Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Lest We Forget

"We can't return to normal, because the normal that we
had was precisely the problem."
spray-painted on a wall in Hong Kong

On September 11, 2001, a group of terrorists launched four coordinated attacks in the United States, using commercial aircraft as weapons.  We later learned that two strategic objectives of the attacks were to goad the United States into initiating conflicts in the Middle East, and the diversion and depletion of the American economy (although the second goal was paradoxically defeated by the first war on foreign soil is always good for business).

However, there was another impact, felt all over the world:  a unilateral drop in civil liberties (and common sense).  For example, for the last two decades, we have all paid the enormous price for continually enhanced screening measures in airports the world over, and air travellers have wasted untold hours in line ups and suffered the frustration and costs of denied items.  Why?  One lesson learned on that September morning was that aircraft pose a unique threat.  If terrorists can take control of an aircraft, or get explosives on-board, the potential loss of life extends well beyond that of the passengers, and the images of destruction will haunt generations.  So you make the cockpits secure and you screen for bombs, right?

What does that have to do with scissors or pocket knives or knitting needles?  How could a person possibly inflict more damage with those on a aircraft than they could on a train or bus or subway?  Why is a drill bit a lethal weapon but a heavy metal ballpoint pen isn't?  Why does the word "knife" make one-third of plastic cutlery inadmissible?  Why was my masking tape confiscated (as a possible hand-binding item) but my computer mouse with the 6-foot wire cord was not?  (True story.)  When will we learn that humans in general are appallingly bad at the simple math of risk assessment in any aspect of their lives?  And when do we realize that even the supposed security experts are mainly putting on a charade, as if all terrorists had the imagination of a carpet tack.

There is nothing new in any of the foregoing we've ranted about it for years.  And this only considers one tiny aspect of the significant changes to our civil liberties and social well-being.  But it tells a phenomenally important story about what we are about to face...

Plenty of people are asking when this CoViD-19 pandemic will all be over.  That depends on your perspective.  The 9-11 attacks were over in a matter of hours, and yet it has been more than 18 years and the 9-11 attacks still show no signs of ending any time soon.  Sadly, I think it very likely that we will be pressured to make exactly the same mistakes all over again.

Pandemic Misery

This pandemic is not just a freak of nature.  New viruses wink in and out of existence all the time.  If they happen to get the perfect chemistry going, they can become virulent and deadly to humans, but that's only a small part of the story.  Pandemics can only spread using the channels that we explicitly create for their transmission.  We carve those grooves into the social landscape, and the virus simply flows along the lines that we have been establishing over decades.  For cholera and typhoid, it was crowded urban centres with inadequate sanitation.  For HIV/AIDS it was unprotected sex and unsafe practices in the use of illicit intravenous drugs.  For something as large and widespread as CoViD-19 the grooves had to be deep and extensive.  Here's a diverse selection of those factors required in order to achieve the resulting human misery, with more coming to light each day:
  • Conditions like those found in live wild animal markets where viral mutations can effectively transition between species.
  • Staggeringly important decisions made, based on economics, not medicine.
  • Millions of people rapidly crisscrossing the globe by air.
  • A scarcity-equals-value mindset that, combined with selfishness, leads to hoarding, even of items that are non-essential.
  • Ongoing trade wars and conflicts being fought with crushing sanctions.
  • Divided populations who treat everything as a partisan issue.
  • Longstanding and continual governments cuts to healthcare, emergency planning, scientific research, and social safety nets.
  • Small regions that create more than half of the world's supply of critical items, such as face masks (Hubei province, China) and nasopharyngeal swabs (Lombardy, Italy).
  • Politicians with zero credibility.
  • Ubiquitous tools for anyone to spread misinformation, panic, and propaganda.
  • The marginalization of bottom-tier labour that (it turns out) is essential to our survival.
  • Treating the movement of medical essentials as a commercial supply chain.
  • Generations of people '(re-)educated' to dispute scientific evidence.
  • Popular crisis reactions being hoarding, price gouging, and scams to steal money.
  • Emergency plans that focus on economic bailouts as opposed to humanitarian imperatives.
  • Complacency or denial surrounding issues that pose a threat to our species or others.
  • A near total absence of community resiliency and self-sufficiency.
  • Huge populations unable to access clean water for washing because international aid was conditional on water resources being privatized.
  • Governments motivated and willing to repress information and/or deny reality.
  • Concentrations of vulnerable populations in places like long-term care homes and slums.
  • The obsessive pursuit of 'economic efficiency' to the detriment of back-up redundancy and resilience.
Each and every one of these characteristics of our twenty-first century world had (and is having) a direct impact on whether or not a pandemic occurred, how many would die, and how we are all affected.  The question, then, is not "When will this all be over?"  The question is "How many of those factors do we wish to retain as part of the brand new status quo?", for there is absolutely no question that, even more than the legacy of the September 11th attacks, a clear delineation will been made between the world of before and the world after.  Our societal norms and value systems are going to change.  Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that they are going to be changed intentionally.

Indeed, they already have been, which leads us to an even more immediate consideration.  In The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein compellingly documents how states and powerful economic players have taken advantage of (or even facilitated) significant social, political, and economic crises in order to impose profound structural changes on populations who are initially in a state of total shock.  Emergency powers are created or invoked for the temporary management of the crisis, but once in place, those powers never quite completely disappear.  Laws are rewritten.  Neighbourhoods levelled by war or natural disasters are seized and/or transferred to well-connected developers for pennies.  Once again, there is a very real concern for the resurgence of what Klein calls disaster capitalism, especially as projections for the timeline of our current crisis grow ever longer.  To make things even more dangerous, the present conditions make effective discussion, court challenges, and debate of their implications impossible.

It is not just nefarious changes that we have to be fearful of.  As the weeks of self-isolation and emergency coping turn into months, we will unquestionably be forming new habits of our own.  (A study by Phillippa Lally at University College London showed that, while a new habit took anywhere from 18 to 254 days to become automatic, the average was 66 days.)  When we emerge from sheltering-in-place, I think we'll soon return to shaking hands it is the kind of contact we have been craving, but replacement habits such as inflated social media time, online entertainment, videoconferencing, and moderate physical distancing may not be fading quite so quickly.  How soon will the new Plexiglas barriers at grocery checkouts be coming down?  I suspect they'll still be there long past their pragmatic relevance.

So, while the experts seek a vaccine or treatment, it makes sense for the rest of us to take a serious look not at the SARS-CoV-2 virus as much as the context for the whole pandemic and everything that was wrong with our approach to life long before it struck.  I like the way visionary author Charles Eisenstein puts it:  When your goldfish gets sick, do you attempt to treat the fish or do you clean the long-neglected tank?

Brave New World?

It did not take long for some hopeful progressives to see this crisis as an opportunity.  As someone who devotes a lot of time to thinking and writing about value systems, I'm definitely one of those people.  Consider:  I proposed in The Value Crisis that humankind places far too much emphasis on values measured by number those being values where more is always worth more.  They have no built-in sufficiency and thus lead to obsessions with impossible maximization.  Such values now consistently trump non-numeric values such as happiness, justice, beauty, compassion, and so on.  (You might note that most of the pandemic-misery factors I listed above can be derived directly from number-based values related to economic growth, profit maximization, dismissing ecological concerns, etc.)  But there's a Catch-22 conundrum: 
The bulk of the world will never change its value system until it sees a real benefit in doing so, but the only way to see that benefit is if you are using a different value system.
In other words, one point of view says that real change can only come when the existing value system fails (and fails catastrophically).  Many assumed that climate change would be that alarm bell.  Could the natural world be giving us yet another wake-up call (with no snooze button this time)?

The desire to return to the old incumbent socioeconomic paradigm will have powerful leadership, momentum, and broad support.  The previous status quo will be the well-defined default, and life, in general, abhors change.  It is only if the changes imposed by the crisis itself are profound enough (and, sadly, devastating enough) that the opportunity for the acceptance of a new paradigm will open up.  Lasting changes to the way we manage our economies, for example, will require new policies and new legislation.  Such retooling is going to need much longer than a single term of government to achieve, and as such, it's going to need constant and extended support from the electorate.

In March 2020, one week before the pandemic reached Canadian shores, I had just submitted the first complete draft of a second book to my editor.  The objective of that new work was to propose concrete actions to promote human (i.e. non-numeric) values in one's individual life, and to share alternatives to number-based social paradigms in general.  It's not that we don't understand qualitative human values of course we do!  The problem is that they are consistently trumped by quantitative values.  My first goal, then, was to encourage individual readers to experiment with all kinds of actions that would allow them to enjoy the benefits of thinking differently to restore some balance in our choices of which value systems take precedence in different aspects of their lives.  My second goal was to show that, while the current collective systems will often try to devalue such actions or make them appear irrational, there are also fully pragmatic societal solutions that would respect such values at the community and state level.

In other words, I wanted to show that you can experience true joy by easily acting more intentionally on human values, and that there are plausible economic adjustments for society that would actually work to embrace those same values for all.  The idea is not to replace one value system for another  it is to restore a balance so that one does not consistently override the other.  We need both number-based and qualitative values to function in this world!

My hope at the time was that individuals, families, and small communities could conceivably transition in small pockets, and there might be a growing familiarity with societal alternatives, should the opportunity ever arise.  I never expected that the potential for that opportunity might appear within a week of my manuscript being completed and submitted!  Not surprisingly, that work is now being redrafted to reflect some of the new context a non-trivial exercise, since the context itself continues to change.

[EDIT: That new work, titled "Our Second Chance", is now available.]

A Dire Warning

There will be enormous pressure, both from within ourselves and from the world's most powerful players to restore as much of the past status quo as possible when this pandemic subsides.  The only changes the privileged few will want to see are those that even further enhance the ability of the old value system to trump the new one.  The obsessive pursuit of power through financial wealth and devastation perpetrated in the impossible pursuit of continued economic growth will continue to take precedence over sustainability, happiness, justice, compassion, giving, collaboration, creativity, spirituality, and all those other values with no price tag.  Those old values were already hurtling us towards global inequity, biodiversity extinction, climate change, environmental destruction, economic collapses, and more.  We now have an even clearer picture of the before, the effect, and the possible after.

As many of us sit at home in isolation, considering our own mortality and what's really important, and looking out the window at the world we are leaving for our children, there are some among us who will wisely take some of that time to rethink our values.  They will seethe with anger at the way some leaders and industries are showing their true colours and beam with pride for others.  They will begin to read about previously marginalized 'radical' ideas like Guaranteed Basic Incomes and the like.  They will look at grocery store workers and hospital cleaners differently.  They will feel the visceral connection to those in their community desperate to show compassion, and the contrasting gut reaction to those out to profit from despair.  They will regret the untold extra hours they had previously discarded to work and pursuit of wealth instead of being with family and friends.  They will begin to envision how things might be different.

But wishing for a new world will be like wishing for their evening meal  it won't make itself.  The odds are overwhelmingly not in our favour.  We have to talk about this.  We have to be open to change and actively explore new ideas.  We have to live our own lives a little differently, as well as standing up and calling for new paradigms for our communities and nations.

Lest we forget.

[EDIT: I now have a proposal for what should come next.]


  1. Great piece of writing. I wonder whether, as time goes on, small groups have the opportunity (though at a distance) to create, let me call them 'community experiment cells', to sow the seeds of this new, more balanced paradigm, before the 'after' hits us and governments race to establish yesterday's status quo. Working with 'let' systems, barter and the like, or other alternative ways of surviving with dignity and care for all. It might be difficult right now, but as time goes on, we may see a movement towards more local economies and cultures.

  2. Great piece Andrew. Many thoughts that require time to digest. Long may you rant and share. Stay safe.

  3. It all makes such sense...like most of the ideas you put forth...I would like to think that this incredible pandemic drastic though it is, may be a measure for many...I do believe in the power of one...and one...and one...there are many of us now that find it all difficult to ignore...perhaps we can grow the numbers of those who see the wisdom in change and the folly of clinging to what is familiar...we do this even in the most awful and personally detrimental of situations...people who stay with their abuser because it is what they know etc...it takes 'personal' enlightenment...no one can 'tell you' what is best for you even if it is as obvious as the sky being blue, it must come from a personal belief shift in order for it to happen or to last...Let us pray...we can and should each of us do our part


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