The Great Pause

Leaders on leadership

Lindsay Levin

30 March 2020

2020 was meant to be climate’s year. The most important year since the Paris Agreement of 2015, and perhaps ever. The start of the Decisive Decade, when humanity succeeds in halving greenhouse gas emissions and igniting a radical shift towards new regenerative ways of life.

2020 is also personal for me, as one of the co-creators of Countdown, a worldwide movement to find ways to move more rapidly to tackle the climate crisis. All part of a massive ongoing effort by millions of people and thousands of organisations to turn the tide on climate.

Less than three months in, we’ve been hijacked by a virus.

On top of anxiety, fear and grief about the future of the earth, come new waves of anxiety, fear and grief about health and livelihoods. People falling sick, jobs lost, savings wiped out at a dizzying pace. Businesses closed, schools shuttered, weddings cancelled.

This past week, I’ve heard from one friend whose healthy father passed away from COVID-19 a day after being diagnosed (the funeral, which was beautiful, took place on Zoom); and another whose elderly husband is locked down in Rome, whilst she is stuck in London. I’ve spoken to friends in Mumbai, preparing for the consequences of the virus in communities where 6 or 7 people live together in a home of 3 square meters; and another whose newborn grandson is in the ICU, his parents barred from visiting.

And in the climate world, all the meticulous plans for this big year – Climate Week, Countdown, Global Citizen, the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow and so much more – months of hard work and patient building, have been turned on their head as we scramble to find our footing.

Many of us believed the world needed a reset. But this is way harder, way faster, than anything we imagined.

Two nights ago, unable to sleep, I began to grieve. To grieve for so many broken dreams and so much suffering. To make space for my own small sadness, as our work seems to hang in the balance.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler describe the five stages of grief as denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. These are playing out at different speeds and levels of intensity across the globe – a kind of universal experience the like of which we’ve never encountered.

In my case, letting the grief flow means accepting that I have no idea how things will unfold. After a month of running around, working frantically, adapting, redesigning, rallying – the truth is I don’t really know what to do.

I’m not riding the wave, I’m part of it.

Right now, doing my best requires that I hit the pause button. To be blunt, there isn’t really a choice. Big chunks of life everywhere are suspended, waiting for this crisis to pass, wondering what the landscape will look like when it does. Right now, doing my best means pressing pause and listening to the quiet.

“Between stimulus and response there is a space” wrote Viktor Frankl. “In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Perhaps this is the most powerful opportunity that the coronavirus crisis has to offer. A growing appreciation that when we can’t change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.

Our brilliant health workers and scientists will tame COVID-19 in the coming months. The huge outpouring of kindness and neighbourliness unfolding in many parts of the world can change not only how we see one another, but also how we see ourselves. The busyness of getting by in normal life is being over-taken by the busyness of caring for others in many quarters. And amidst this new kind of activity, there comes a pause – a suspension of normality and a glimpse of our own interconnectedness. If one small virus can wreak this much havoc, what business do we have thinking we’re in control of anything much beyond our own personal choices?

So, back to climate. We had plans – many of them. We still do. Vital work, exciting transformation, an abundant, optimistic, regenerative vision for the future that we urgently need to deliver. This is the crisis of our generation, and we must act.

Yet first, we need to pause. To stop and notice as the urgent overwhelms the important. To find the power in this moment of heightened vulnerability and shared humanity and make the best of it.

In the middle of my sleepless night I pictured myself in the future, sitting with a young child. “So, grandma,” she asks. “What did you do in the Great Pause of 2020?”

Turns out this is the question I get to answer this year.

But before I do so, I’ll listen to the newfound quiet of stilled streets and birdsong. And then I’ll choose.

How does your Great Pause look? Let’s come together as a global community and share our #greatpause2020 experience.