So many headlines scream that 'this changes everything' or 'we can't go back' or 'normal is over.' Sure, four decades of neoliberalism have left us in a real mess. This pandemic, enormous as it appears, a viral Sword of Damocles hanging over everyone's head, isn't the only and certainly not the most dangerous threat we're facing. Think of it as Peril 101, Introduction to a Challenging Century.
Covid-19 will teach us many things. We will explore the pitfalls of the global economy. We will test the limits of our government and how, when we need it to boldly lead it instead lags and follows timidly. In the third part of the class we get to the really good stuff - you. Well, you and me, us.
We talk a good game. Everything must change. We can't go on like this. Look where all of this has gotten us! We deserve better.
Yeah, sure. If you share those sentiments, ask how such fundamental change is going to happen? Who are the agents of change? What would this widely heralded change look like?
What if we emerge from the pandemic with little appetite for the uncertainty and dislocation that change carries? What if we just want to go back?
The definition of “normal” might be hard to pin down, but its function is pretty clear: normal is safe. It’s familiar. In the aftermath of the devastation of World War One, Warren Harding’s presidential campaign promise was simple: “America's present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy.” Harding knew Americans wanted to get back to life as they knew it before war disrupted the flows and rhythms of their daily lives. He understood that in the face of fear, people long to go back to a time before the fear set in. His rhetoric connected with the public, which voted him into the White House on 2 November 1920.What if, by the time this pandemic passes and government sounds the 'all clear' what we're doing now has become our new normal? What if there is no normal?
The biggest engine of change is us, humanity. In the postwar era we have gone from under 2.5 billion to now closing in on 8 billion and, in the minds of some, heading to 10 billion, perhaps more. Humanity's footprint has come at a cost that has been borne, wherever possible, by other species. Since the Reagan-Thatcher era the overall populations of both terrestrial and marine creatures have plummeted by half and more. As our numbers metastasized, we deprived other species of the habitat and resources needed to support their former populations. As Joni Mitchell sang in 1970, "they paved Paradise to put up a parking lot." We have transformed life on Earth for all living creatures and, along the way, our sense of normal became exceedingly flexible.
We don't process normalcy very well. It's not human nature. It took humanity thousands of years to first reach a billion in population. For centuries you could expect to live and die as your grandparents did and as their grandparents did. You could expect to earn what they got paid. Life was short, often brutal, but it was predictable. You didn't have to worry much about change. Resource exhaustion, global warming, ocean acidification, deforestation, desertification, the collapse of global fisheries - those have been added to the human agenda only recently.
How did we not notice the end of normalcy as a guiding force? UCLA prof, Jared Diamond,
"Perhaps the commonest circumstance under which societies fail to perceive a problem is when it takes the form of a slow trend concealed by wide up-and-down fluctuations. The prime example in modern times is global warming. ...as we all know, climate fluctuates up and down erratically from year to year. ...With such large and unpredictable fluctuations, it has taken a long time to discern the average upwards trend of 0.01 degree per year within that noisy signal.
"Politicians use the term "creeping normalcy" to refer to such slow trends concealed within noisy fluctuations. If the economy, schools, traffic congestion, or anything else is deteriorating only slowly, it's difficult to recognize that each successive year is on the average slightly worse than the year before. It may take a few decades of a long sequence of such slight year-to-year changes before people realize, with a jolt, that conditions used to be much better several decades ago.
"Another term related to creeping normalcy is "landscape amnesia"; forgetting how different the surrounding landscape looked 50-years ago, because the change from year to year has been so gradual."Creeping normalcy, landscape amnesia - that's human nature honed over thousands of years. If you had been in a coma for decades and came to with a grasp of normalcy pegged to, say, 1970, you might want to go back into that coma. The world of 2020 would appear a mysterious, scary and dangerous place indeed. We have no sense of that mainly because the world of 1970 holds no reality for us. We carry no awareness of the gains and losses, no metrics by which to gauge our condition.
Yes, we desperately need another Enlightenment, a reformation, a renaissance but it's not in the cards. No one is going to offer it and few, if any, will demand it. Even if it's just getting back to the Thursday night bowling league, we'll settle.