The normal problems of ordinary people – my very little essay on Covid-19

Noticing the taken-for-granted in novel ways

I feel acutely that my own experience since the pandemic has been privileged. I have also reduced my intake of Covid-related online news, but I am routinely conscious of heightened levels of anxiety. Nobody, least of all the British government, needs explicitly to encourage me to “Stay Alert”!

But this novelty on planet Earth, the virus known as Sars-CoV-2, hasn’t merely created anxiety, it has got folks thinking.

In this post, I too shall muse on what could be learned from the unprecedented transformations to everyday habits that the pandemic has brought about. Like most people around the world, I hanker for a more normal life. More than that though, I want more people to rethink and rework what normal means.

bell curve

https://www.mathsisfun.com/data/standard-normal-distribution.html

A good place to start would be to acknowledge that although normal in the sense of predictable and safe is no doubt worth cherishing, normal is not a synonym for universal or ordinary. As a way to categorise things in the world, the normal is a specifically modern concept. It rose in importance alongside the development of statistics for public policy (a fascinating story, beautifully told at least by Porter).

But normality in modern life also became a cultural thing. Thought of as the unremarkable and unmarked lifestyles of “modern people”, it’s also an aspiration, perhaps more than ever before in history even. Sometimes it is even a comfort, as in being categorised as normal as opposed to belonging to a risk group.

These days normality is also an existential issue for the planet. Stop to think about it, and habits that are utterly normal in modern times, people’s normal hopes and dreams, and of course, normal forms of consumption, are, or they at least create, problems for the future of human life on the planet. None are sustainable.

It’s also true that NOT consuming ‘normally’ is an economic problem. People have been told to protect themselves from Covid-19 and avoid ordinary activities like shopping and travel, but we are also incessantly being told that this avoidance is itself a huge problem.

We don’t actually need to be told. There are plenty of signs of this in our town and cities.

Vuokrataan Turku 2020

One of many to-let signs in retail properties spotted today in Turku, Finland.

Living a paradox so acutely makes you think. It’s strengthened a hunch of mine from years back. I think the normal, ordinary, taken-for-granted things that make up modern life are weird. I’ve been baffled that this weirdness, the pushing and supporting of unsustainable socio-economic structures that are known to be so damaging, isn’t recognised as a form of madness by everyone. My hunch is that it’s because the weird was long ago made normal.

That said, many have been shouting lucidly about how the pandemic indicates that thinghs were badly wrong were before Covid-19 already. They are now noting that perhaps the kind of normal that passed for “global” wasn’t much to celebrate. To quote Dan  Hill’s wonderful Slowdown Papers:

Crucially, then, the virus is intrinsic to the same patterns of activity that create the climate crisis, and its attendant crises of chronic health and inequalities. In essence, the virus is an articulation of … crisis

Some people even started asking could the pandemic actually usher in more progress.

Anyone interested in environmental issues therefore, is bound to be fascinated by the cultural, including economic, and the technical ruptures of 2020 as well as the ecological dimensions of the pandemic. The nasty future that green thinkers have long been concerned about has, in some significant way, now arrived. The links between disease in our bodies and diseased environments, links that environmental justice campaigners have had to work hard to establish, are now horribly real. The pandemic and the troubles around it amount to a kind of unveiling, as a friend put it, of all manner of self-deluding stories that all is normal and all is well. Stories of ordinary people in ordinary places who have for decades protested against ordinary threats to their quality of life, have a different hue now. Covid-19 is thus an environmental justice issue.

The havoc that the virus wreaks is worst for the most vulnerable. But even the most comfortable among us learned what it means to be scared and feel threatened.

Normal, natural, dysfunctional – making the choices

Anyone interested in changes to planetary systems has been expecting a pandemic and been at pains to point out that it is not a natural disaster.

That also means there are important choices to be made about how we respond. It’s too late to hide behind the neoliberal mantra of the last 40 or so years, that There Is No Alternative. Demanding the impossible is no longer just realistic, it’s imperative. Having followed some protest networks in recent years, I also know it’s happening. There is less talk about how complicated and impossible to fix things are and more action to make change.

You could say humanity has really taken action in recent months. You could also (though I’d hesitate to do it) argue that nature has returned with a vengeance.

I always recommend caution with big, capitalizable, words like Nature and Humanity. They erase devastating inequalities and make us ignore interesting histories. Yet Inger Andersen and Johan Rockström, writing in Time magazine, are quite quotable:

Humanity’s dysfunctional relationship with nature has caused this wider disease.  … [Covid-19] evolved into a pandemic due to the now well-established risk cocktail of the 21st century: ecosystem destruction, species loss, global warming, colliding with risky human behavior like illegal wildlife trade. All of this has played out in a globalized network of trade and travel.

That’s a scary list, but much worse are the direct and indirect human impacts of the disease: physical pain and incapacity, sometimes going on for weeks, fear of being an asymptomatic carrier, restrictions on movement and other everyday activities, losing loved ones, but also income, home, routine and social contacts. During lock-downs in particular, the toll on mental health, and in some cases life, has been off-the-scale scary. As social life shifted into physically isolated places, the scary translated into long-term devastating but also unnoticed.

As it harms, the virus is an amplifier of pre-existing inequalities and injustices.  The pandemic has also been used to great effect by the greedy or simply those for whom market competition is natural: purveyors of protective equipment, those who make money in healthcare, and all those for whom crisis equals opportunity, like tech-companies and all those who feel reliant on the ‘solutions’ they offer.

A crisis opens up all kinds of opportunities, including those lucid commentaries I hinted at, on how the pandemic could help prepare for worse disaster to come. I’d recommend at least Rebecca Solnit’s essay on hope in The Guardian (drawing similar insights as her excellently titled A Paradise Built in Hell) Dan Hill’s Slowdown papers (quoted above), several #NoBackToNormal videos from degrowth advocates, sustainability lobbying from Paul Chatterton, and, in a slightly oblique way, rethinking the power of science from Lorraine Daston.

There is quite simply a wealth of news about how, in the last weeks and months, what was considered impossible and utopian has happened or, more importantly, been made to happen.

Then there is this interesting initiative from Bruno Latour, ‘Where to land after the pandemic? A paper and … a platform’. This collective endeavour seeks ways forward that do NOT involve going back to what is, as the site notes, a catastrophic normal.

The only way to take advantage of the current situation is to learn the political lesson this virus provides us. It is capable of imposing its law everywhere in the world…

Latour starts from the observation that the pandemic has led to the halting of many activities once thought not just normal but absolutely necessary. The results – like quieter skies, cleaner air, recovering Parisian and other once-clogged up streets from motorised traffic – can take us from the concrete and actually existing to thinking more creatively about the possible and potentially desirable.

What should be stopped? What should be developed?

Values, futures and other tools for sustainable designers

In response to the virus, teaching went online of course. This included the course I co-taught with my wonderful colleague Idil Gaziulusoy, Values in Design Futures, as part of the Creative Sustainability masters programme. It brought together sustainable design, trans-disciplinary futures work and the anthropological study of value formation. We could obviously not avoid dealing with the Covid-19 outbreak. I know many of the students found it difficult emotionally as well as academically, we assigned an essay on the pandemic. I’m pleased to report that the results were excellent and, I hope, empowering more than distressing.

Using the texts and concepts we considered in class, particularly around how values become concrete in the design of environments and habits, students were able to reflect not only on problems and fears, but on society’s ability, despite deeply ingrained conceptions that There Is No Alternative, to respond creatively, swiftly and thoughtfully to threats.

Had I written an essay on the topic myself, I would probably have continued along the train of thought from my earlier musings in Repair, Brokenness, Breakthrough, edited by Francisco Martinez and Patrick Laviolette by arguing that although most powerful decision makers are totally oblivious to the fact, modernity and its problems are fundamentally cultural. I know among anthropologists such claims raise eyebrows, but basically, unless anthropologists and others show evidence of modern normality being utterly peculiar and probably toxic for both planet and people, the multiple crises it has set in motion are unlikely to be addressed with seriousness.

I would have written, echoing Idil, about how I dream about a world without carbon emmissions. I’d have written about how futures research has already generated scenarios, forecasts and speculative visions of futures that don’t depend on fossil fuel. I’d also write about how one might imagine a world that had taken a different track from around the 1970s oil crisis. My understanding is that the neoliberal, competitive, extractive and mostly macho culture that actually came to dominate not just in business but in geopolitics, in municipal government and even individual decision making, can be traced to events and choices of the 1970s. I’d write about the advertising slogan for an internet provider, “speed makes the world small”, and its loud, clear and clueless proclamation of values that are likely to push human life into danger zones that few actually want.

Kun nopeus on suuri

I’d find a way to argue that now, with the pandemic making people long for things to be normal, in the sense of safe and predictable, designers, politicians and everyone who wants to make the world a better place, could get a lot out of simply questioning what passes for normal.

I mean, I don’t believe that the airports, motorways, industrial zones and polluted skies above them, were ever so easily accepted as the only route forward. I believe that the achievement must owe a lot to the skills and cunning of marketing and design. It was those institutions, after all, that made them normal. If anything is cultural, surely that is.

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