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On Pandemics and New Ways of Living
Will we be able to build systems that are more caring, more respectful of people, animals, and the Earth?
Throughout history, pandemics and other such crises have preceded major changes in societies. That may be because they act as mirrors reflecting the problems with the way we’ve been living and with the vulnerabilities of the systems we’ve created to organize ourselves. This current coronavirus situation is no different. It has laid bare problems with our economic systems and our governments, and with the worst aspects of our own human nature, including the social structures we’ve created, which embody entrenched discrimination of various sorts. And it has highlighted the problems with the way we treat the planet and has focused many minds on how health emergencies relate to the climate emergency.
In a recent article, author Arundhati Roy wrote that this pandemic presents an opportunity to imagine and create solutions to those problems. She says that we have reached “…a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”
Over the past few months, I have found myself wondering if we will accept our collective responsibility to create – let alone fight for – that different world. Will this, like pandemics before it, be a tipping point for escaping our current emergency? Will we be able to quickly build systems that are more caring, more respectful of people, animals, and the Earth?
Of course, many of us are too preoccupied with present concerns to even envision change. We are grieving the way things used to be and are feeling fear for what the future could bring. Many more are suffering because they’re sick, have lost loved ones, still have to work at dangerous low-paying jobs, or are homeless or one step from there.
However, there is strength in the fact that the models are already here to carry us through the transition and create a more just world while addressing the health, economic, and climate crises. I’ve been writing and publishing articles and books about those models for over 40 years; I’ve provided some links below from my publications. Some of us have already developed the practical skills necessary, many more of us are interested in developing them, and there is no lack of people eager to share their knowledge, especially the elders in our communities. So, despite the naysayers who don’t realize (or want to admit) that the current model is broken, we can do this – if we want to.
Creating a kinder, more resilient economy geared to local needs, rather than one geared to profit, greed, and consumption, would solve many of our problems. To that end, our governments could adopt new measures of their countries’ well-being rather than encouraging unbridled economic growth with no regard for impacts on people and planet. Other economic models are flourishing, such as worker cooperatives, public banking, local currencies, and participatory budgeting. Studies have shown that a universal basic income could create the circumstances for everyone to thrive, and the political will to enable that seems closer than ever as a result of the pandemic’s financial challenges to the employed and self-employed alike.
A demonstration of how communities can function as we move from capitalist greed and dependency on oil to local resilience and sustainability is being provided by the Transition Town movement. Indeed, a large part of the new green economy that the Transition Town movement envisions is already in place. For instance, we already have a clean energy industry (despite those who would have us believe that green energy isn’t “scalable”) and examples of transportation that pollute less than what has become the norm. Furthermore, this Great Pause has demonstrated that travel isn’t always necessary and that virtual business interactions can often replace face-to-face ones.
Meaningful interpersonal contact is still important to our well-being, of course, and community kitchens, community eco villages, and cohousing projects are flourishing around the world as alternatives to the isolation, alienation, and lack of sustainability of so much conventional housing. Community living also facilitates community food production, which helps reinforce local food supplies.
And that’s important because the pandemic has negatively impacted both the operation of factory farms and the related food supply chains. Fortunately, some people are demonstrating how we can take control of own food supplies using a variety of mechanisms, including Permaculture, a term that was coined in the 1970s. Permaculture system co-founder Bill Mollison has pointed out the importance of moving from food consumption to food production, even if on a small scale, in our own gardens, in order to provide quality food and to deal with larger structural issues. The slow and local food movements have helped create an awareness of – and hunger for – high quality, chemical-free food. They have also connected many urban and rural people alike with local farmers, relationships that have flourished during this period of self-isolation with the help of online networking and ordering.
COVID-19 is also bringing into sharp focus the gaps in our healthcare systems, particularly the problems created by profit-driven healthcare and eldercare. At the same time, people are noticing that healthcare is different from wellness creation, and that the latter is something for which we can take responsibility ourselves. And that includes making lifestyle changes due to the realization that many of our elevated disease rates are linked to or influenced by environmental chemicals.
During this pandemic, social and economic issues around parenting – especially mothering – and childcare have come into public focus as it’s become apparent that schools provide a major daycare function in our society. A universal basic income would allow parents to continue to stay home with their children post-pandemic. And that could help widen the educational choices available to families, including allowing children to take control of their own learning. Despite the challenges of sacrificing income into order to stay at home with children, the five-decade-long model of modern home-based education has resulted in thousands of happy, independent but community-minded, well-educated young people. (And no, what most families are doing right now isn’t homeschooling; it’s pandemic school-at-home, driven – like regular school – by teachers rather than learners. I don’t believe it’s a model for positive change.)
These are just a few of the sectors where change is already happening. Now is the time to work together to put these examples into practice on a larger scale if we don’t want to live in a world that’s even angrier, hotter, more polluted, and less just than the one before Covid-19. We can be the change we want to see.