In 1990 American director John Guare brought a new play to the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre in Manhattan. Six Degrees of Separation follows the exploits of a conman who gains the trust of wealthy New Yorkers by convincing them he is the son of Sidney Poitier. As the lie grows bigger the fraudster exploits the close social linkages that bind a seemingly disparate city together.
Guare was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and New York was forced to confront a potentially uncomfortable reality. You are never more than six handshakes away from anyone on Earth.
Covid-19 has put in stark focus how small our world really is. From farmers in the hills of Lombardy, to traders tearing their hair out on Wall Street, mankind is facing up to a challenge that transcends language, culture and geography. The struggles of office workers in central China’s Hubei province have become those of critical care doctors in Tehran. Governments in liberal democracies and dictatorships alike have turned their attentions to a common enemy.
The world can be forgiven for not looking far beyond the grave practical challenges of the here and now. How can we get enough ventilators to support the thousands of people who arrive at hospital presenting severe symptoms? How can we do right by our families when a visit to our elderly parents and grandparents could put them at risk? How can we protect thousands of businesses less than 30 days from bankruptcy?
The real time for deep soul-searching will come after Covid-19 has been beaten. But being holed up for months on end is set to give us the time and space to think we have lusted over for years.
There will never be a silver lining to Covid-19. But I passionately believe the collective trauma will make clear something that has been staring us in the face for decades. When it comes to people and planet – we are all connected.
When you ignore well-reasoned advice from top health experts you put at risk the lives of people you’ve never met. When you walk past the homeless man on the street without a sideways glance you are diminishing the society in which you live. When you vote to water down landmark legislation to halt climate change you are depriving people thousands of miles away of a better life. When you ship tonnes of plastic abroad to the world’s poorest people you are delegating your waste problem to them. When you create shareholder value at the expense of the planet you deprive yourself of a most basic humanity.
The world has never been more connected. In good times and bad – what we do today will change the lives of others tomorrow. When Covid-19 has been beaten we must resist the urge to revert to type. A new way of doing things is possible. One where mankind works with nature rather than against it. One where we take responsibility for the things that we consume rather than delegating that burden to people who cannot speak up. One where we forget the myth that shareholder value is the only thing that matters.
Now more than ever before it’s up to us to realise this vision.
Sian Sutherland is Co-Founder of A Plastic Planet