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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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Trinity term at Oxford during the pandemic

Tsechu Dolma is a 2019-20 Skoll Scholar on the Oxford MBA. In this blog, Tsechu reflects on completing her final term at Oxford Saïd during the pandemic.

I feel like I have stepped into a new life twice in my life — the first when my family left Nepal amidst the civil war and sought political asylum in the US, and second my Oxford experience.

Sixteen years ago, my family landed in JFK airport New York to seek political asylum in the United States. All of our worldly possessions fit in the cabin luggage. I missed my home and friends dearly, but I was relieved to leave behind the civil war raging in Nepal. Ten and unable to speak English, I could not understand what the Border Control Officer was asking me. Nonetheless, I was excited about the promise and possibilities of starting a new life in the USA.

A year ago, I packed up a suitcase to move from the US to Oxford. I wasn’t fleeing a civil war this time; I was escaping a political climate riddled with poor leadership and backward policies. I felt the same wave of emotions; homesick, excited, and hopeful. Within the first 24 hours, I started feeling at home in the UK – baking, sharing and laughing with my fellow Skoll scholars.

2019-20 Skoll Scholars

It had been almost six years since I was last in a classroom. Once classes started, I felt pretty tech-illiterate. I had spent the previous decade as a development practitioner, deep in the trenches fighting food insecurity, socio-economic disparities, and accessibility in South Asia. I had fallen behind on the rapid technology innovation coming out of universities and Big Tech.

I had heard and read a lot about the AI revolution, and I wanted to understand how it could impact my community in terms of both positive and negative aspects. I would have a significant learning curve, but equally, I knew that I could leverage the vast networks of expertise at Oxford. Every student group and department from Oxford Foundry to Women in Business were buzzing about startups, technology, and social impact.

Similar to when I first learned English after moving to the US, I learned tech-speak at Oxford. I learned to code and manage technology business. In particular, I reached out to researchers at the Autonomous Intelligent Machines and Systems (AIMS) program, under the engineering department and served as a research assistant. I worked hard quickly to grasp the nuances of AI and its applications to society, in addition to my MBA coursework. I have had the opportunity to work on several projects that address the intersections of AI, equity, and inclusion for all.

In March 2020, switching to a virtual work environment was a struggle for me when it seemed like the community I had worked so hard to build since September 2019 was disintegrating by COVID-19, and I left the UK in a panic. After months now, my community has sprung back stronger than ever before. I feel bittersweet ending my scholarship year at Oxford amid this global tragedy, leaving this nurturing home at Saïd to enter a world in turmoil. Nevertheless, these are precisely the challenges the Skoll Centre and the MBA has well-prepared me to tackle. I will be fighting alongside my peers for a more racially equitable, inclusive, and sustainable future for all.

Author: Tsechu Dolma, 2019-20 Skoll Scholar and Oxford MBA.