We are now four months into dealing with the coronavirus and it’s still unclear what to believe. The excess of information, disinformation, hope and false hope is overwhelming, but what’s clear is the phenomenon is bigger than one country, prompting a global response.
As we sit at home not knowing what will happen, it’s only natural to yearn for life to return to normal because the events of the last few months have played out like a Hollywood blockbuster gone wrong. While there have been no explosions or shootouts between nerds in latex suits, there have been many strange, irrational twists of plot, secret decisions, lockdowns, and, of course, bodies.
So as we endure this lengthy limbo—some grudgingly, some not—it is an invaluable opportunity to examine our lives, let alone LIFE in its broader sense. It’s the time to quietly turn inward for contemplation, to sit with uncomfortable truths and question what matters (and equally, what doesn’t).
Our new global focus on health has forced us to consider health in the bigger picture: the fragility of aging populations, the instability of overburdened and underfunded health care systems in many countries, and t then there’s confronting death itself, something largely ignored by our youth obsessed societies.
But the biggest factor in our well-being is the well-being of our planet, an urgent diagnosis that has been repeatedly ignored. Witnessing the global response to the virus has proven that governments can move rapidly to make critical changes, encouraging collaboration over political bickering when it counts. But once a vaccine for the virus is found, it is likely things will return to normal.
The question is, do we want them to?
Death of the Status Quo
Let’s be brutally honest. Business as usual means digging our collective graves.
Our current way of life has become unsustainable, marked by increasing polarity and income inequality, the acidification of our oceans and large-scale species extinction. For generations, we have continued edging closer to destroying all future life and yet little changes. In a sense, it’s understandable—looking at the facts makes average Joes go into overwhelm, oscillating between despair and amnesia.
But the virus could be a game changer. To paraphrase author Charles Eisenstein in his essay “The Coronation,” the old paradigm “has been put on a global pause,” and we are entering a phase of disconcerting and exciting unknowns. He writes he stands at this juncture like most of us, feeling “bewildered, scared maybe, yet also with a sense of new possibility.” It’s this sense that leaves many of us wondering out loud if we can create a future that is sustainable and humane.
Promising signs are already here. We have seen a rapid shift from “me” thinking—a mindset based on competition, scarcity and controlling resources—to “we” thinking, which is collaborative, encourages belonging, and harnessing resources to serve the whole. “Me” thinking is a western cultural perspective that values independence over interdependence, which is valued by Asian societies. Psychological studies have proven that this mentality literally affects how we see the world: a Westerner will see a tree in the forest, whereas Asians will see the forest surrounding the tree.
In times of crisis, people pool resources and act in solidarity because there is a shared sense of purpose—that’s “we” thinking. We have witnessed thousands of amazing examples, such as collecting food for the less fortunate, helping elderly neighbors, and countless groups formed on social media to swap advice, supplies and inspiration.
“As this incredible global collective experience is surfacing all our interdependencies, we also realize how we have been trying to change the wheels on our ride while on it,” writes Tatiana Glad, co-founder and director of Impact Hub Amsterdam, in a newsletter. Impact Hub is a community of entrepreneurs that create business solutions for social challenges.
Now that the ride is on hold, we have time to strengthen our vision of a better world and start moving it forward.
Changing the order of things
The definition of crisis is a turning point, a time when a difficult or important decision must be made. When it comes to climate change, we have reached a global turning point. Making the right decisions hinges on being accountable because all our actions (including inactions), choices, and beliefs have consequences. If you’re an overweight diabetic who insists on supersizing it at McDonald’s every day, it’s not entirely the restaurant’s fault. You also put yourself there.
To continue the metaphor, the coronavirus crisis has forced humanity to go on a harsh diet with unbelievable results. The is the normal state of our skies: The State of Global Air 2019 report found that air pollution is the fifth leading risk factor for death worldwide; in 2017, it killed over 1.2 million in China and India each (so 2.4 total). The report further states that 90% of the world’s population live in areas exceeding WHO guidelines for healthy air.
These are our skies since the virus and curbing our normal appetites: the air pollution in megacities such as Bangkok, Beijing, and São Paulo has dropped significantly. In Delhi, one of the world’s most polluted cities, the air quality index (AQI) usually surges above 900 (25+ is considered unsafe by the World Health Organization). Since the lockdown has forced cars off the road and residents inside, AQI levels have dipped to 101.
Crisis always offers opportunity. It’s painful because it destroys what is familiar, but the gift is it shifts perspective. On a personal note, I lived in NYC during September 11. Within weeks, I lost my job and sat at home, wondering if I could afford the rent and heating; outside, the constant outpouring of grief was overwhelming at times—the optimistic days were simply gone as the city that couldn’t sleep shut down abruptly. I was younger then and found myself asking, “why did this happen?” I discovered that like it or not, life takes unexpected turns, forcing us to grow through discomfort.
While crisis causes a fundamental shift in thinking, the first steps towards a new future are not always obvious—they take time to surface. Says Glad of the Hub, “We idealize the need for a new world, but what’s challenging is how do you connect it to the big picture and behavioral changes?”
Changing behavior is complicated because it means changing minds first. According to the psychology of change management, as human beings we actually like change—that’s why we like going out, buying new clothes, or traveling—but we don’t like it being forced on us. For change to be successful, people first need to understand why it is meaningful, what the value and logic of those changes are, and once they do, they need to see change modeled actively and consistently by people they respect.
A brave new future
The global emergency response to corona virus has shown the world we can achieve moments of solidarity. Margaret Klein Salamon, founding director of The Climate Mobilization’s argues in her op-ed, that the world should also go into emergency mode when it comes to the climate. If governments did, they would immediately halt the expansion of fossil fuel and phase it out, making room for sustainable alternatives.
Until that happens, we need to stay aware because since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, Big Oil has been actively protecting its interests. According to Greenpeace USA (as quoted in the Huffingtonpost), Kentucky, South Dakota and West Virginia have quietly passed laws aimed at preventing climate activists from protesting against fossil fuel. Also, the Plastics Industry Association requested the US Department of Health and Human Services make a public statement about the safety of single-use plastics over reusable grocery bags, which they claim will worsen the pandemic.
The industry has continued pushing its agenda and so must those invested in a new sustainable future. As millions of us reassess our lives indoors, giving the planet a chance to breathe, it is time to embrace “we” thinking and maintain our forest, which will take sustained effort, before all the trees are lost.
In her book Hope in the Dark, a mediation on activism, author Rebecca Solnit writes about how hope and optimism are active things. “Hope just means another world might be possible, not promise, not guaranteed. Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope.
It’s time for action. It’s time to create a new normal.