The governor in my state, Virginia, has now issued a total stay at home order. We’ve gone from social distancing, travel advisements, and schools being shut down through the academic year to straight out “do not leave home unless absolutely necessary.” The governor says to expect this through May.
In one way the final order is good news.
It’s clarifying to have a leader who’s not politicizing the deadly disease. It’s helpful to get a sense of the seriousness of the pandemic threat. And it’s comforting to put a hoped-for end date on the radar (June 1) for this first round of effective total shutdown.
So now what?
Time to Think
It’s squarely time to move in to let’s-make-the-best-of-life-at-home territory. And for that a little historic perspective is called for.
Most Americans alive today have never been asked for sacrifice, resolve, and dramatic personal change on behalf of the nation as a whole while all our fellow countrymen were also being asked for those things at the very same time.
This really is very new ground for almost everyone.
The elders among us have, of course, gone through World War II as veterans or stateside and that was definitely a time of sacrifice, resolve, and dramatic personal change on the part of the whole country.
But MOST of us alive haven’t.
And while I would never have wished for an event like the COVID-19 pandemic, now that we have it, I’m hoping that its effective shutdown will be instructive in three key ways:
- On what we value — hence who we are
- On how we live and its systemic impact
- On what we prioritize including what we buy
What Will the New Normal Look Like?
It may seem premature to wonder about life after quarantine when we’re in the midst of it, when it’s still confusing and so hard on so many folks.
But I neither want us to wing it after the fact nor to simply go back to the way things were as if they were inherently a better time simply because they were the time before the quarantine.
We’re also subject to what writer Naomi Klein called The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, an idea that suggests the biggest corporate entities and the financial elite will exploit catastrophe to their private and profitable ends.
In the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown, for example, wealth was transferred upward in the bailout under the presumption that rescuing the financial system, including outsized bonuses for the already wealthy, MUST take place even as millions of ordinary Americans faced foreclosure, eviction, job losses, and ruin.
This go round, the mass of Americans needs to see each other as in the same boat, and see the social and economic faces of this catastrophe as our chance to radically reimagine life in America with more sanity, equity, options, and inclusion.
So what should we, ordinary Americans, be looking at? I would argue that it is the underlying things that support everything else that we should focus on.
The New Ground of American Life
The fact is, for decades America has been ignoring the energy, climate, and waste crises. For decades we’ve been living out of balance on:
- What, how much, and in which manner we consume.
- How widely we travel and with what indifference to its impact on global warming.
- In the frenetic, unrelenting pace of our work and daily routines.
- In the pressures on our kids.
- In our high-pitched intra-political warfare that has hamstrung a thoughtful and mature problem-solving stance.
- In our practical indifference to our nest, otherwise known as “the environment.”
With Americans spending so much time at home right now, we can use this time to look within and decide if going back to the way things were is really the best way forward for America or if the silver lining in the Great Shutdown of 2020 is that we can and should create individual and cultural resets.
What will that look like? I don’t have all the answers — this is one to crowdsource.
Made for this Moment
The few things I can add at this time are that I know in my deepest heart, soul, and mind (including science and systems thinking) that we need to live with a greater sense of balance in almost every area of human life, and certainly in the areas I listed above — values, lifestyle, and consumption.
I work from home, but I think of the many folks now either “stuck at home” or grateful to finally telecommute. Then I wonder how many want to go back to their customary daily commute — sitting idle in a sea of belching cars on a gridlocked highway an hour each way, every day, five days a week, all year?
How many of us will think the kids need three enrichment activities each, meaning frantic daily after-school driving, and waiting around, and eating food from disposable containers while on the go all in pursuit of anxiously hoping to get into a great school? Might there be other paths forward for young adults like mastering hand made trades through apprenticeships and journeyman programs, gaining education outside of traditional college, and exploring entrepreneurial incubation settings?
How many of us might think we just have to have (fill in the blank) consumer good or gadget or tech toy or fast fashion that we’ve happily lived without during the pandemic shutdown? How many of us might craft new manufacturing collectives to make and build things more slowly, more thoughtfully, and closer to home?
How many of us might start to think about the merits of goods-sharing models on things like community tool libraries to not only strengthen community and lessen family budget strains but to help decrease resource use, avoid wasteful product redundancy, strike back against evil “planned obsolescence,” and thus achieve less harmful environmental impact?
How many of us might start to think that vacations in our local regions are as worthy, if not more worthy, than exotic world travel that’s hard on global warming and hard on global human health? Meanwhile, local travel in your own state or region brings multiple economic and social benefits to Americans right here at home.
How many of us might start thinking that the kids are alright — that we don’t have to Tiger Mom our way into nail-biting suburban insanity over imagined one-path-only futures?
How many of us might start to see gently used and vintage and antique shopping as the truly energy-saving, carbon-sequestering, history-preserving, landfill-avoiding, culturally-cool option?
I could go on, but I’d like to know what other people think.
Raise up Your Voices
So, I’ll pose the question to you and yours about your values:
If you are a pro-green advocate, have there been holes in your approach? Might you up the ante on walking your talk? How can you make new choices, or choices that were always in the back of your mind but where the circumstances weren’t urgent enough, that will help the post-quarantine culture meet the triple-bottom line of saving money, honoring people and relationships, and reducing our eco-impact?
I’ve been writing about these things for three decades or longer, most of which has felt like spitting in the wind. People recognized even then that things were out of balance but didn’t know how to push the reset. Maybe that will change now?
So in some ways the conversation is just beginning. And it needs your voice. What do you want? What world do you want to see?
— Lady Virginia