As the pandemic nears its end and we start heading out into the world, will we go back to how things used to be, or will we take this opportunity to build a new normal?
I went to my book club last night.
Before the pandemic, I went to my book club monthly for five years. During the pandemic, the club gathered twice, on Zoom. Now that we’ve all been vaccinated and waited our fourteen days, we decided we could gather, and even eat together.
I loved being with my friends again — we’re all very loud when we need to be, there’s often hilarity, everybody brings really good food. But there was a niggling feeling in my gut all night:
This is too easy.
Sitting in a room with several people you have gone through years with is normal. Sitting on Zoom with them is not — but that had become routine, not just for me and my friends, but for most of us.
So when we leave Zoom behind and find ourselves once again at somebody’s kitchen table, we can’t help but ask: Am I really allowed to do this? In this case, yes, I am allowed, and it’s also wonderful.
But not everything we did in the Before Times was as wonderful. The familiarity of old ways doesn’t guarantee that those habits of being and doing were healthy for us, or positive for the world, or, to be honest, even enjoyable. In the case of my book club, going back was easy but it was also genuinely good.
What about the easiness of falling back to things that aren’t so good?
I used to work at the office, too often spending money on a big lunch that wasn’t good for me. Do I want to go back to that?
I used to occasionally do “retail therapy” with my friends, where we’d use an afternoon of shopping to ease our worried minds. Do I really need more clothes/furnishings/stuff, after a year in which everything I already have has served me well, and the planet is suffering a plague of waste? And is succumbing to consumer culture really any way to soothe the soul?
I used to travel a week a month. Was that the best use of my time, my energy, my virus antibodies, the world’s fossil fuels?
I have a choice right now. We all do. Do we go back to how it used to be, or do we build a new normal?
I’ve picked up some good habits during the pandemic. I walk everywhere, every day. I stretch, and put lotion on my skin. I talk with my husband every evening after work, sitting outside under the sycamore. I listen to birds. I’m more in touch with the physical place where I live than I have ever been, and the rhythm of my life gives me peace, even on days when I’m fearful or overwhelmed by the tragedy we’re living through. I’d like to keep some of these innovations. They all result from a new, pandemic-forced take on what’s important, and they make my life better.
As a society, we have parallel opportunities: in the aftermath of a world-changing challenge we can make choices to improve the quality of our collective life. For example, last year my city’s main street was transformed into a pedestrian plaza hosting outdoor dining. We could make that change permanent, putting people first on State Street. To take the thought a little further, in the same area there are now two huge empty retail spaces on either end of the mall, where the anchor department stores used to be. I’ve got my eye on those spaces, imagining them transformed into affordable living for people who don’t have cars, because in the Santa Barbara I’m imagining, you don’t need a car to live a vibrant life.
Stepping beyond my city to a larger scale, I see plenty of other opportunities to make new choices. We could decide to step back from consumer culture and the forces that drive it, like advertising and planned obsolescence, and buy less stuff. We could take action on the crisis of trash that has nowhere to go since other countries stopped accepting our “recycling.” We could move towards repowering with renewable energy. And that’s just the beginning.
Instead of waiting resignedly for the future at the end of the path we’ve been on, we could build the infrastructure we need for the future we want.
If we take this moment to change our habits, to take responsibility for the fact that our actions and decisions today will shape the future for ourselves and our kids, we could come out of this year of fear and darkness into a new light.
It would be so easy to go back.
As the pandemic wanes, I find myself praying that individually and collectively, we’ll choose forward instead.
Managing Director, Frontier Group; Senior Vice President, The Public Interest Network
Susan Rakov is the Director of Frontier Group, The Public Interest Network's research and policy development center. Frontier Group’s work informs public debate about degradations to the environment and public health, threats to consumer rights and democracy, and the available routes to a better future. Susan lives with her family in Santa Barbara, Calif., where she is an advocate for public education and an amateur singer/songwriter.