Interview with Mike Barry

Mike Barry is a leader in sustainable change. As a pioneer of green business he helped develop, launch and implement Marks and Spencer’s Plan A. He talked to me about the impact of the pandemic. Where he sees cause for optimism and why he believes that it may bring us no closer to tackling climate change.

‘The pandemic has made people reflect on what matters’

In consumption based economies we’ve grown up in a 30 to 40 year cycle of neo-liberal globalization.

Peoples’ lives have been defined by chasing and acquiring endless stuff. While these things are never going to go away, the pandemic has made people reflect on what matters in life a little bit more.

Consumption was always going to come under pressure from the climate crisis. There’s simply too many people on the planet for us to live as we do. We’ll have to step back and reflect as to whether globalization 2.0 is as much about stuff as the previous cycle.

The next decade will be far more experiential – in terms of how people spend their money and time. Which isn’t necessarily a good thing.

‘Covid hasn’t effectively changed the trajectory at all’

When it comes to climate change, I’m sceptical if it will change anything. I don’t think we would have been in a dramatically different place today than we would have without Covid.

We were on a steady trajectory before the pandemic – gradually getting a little more concerned and worried. It’s a simple reflection of visibility. The more wildfires or floods you experience, the more tangible it becomes.

At a meta level, Covid hasn’t changed the trajectory at all.

But the interesting thing about Covid is that it’s tested society’s willingness to think about the longer term. Until it happened, there’s been no real-time event like Covid to respond to.

We’ve had to deal with many immediate short term concerns about a health, safety, furlough schemes and the economy. But despite that, concern about the environment and climate has continued on its steady journey.

It’s been a stress test – to see if this concern is deeply ingrained. If people only had a shallow concern about the climate crisis, they would be ignoring it now.

‘At most we reduced total emissions by about 4.5%’

Covid has also stress tested how much we can actually reduce emissions. And it’s frightening. We’ve shut down the global economy for 18 months, and at most we reduced total emissions by about 4.5%.

We’re not traveling as much. But air travel was only 2% of global emissions, compared to the world’s food system, which represents 34% of emissions. And none of us has stopped eating.

So for those who must deliver change, the thought of actually reducing emissions by 45% is quite intimidating.

Covid has had a tremendous impact on society and the economy and changed some of our behaviours – but not enough to make a meaningful dent in emission reductions.

‘There’s no vaccine for the climate crisis.

What we’re doing with the climate crisis is like the experiment of boiling the frog. We’re turning up the temperature and initially not seeing any differences.

The same thing is happening with the climate crisis. Until, for example, Miami is wiped out by mega hurricane, there’s no sense of urgency to respond to it.

That’s what makes the climate crisis so much more difficult to respond to than Covid. We all know that, within reason, Covid could be solved with a jab. But there’s no vaccine for the climate crisis. The systemic reconstruction of every aspect of our lives isn’t simple.

And there’s also large, powerful, economically organized, forces within the existing system who don’t want this change.

‘Who controls this technology will shape the future’

Nothing happens in isolation. We had a technology revolution and climate crisis unfolding anyway.

This ever-deeper immersion of technology in our lives is directly impacting upon our mental health – producing a whole raft of new problems. Covid has been a massive short term accelerator of those mental health problems. And social media inevitably makes the world more neurotic and twitchy.

During the pandemic we’ve seen a steadily increasing aversion to the world of technology. Covid’s shown us that we need these technologies – they’ve enabled us to keep going while locked down in isolation.

But it’s also surfaced who controls them. These tech companies are now worth trillions. Those who control this technology will shape the future.

And it’s on the cusp of a revolution. Now that the people at Facebook are talking about the metaverse we need to better understand how controlling this pervasive technology is. Covid has accelerated this process.

‘More people will have personalized risk factors and solutions’

A big trend in the next decade will be the personalization of healthcare and diet.

We have a medical and adjacent food system that treats us and feeds us as though we are all the same. By the end of the decade we’re going to see some rich countries and rich consumers with personalized diet books built around our specific needs.

More and more people will have personalized risk factors and solutions for them. Covid has accelerated both healthcare and food provision personalization.

‘The rise in the West of anti-democratic forces’

Back in the early 1990s there was a real sense that neoliberal Western capitalism would prevail.

But if we look now at which countries are best able to deal with the climate crisis or Covid on a massive scale, they are the command and control ones. The Chinese government totally shutdown the economy and society to keep society safe.

Again, the rise in the West of anti-democratic forces is putting a real strain on our democratic processes.

‘We’ve got to be hyper-global or hyper-local’

As a global society we’re on a twin track now. We’ve got to be hyper-global or hyper-local, with nothing in between.

People are becoming global digital citizens for economic reasons – as much more of our identity will reflect that we live in, and connect with, people that are open and supportive of global metaphysics.

While for social reasons, we will increasingly identify with members of our local communities. The necessity of being defined as British or English, for example – somewhere in between those two extreme worlds – diminishes.

‘Covid’s forced us to codify a set of solutions’

One of the positives of the pandemic is getting rid of presenteeism. I grew up in a world where you were expected to be in the office.

Covid has enabled us to accept and celebrate a corporate cultural shift to a much more fluid centre.

It’s taught us that you can trust the team to do its job remotely. That you can have really good quality dialogue and discussion.

And it’s surfaced how we work – our purpose, corporate structures and healthcare systems. There’s a lot of positives that we would probably have stumbled across anyway. But Covid’s forced us to codify a set of solutions – it may have taken 7, 8 or 9 years for us to get to where we are now.

So, there are some small to medium size positives. But at a meta level are we going to be a more fair and equal society, and have a more stable planet? I don’t think so.

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