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Looking Back on the Green COVID Recovery: The Just Transition to a Regenerative Circular Economy

The Circular Economy Lab asked students at Oxford University to imagine what the future might look like if we embraced a green, equitable recovery to the COVID-19 pandemic. Here’s an insight into the world they envisioned.

It’s amazing to think how much has changed. When the pandemic arrived, inequality in its many forms was laid bare. When people’s wellbeing became the subject of global headlines for a whole year, we started to observe and reflect more widely on where beings were not well within our systems. When it became crystal clear we all breathe the same air, we looked at how we could make that air cleaner and safer for everyone.

In 2020, people rallied together to simultaneously address the crises of climate change, inequality and racial injustice. The wave began with the intersection of COVID-19 with the Black Lives Matter movement, which sparked a social and ecological transformation. So, what’s happened since then?

We examined how we related to one another, and a movement of solidarity and community was forged in the crucible of these crises. We are no longer socially distant from one another; in fact, we are closer than ever. We’ve slowed down; taking more time to value things we used to take for granted, like quality time with our friends and family. We became dependable and dependent, supporting our neighbours and community. But beyond that, shorter working hours have freed us up to volunteer in our community and with Mutual Aid groups, like my shifts at the community centre. We also have more time to capture our feelings and create art, and poetry and music.

This emphasis on ‘moving slower’ goes beyond how we interrelate, as people physically walk more, encouraged by our shift to centring pedestrians and cyclists in our cities. High-speed zero-carbon trains and hydrogen buses make our cities and rural spaces accessible to everyone, at prices we can all afford. Differently abled people move with greater ease, because systems are designed with everyone in mind.

Equity is a key feature not only of transport but of all public services, and of society in general. All people are paid a fair, living wage and the wealthy finally agreed to pay their fair share in taxes back to society. Inequality levels have fallen exponentially. This means people have more disposable income: however, with closer community bonds, there is less of a focus on consumption, and the sharing economy has grown in leaps and bounds. Which reminds me, I need to drop by my community tool-sharing co-op this afternoon: I need to borrow a hammer! It used to be the library but we’ve since expanded to hold all kinds of ways to learn, and the tools we need.

This spirit of sharing, support and equity has made their way into our schools and universities too. Education has changed the way we view the world. My class today started like it always does: with a group check-in, where we explain how we are feeling and hold space to be vulnerable with one another. This is especially important after recognizing that loneliness can affect people of all ages, and creating authentic community is important. In all classrooms, we take time to identify dominant knowledge systems and their implications, immerse ourselves in different worldviews and explore different ways of learning. Today, in my economics course teaching circularity, we looked back on the days of the take-make-dispose model, and discussed the importance of finding value in ‘waste’. I can’t believe the things people used to throw away!

This shift in how and what we learn encouraged a shift in the opportunities we seek out after education. My friends and I are looking for jobs that will sustain us financially but also provide fulfilment and joy. This trend has grown in strength, as has our respect and value for the jobs that kept our society up and running during the COVID-19 pandemic. These vital parts of the economy are no longer under-funded and under-staffed. The Green COVID Recovery created loads of new jobs and opportunities to re-train, like my brother – who has become a recycling officer, and my mum – who used to work for the oil and gas industry, and now works in green energy. Unions banded together and asked for training to support a just transition, and the government invested in our futures by making sure that a green transition did not leave anyone behind. These fit into a circular, sustainable economy, which means the jobs are sustainable too – a huge relief for my mum after the big move away from fossil fuels.

Among those professions that experienced immense difficulty and gained newfound appreciation during the pandemic, were farmers. This stimulated a change in how we relate to what we eat, as governments realised the precarity of our food systems. Inequality and environmental issues related to food became a key agenda item and we have made progress. These vegetables in my lunch were grown in my garden: I learned how to care for and create a system where something could thrive. Local food systems are embedded in a global network that is mutually beneficial and no longer exploitative: people, society, soils and biodiversity are all valued and sustained through a less wasteful, more regenerative food system.

It’s amazing to think how much has changed and is still changing. Not all changes have been positive: we continue to face the climate crisis, and new challenges have arisen. However, the world we live in now did not come to be by chance . We chose to be daring enough to imagine an alternative future and to grasp the opportunity when it presented itself, at a time when reverting back to ‘normality’ was an easy option, but an unacceptable one. We leaned into the discomfort and the beauty of change, standing in solidarity with one another as we forged a new world together.

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