Earth Day, Covid-19 and rethinking "normal"

Posted by Anne Fletcher on

apple tree in blossomPlease forgive this detour from our normal gardening posts.  

Earth Day is a big deal here at Orta. We're an environmental company at our core, founded to help people connect with nature by growing plants.  And on this 50th anniversary of Earth Day, I’m feeling strangely hopeful that all the suffering we’re enduring now will help us reset our ideas of “normal” enough that we may be able to avert the slower moving, yet still looming, global catastrophe of climate change.

Earth Day falling in the middle of our collective planetary lock down, just two days after the price of oil went below $0 per barrel for the first time ever, may be a once-in-a-generation opportunity for environmental change.  When the status quo was working (sort-of, or well-enough anyway) for enough of earth’s humans (the wealthy ones), the sorts of massive changes that we’ve known for decades would be necessary to avoid the worst of climate change seemed impossible.  Our “way of life” was too fixed, and too dependent on fossil fuels.

Yet almost overnight the pandemic has brought about many of those changes:  Airplanes are grounded, freeways are empty, air pollution is dramatically down everywhere, fish are being left in the ocean because it turns out restaurants buy most of the world’s fish.  Of course those changes coming so swiftly, and with so much human suffering, are hardly what anyone would have chosen. But now that we’re here, those of us lucky enough to be healthy, to have enough to eat and a place to stay, and not be on the front lines of the pandemic, have a responsibility to work towards emerging from this shock with foundations for a greener future. That work starts with learning all we can from this huge disruption to the “normal” we once thought immutable.

The concept of “normal” that we all desperately hoped would return after a couple weeks hiatus (ha!) is clearer now with some distance.  “The true voyage of discovery is not in seeing new places, but in having new eyes,” said Marcel Proust. As anyone who has ever experienced culture shock knows, the best time to truly see your own habits is returning from a long trip, before you get back into “normal.”  We’re in the middle of a long strange trip indeed.

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What the hell is water?’”  In the commencement speech where David Foster Wallace tells that story, he explains “The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.”

“Seeing the water” is the central metaphor of the design class I’ve been teaching in various forms for the last decade or so, and is a useful concept right now.  For designers to solve problems well and, critically, to choose the right problems to solve in the first place, they must find ways to “see the water” around them, to understand that what everyone takes as “normal”  is actually an invisible collective construct that can and does change, though usually not very much nor very fast. The construct is at its most visible in flux, or when you switch from one to another, as in culture shock.  Never in our lives has the “water” been this visible to so many at the same time.

All that touching and gathering we see on TV, evidence of the olden days - shocking!  I mean, parties! Will we ever see them the same way again? So many of the things that just seemed routine BC (Before Corona) seem ludicrous now that we’ve learned about “essential.”  Those flights across the country for a 2-hour meeting, hopping in the car to grab just one ingredient for dinner. What? So many of these “couldn’t live without” habits, it turns out we can, and do, live without.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not arguing social distancing forever.  I’m as excited as the next parent for school to start, not to mention getting back to jobs and paychecks, and oh yeah, the deadly virus being contained . . .  But now is an excellent time to take stock, and to use this massive shake-up to look clearly at the “water” in ways we never have before. As many, many, commentators have pointed out, the cracks in the system are opening wide for all to see: inequality, inadequate health care system, shaky financials and too much debt to name a few.

The personal “water” is more visible now too.  When your "normal" is taken from you, the things you really value and need come to the fore.  And new ideas for what’s possible emerge. I’d never have believed that such quiet could exist in an urban area, and that it could be so calming.  I’ve never felt safer from cars when I’m out walking now or riding a bike. The air has rarely been this clean.  

Of course these luxuries coming at the cost of thousands of lives and millions of jobs is not the right way to achieve them.  But environmental and street safety activists have been proposing economically feasible plans to achieve exactly those ends for years.  What if going back to work means embracing projects that move us forward instead of back to the old, dirty “normal”?  In fact Milan is already doing just that, converting 35km of streets to cycling and pedestrian routes as it prepares to reopen the economy.

So on this, the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, when a virus that’s not even technically alive has managed to create in 5 months changes that decades of activism could not, I ask you to consider what kind of world we want when we emerge.  “Normal” as we knew it is gone, if only because it’s been seen so clearly now by so many.

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