‘There is little doubt that another crisis will see us in the streets and squares once again, taking us all by surprise … These moments when the impossible seems suddenly possible are excruciatingly rare and precious. That means more must be made of them. The next time one arises, it must be harnessed not only to denounce the world as it is, and build fleeting pockets of liberated space. It must be the catalyst to actually build the world that will keep us all safe. The stakes are simply too high, and time too short, to settle for anything less’.
— Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything
2020: The year it all changed
The word unprecedented gets thrown around a lot these days. It’s certainly been an unprecedented century, few decades, millennium — however you want to describe it. The 21st century was already flinging humanity into challenges we never imagined we’d be dealing with. Unprecedented became the new normal. After three years of Trump and Brexit dominating the headlines, it seemed that little could shock us. What could possibly come as more of a surprise than these two era-defining votes? The long tail of incompetence, corruption, and sheer lack of logic, morals, or consistency has doubtless made a great number of us both cynical and resistant to the kind of shock that would previously have sent people reeling.
The universe has a great sense of humour and of timing. It’s like a truly great comedian, offering us opportunities to laugh at ourselves and to reflect deeply on the roots of what we do as individuals and a society. Currently at a point where our time to act is rapidly depleting, 2020 was to be the moment to forge decade zero of humanity. The final years of the ‘Teenies’ may have felt like some kind of horror-coaster, accelerating faster and faster as humanity was beset with disasters of increasing size, magnitude, and frequency. Yet they say the night is darkest right before the dawn. 2020 was to be the year it could all change.
Within months we had discovered that this was all true, but in no way was it how we imagined. All our best laid plans crumbled. The routines that we had built over years, decades, and centuries disappeared into the ether like smoke into the atmosphere of our burning world. For a time there was panic. Yet in this moment of true struggle we saw solidarity and community emerge. I found myself reconnecting with friends because of both fear and boredom, I began to realise how much I cherished both my time in nature and my interaction with my closest friends and family.
At the same time I watched as governments around the world did what I had been told was impossible. They mobilised trillions of dollars, passed laws with sweeping powers to transform societies, and populations readily accepted that these hardships were necessary for the survival of many of the elderly and vulnerable in our communities. I saw a sense of solidarity emerge and the genuine kindness of humanity show itself in places where we had been told it had disappeared. All of this began to convince me that this could be a truly transformative moment for society. On a personal level, I watched myself as well as close friends and family use the lockdown as a way to reconnect with nature, to slow down their hectic lives, to take time to appreciate the house they lived in and care and nurture for their gardens. Almost everyone I know was suddenly growing plants, taking care of their gardens or balconies, even growing food for themselves, be that tomatoes or potatoes, herbs like mint and basil; my best friend has been diligently tending to his avocado tree.
As the lockdown has eased and we have begun to return to a strange kind of ‘normal’, one question lingers: What have we learnt from this? American writer Brené Brown argues that our modern world should never have been considered normal:
‘We will not go back to normal. Normal never was. Our pre-corona existence was not normal other than we normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection, confusion, rage, hoarding, hate and lack. We should not long to return, my friends. We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment. One that fits all of humanity and nature’.
Humans have existed on this earth for over 100,000 years and it is only in the past 150 that we have abused the planet to the brink of ecological collapse. Graham Hancock is a journalist and author who has, for the past three decades, argued that civilisation did not begin with the Sumerians some 6000 years ago, as was the accepted wisdom for a long time. He believes that an ancient civilisation had existed tens of thousands of years ago, one that had some technology that we are yet to understand. Across numerous books and documentaries, he has collated evidence from around the world to put forward the idea that a vast advanced civilisation existed. In support of this view, more and more archaeological finds are now vindicating his theory. Hancock argues that we are a ‘species with amnesia’, one that has forgotten how to live in harmony with nature. I believe that the lockdown has allowed us all the time to pause and realise the happiness that we feel when we are surrounded by nature and greenery. It has also proven that we as humans are capable of not only surviving in the midst of crisis, but thriving.
China: The accidental catalyst for much-needed change
Something strange happened in January. I began to hear talk of a brand-new disease emerging out of China. Covid-19 or coronavirus. I was working in a tiny bar in a ski resort in Austria and thought very little of it at first. I remembered the fearmongering and exaggerated stories in the press about Ebola, swine flu, bird flu, and the Zika virus, which had all come and gone to little fanfare. Why wouldn’t this be the same? Within weeks it became obvious that there was something a little different here. China was locking down entire cities and soon other nations began to follow suit in one way or another.
As governments and populations grappled with the mass upheaval caused by a global pandemic I became (rather selfishly, I admit) concerned that this was going to derail the relevance of my book. Having written primarily about politics and society I wondered how any book written pre-corona could possibly be relevant to the world post-2020. Brexit, a word we in the UK felt we may never hear the end of, was scarcely mentioned. I dare say this was a relief for many who felt that the all-consuming nature of the beast that is Brexit was preventing both our political system and the nation as a whole from moving forward. The 40 months from June 23rd 2016 until the first cases of Covid-19 were uncovered in December 2019 comprised of little beyond economic and political stagnation. It is little surprise that Johnson rode to electoral triumph on the back of ‘Get Brexit Done’.
The lockdown was a challenging period for the entire globe, completely wiping clean our collective calendars and timetables. Holidays, conferences, festivals, weddings, and birthday parties were cancelled, many had their livelihood tugged abruptly from under them — whether temporarily for those lucky enough to end up furloughed, or indefinitely. Our entire way of life on every single scale from micro to macro, from the mass transit of international trade and travel to the way in which we visit the shop for milk in the morning or greet our loved ones, was disrupted. The events of 2020 truly carry no historical precedent. We can explore the pandemics of the past, the economic crashes, the environmental disasters and society-wide mass hysterias, but nothing is comparable in scale or its potential impact.
Nonetheless, we can try to use history to understand how big shocks can cause radical change. A New York Times piece on pandemics by Gina Kolata explained that there are generally two different moments that signal the end of a pandemic: ‘the medical, which occurs when the incidence and death rates plummet, and the social, when the epidemic of fear about the disease wanes’.
‘At a time, such as the present, it is tempting to belie that nothing can remain the same. But will this prove to be a transformative moment? It seems impossible not to be but in the long run, a lot of transformative moments do not transform’.
She notes that the Spanish Flu was largely forgotten until recently, as was the Hong Kong flu epidemic of 1968, which killed one million people worldwide (coronavirus-related deaths are estimated at 770,000 at the time of writing).
However, I believe that the pandemic itself is not what has changed us. I believe that the lockdown has changed us. In the UK post WW2, we created the welfare state. After a battle against the forces of authoritarian fascism, we based the rebuilding process on creating a more fair and equal society. We made our vision for the future a central part of the regeneration of post-war Britain. It might not have made society perfect, but the creation of the welfare state was a huge positive step forward at the time. The Labour Party won that election, campaigning with the slogan: ‘Fair Shares for All’. We were, just as now, returning to what we had called ‘normal life’.
The government has predictably already used the crisis to push through policies that would have otherwise likely caused outrage. The government are still purchasing diesel trains due to burn oil for another 30 years, and Rishi Sunak has dedicated exactly £0 to rail electrification programs compared to £27 billion for massive road construction, expansion, and maintenance. Local journalism received almost none of the £35 million advertising package created by the government to help prop up the media by purchasing ad space as part of their ‘All In, Altogether’ campaign. Instead, it went all but exclusively to members of associate members of the News Media Association — mainstream titles and regional conglomerates. Digital only media outlets have been all but ignored according to Private Eye 1521.
But there are also signs of resistance. Though it may seem trivial, the U-turn on A level results is a sign of a government aware of their own fragility. The tension in the country is truly palpable at times. BLM protests sprung up from nowhere in the midst of a national lockdown, statues were torn down, and we saw the slow boiling of frustration at the endless string of lockdown-related gaffs, dishonesty, incompetence and sheer corruption. Faced with outrage across the board, the government has decided to scrap their entire digital grading algorithm, relying instead on the analogue teachers.
A number of crises over the past few years have shown us that perhaps the analogue is superior to the digital. Fear of election hacking in America is driving a campaign to return to paper ballots — thankfully we have no plans to introduce electronic voting in the UK. The rise of fake news online showed us that perhaps legitimate news outlets serve a purpose — they are expected to hold to some form of truth (though even that seems to be disappearing at times). Despite the meteoric rise of smartphones, there is a growing movement of people who are ditching their smartphones for Nokia bricks — including many in Silicon Valley. Lockdown pushed many of us away from the rush of our tech-addicted 21st-century life and dependence on technology, towards a focus on the simple, analogue pleasures that nature and people have to offer. We tended to our gardens, took daily walks (whether amongst fields or within local park), and made time to appreciate spending our free time with friends and family.
On a personal level I took time to improve first my physical wellbeing, starting with yoga and some meditation. I was reading instead of watching TV, journaling about stoicism, and my writing and critical thinking improved markedly. I also ended a relationship that had been drifting for a while. These transformations in my own life that were prompted by nothing but the idleness and space in my mind that had been gifted to me by the pandemic convinced me that it was possible that this moment could provide the catalyst for some massive changes in society; ones that had been looming but struggled from inertia. Radical changes that had long felt impossible for even the most optimistic of dreamers now seem within reach — crisis acceleration can affect societies as well as personal relationships.
In the introduction to This Is Not A Drill (the Extinction Rebellion handbook), Sam Knights writes:
‘We must all learn how to dream again, and we have to learn that together. To break down the old ways of thinking and to move beyond our current conception of what is and what is not possible’.
The pandemic has shattered our concept of what is possible. Now is the moment to build a society that regenerates nature not destroys it; one that lives with the earth not from it; and one that emphasises our analogue communities over the digital ones. It’s true that remote working has been irreversibly accelerated as a result of the pandemic; a beautiful boon for planet Earth expressed in a permanent reduction in those of us commuting daily to work in rush hour traffic. But perhaps this can have an unintended side-effect. Instead of an analogue work day and digital socialising, maybe we’ll try a digital work day and analogue socialising? I’ve found myself craving time to socialise with my friends — Zoom calls just aren’t the same.
On the other side of the coin it is clear to me that this storm of crisis could be used by all the worst forces of humanity to destroy any chance we have at building a better world. At times I have despaired at the fake cancel culture war and the blinkered and sheep-like way we responded to the pandemic, even with hindsight. Add to this, the mass hysteria, the worst aspects of corruption and incompetence in our politics, as well as the sheer unpreparedness of our system of governance to cope with large-scale problems on almost every level. However, I believe that now is the moment in which we can rebuild our entire world. From our relationship with the earth and our communities, to our economic and political systems.
The universe has for whatever reason — chance, coincidence, or sheer divine intervention — given us this opportunity, and I believe it is our moral responsibility as custodians of the earth to use this moment for our collective betterment. As Naomi Klein has repeatedly explored, massive shocks provide the catalyst for rapid change. This moment of shock may be the last opportunity and it is certainly the best one that has presented itself to humanity in the modern era. Let’s not waste it.