Kirsty runs the London-based, multi-award-winning PR agency Milk & Honey PR. She writes about ethical leadership.
The most striking aspect of the current news cycle is the dominance of one story. At the back end of 2019 and in early 2020, Brexit (in the U.K., at least) continued its monopoly of media attention. From February to now, the pandemic has cornered the market in column inches.
It’s understandable — these stories are huge and will change millions of lives forever. The problem with the media’s seeming inability to multitask, however, is that attention on other potentially existential issues is burned away by the laser-like focus.
Think back to when our perspectives were more plural: electoral interference, wildfires and the Syrian civil war. Then, the BBC broadcasted a series about the world’s oceans called Blue Planet II. It transformed many people’s perceptions of human environmental impact. Remember that?
A single TV program helped a huge global audience realize the true cost of cotton swabs, contact lenses and carrier bags. The evidence of our lethal addiction to single-use plastic sent shockwaves that shook continents and, perhaps most powerfully, schoolchildren.
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It looked as if we were about to see a once-in-a-generation change in human behavior — until a second once-in-a-generation change came along, and everything went back again.
Searchlight Or Radar?
It seems that humanity is as poor at multitasking as the mainstream media is. I think the lesson is that our continued existence on this planet is an objective made up of almost infinitely multiple and complex factors — not a simple and single task.
I was once told a story about the power of objectives: In the 1930s, the British Army and Royal Air Force both needed a way to defend against enemy aircraft. The Army asked for something that could track a plane “once in range of its guns” (about two miles), while the RAF asked for something that could track targets “from as far away as possible.” As the story goes, the Army got a big searchlight, while the RAF’s requirement led to the development of radar.
Two seemingly similar requests resulted in very different outcomes because one group saw a task, while the other recognized the objective.
I now categorize responses as either searchlight or radar — and our answers to the pandemic appear to be very much the former. It’s a reaction that is seemingly understandable. A new virus kills over a million people and infects many millions more in less than a year, and everyone does everything possible to prevent its spread.
I say “seemingly understandable” because stopping Covid-19, while critical, is a task. The ultimate objective, surely, is to maintain life on our planet. I think we should consider how there might be little cause for celebration if we conquer the pandemic at the cost of choking our oceans with single-use personal protective equipment.
Yet we are doing just that: The U.K. alone is set to generate an additional 66,000 metric tons of waste from face coverings — many of them containing plastic — in 2020, and all things remaining equal, the pandemic could result in a monthly global consumption and waste of 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves. The reality is that most of this waste will likely be consigned to the deep.
Like most businesses, we have been moving mountains to ensure a “Covid-19-secure” work environment. The danger is that this can become an obsession, and we may fail to see other existential threats hidden in plain sight. Luckily, I have engaged and vociferous colleagues who won’t let me forget that Covid-19 security and environmental responsibility aren’t mutually exclusive.
We partner with rePurpose Global, which is “a global movement of conscious consumers and businesses going plastic neutral” and “tackling ocean plastic pollution and restoring the health of humanity’s common habitat.” The organization recognizes that plastic is currently intrinsic to modern business, but that we can all work to help nullify its negative impacts. This approach is practical and powerful — it’s neither tick box nor pie in the sky.
We can’t simply stop consuming plastic yet, so we undertook an audit of our pre-rePurpose plastic usage. Based on these results, it calculated our plastic debt, or the plastic cost of the business. Then, in effect, we buy it back, making a donation that results in the removal of this debt from habitats around the world. In addition, we receive insights on how to reduce plastic usage until we’re down to the absolute minimum. It took thought, commitment and action, but we’re now plastic neutral.
Rather than seeing this as an additional burden at a time of significant additional burdens, my colleagues saw this as an imperative response. We had to do this. It is not a case of pandemic or plastic — it’s pandemic and plastic and a host of other existential threats that we have to learn to deal with at the same time.
The End Of The World As We Know It
We have a choice. We can continue to follow the 20th-century curve. In 1920, the planet supported around 1.8 billion people, while in 2020 it has to sustain close to 8 billion. When you consider the fact that the average inhabitant of 2020 consumes far more than their 1920 counterpart, you can see that things simply don’t add up. Simple math dictates that we’re running out of road.
Or as businesses, we can make the leap. We can change our thinking and realize that pre-Covid-19 behaviors are unsustainable. We can believe the evidence before our own eyes and understand that fundamental change is not just possible, but practicable — in weeks, not decades.
Make no mistake, this is the end of the world as we know it. We do, however, still have the luxury of choosing how it ends.
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Author: Kirsty Leighton, Forbes Councils Member