It’s not a comfort to me that everyone now seems itching now to get back to their old daily life. At least the media surge is hauling us tidally in that direction. We’re barely two-to-four weeks into stay-in-place orders and conservative politicos are talking about how to open for business again. Famously, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said that old people in Texas were more than willing to die if it meant preserving the economy for their grandkids; infamously, Texas is one of several US states to recently pass legislation outlawing protests against fossil fuel infrastructure. Like the old 10cc song goes, in the rush to reopen it’s art for art sake, money for God’s sake.
It sure seemed that was last night as I drove across town for takeout barbecue. The roads were busy, there were ten cars lined up outside Dairy Queen for burgers and six ahead of me at the local BQ house.
Maybe early spring brings the same flush readiness, cabin fever abandoned for days still too cold but ripening in some distant outward way. It’s just our nature to shake off hibernation. It doesn’t help that so many are unwisely following their unreined feelings, flush like drunk teenagers at Spring Break, massing outside government buildings waving patriotic flags and bearing pandemically-nonsensical signage like “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death,” gathering without masks in a time when COVID-19 cases continue to surge, in the US at least. Elizabeth Kolbert writes that when a wave of cholera struck Russia in 1830, Tsarist troops tried to quarantine citizens and met with widescale rioting, an unrest which eventually led to the Russian Revolution. (Maybe not ironically, one of the signs at the recent protests read “Social Distancing = Communism”.)
But to get to my point (I doubt anyone still has patience for my drawn-out assays, especially in this cabin-fevered online meeting space), what kind of world awaits us? It’s like coming up from sleep still heavily laden from some dream: Reality is something we yawn and scratch and smack our lips for, shedding one form of duration to resume another.
It makes me wonder what we’re waking to. The human world has taken such a hit this past couple of months, who knows how it will resume, if it can, what depths we find ourselves in, what different tack we must take. I imagine it must be somewhat like driving down the scorched highways of Kangaroo Island after the immense wildfires which beset Australia earlier this year. No life in sight for miles and miles, just matchstick trees with all the presence inbetween, in the ghostly breeze. Life will return, but how indeed will the world wake back up in it?
Maybe it’s too early for such a survey. Epidemiologists uniformly warn of hasty reintroductions to daily life before the viral storm has truly passed. We are at least another month of self-isolation before that time, and remind us that second waves are often worse than the first. (The Spanish Flu epidemic a century ago killed 5 million in the first wave and 20 million in the second.)
Humans are so poorly adapted to their brains; we see the moment well but hardly lift a finger to save the latter ones. That’s why climate change so bedevils us. Someone likened all the mini-epidemics certain to sprout from hasty re-engagement without sufficient testing or protective gear to a temporal row of shark’s teeth. Twitter has been serving up clips from the movie Jaws where the town’s mayor, so eager not to scare off summer business, lifts the swimming ban only to have the town get bitten worse in its economic ass.
That kind of jaw gapes ahead of us, but what of this less-than-apocalyptically-feared moment? Researchers studying the China outbreak now suggest that four out of five infections have no symptoms. Most of us either have it (or will) and will hardly know it, leading less civil minds to what all the fuss is about. (Cue FOX News and other media outlets of the far-right squawkbox). Loud are the voices now shouting that our financial hygiene is much more dire than our collective health. Arguments against investing to fight climate change run exactly in the same way: No future tree is more valuable than today’s job.
Indeed, there’s mot much talk of climate emergencies these days, not with so much on our human plate. But hurricane season is coming and hot and hotter oceans spell wild and meaner storms. Similarly, there’s not much talk of resurgent COVID while everything urges toward Back to Business—not with personal peril seemingly so low! But just wait for the waves to follow—big ‘uns, especially in countries too divided and distracted to pay attention as well as poor ones without any means of preparation.
I wonder what workers in ravaged health care systems—doctors, nurses, morgue attendance, ambulance drivers and maintenance workers— think about unremitting waves of the infected to come, despite their every heroic effort. For us, the gaps in those teeth, latent with the promise of a return to normalcy; for them the razoring summits of every warning unheeded.
I wonder too if the same crossroads are this year being felt most keenly in the human response to climate change. Wakened by the need to rebuild a pandemic-ravaged global economy from the ground up, is this the year we waken to the challenge of climate change, shake off decades of denial and slumber, and get to work at last laying the groundwork and building the infrastructure of a sustainable future? Or will we fail to understand and grapple with pandemic in the smaller way we fail to respond to the much greater and long-lasting consequences of climate change?
For this week’s challenge—should you choose to accept it—is to write about the weird crossroads this moment now brings us to. What is it about the intersection of all we know we must keep doing and the contrary might of all we wish to return to? Where does responsible action come from, and how is it infected and deflected by wishful thinking? What is wrong with the human mind when it comes to smart survival? What makes a society work, what makes it divide? Is all growth painful? Are easy decisions always toxic? How do we successfully wake up from sleep and join the living again? Is there a Rip Van Winkle metaphor here to play with? What is there to return to? Does it look ghostly now? How fateful are the decisions we now make?
This Wednesday (April 22) is the 50th anniversary Earth Day, so you could also wonder what crossroad the Earth approaches or has passed.
Sign us a song of THE CROSSROAD!