The phrase “new normal” has officially invaded our cultural conversation and it’s driving me bonkers. Obviously there is no denying that great change has taken place over the last weeks and months. Physical distancing has permeated all of our interactions and day-to-day life is significantly interrupted. Tens of millions are out of jobs. Many others are working from home. And these realities pale in comparison to the personal tragedy of sickness and loss occurring as an average of one U.S. resident dies every 45 seconds as of Easter Sunday 2020.
To call this our “new normal” does a disservice to our history and to our future. This is a temporary interruption in what was already the new normal.
Beginning during the industrial revolution and continuing through to today we have increasingly viewed nature as an object to be conquered, extracted from, and subjugated to our supreme will for “progress” and development. Our drive for domination has given us a false sense of security. As we’ve settled into the comfort of modern life, replete with two-day shipping and ever-stocked shelves, we’ve quickly forgotten both our place in the living ecosystem we inhabit called Earth and that the state of nature is change.
Despite Heraclitus remarking that “change is the only constant” 500 years before the Christed One of Nazareth was born, the wisdom of this observation and its medicine for our struggles today eludes us. If change is constant, which observation of our experience suggests is a law as true as gravity, “normal” is not really what we think it is.
What is normal is what’s occurring. A virus. Regardless of its origins, how quickly we forget that this is simply a part of nature. It has happened before and it will happen again. We’ve gotten so comfortable, so in our routine, spoiled perhaps, that we forget what’s happening right now is normal. Our mechanistic world view centered on the domination of nature tricks us into thinking that the state of nature is equilibrium.
Today we drive our cookie-cutter cars to our cookie-cutter office buildings back to our cookie-cutter houses but not before picking up a generic meal from a cookie-cutter restaurant. Our sterile surroundings and the uniformity of Western life, removed from a deep connection with nature’s places and sourced from a foreign factory, has given us the false sense that our regimented world is in fact controllable. It is not.
We are inhabitants of a larger system called Earth of which we do not have dominion over. What’s normal is having to adapt and make adjustments. Our ancestors knew this. They knew intimately the variability of nature and the unpredictability of life. But decades of relative peace and prosperity have spoiled us in the West. Our technological prowess – the advent of information technology and the blind optimization of process, workforces, and supply chains – coupled with our tremendous wealth creation has led to our hubris.
We forget that not long ago in the planetary timeline all of this, our modern society, did not exist. It is hubris to think this wouldn’t happen. Excluding preppers and conspiracy theorists, many knew this was coming, wrote books about it, prepared for it, etc… I’ve been saying for years that if something is going to happen to humanity it wouldn’t be an asteroid or aliens, it’ll be a virus. As humanity extends our reach further into nature destroying habitat and bringing us in closer direct contact with wildlife the chances of more zoonotic (spread from animal to human) disease spread increases.
What is normal is that life is inherently risky which is another reality we continue to lose touch with as modern medicine pulls off increasingly impressive feats to save lives and our litigiousness seeks to mitigate all risk to life (and financial liability). Our infatuous crusade to extend life has made us afraid of death, as Charles Eisenstein elucidates in his provocative essay, The Coronation. Death is normal as is the accompanying grief we must process.
What is normal, but not new, is that life is fragile, as are the systems that support it. When properly functioning, that is when all of its participants symbiotically support each other, all is well. But no system exists in stasis. Rather, we exist in dynamic equilibrium, constantly adjusting to maintain an overall state of balance, but not without wobbling in our attempts to balance like walking a tight rope.
The rapidity of our current decline sources from the many ways our society was out of balance before coronavirus emerged. We’ve been wobbling for a while…
“Because That was Working So Well For Us…”
is my typical response when I hear, “I can’t wait to get back to normal.”
That normal, the one of January 2020, is in fact the new normal, the one where we are too distracted to focus on the health of our bodies, communities, institutions, political parties, businesses, and society. The “new normal” has already been in place.
I propose that if we are to return to a normal we choose the “old normal”, the one before we lost our old ways amidst our new modern life.
The normal before the materialist rat race, vitriolic ideological partisan divide, corporate takeover of main street, incessant advertising, and enormous mountains of debt distracted us from what’s really important.
The normal when food is actually food. Not something designed in a lab.
The normal when most people are healthy, not obese (42% of American adults are obese per the CDC).
The normal when home cooked meals are….well, normal, rather than our reliance on fast food.
The normal when our wealth distribution didn’t lead to such extreme inequality that a shock did not send so many into the throws of poverty so quickly. Oxfam says 500 million human beings could be thrown into poverty from Coronavirus impacts. America Will Struggle After the Coronavirus, says the New York Times, and The Pandemic Will Cleave America in Two, says the Atlantic, both symptoms of income disparity.
The normal when society sought to provide a base of well-being for all. Did this ever exist? Could it?
The normal when our air is cleaner and the world is quieter. Here’s a promising sign.
The normal when we work to live, realizing the value of our life, rather than living to work.
The normal when families enjoy time together and communities are bound to a common fate. How many encouraging stories have you heard since this all began? Plenty. Perhaps you even have a story to share yourself? Thank you!
The normal when we appreciated our public servants supporting our society. The normal when we saw the value of our institutions and felt engaged enough to make a difference. The normal when we could bridge partisan divides in service to an acceptable, moderated outcome. Yes, the United States actually has a long history of bipartisanship…
The normal when corporate interests didn’t creep their way into evvvvvvvvvverything.
The normal when our leaders prioritize people over pork, community over corporation.
The normal when we can distinguish truth from fiction, fact from lies.
The normal when we instinctively understand that we are a part of nature intricately tied to the same outcomes.
If you’re among the many who have clamored for getting back to normal, consider deeply what your definition of “normal” is. Ask yourself if what you desire to get back to was working to begin with. Contemplate your needs today and your needs three months ago and how we as a country, society, and community meet those needs. Consider that despite our progress and technological advances society has stagnated in its ability to meet the basic needs of everyone. Consider that life in the last few decades has changed very little as we’ve fallen into a trap of debt and gridlock.
Many have said this pandemic is a shot over the bow. Its mortality rate is low in comparison to an infection like the plagues which killed between 15 and 40% of those who were treated. We flunked this test. And while political and institutional failures abound, our true failure is structural, the result of decades of decisions that brought outcomes aligned with society’s values drifting astray. The question is: will we change?
Alas, even the fantasy of the “old normal” described above will not reemerge if it ever existed. Because “normal” is static, a fixed mindset derived from an inability to adapt. Darwin wrote on this topic, chiefly that the species which adapts survives and the other 99.9% fade into the fossils. Evolution is imperative to fulfilling our human destiny much less to our survival.
In reality, the “old normal” above cannot fully account for the demands of our burgeoning population or balance the enormous scale and scope we’ve already built. Instead, we must evolve from where we are today demonstrating our ability to adapt. Einstein said that “no problem can be solved by the same level of consciousness that created it.” It is time to unleash our creativity to accomplish ambitious change.
We have the power to choose what’s next. Choosing requires a moment of pause for us to take stock of the situation and respond consciously rather than simply reacting. This quarantine is a gift, a rare pause amidst a calamitously busy modern pace. In this moment, we have the window to decide if now is the moment when we look out at our society with its cracks and fissures laid bare and declare that we’re prepared to make the tough choices. Sacrifice will be required one way or the other. Now, voluntarily, on behalf of future generations and societal health. Or later, when the next stroke of nature, a virus or disaster more deadly and able to tumble our house of cards, not-so-subtly reminds us of our place in the circle of life (you have seen Lion King, right?).
So what might we choose for ourselves? A powerful future requires sacrifice. Our American forefathers knew this when we spilled American blood on European soil in both World Wars to defend freedom. We knew the value of cooperation then, a belief we must reembody if we are to learn one of the great lessons offered by this pandemic. If the virus has proven any point it is that humanity shares a collective fate beyond the limitations of our nation-state borders, squabbles, and ideological divide. Abundant in the world is the very visible proof of our intertwined fate. On the micro, we must rise above our partisanship which distracts the system’s two parties and pits us against each other so we fail to collectively address the system itself. On the macro, now can be the time we transcend global divisions and see ourselves as one species.
We must challenge the values that allowed us to make the decisions that lead us to this juncture. What occured is not wrong, it is our history and our evolution. We must root out the cancerous belief that unlimited growth is desirable or even possible. Hubris abounds when we align our main cultural value to “more is better”. More is not better. More money, houses, clothes, cars, electronics, jewelry, buildings, highways, expansion, growth, etc… will not address the fundamental needs of our society: the wellness of all beings human and otherwise, the vitality of our planet, connection, prosperity, and fulfillment of purpose.
We must release attachment to the world that was or the world we dreamed we were, because life will never be the same. All future possibilities emerge from the reality of our current pandemic. As with all major events, what’s normal is what we do next: we evolve from this point forward. Crisis drives evolution like necessity is the mother of invention. All previous major extinctions were followed by an enormous explosion of diversity. Is it a coincidence that we are now in the middle of a biodiversity crisis at best (58% species population decline between 1970 and 2012) and a sixth major extinction at worst. Evolution beckons.
We must reinstall ourselves as part of nature’s cycle rather than pretend to play puppeteer. As a people, we must once again find our resilience, sourced from an intimate relationship with the rhythms of nature. Is it a coincidence that a respiratory disease appears immediately following the forests of the Amazon, Australia, and California burning intensely within the last 12 months? Beyond the politics of climate change, we must choose to be excellent stewards of our environment. We must endow the next 7 generations with their birthright: a vibrant planet. We must once again reclaim our sense of purpose and ground our new found direction in the values that affirm life and the lives of our future generations.
As much as you are seeking that sense of normalcy, challenge yourself to not. The continuation of what we’ve been doing is doubling down a bad hand: it likely won’t end well. In chemistry, “a catalyst is a substance that speeds up a reaction without itself undergoing any physical change.”
Behold the catalyst propelling us from our past to our future: Coronavirus!
Routines are busted. Fragilities exposed. And a window has opened for us to observe and reflect. Enormous activation potential is present. We must galvanize this moment toward change before we shuffle back into the system’s machinery. Our current experience calls forth the evolution of the systemic structures of society.
- We must consider the drastic effects extreme wealth distribution has on society. The capitalist system is incredibly effective at producing innovation and wealth. Yet is it useful to aggregate 40% of the wealth into the hands of the top 1%, 66% of wealth into the hands of the top 5%? More importantly, how much of that wealth was generated through the use of the public commons? We must ensure that those who benefit from our society by using our infrastructure, educated populace, legal system, and public institutions pay their fair share in our society. The fact that in 2018 I paid more in taxes as a percentage of my income AND in raw dollars than Amazon which paid $0 in taxes and received a $125 million back from the government is absurd. And Amazon isn’t the only one.
- We must build a health care system that guarantees healthcare as a basic human right. Caring for our brothers and sisters aligns with the beliefs of every major religion including Christianity which is the United States’ unofficial religion. The bible is unequivocal about the responsibility we have to our fellow man and woman. We have the ability and the wealth, but lack the will. We are capable of designing a health care system that addresses the systemic, administrative, and regulatory complexity that inflates costs and reduces wellness outcomes. This can occur with either a single-payer or multi-payer system by creating a system that does not seek maximum profits off of people’s health. Either way, the government must function better for this to occur.
- We must reform the military-, prison-, and agricultural-industrial complexes which have immense economic and political influence and occupy the role of services critical to society’s healthy functioning. Wikipedia describes an industrial complex as “a conflict of interest between an institution’s purported socio-political purpose and the financial interests of the businesses and government agencies that profit from the pursuit of such purpose, when achieving the stated purpose would result in a financial loss for those businesses”. A company’s fiduciary responsibility must internalize all the side effects of its pursuit of profit. There are no free lunches. Someone always pays. This is the nature of the closed system we operate in.
- We must expand access to affordable (or free!) education in the United States. The cost of tuition has risen three times the rate of inflation since 1980. The economics of this pandemic doesn’t bode well for the Class of COVID-19 or the millions of students with more than $1.6 trillion dollars (with a T) of student loan debt. Do we blame 20-year old students for this or grapple with a runaway system? The academic-industrial complex needs to overhaul its models for primary/secondary education and educate students without saddling them with debt.
- We must reorient ourselves to our local communities, rebuilding strong local economies and reweaving the interconnectedness that connects us as neighbors. We must sacrifice the convenience of big box retailers to reenergize small local businesses which make up 44 percent of the U.S. economy (particularly given the effects of a shuttered pandemic economy).
- We must invest heavily in our environment and decide that we are part of nature rather than above it. We must put the squabbling about climate change behind us and agree that our children having breathable air, drinkable water, and clean parks to play in is a common goal to rally around.
These ideas are not driven by ideology (except perhaps Utilitarianism). They are the result of a careful examination of what will unfold our ability to meet the needs of the most people considering what’s occurred in the last two months. We have great wealth and technology that can meet the needs of our society. It is time to exact change on a broad and systemic level.
The choice between people, profit, and planet is not mutually exclusive. We can still generate enormous fortunes while accomplishing everything outlined above and more. The choice before us is clear.
The next time you hear someone “wanting to get back to normal”, challenge the thought that everything was working fine and dandy before Coronavirus jumped species and hopped on a plane. The next time you hear someone mention the “new normal”, remind them of our place in nature and that this period is a call to evolve and adapt to change. Challenge the notion of getting “back” to anything versus moving forward.Then pose the question, what normal do we really want?
Time has slowed, opening the window for us to change course. It is time to get aggressive and take action.
This opportunity may never come again.