What COVID-19 is telling us about the nature of business

Before COVID-19, out of control wildfires hit the headlines in the USA. A consequence of climate change, these charcoaled landscapes are a stark reminder that our economic system is unsustainable

As our Earth runs a fever, news stories were replaced with the more immediate threat of COVID-19. 

Two natural disasters. What parallels can be drawn between them?

In this article, I compare virus activity to economic activity and ask the question: What is nature telling us? And can we learn from the nature of a virus like COVID-19, to help solve our ongoing and increasingly prevalent environmental crises? 

The nature of viruses

A virus is a tiny infectious agent, a cluster of molecules, from proteins to their coding genes. Viruses have no consciousness. No respiratory system. No nervous system. Nothing to depict them as living

Medical examination of the Coronavirus. Source

On infecting animal (or plant) cells, the virus uses the resources of the host to produce more viruses, often, but not always, damaging the host

This is the nature of the virus. 

The nature of economic activity 

Just as a virus uses the host cell’s resources, economic activity uses the Earth’s resources. In this sense, Earth is the host for us humans. 

The metaphor of the Earth as an organism was first postulated by James Lovelock in his book Gaia. To compare the nature of a virus to the nature of human economic activity, I will use this metaphor.

If the Earth is attacked – just as a cell is attacked by a virus – the Earth will fight back. Not through conscious intent, but by the nature of the Earth’s delicately balanced systems. 

For instance, the removal of natural forests to make way for crop monocultures results in pest outbreaks. Pest outbreaks destroy those crops, making way for the systems to revert back to their original diverse and rich forest ecosystems.

Source

Using the theory of Gaia, you can see how the Earth playing host to humans can be compared to a cell host of a virus.

If Earth is our host, then we and our economic activity can be similar to the virus. 

Drawing this parallel, what can we learn? If we are the virus, then what distinguishes a successful virus from an unsuccessful virus?

COVID-19 might be thought of as a successful virus because of its impact, however, our response, both bodily, behaviorally, and technologically will eliminate COVID-19 in time. COVID-19 will, in all probability, eventually become extinct; just like Smallpox and the Black Death.

The most successful viruses are the ones that co-exist with the host, causing insignificant damage or even benefiting the host. No immune response is provoked. No social distancing is enforced. No vaccine is required. 

If then, the Earth is a host to humans, for us to be successful we have to act like a successful virus. We cannot damage our host. We have to learn to co-exist.

Question: How can our economic system co-exist with the needs of our host, the Earth

Answer: Through the discipline of economic sustainability.

Incorporating economically sustainable practices to co-exist with our host, Earth

Economic sustainability aims to meet the needs of the economy indefinitely without compromising social and environmental needs. 

Economic sustainability is part of the wider discipline of business sustainability. Business sustainability moves away from Milton Friedman’s stakeholder theory – where a company is stated to be beholden to its stakeholders – and looks at a business in a more holistic light, taking into account environmental and social attributes. 

Source

Of most relevance to this article are the economic and environmental pillars of sustainability. By comparing the workings of a virus to human economic activity, we understand that, for success, we have to work with our host, the Earth, and its environment. 

That is, our economy must support environmental needs. 

How can a business do this?

Methods to improve business sustainability are exhaustive. A good practical approach is the Integrated Management Systems approach to sustainability. This approach involves the continual assessment and improvement of business processes, integrating sustainability into the very fabric of an organization. 

Below I have illustrated a summary of how an Integrated Management Systems approach to sustainability works.

  • Plan stage 1 – Document your business processes: First you need to document your business processes.
  • Plan stage 2 – Assess your business processes: Continually assess each business process, critically analyzing operations against sustainability values and needs. Guidelines such as ISO 14001 or GRI standards are vital for this step. 
  • Plan stage 3 – Identify the gap: Compare your actual performance with the desired performance.
  • Do – Improve your business processes: Make the alterations needed to your business processes to close the gap between sustainability needs and your actual performance. These alterations should be intertwined within your business processes taking the Integrated Management Systems approach.
  • Test – Observe the success of the alterations made: Check your processes against intended outcomes. Are the changes producing the desired results? Have new problems arisen with the alterations made?
  • Act – Audit and improve your processes: Identify new gaps or previous gaps that have not yet closed. Plan to address any sustainability goals not reached. Repeat the process.

To be successful, businesses must meet the needs of our host, Earth

Comparing viral impacts on the host cell to economic impacts on our planet brings forth the conclusion: For our economy to survive and flourish, we must learn to coexist with our host, Earth.

To do this, we need to prioritize the implementation of business sustainability, and design our businesses with a core aim; to continuously optimize and improve, to meet the needs of our planet.

We no longer have the luxury to solely focus on the economic needs of business – we must also consider green business solutions. And through innovation, behavioral change, adaption, and positive advancement, businesses across the globe can become more sustainable and thus truly successful.

Tellus Blog: Jane Courtnell

September 2020

Do you agree?  Tell us what you think – email: tellus@whatcanyoudo.earth

“tellus” is a Latin word meaning “Earth” e.g. Tellus Mater the ancient Roman Earth Mother Goddess

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