The Folly of Back to Normal

Turn on the TV, listen to the radio, or read somewhat anything from some mainstream commentator regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, and the talk will invariably come to “getting back to normal”.

And secretly, or not so secretly that is what most of us desire. We want our lives to return to normal, we want our jobs to be secure, we want to move about freely, and most of all, we just want the uncertainties associated with the whole pandemic thing to go away.

Far, far away, and who could blame us!

However, what we seldom ask ourselves is whether the old normal, especially when viewed in light of the history of our civilisation or even the entire history of human existence, was anything remotely normal at all.

Why was our old normal, that we are so desperate to get back to, not normal at all?

One reason is oil.

Never in the history of the human race have we ever had this abundance of relatively cheap energy. This abundance has allowed us to build a civilisation without parallel. It has allowed us to feed billions more people. It has allowed us to build cities the likes of which have never been seen before. It has allowed many of us to have a lifestyle that even Kings in times past would never have dreamed possible.

This abundance has allowed us to have a consumer society. A society and economy that only survives by our constant purchasing of the latest, and then tossing it after a short time, while we rush to the store to purchase the next “must-have”.

That plentiful energy has allowed us to distance ourselves from nature and its processes. To distance ourselves from how our food is produced. What other species in all of life has ever required landfills? What we do is take from nature, and return very little.

It is our impact on natural systems that have lead to this and other virus outbreaks in the first place.

The old normal has other problems as well.

While up to the 1980s our post-WW2 society could have been viewed as egalitarian, post the neo-liberal reforms of that decade (think Rogernomics, Thatcher, Reagan), there has grown an increasing division between rich and poor, haves and have nots. The recent riots in the USA are a graphic example of the consequences of this economic philosophy. This disenchantment with a system that does not meet so many people’s needs is not going to go away and instead over time will lead to more bitterness, and possibly violence.

Climate Change

The huge looming wave of climate change did not go away because of a virus, though the lockdowns did show quicker than we would have thought possible how quickly mother earth positively responds when we give her a chance.

Much research tells us that the only real solution we have to combat climate change is to use less oil, have less waste, to live more in tune with nature. To save the oil that we do have so that our grandchildren and their children will have some of this incredible energy-dense ancient sunlight to use for what is essential. Contrast that to our present normal, which involves burning yet more every year, pushing the ability of the earth to absorb the released CO2.

Did you know New Zealand has twice the number of vehicles on the road as it did in the year 2000?

So, no, I am in no hurry to go “back to normal”. It was never normal; it was and is an aberration.

What would a new normal look like? I don’t know (though I do have some ideas), but it is a conversation that is beyond urgent that we must have.

I think most people in their heart of hearts know we need that conversation too. Let’s not go “back to normal”, let’s go forward to a new normal.

Brian Megaw

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