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  • Writer's picturePhil

An opportunity missed?

This time last year I was full of hope.

Covid was wreaking havoc. Lives were being lost to the disease. Livelihoods were being lost to the lockdown. Many people were suffering horribly from the direct and indirect consequences of the pandemic. But that huge shock to our system was opening up new insights and new opportunities.

On the world stage even Emmanuel Macron joined the chorus of high profile voices proclaiming the death of neo-liberalism (or at least of its most egregious anti-statist versions), as the inability of unfettered market forces to address the crisis stood clear for all to see. Anthony Barnett's essay on Open Democracy informed my personal views and sense of hope. Arundhati Roy's framing of the crisis as "a portal, a gateway between one world and the next" captured the spirit of opportunity.

Closer to home, the grounding of flights, lightening of traffic and slowing of manufacturing output led to empty skies and quiet streets where we could suddenly hear the birds singing again. Where we would see our neighbours daily on our "exercise" strolls and trips to the shops on foot. Where kids could cycle safely in the streets. Combined with an uncharacteristically balmy spring here in the UK, this created a sense of possibility, of a biosphere that might not be in the last 1% of its life. And seeing that when needs must we were willing to sacrifice short term economic gain for the greater good, it seemed, we not only could but genuinely would actually do the same to address the massively more existential climate crisis. Even the Conservative government here in the UK seemed to be leaning into that with deeds not just words, pushing the roll out Low Traffic Neighbourhoods in many London boroughs (including my own).

All of this was impacting attitudes to social justice too. The way in which the pandemic left us alone with ourselves and our nearest and dearest forced many people into deep reflection on themselves, the world around them and their role within it. The sense that we were all in it together brought into focus those, often only streets away, whose life circumstances made lockdown near unbearable. Those with big families in tiny, garden-less, homes. Those without a home at all. Those for whom furlough was a vital lifeline. Those whose employers' dodging of their furlough obligations pushed them close to or over the edge into abject poverty.

These realisations seemed to accelerate the compound effects of Extinction Rebellion, Me Too, Times Up and Black Lives Matter on what business leaders were thinking, feeling and doing. Suddenly the many questions of their responsibilities towards society and the environment were no longer being passed off to sidelined D&I and CSR teams and their well intentioned but low impact initiatives. They shot to the top of executive agendas, dominating the dialogue within and about many of the world's leading companies. Every day I seemed to receive another email about the imperative for leaders of seeing and acting on the bigger picture from industry thought leaders like McKinsey.

Fast forward a year and that hope has taken a battering.

Neoliberalism doesn't seem to be going anywhere any time soon. While Boris was probably never as open to the change as his French equivalent, him going full Gordon Gekko on us was still a particularly depressing reminder of the fact that, 9 years years after Picketty provided the data to back up the obviously observable truth that trickle down theory was always a lie, most of our political and business leaders are still true believers, at least in public. Talking of lies in politics, while Biden's presidency presents some hope amidst all this over in the US, the whole-scale roll back of voter rights being driven by Big Lie believing state governments and the fact that his legislative agenda is completely hamstrung by the filibuster and the Democrats' weakest links, it's definitely more hope than expectation.

Across the UK the public spiritedness that saw us all on our door steps clapping for our carers and reclaiming our streets seems to have given way to an even deeper and more cynical self-centred version of little England-ness. For the symptoms of this you need look no further than the backlash against essential attempts to reduce the volume and types of cars on the road that saw locals in my corner of West London marching on the council baying for blood and voting for a misogynistic no hoper in the London Mayoral elections because of his cynical pledges to reverse the ULEZ.

Sadly, ample evidence of this kind of reactionary behaviour can be seen in board rooms too. Not just in the, still rare, cases of leaders going off script on the D&I agenda, but in the much more widespread examples of limiting the scope of change initiatives, keeping them away from the "core" of the business. All of which reduces all these grand promises around stakeholder capitalism to empty virtue signalling. Toothless at best. Actively destructive at worst.

All of which has got me angry and frustrated. I'm getting an unfortunate reputation for ranting, as my family and friends (and any driver foolish enough to close pass or cut up my bike) can attest.

I'm still working out how to channel this righteous indignation into meaningful action, let alone impact. On my good days I do believe that all that's happened over the last 18 months has significantly and permanently shifted the dial. Enlightened political leadership may remain a distant prospect in this country, but everywhere else, from the grass roots to the board room, it seems that not only are the green shoots of hope breaking through, but concrete meaningful actions are being taken. So, alongside the immediate, low key, contributions I make as a husband and father, consultant and coach, I will keep exploring and experimenting. And writing about what I learn here. I'm going to follow Ruby Wax's lead and focus on the good news. Not to be hopelessly optimistic. But to point my energy towards things that I (we?) can do. I've got lots of avenues to explore - from the pages of the Pioneers Post, through the (new found for me) concept of Regenerative Cultures to the actions of so many Year Here alumni and new friends at places like the Forward Institute.

To be continued...

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