Back to Normal, Apocalypse, or Hope

Back to Normal, Apocalypse, or Hope

Let’s let go of hoping that things will go back to normal. I don’t mean that we’re doomed to continue with how things are now, whether that’s being in lockdown, coping with a pandemic, or experiencing economic precarity. Rather, this moment of disruption has opened a tremendous range of possible futures, none of which is guaranteed. The new possibilities range from hopeful to dismal. We needn’t be passive victims—our choices influence the course of events. The fluidity of our situation allows us to imagine a new future and bring it into being.

Is this the Apocalypse?

The world is not ending, but we are facing an apocalypse in one sense of the word’s etymology: that of lifting the veil. As the pandemic lifts the veil, makes obvious truths that are usually easier to ignore.

The pandemic reveals our collectivity and shared vulnerability. It’s true that we’re all in this together, in our shared vulnerability to this illness and the disruption it’s bringing, even as some of us are in it up to our ankles while others are in over their head. This shared vulnerability can activate our generosity, compassion, and solidarity, as we see, in one example out of many, in the daily shows of gratitude for medical workers. This has always been the case, in that we are all always vulnerable to illness and death, to natural and human-made disasters. The pandemic simply makes it more salient.

It also reveals how our lives are intertwined, that our actions are important and touch the lives of countless others. When we act collectively, as we are doing with social distancing, we can save the lives of millions. This too has always been the case—that we have the power, especially when acting collectively, to dramatically influence the course of events.

The past few months have brought the unknowability of the future to the fore. Uncertainty is a fundamental reality of life and history, but there are also phases of relative stability and instability. To the extent that we’ve experienced the recent past as at least somewhat stable, the intensity of the disruption we’re experiencing marks a shift into a more unpredictable time—brought by the pandemic itself, its economic, social, and political effects, followed by the accelerating impact of climate change.

Why can’t we go back to normal?

As we enter a time of instability and loss, it’s natural to wish for things to go back to normal, to return to stability and predictability. Yet the pandemic has started many massive secondary processes of change that won’t automatically be reversed when the pandemic is over. The implications of these processes are uncertain, and their course depends on our choices. To hope to go back to normal is to disempower ourselves and close the paths to the more beautiful possibilities.

In the past three weeks, 17 million people filed for unemployment, almost twice the number of jobs lost during the Great Recession. Economists are projecting levels of unemployment comparable to or larger than the Great Depression. These cannot help but have massive ripple effects throughout our economy, leading to an intense economic crisis . I don’t pretend to know what will happen, but I don’t think we can count on a ‘V-shaped’ recovery.

Another of these processes is our social recession,”a fraying of social bonds that further unravel the longer we go without human interaction”. This matters for our social lives and wellbeing, but it also has the danger of degrading civil society through the atrophy of local and communal organizations. We may become more atomized and isolated, leading to further collective disempowerment.

Thirdly, disruption and crisis are an opportunity for those in political and economic power to consolidate their power. Civil liberties are under attackenvironmental protections are being dismantled, and the government response to the unfolding economic crisis is skewed to benefit large corporations over people. These actions use the cover of the crisis to gain passive acceptance, hoping to pass off a diminished new normal for the old one.

The Possibility of Hope

Can we find any hope here? Hope, as defined by Rebecca Solnit, is acknowledging that the future is unknown, and that you can influence the outcome. In Hope in the Dark, she writes:

Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes — you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists take the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting. It’s the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand.

The economic, social, and political story of this pandemic are still being written, and the future depends on our collective individual choices. We could passively fall into an economic calamity, or we can use it to advance economic justice, just as labor strikes in the Great Depression won the New Deal. We can let our society slip into further social atomization, or we can use this opportunity to strengthen civil society and build collective social power through organizing while sheltering in place. We could accept going back to normal, though a diminished one, or imagine and create a new world.

Through our practice of social distancing, the pandemic is teaching us about our interdependence, as well as our agency. It teaches us that that our personal behavior, in concert with that of others, can make a difference. Let’s not forget this. Rather let’s extend our understanding of it, and realize that by joining with others in movements, we can make profound differences for everyone in our society.

What new possibilities can you envision for the world? What kind of world would you like to return to when this is over? How can you help make that a reality? Particularly, who can you work with? What organizations, local or national, could you join to help bring about your vision?

Posted by Edmund Mills in Essays, 0 comments
Coronavirus and the Climate Crisis: Reclaiming our Future

Coronavirus and the Climate Crisis: Reclaiming our Future

In the midst of this widespread disruption of business as usual, it may feel odd to think of the climate crisis. We are entering something new and unprecedented in our lifetimes, and we are rightly focused on adapting to our new situation. But now is a critical time to think about the climate crisis, for a window has appeared.

Time for Reflection

For many, as we shelter in place, this may be a time that offers more space and down time than usual. Our collective activity has slowed down. Our constant busyness has been ordered to halt. Much of our economy is slowing and stopping. In this collective time of suspending business, there’s a chance to reflect on what’s important to us and how we want to move forward. Do we want to return to business as usual, to the way we were living before?

COVID-19 and our collective response make a few things impossible to ignore. One is our mortality, our vulnerability, our fragility. Naturally, in the face of these truths, we are invited to consider what is most important. Another revealed truth is our interdependence, the importance of our connections, the importance of caring for each other. I’m finding a fresh appreciation of the significance of friends and family, and a renewal of our relationships. The disruption of our habits invites us to bring new care and intentionality to relationships.

Coronavirus and the Climate Crisis

With our vulnerability and interdependence underscored, we are also invited to bring new care to the way we are collectively and our relationship to this planet. These times are revealing the fragility of our systems, what it’s like to be in solidarity, and the possibility of mass-collective transformations in our ways of living. Seeing this possibility, it opens the further possibility that we could respond to climate change at this scale. For me, and I imagine many others, our collective response to COVID-19 is comparable to what we see is needed in response to the climate crisis. We may feel frustrated that this scale of response hasn’t emerged for the future of our planet, frustrated with the politicians, media, and corporations who have repeatedly told us that it is not possible.

Now, as our economy is shutting down, we have begun to see our earth healing–air pollution dissipating and carbon emissions dropping. We may be finding a new sense of community and collective purpose. When it’s time to start our economy up again, do we really want to go back to business as usual? To a senseless and absurd march toward the devastation of our planet? To busyness eclipsing the importance of solidarity? To our disfunctional medical system? To our fragile supply chains? To most of us living precariously close to bankruptcy?

Reclaiming our Future

Re-starting our economy, and in fact, warding off collapse, will require massive expenditure and economic action from our government. This is already underway. Rather than trying to revive our dysfunctional economic system and way of life, now is the time for a Green New Deal. Now is the time to start building a way of life that is locally resilient, ecologically sustainable, and fulfills our need for community and collective purpose.

In this slower time, let’s take time to connect with our friends and loved ones, to reflect on what’s important. And then, let’s organize. We’re seeing now that mass-collective action is possible. Let’s build solidarity and demand from all levels of our government the changes we want.

In this economic crisis, as our usual economic supports fall away, our government may take the unusual action of offering support. We may end up with some cushion, some flexibility and time unbeholden to the usual economic demands. When it’s time to go back to work, let’s use our position for a general strike, to demand and hold out for a Green New Deal. Let’s use this window to take back our collective agency and demand the future we want.

Posted by Edmund Mills in Essays, 0 comments