Published at 2020, April 24th
This is a pretty straight forward piece. I came across many different articles from different authors trying to shed light on the best routes of action to put things back the way they were before the coronavirus outbreak. Despite finding some very interesting and innovative ideas, I think these often lack the long-term vision that is part of many of the problems society and the planet face today.
Together with questioning what we need to make things to back to normal, which we naturally tend to do, we should also wonder if we really want to go back to normal. Do we really want to spend our time and focus our attention and entrepreneurial capacities rebuilding the pre-existing paradigm? How were things before the outbreak?
Of course, these are not innocent questions. We all know we live in unequal, humanly disconnected societies that are slowly but surely shutting down the ecosystem functions needed for the survival of so many species, including ours. But I have not seen much data around how bad things were before the outbreak, which is, I believe, essential to have on top of mind.
This constantly changing data might encourage (while also ashaming and shocking) us to focus on asking more questions rather than rushing to answer the first questions that arise. Finding the best solutions to the wrong problems would be a loss of time, energy, and resources. Rather, asking many questions as a result of facing “hidden facts” may leave us with less time to answer – but we’ll be closer to responding to the right questions.
Back to Normal Means Surviving Societies and a Deceiving System
(Take a deep breath in). According to Oxfam, inequality is on the rise as the world’s 8 richest people have the same wealth as the bottom 50% while one-tenth of humankind is chronically undernourished or hungry. There are 2 billion people who do not have basic sanitation facilities like toilets or latrines and around 827.000 people die every year due to inadequate water, sanitation, and hygiene.
There are oligarchies and authoritarian, anti-democratical regimes where people are highly controlled, spied, and where freedom and basic living conditions are scarce and restricted. It looks like sovereignty is above the defense of human rights, but that doesn’t stop trades and partnerships across nations to economically benefit from one another.
The number of refugees running from climate hazards, wars (often “financed” by developed countries), or looking for better living conditions rose globally from 25.4 million in 2017 up to 25.9 million in 2018. According to the UN, wars, violence, and persecution uprooted 70.8 million people in 2019. To make it worse, the rise of populism and nationalist governments and oppositions has been increasing hate speech and xenophobic rhetoric.
At the same time, (purposefully-implemented) different fiscal laws across countries and lobby pressures have been allowing tax escapes, with 40% of multinational profits ($200 billion) displaced to tax havens in 2019. This lost global tax revenue would have otherwise increase States’ working capital to improve public services and reduce taxation on low and mid-classes.
Free production and unregulated trades affect job stability and don’t create resilient supply-chains. Developing countries’ workers are employed by large retail groups that often pay them unfair and low salaries to keep prices competitive for global consumers. So when consumption decreases and large, low-cost-selling brands lose profitability, low-class workers are let jobless and in precarious situations, as is currently the case in Bangladesh.
Normal In Developed Countries: Many Depressed and Not so Healthy People
The people struggling above are very likely to aspire to live the lives of middle-class people in “western” societies. Unfortunately, being born in a secure and democratic country, benefiting from fairly decent education and healthcare systems and having a job that offers, at worse, a minimum wage, or instead, the chance to make some savings and consume comfortably does not seem to be the key to a healthy, balanced, fulfilled and happy life.
Yes, new medicine, vaccines, and hygiene made us live healthier and longer. But today we face growing diseases like obesity (tripled since 1975) or diabetes (tripled since 1980; 1 in 3 US adults have prediabetes). At the same time, there are new and more sophisticated cancers and virus-caused diseases while antibiotics resistance is a growing concern.
There are 264 million people of all ages suffer from depression and social anxiety disorder affects 6.8% of the U.S. population and 25.1% of children between 13 and 18 years worldwide. Linked to this are more than 40 million Americans suffering from chronic, long-term sleep disorders, and an additional 20 million report sleeping problems occasionally.
Exercise is known for having multiple positive effects on health and well-being. But only 1 in 4 US adults and 1 in 5 high school students meet the recommended physical activity guidelines. In the Old Continent, in a given week, more than half of Europeans do not do any vigorous physical activity and around half do not engage in moderate physical activity.
Back to Normal: Screen Addiction, Loneliness and Stress?
(Keep breathing) Globally, alcohol consumption causes 2.8 million premature deaths per year, and over 2% of the world population has an alcohol or illicit drug addiction. There are also high isolation levels: over 75 million European adults meet with family or friends at most once a month and around 30 million European adults frequently feel lonely. And it’s not just the elderly: 18-to-34-year-olds are more likely than over-55s to feel lonely often and to feel depressed because of loneliness.
Addiction to screens and gaming is also worrying. In America, nearly 1 in 10 youth gamers are addicted to video games, and the industry market value is estimated to grow from $27,7b in 2011 to $37,3b in 2021. American adults spend over 11 hours per day watching, reading, listening to, or simply interacting with media while American teenagers spend on average 9 hours a day with digital technology, entertaining themselves with streaming video, listening to music, and playing games. Studies show teens spending more time on social media, gaming, texting and video-chatting on their phones are not as happy as those playing sports, going outside, and interacting with real human beings.
Working conditions are rarely precarious but good overall health (especially mental) and balance are far from being guaranteed. While 55% of Americans are stressed during the day, 83% of US workers suffer from work-related stress (which also affects personal relationships – the third most stressing concern (after the future of the nation and money).
Wildlife and Ecosystems Don’t Want Us to Go Back to Normal Either
At the ecological level, it’s catastrophic. 35 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere every year, causing global warming and threatening the balance of ecosystems. Climate change extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and the fires, droughts, heatwaves, or cyclones we’re already watching will come increasingly often and harder.
Besides fossil fuels, mineral reserves from lithium, aluminum, and others are being exhausted. A third of the planet’s land is severely degraded and fertile soil is being lost at the rate of 24bn tonnes/year, mostly due to intensive farming practices.
15 billion trees are cut down each year and weakening ecosystems to a point where 60% of all biodiversity has been lost over the last 4 decades. Air pollution kills 4.2 million people every year and rivers and oceans are drowning in chemicals and plastics.
Getting to The Right Questions, Building a New Normal
Normal is not that perfect, far from that. Let’s try to build something new, something different. Let’s ask more questions across all areas of society before rushing to find solutions to the wrong problems.
Thinking long-term, more holistically, and considering we need to co-operate with the natural world and live in balance with it rather than mastering it to our exclusive joy may help, together with accepting we can’t control it all.
“Developed” societies are probably closer a life worth living. But we also need to assume too many people have meaningless jobs they don’t enjoy while others are simply surviving and spend their time getting distracted by social media, movies, online games, sports others perform, consumption…
All this while often devaluing face-to-face time (which social, cooperative species like ours need to feel fulfilled) and not knowing how to take care of our bodies and minds. Before setting out a new normal, shouldn’t we set where our priorities, well-being, and happiness lie?