The eternal optimist

Life has changed more than we could have predicted, and the vision of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) seems further away than ever. However, just a quick look at what’s been happening as we rally together to fight COVID-19 has proved what is possible. In this blog Emily Auckland, UKSSD Network Director, shares her eternal optimism that we can still build the future we want.

A little over two months ago, we gathered at Nando’s Putney Kitchen to launch Our Action Plan for the Sustainable Development Goals. There was an amazing energy in the room – it left us feeling like anything was possible. We were finally going to see the year when we could switch-on the SDGs in the UK.

With everything that’s happened since, it’s been hard not to be despondent. And while our focus should of course be on the immediate crisis - fighting this virus and supporting the most vulnerable in our society - it’s hard not to feel the SDGs have dropped off the radar. 

However, with just a quick look at what’s been happening as we rally together, there are signs of hope that we can achieve the SDGs. We have worked together to achieve amazing things in short periods of time, and though the pressure and anxiety isn’t good for us, we should see this experience as a sign of what is possible.  

1. Business shows its social purpose

While many a business will not survive the current crisis, numerous others have rapidly changed what they do in response.

Some of the nations most impacted industries set a precedent, like the massive food redistribution efforts when restaurants and pubs were forced to close. Then came a flurry of new products from surprising sources, including Brewdog’s Punk Sanitiser or Burberry’s research into a COVID-19 vaccine.

Perhaps my favourite example is from the Isle of Harris Distillery which has teamed up with a local fragrance maker and apothecary to make hand sanitiser for island inhabitants. Or, James Fisher & Sons, an offshore oil and gas services company who have started to make breathing support ventilators.

Businesses have stepped up to help the country. And while for some it’s a question of survival, there seems to be a genuine spirit of doing what we can to make a difference. The rapid shifts of product lines, development of new technologies or deployment of staff in new roles are a sign that business can have a social purpose at the toughest of times.  

2. Community power – a force to be reckoned with

It’s been a long time since the country has felt in any way united. Brexit seemed to tear us apart and it feels like COVID-19 might be helping us unite – at least in the short-term anyway.

The emotional scenes of clapping for the NHS and key workers, the acts of kindness like rainbows in windows and perhaps the most impressive – the informal and formal mutual aid volunteers – have built a spirit of camaraderie in communities which has been missing for a while. In his 2017 book, Out of the wreckage, George Monbiot linked the social discontent of recent years with the competitive and individualist society we now live in. Our communities have responded to COVID-19 by showing that this doesn’t have to be the case.

I, for one, have taken Monbiot’s suggestions on board in recent weeks: Through my roads informal support group I’ve got to know more of my neighbours virtually than in the preceding 3 years, and am now looking forward to our much-anticipated street party when this is all over.

Sincerely though, the power that our communities have shown in the last month is a force to be reckoned with. If we want a fairer and more just society then long may it continue.

3. Changing the way we do… well, everything

I don’t want to spout all the ‘nature is healing’ hyperbole we’ve been seeing online. Yes, we’ve seen a rapid drop in emissions, air pollution levels have fallen and we might get more wildflowers on our verges, but much of this is likely to be short-lived unless we put in place the right mechanisms before we get back to “normal”.

But we have had to change almost everything we do.

And there are benefits of this, whether it’s spending more time with our families because we don’t have to commute (or are now teachers and full-time caterers), making our food last for longer or learning new ways to work.

It’s vitally important we remember that many of us are in a position of privilege, that there are very many negative consequences and that more than ever COVID-19 is reinforcing the inequalities and disadvantage the SDGs highlighted in our review of the UK in 2018. But it’s also important we reflect on the changes we’ve each made in our lives and what we can take forward into the “new normal”. 

For me, I will be trying to bring better balance into my life and sustain my more frugal and efficient use of food.

There’s a long way to go until this is over. We’re going to need radical and transformational action if we’re to recover let alone to “build back better”. The SDGs are the framework to help us do that and what we’re seeing now can give us reasons to be optimistic that we can achieve them.

If you do feel like it’s time to start thinking about a better future – the future the SDGs can help us achieve – please join us.