Can people actually change? Can societies actually shift?
These are important questions, because if we’re ever to deal with the climate crisis that hovers over our heads at all times, we’ll have no choice. And they are timely questions, because the response to the coronavirus pandemic has involved more change than most of us have experienced in a lifetime. In a matter of days we found ourselves doing things that would have been hard to imagine when the year began: working from home if we were lucky to still have jobs; plotting our trips to the grocery store with semi-military precision; restricting our circle of contacts to our family; homeschooling our children; washing our hands as intently as Lady Macbeth; conducting all our business via something called Zoom. I’m writing this in early April, and my newspaper says that yesterday the United States’ Transport Security Administration (TSA) checked 94,000 passengers through American airports. The last time 94,000 people flew in a day in the United States? 1954. Meanwhile, Congress each week seems to find a trillion dollars or two to spend on relief and reconstruction, the kind of money heretofore reserved for wars.
There are no “upsides” to a pandemic – hundreds of thousands of people will die before this is over, and hundreds of millions will know a kind of fear and anxiety capable of darkening personalities and clouding lives. But that doesn’t mean that this odd stretch of time, this excursion from normality, can’t provide insights. Indeed, considering the level of hardship our societies are enduring, it would be tragic if we didn’t emerge a little more enlightened. The chief insight, perhaps, is that we really are capable of change. With plenty of knuckle-headed exceptions, Americans have done what is necessary, even if it meant turning their lives upside down.
So now the next question is, can any of that change be lasting?
Many things, obviously, should return to normal. We want to be able to hug each other, sit down together with friends at dinner, and head to church on Sunday mornings. We want to take off the masks and gloves, we want to watch a ball game. Those are entirely innocent human pleasures – indeed, I wonder if we won’t enjoy these things considerably more now that they’ve been denied us. Americans, if we tell the truth, have been “social distancing” for decades now, retreating ever further behind the phalanx of screens that now dominate our lives. Perhaps this new, mandatory regime will wake us up from that particular enchantment, and when we’re released from detention we’ll find ourselves tending towards a new gregariousness. This, of course, would be a good thing for many reasons, including environmental ones: if there’s one thing that might deflect us from our current ruinous climate course, it would be discovering that we liked hanging out with our neighbors at least as much as we liked buying stuff. One can hope.
If there’s one thing that might deflect us from our current ruinous climate course, it would be discovering that we liked hanging out with our neighbors at least as much as we liked buying stuff.
And one can hope that in those cities where the sky is suddenly clear and blue, people might decide that they’d like to keep it that way instead of reverting immediately to the previous haziness. City streets have room for people to walk and bike because cars are largely absent. In India, urban dwellers can now see the Himalayas for the first time in generations. In many places, as lights have dimmed, the night sky has brightened. In some sense, we’ve time-traveled back a century or two, to a time when our economies were much smaller. That’s petrifying, but it also re-establishes a baseline. Suddenly we can quite literally see the price that our progress has required.
We might also, therefore, be able to see some different ways forward. Take that strange Zoom thing we’ve all been using to communicate, the heads popping up out of the ether, the cats and children occasionally wandering by the camera. We’re testing an idea – telecommuting – that until March of this year had seemed kind of fringe and odd; I expect many people will find it works just fine. That’s one reason some analysts are predicting we may have hit peak petroleum consumption, and that our thirst for oil will now recede. Academic conferences and sales conventions are being held over the internet; again, we can hope that people will figure out it’s entirely possible to travel via fiber-optic cable, not jet. People are learning to cook again, and in many households, family dinner is taking on the central role it had lost in a world of overscheduled kids and overworked parents. Maybe that will linger.
None of this is automatic or guaranteed. The easiest, likeliest outcome would be to slip back to normal. And the big changes we need simply can’t come from individual actions alone; we also need big structural shifts in our politics and economies.
But maybe now those are possible, too. Everyone has had to reckon with the fact that many of the people keeping our societies together – people stocking supermarket shelves and delivering groceries to front doors – are poorly paid and insecure, lacking even the health insurance necessary to keep them safe. Surely this will be a goad to build nations that take everyone seriously. And we’ve had to reckon, too, with the pathetic sight of national leaders, not least ours in the United States, trying to spin a microbe: declaring that it was just the flu, or that it would go away soon. Maybe, just maybe, this moment will be enough to get us to sober up in our politics, to stop indulging our prejudices and fears.
That sobering up would allow us to look our various dilemmas straight in the face. If you can’t intimidate or negotiate with the coronavirus microbe, the same goes for the carbon dioxide molecule. These two small but powerful forces set the limits: one says you have to stand six feet apart; the other says you have to stop burning coal and gas and oil and start building solar panels and wind turbines instead. Physical reality actually turns out to matter; it can’t be forced to compromise.
And if that recognition set in, it would be very good news, because the challenges we will face in the decades ahead are almost certainly even greater than the ones we face now. We have to stay in our apartments for the moment – but if the sea keeps rising, we’ll have to abandon our apartments. We have to line up for groceries – but if the air keeps heating up, the day may come when groceries are few and far between.
The challenges that we will face in the decades ahead are almost certainly even greater than the ones we face now.
Our biggest habits are hardest to break: the addiction, for instance, to growth. We’ve spent so long fixated on the idea that it’s the only real reason for our existence that it’s hard to remember other possibilities. Our government, even in the middle of a crisis, continues to cut environmental regulations, all in the name of a more vigorous economy. But there’s a limit to what “more” can provide: in fact, it was our unwillingness to disrupt our economy early in this saga that led to the far greater disruptions we now face. Maybe we’ll come to appreciate sturdiness as much as speed.
Conversion, as any preacher will tell you, is hard: the attitudes of a lifetime are hard to slough off, for a person or a civilization. This crisis will be a test of that proposition. No single thing in our lifetimes has altered our daily routines and our psyches as this pandemic has. Is it enough to leave us different, or will we pick up where we left off?