As a scientist by training and a pragmatist by conviction, Isabelle Autissier is wary of preachings related to the "post-Covid era". According to the former navigator turned president of WWF-France, this ‘era’ will involve a radical and collective change of course. Though daunting, this transformation is within our grasp, thanks to the scale of the global response to the pandemic.
She may have made her name as the first woman to completed a solo world navigation in competition but, as Isabelle Autissier repeats, she is first and foremost a scientist, not a sailor. And it is as a scientist that the former navigator, now a member of the French Economic, Social and Environmental Council, who has been at the helm of WWF in that country France for a decade, talks about the Covid crisis and its effects. She speaks with pragmatism and rationality about a pandemic that, for her, was is not only predictable but also inevitable; the logical consequence of a way of life that, by constantly undermining our "fundamentals", was always destined to see Mother Nature bite back. But the Parisian is not here to tell you “I told you so”. She is a woman who, through years of sailing the oceans, has developed a profound respect for nature. She says humans need to refocus the real priorities, priorities that the imperatives of profit have ended up overshadowing.
Back to basics
“My vision is simple: on this planet there are certain fundamentals – climate, water, oxygen, arable land etc. – from which life flows; and on which life depends. By neglecting the planet, we have ended up destabilizing these fundamentals without which nothing is possible. And in doing so we have created a fertile ground for crises,” says Autissier. Today, she hopes for one thing: “that this Covid crisis, which has taken us all by surprise, even though it really shouldn’t have since UN and IPCC reports warned of this threat as early as 2005, will shed light on this causal link.” Failing to do so, she believes, will lead to more crises. If nothing is done to halt the destructive path humanity is on, the effects will be even more dramatic next time. To avoid such a recurrence and the risk of an event that really does pose a threat to our existence, the 64-year-old does not believe political slogans or righteous promises will be enough. She believes in taking decisive action; preferably quantified and measured.
"The pandemic sparked an outpouring of generosity among world leaders that, a few months ago, one would not have dared to dream of"
"The world beyond this moment in history is not just some button that was pushed on May 11th," she says, referring to the date when France lifted its lockdown. "It's a road to be travelled collectively; a road that must be marked out by dates and numbers and involve a change of course to lead to the emergence of a new economic model." Is this utopian? I do not believe so, no. Not considering the pandemic sparked an outpouring of generosity among world leaders that, a few months ago, one would not have dared to dream of. "Some time ago, we were told that it would be difficult to come up with the $20 billion a year needed to meet our climate commitments," says Autissier. "Today, governments are spending hundreds of billions of dollars to save the economy: this is an opportunity to revive it in a different way." Making ecological imperatives a sine qua non and directing value production towards alternatives for the future, is not she insists, one option among others, but, rather, the only way forward.
Doing things differently
"We know that our current model is unsustainable," she says. "If we don't take advantage of this crisis to try something different, then another crisis will arise, then another, each one leaving us with an ever-increasing ecological and financial debt, and one day society will not be able to fix the problem." In order to avoid catastrophe, Autissier advocates transformation; a transformation that is not subjugated or punitive, but rather one chosen by us and synonymous with progress. "This crisis now gives us the means to finance the transformation of our modes of production, to train people in other professions, to help companies generate value in a different way." She sees this pandemic as "an accelerator of change" and the response it has generated as an opportunity to be seized.
By Caroline Castets
Born to Sail, by E Lyn Foster, is available for download on Amazon Kindle