and troublesome by the day.

So, we find ourselves at a moment of fear — for a brutal virus, for our tanking economy, for our collective future. But it is also a moment of reinvention, or soon will be, when we are able to see our way through the worst of this moment. There will be a rush to get back to “normal” — whatever that means for each individual, family, community, company, school, institution or agency — with trillions of dollars being spent to help us do just that.

Today, just about everything seems to be up for grabs, including the kind of “normal” we aim to individually and collectively create. Will it seek to replicate what we previously had? Perhaps not, since an emerging meme is that coronavirus changes everything.

So, what kind of “normal” do we want? This, in the face of everything else, is the moment to ponder that question.

The pandemic, along with all of the bleak economic news, led me to revisit the 2016 book I co-authored with Mark Mykleby andn Patrick Doherty: “The New Grand Strategy: Restoring America’s Prosperity, Security and Sustainability in the 21st Century.” The picture it paints — about sustainability being the organizing logic for a new American economy — is painfully relevant right now as we prepare, in the not-too-distant future, to climb out of the economic and social abyss created by the coronavirus.

Existential moments

Core to the book’s premise is that America has turned at various times in its history to a discipline called “grand strategy” in order to address existential challenges — defeating fascism during World War II, for example, or containing the Soviet Union during the Cold War. And today — what, exactly? The United States, we assert, is still operating out of the old Cold War playbook, despite the dramatic changes we’ve seen in the world order and in economic systems, societal norms, technology, the climate and more.

In the book, we labeled our current existential moment as “global unsustainability.” Man, does that term seem more relevant now than ever.

We described global unsustainability as the product of four things: the need to provide for an emerging middle class of roughly 3 billion people, who will need to be fed, housed and otherwise provided a wide range of products and services; the depletion of earth’s natural systems and resources, including a liveable climate; our brittle infrastructure and supply chains, both locally and globally; and the fact that most of the world’s economies are propped up by central banks’ monetary policy, not markets — even more so now than in 2016.

All of those combine to create both a perilous moment — can we provide for the world’s needs without busting our economic and environmental budgets? — as well as an unparalleled economic opportunity.

The new billion

The grand strategy we envisioned in the book is led by the private sector, for profit, with government playing, at best, a supportive role — or, if not, simply getting out of the way. It called for tapping into three massive pools of demand — for walkable communities, regenerative agriculture and resource productivity. Together, we said, they would create trillions of dollars of new economic activity while making our communities and our nation stronger and more resilient from any of a variety of shocks and disruptions.

Since then, we at GreenBiz have reported on a spate of studies and plans that similarly align sustainability with large-scale economic development: the circular economy (a $2 trillion opportunity), carbon tech (a trillion-dollar opportunity), sustainable food and land systems ($4.5 trillion), low-carbon cities ($24 trillion), climate action ($26 trillion) and more. As I noted last fall, trillion is the new billion.

And then there’s the Green New Deal, a concept that seems to have been rekindled in the age of contagion.

A small but vocal chorus is reviving the Green New Deal as the panacea for much of what’s ailing our economy. Never mind that the pandemic is leading some in Europe to reconsider its own version of this economic plan, which is established doctrine on the continent.

The Green New Deal at its heart is an economic stimulus that aims to set us up for a sustainable future, not recreate our unsustainable past. And as we consider transitioning to a post-coronavirus economic order, politicians and analysts are proposing elements of the plan, even if they don’t consider them as either “green” or an FDR-style “new deal.”

Over the past two weeks, I’ve been watching the commentary unfold. “I think the EU Green Deal — and more broadly taking an approach which brings together the low-carbon economy, a resilient economy and ways to protect and support social development — is exactly what we need to get out of this crisis,” Helen Mountford, vice president for climate and economics at the World Resources Institute and a former official at the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, told Bloomberg.

“A visionary Green New Deal is a way to rekindle American pride, to present a vision of who we want to be,” wrote Michael Brownstein, an academic connected to Stanford University and John Jay College, in The Hill. He added: “To prevent the next set of crises, the federal government must tie its response to deep decarbonization.”

“This is a no-brainer that we need to reinvest in infrastructure, and then it has to be low-carbon,” Costa Samaras, director of Carnegie Mellon’s Center for Engineering and Resilience for Climate Adaptation, told Gizmodo. He pointed to money that had been pouring into clean energy fields that map well with oil workers’ skills, such as geothermal power plants, or experimental projects like carbon capture that will be needed by midcentury to keep the world from heating up catastrophically.

A report published last week, “A Green New Deal for City and Suburban Transportation,” brings public transit into the conversation — it’s largely omitted from the current stimulus packages under consideration by the U.S. Congress and administration — which were facing downturns long before coronavirus hit.

There’s a lot more where those came from, including the usual conservative media hysteria that coronavirus will create an end run for environmentalists to ban cars, lawnmowers, air travel and burgers in the name of economic stimulus.

While we’re clearly not out of the woods on the pandemic, that doesn’t mean we can’t be pondering the world that follows. This will be a disruptive time, and with all disruptions come opportunities for innovation and renewal.

That’s also the thinking behind “The New Grand Strategy.” Such moments of regeneration are in America’s DNA.

In 1862, in the midst of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln, in his annual address to Congress, noted: “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew.”

More than a century and a half later, we find ourselves in a similarly stormy present. Can we think and act anew for ourselves and our future?

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