Time to Switch

In a gentle way, the title of Naomi Klein’s book ‘This Changes Everything’ reminds us that everything must change. But changing course is hard in a strong headwind. To make the change less painful it is best to wait until wind drops.

The recent interruption to commercial activities caused by the COVID-19 virus is a rare moment of stillness. It is an opportunity for many of us to think creatively about the bigger existential challenges facing us. If we can dare to imagine better futures, this would be a perfect time to switch to a healthier lifestyle paradigm.

Right now, it is hard to find news of the 2020 COP26 climate change conference because the Coronavirus stories take precedent.

A couple of years ago, all conversations in the UK were about Brexit. Discussions became so intense that other topics (e.g. the end of the world) could not be heard above the shouting. Finally, we resolved the debate by tearing up our EU tariffs and deciding to trade with countries on the other side of the planet, rather than with our closest neighbours. Unfortunately, we never hear politicians or journalists reminding us that our economic policies are part of the cause of pandemics, extinctions, famines, and pestilences.

It is clear that the current pandemic is causing fear, food shortages and some fatalities, but it is too early to foresee whether it will reduce, or improve, the Earth’s carrying capacity – i.e. its potential to support current populations. Complex systems have a habit of sorting themselves out in surprising ways. Draconian quarantine measures imposed in China have already improved the air quality. After only a few weeks without diesel-powered boats and cruise liners, there are unconfirmed reports of dolphins venturing up the canals in Venice. The locals can certainly see fish that had been concealed by pollution.

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 It was always on the cards that cheap, high speed travel would trigger a global pandemic. The fact that COVID-19 is closing airports and forcing airlines into liquidation is a rare opportunity to change course with the minimum effort. It is the perfect time to remind ourselves that our boom-and-waste economy has passed its ‘best-by’ date and is now ‘hazardous’, medically speaking.

Before the Corona virus took hold, ‘money rich’ and ‘time poor’ workers could recover from a ‘burn-out’ with an excursion overseas.

By awarding loyalty points and air miles to those who least needed them, airlines turned adventures into routines. By using our taxes to hide the real cost of flying, governments made these routines accessible to all.

Flying is a wondrous technological trick but, ultimately, it flattens the difference between one moment and the next. Similarly, commuting to work guarantees that we spend several hours per day away neither working, nor relaxing. When we speed up these journeys we also shrink distances and alienate ourselves from the landscape between home and office. Ultimately, these routines erode our collective sense of wonderment. Governments should use this moment to sponsor what Greta Thunberg calls ‘cathedral thinking’ and a de-centralisation of the economy.

Growing more food locally and organising community-build projects would make our economy more resilient. We would waste less time, have more fun and stay healthier with policies that encourage a global diversity-of-diversities.

Although we have known for a long time that lifestyle changes must come, vested interests have cunningly left us dithering. Communities can start the process of ‘switching’ by imagining how they want to live, in the future. When a caterpillar glimpses a butterfly, can it visualise its future being as a creature with wings? Does it see ‘caterpillar-ness’, or ‘butterfly-ness’ in the butterfly? I do not have informed answers, but the question is helpful. Presumably, caterpillars do not need to believe that it will acquire wings, or to plan for a new life above the cabbages. But human societies are different. Our first step should be to use the imagined reality of our intended futures to ‘re-language’ the present.

Bhartrihari was a 5th century grammarian who argued that our ‘reality’ is made possible by language. By changing paradigms in the language we change what is ‘thinkable’. In the world of the hammer, as they say, everything looks like a nail. In the ‘time and money’ paradigm, assets are discrete ‘things’ that must be extracted, quantified and priced. A good thought experiment is to reimagine the world as fields of relations, differences, qualities and synergies. Those with long-established vested interests in the granular world of numbers and units will find it more difficult to fathom the switch. The rest of us must persist in turning ‘unthinkables’ into ‘possibles’. Until recently, it was ‘unthinkable’ to be asked to stay away from school, college, and work. Today, this enforced interruption is upon us. We can see it as an opportunity to turn ‘unthinkables’ into ‘possibles’. Let us start to make the switch right NOW.

Read more of John Wood’s articles in Sublime


• Di Marco, M., Baker, M. L., Daszak, P., De Barro, P., Eskew, E. A., Godde, C. M., … & Karesh, W. B. (2020). Opinion: Sustainable development must account for pandemic risk. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117(8), 3888-3892. Read more
• Klein, N. (2015). This changes everything: Capitalism vs. the climate. Simon and Schuster. Read more
• Visit the Metadesigners website
• Wood, J., (2007), “Designing for Micro-utopias; thinking beyond the possible”, (Commissioning Editor, Professor Rachel Cooper), Ashgate, UK, ISBN 0-7546-4608-4, (222 pages) Read more
• Wood, J., (2013), “Metadesigning Paradigm Change: an ecomimetic, language-centred approach”, a chapter in Handbook of Design for Sustainability, edited by Stuart Walker & Jacques Giroud (Berg), 2013 Read more
• Wood, J., (2015), “Collective Metamorphosis; a combinatorial approach to self-transformation”, a chapter for Transformation Design (ed. Wolfgang Jonas), BIRD (Board of International Research in Design, BIRKHÄUSER). Read more