Well, 2020 will probably remain in our memories as something rather different. Unlike most commentators, I would not refer to it as “unprecedented”. It is a great word, though. It makes one sound like an expert. Since nobody can know everything on any particular subject, I do not know what an expert is, really. Although there have been many inconveniences during this year, I believe that previous events such the Black Death, the Spanish flu, both world wars and, any war really, have been much worse than this. So, there have been precedents. For all the crises and drama that has occurred, there is always something to learn from it. Here follow some of what struck me the most.
Since my primary focus is on food and agriculture, the first reaction I noticed was that even in countries of plenty, people felt food insecure as all the panic buying and hoarding showed. They were afraid of shortages, while there was absolutely no reason to think that way. At no point in time, was there any food shortage. Empty shelves in stores were the result of the hoarding that messed the normal smooth supply chain planning. Of course, these unexpected disruptions sent shock waves through the system and it needed some time to adjust, and it eventually did. The system adapted and the disaster scenarios did not happen, simply because they had no reason to occur.
The ability to adapt is another lesson from this year. Adapting is not new. It has been our way of life and an absolute necessity since the beginning. What I noticed is that many small businesses were much more agile and much faster to adapt than the heavier multi-layer organizations. In particular, food retailers have been lagging and still are. In particular, I think that it would only make sense for online sales, pick-up and home delivery to stay and grow further. They have some work to do in that area. They could reshape their activities in such better ways than today’s model but I think their problem is that they do not think like consumers, which is rather ironic for retailers. If businesses adapted rather quickly and in a rather disciplined manner, I cannot quite say the same about consumers who seemed to have a hard time to accept rather soft disruptions and making slight sacrifices. What I also found remarkable was the lack of structured strategy from about all levels of society. The main theme seems to have been knee-jerking, and that is for those who really had a strategy at all. My area of business also adapted. Conferences and speaking engagements moved to a virtual format. I thought that was gone but 2020 turned out in line with previous years in that area.
At the beginning of this post, I was mentioning experts. Everyone seems to have become a Covid expert. I have read and watched so many opinions about the future after Covid-19. It is amazing how quickly we get to have all sorts of extrapolations about something we know almost nothing. The future of work and the total reshuffle of food systems seem to have been rather popular. Yes, people have worked remotely and organizations have accommodated that because there was not much choice. But is that really a trend? What I see is that many organizations would like to have their staff come back to the office, with perhaps a mix of office presence and remote work, but claiming that remote working is the future is quite a step I will not make. What I see is that a lot of urban professionals would love to work remotely and live on the countryside, in theory. If executives from high-wage countries can perform their jobs remotely, what would be the reason not to move these jobs to people from lower-wage countries. There are many capable and very well-educated people in these countries who could do the work. If remote becomes the standard, those who dream of having the best of both worlds between urban life with high pay and the lifestyle of retirees might end up being just retired and unemployed. Be careful what you wish for. As for a total redesign of food supply chains, if there has been some talk about it, although that has faded as food producers made the proper adjustments, I do not see any significant action. There is some very locally, often for PR and marketing purposes but it does not go far. There is a simple reason for that: the farms and the farmers are just not there anymore near large consumption centres. The arable land has been paved and the land is too expensive. Dreaming is nice but we do not live in village scale anymore and we are talking about serious volumes that have to be produced. Further, about the topic of change, what clearly shows is that a lot of people just want to go back to where things were before the pandemic, with perhaps some minor adjustment, but priority number one seems to be leisure and breakaways with friends.
Crises always get the best and the worst out of people and the Covid-19 crisis is no exception. There has been lots of mutual support between individuals, but also some serious examples of selfishness. We have heard a lot about rights and freedom from the crowds, much less so on their duties and responsibilities. In my second book, I had a passage about humans looking at themselves more as legal entities than as biological entities. There have been many examples of this. Covid-19 is a biological event, and the legal decorum has no grip on any virus. The crowds were angry. Of course, there is always anger when there is change because when there is change, there is loss, but some really got over the top. For example here in British Columbia, there have been quite a few cases of customers insulting store staff and health care workers as well. People spat on store clerks because they were asked to put a mask on, or even assaulting and beating up staff for the same reason as it happened in a Wal-Mart store. Racial prejudice also came to the surface really quickly. Civilization is only skin-deep, and there are quite a few folks out there with a really thin skin. Of course, when some leaders enable this kind of moronic behavior, it should not be a surprise that followers follow.
Generosity, as usual, has not always been the come from the wealthiest. Since I am talking about money, one has to agree that all of a sudden, there has been plenty of money made available, as if it actually grew on trees. I am not too sure where it came from, how we will repay it and if the proper amounts have been distributed to the proper recipients. Money that before this crisis was lacking, as many programs could not be funded or worse had been cancelled. It is tempting to conclude that the reason why poverty has not been eradicated is simply because we have not had the resolve to get it done. People have been generous, as usual. Yet, the so-called philanthropists (cute euphemism for the Scrooge McDucks) with their billions, not so much. It is surprising considering how much their net worth shot up this year thanks to the solid stock markets, another sign that this crisis has not been all that disastrous. Regarding the wealthy, generosity came mostly from show business and sports personalities. Another example of disturbing priorities is this large Canadian retailer which temporarily had paid their staff a bonus for working in the front line at the beginning of the Covid-19, but ended it as the summer came and restrictions were loosened. Well, they decided not to reinstate this bonus as the virus flared up again since the fall, but in almost the same sentence as they were announcing their refusal to reinstate the bonus, they were also announcing a dividend increase to the shareholders. Very moral. Not.
Technology has been on everybody’s mind as being the solution for all of our problems. Well, technology certainly has helped a great deal during this crisis. It has helped many businesses to survive by bringing in remote working and virtual interaction. Also, it is a great help in speeding up substantially the possibilities to find a vaccine. Just think of the same problem 20 years ago. Things would have been much more difficult by then. Technology is a big part of our future for a better world, but technology alone will not be enough. We also have to rethink our behaviour in many areas if we want to succeed. If we do not make this inner change, technology will not solve much. And there is a lot to think about our behaviour and attitude. Just think at how extreme polarization and division have become, about how the most twisted and idiotic conspiracy theories and alternate reality take root and gain ground. Supposedly, we are the intelligent species, but that means that we must keep this ability to reason and reject nonsense. Responsibility is the ability to respond. Here, I would make the same remark about some leader and the followers I already made above.
Speaking of this leadership, the world moved on and found new directions for the future around the special case of the US. In the agriculture sector, China reoriented its sourcing of commodities to Brazil and Argentina, US farmers needed to get compensated with billions to keep afloat (that’s kind of socialism to rescue people who overwhelmingly vote republican, bit ironic). The Chinese are quite astute people. I am quite baffled by how this country is still looked down by some Western countries that do not seem to realize how much China has changed. It is the same attitude as with Japan in the 1960s and 70s, which saw having these same Western countries being outcompeted in markets, cars in particular, and had to end up learning quality systems from the Japanese. Asian countries and Australia and New Zealand finalize a trade agreement, which is a reworked version of the TPP that the US shot down (or better said, one single American did). These countries no longer consider getting the US, which has a long coast on the Pacific, as being an indispensable partner. The world is moving on, the boat is sailing. Too bad for those who missed it. A cherry on the cake of the poor display we had to witness of the last couple of months. For as much as I love the US, and I really do, I must admit that my head has been hurting lately.
Since, I did not want to write a book on the topic, I will end it here. We have seen human nature express itself perhaps more clearly this year. We have seen the best and the worst. It is nothing new, but adversity always makes the contrast appear more clearly. Even though, Covid-19 has been quite disruptive, for most of us it was manageable with discipline and modest sacrifices. As I wrote in my introduction, I do not see this crisis as “unprecedented”, but I am pretty sure that we will face much worse ones. In particular, if we do not decisively take action to curb the effects of climate change, 2020 will look like a year in heaven in comparison. For those who had a hard time to accept wearing mask or just keeping distance, I believe that they will lose it completely when the serious problems take place. Just look at 2020 as being a gentle signal from Mother Nature. It was just a dry run to see how prepared we were to face much tougher challenges. I guess it has been pretty obvious that we are not prepared one bit. In my second book (We Will Reap What We Sow) that I mentioned earlier, I also had a passage in which I warned that Nature does not do politics, does not do PR and does not care if we are part of it or not. The dinosaurs went extinct, but the universe did not freeze because of that. Actually it processed the dead reptiles into fossil fuels, which we use to possibly repeat history. Since the time I published the book, some new concepts have developed and I should add that Nature does not do conspiracy theories, does not function in an alternative physics, either. The choice of our future is ours. We can succeed or we can fail. It truly is a case of We Will Reap What We Sow.
Copyright 2020 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.