Nostalgia for Normal

Lots of talk/pixels about ‘getting back to normal,’ the ‘new normal,’ and returning to a time when things/life were somehow better because they were usual. Primarily related to the pandemic, it’s also an opportunity to unpack a sympathetic but highly questionable sentiment. So this interesting tweet, highlighted by Bloomberg, serves as a good remedy for that nostalgia for normal:

Happy talk about way-back-when presents recklessness on many fronts – political, racial, economic – but it is also woebegone in terms of environmental devastation and the slow thoughtlessness that has brought us to exactly here. No one* wants to go back to Jim Crow and no one should want to go back to the normal, daily burning rates of our fossil-fueled civilization. As the article demonstrates, and this is a note to hit over and over again, the [high] costs of slowing down and reversing the effects of climate change are actually a bargain. Slice it however you want – we’ve already gotten far closer to the tipping point of better and cleaner far faster than imagined. Looking away and ignoring now requires more effort. That normal is depressing – and it should be. Our calculations of the impacts of the burning have become far less abstracted, to the point of easily transposing the impacts of the Deepwater Horizon disaster onto methane well leakage and carbon emissions just by looking at the numbers.

Unfortunately, our numbness to the staggering total of COVID deaths resembles our shruggy attitude to climate-related externalities. We get used to them, consider that state ‘normal,’ and long for the days.

But we shouldn’t, and we can’t go back, the comforting but perilous blindness of ‘normal’ notwithstanding. Instead of normal, how about a different better? As our friend says, Don’t Be Afraid.

*Admittedly, sometimes my optimism overwhelms

Not the Same as it Ever Was

Things shutting down, a leadership vacuum and sports leading the way to a quieter next few weeks brings up a lot of possibilities that fall on the interesting/frightening continuum. What will be the new normal that follows this different normal?

Virtually every activity that entails or facilitates in-person human interaction seems to be in the midst of a total meltdown as the coronavirus outbreak erases Americans’ desire to travel. The NBA, NHL, and MLB have suspended their seasons. Austin’s South by Southwest canceled this year’s festival and laid off a third of its staff. Amtrak says bookings are down 50 percent and cancelations are up 300 percent; its CEO is asking workers to take unpaid time off. Hotels in San Francisco are experiencing vacancy rates between 70 and 80 percent. Broadway goes dark on Thursday night. The CEOs of Southwest and JetBlue have both compared the impact of COVID-19 on air travel to 9/11. (That was before President Donald Trump banned air travel from Europe on Wednesday night.) Universities, now emptying their campuses, have never tried online learning on this scale. White-collar companies like Amazon, Apple, and the New York Times (and Slate!) are asking employees to work from home for the foreseeable future.

But what happens after the coronavirus?

In some ways, the answer is: all the old normal stuff. The pandemic will take lives and throttle economies and scuttle routines, but it will pass. Americans will never stop going to basketball games. They won’t stop going on vacation. They’ll meet to do business. No decentralizing technology so far—not telegrams, not telephones, not television, and not the internet—has dented that human desire to shake hands, despite technologists’ predictions to the contrary.

Yet there are real reasons to think that things will not revert to the way they were last week. Small disruptions create small societal shifts; big ones change things for good. The O.J. Simpson trial helped tank the popularity of daytime soap operas. The New York transit strike of 1980 is credited with prompting several long-term changes in the city, including bus and bike lanes, dollar vans, and women wearing sneakers to work. The 1918 flu pandemic prompted the development of national health care in Europe.

It seems like a good time to wonder: do you have stuff to Read? Write? Paint? Plant? Play?

Work on other stuff, or just yourself. Rest, and stay healthy. Think about what ‘different’ might be like, how it could be better.

Standard Future

An aside concerning the Away of the last week.

The green family spent last week in Northern California, a beautiful respite from the devilish heat that has HQ surrounded on all sides, now and especially then. We spent the American Independence Day in a certain city among many, many thousands of observant fellow Americans and I will report without irony that it was perhaps the most patriotically American-feeling Independence Day directly observed in some time. The context of that particular city, noted over the preceding days, perfectly foreshadowed this Independence Day sensation, and for one simple reason: it is the future of America. Allow me to explain.

The often-fraught, always divisive and currently repellant political culture of this country is predicated on the future being poor, uneducated, overweight, uninsured and underemployed like much of the South currently finds itself. But that’s not what the future looks like, and I don’t mean this as some kind of self-styled optimist, because, while occasionally hopeful, I’m not quite that. The future, I was reminded, is made up of a multi-generational diversity of people from all corners, educated and bottle-fed the same American go-getterism but rid, somehow, of the hate, fear and disdain that we seem to think naturally comes with it. Those things are an add-ons – they actually don’t come standard, as it turns out. Of course, this is the reason certain parties attach so much fear to the future. Without the add-ons, things are different, people care, congregate and relate as they get on with the business of the country, which is business, of course. But they vote in favor of things like health care and fast trains, know they might, just might, be able to affect the amount of energy people use with a few more options and some incentives.

The folks in the tricornes fetishize the past and we should take them at their word. It is the past. And the faster it turns into the future, and it is (I saw it), the louder the screaming will be.

We pedaled rented, two-wheel crafts hand-forged in the heartland through acres of Americans of all ethnicities, setting up their grills, beer coolers, card tables, FLAGS and volleyball nets in public spaces meant for viewing the fireworks over the Bay later that evening. Did I say flags? Not a surprise, of course, it was American Independence Day. But it was a good reminder and perhaps most other places than the American South you don’t need one, but people coming here want to be here for more reasons than to take your crappy stuff and whatever motivated their grandparents, three generations in, they are Americans, if not the country itself. It was inspiring and reassuring.

And of course, that city is also filled with the requisite amount of crazy people, many of them homeless. Why so, other than delightful weather? Upon closer investigation it seems that the city in question funds adequate services for all of its citizens, include the least among them, mainly because the people in it believe them all to be part of humanity and not some garbage island off of it.

So enjoy some independence from the idea of a threatening future for a while. It could be bad enough without being fully-equipped with all the racist fear-mongering that has traveled so well up to now. And keep in mind, in some places within our own borders, people are already finding ways to put it aside. Plus, all the new kids are coming with the standard model features anyway. So hold the add-ons.