Last Christmas, I visited my dad in East Kilbride, a Scottish new town with what might be termed an upper working-class population. It boasts a large, modern shopping centre, glittering with glass and chrome, called the Plaza. I was dispatched to the Plaza to pick up some E45 cream for my dad.
Wandering around Boots the chemist at that time of year was like being trapped in an infernal arcade game. It might have been called Spot The Useful Item. It took about ten minutes and the help of an assistant for me to find E45 cream, which is useful if you have eczema, in an avalanche of complete and utter junk, all gift-packaged in marine mammal-assassinating plastic.
Traumatised, I retreated to the book shop for a coffee. But there too: junk. Novelty books that are only produced at Christmas to give people something to give to other people who almost certainly won’t read them. And in the café, biscuits and cakes that were too big and too sweet. Likewise, the coffee.
I decided to go home, but it took a while to get out. The main thoroughfare was rammed with people, many of them overweight, wrestling bags of junk. This is not to be snobbish about the town I grew up in. Where I live now is certainly no better. But you notice things more when you go somewhere else – especially if it is somewhere you once knew very well.
I came away wondering what we were doing to ourselves. Eating junk. Buying junk. And junking the planet.
That was then. This is now.
Now we have coronavirus. There is nothing like having a deadly virus in your midst to make you realise what matters.
Things I have completely lost interest in over the past few weeks include Brexit, identity politics and my friend’s divorce. Instead, I am obsessively interested in my dad’s health, the state of our store cupboard and the return of another friend’s daughter from Malawi. In other words, friends and family and the necessities of life. Food. Shelter. Healthcare.
It must be strange to be mega-rich at a time like this. Private jets. Luxury yachts. Expensive jewellery. All junk if you can’t go anywhere. Gaël Combes, head of fundamental research equities at Unigestion, has said that this is a wake-up call and it surely is. Our daily lives have changed beyond all recognition, and already the planet is feeling better. The water in Venice is clear again. After the lockdown in China, the atmosphere above the country appeared virtually clean of nitrous oxide in satellite images.
In investment, we talk about the importance of fundamentals. Many of the fund managers who contributed to this issue’s piece on US equities said that finding companies with good fundamentals would be the way to navigate through this crisis.
That is true. But we need to consider some other fundamentals too. Like what is fundamentally important in life. How we can invest in a way that respects those fundamentals.
Coronavirus has cut global emissions faster than years of international negotiations on climate change. I don’t want to suggest that it’s a message from the gods, but if we are to emerge from this crisis wiser, we should look on it as a warning.
“What I think is unlikely to change is our desire to consume and travel,” says Combes. That’s probably true, but we need to think about how we can balance that with preserving our planet. That requires both individual and collective responsibility. Above all, we need to recognise that what is individually rational isn’t always collectively rational. And so, we need to junk the junk.
By Fiona Rintoul, editor-at-large at Funds Europe
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