majority of people do not want to return to business-as-usual after the
pandemic, but our governments are determined to make us do so.
Monbiot, published in the Guardian 22nd July 2020
Out there somewhere, marked on no map but tantalisingly near, is a
promised land called Normal, to which one day we can return. This is the
magical geography we are taught by politicians, such as Boris Johnson with his
return to normality”. It is the story we tell ourselves, even if we
contradict it with the very next thought.
There are practical reasons to believe that Normal is a fairyland,
to which we can never return. The virus has not gone away, and is likely to
keep recurring in waves. But let’s focus on another question. If such a land
existed, would we want to live there?
The polls consistently suggest we would not. A survey
by BritainThinks a fortnight ago showed that only 12% of people want life
to be “exactly as it was before”. A poll
at the end of June, commissioned by the nursery provider Bright Horizons,
suggests that just 13% of people want to return to working as they did before
the lockdown. A YouGov
study in the same week revealed that only 6% of us want the same type of
economy as we had before the pandemic. Another
survey by the same pollsters in April showed only 9% of respondants wanted
a return to “normal”. It’s rare to see such strong and consistent results on
any major issue.
Of course, we would all like to leave the pandemic behind, with
its devastating impacts on physical and mental health, its exacerbation of
loneliness, the lack of schooling and the collapse in employment. But this
doesn’t mean that we want to return to the bizarre and frightening world the
government defines as normal. Ours is no land of lost content, but a place in
which lethal crises were gathering long before the pandemic struck. Alongside
our many political and economic dysfunctions, normality meant accelerating the
strangest and deepest predicament humankind has ever confronted: the collapse
of our life-support systems.
Last month, confined to our homes, we watched columns of smoke
rising from the Arctic, where temperatures reached a highly
abnormal 38°C. Such apocalyptic imagery is becoming the backdrop to our
lives. We scroll past images of fire consuming Australia, California, Brazil,
Indonesia, inadvertently normalising them. In a brilliant
essay at the beginning of this year, the author Mark O’Connell described
this process as “the
slow atrophying of our moral imaginations”. We are acclimatising ourselves to
our existential crisis.
When business as usual resumes, so does the air pollution that kills
more people every year than Covid-19 has yet done, and exacerbates
the impacts of the virus. Climate breakdown and air pollution are two
aspects of a wider dysbiosis. Dysbiosis means the unravelling of ecosystems.
The term is used by doctors to describe the collapse of our gut biomes. But it
is equally applicable to all living systems: rainforests, coral reefs, rivers,
soil. They are unspooling at shocking speed, due to the cumulative impacts of
normality, which means a perpetual expansion of consumption.
month we learnt that $10 billion-worth of precious metals, such as gold and
platinum, are dumped
in landfill every year, embedded in tens of millions of tonnes of lesser
materials, in the form of electronic waste. The world’s production of e-waste
is rising by 4% a year. It is driven by another outlandish norm: planned
obsolescence. Our appliances are designed to break down, and are
deliberately engineered not to be repaired. This is one of the reasons why the
average smartphone, containing precious materials extracted at great
environmental cost, lasts for between two and three years, while the average
desktop printer prints for a total of five hours and four minutes before it is
living world, and the people it supports, cannot sustain this level of
consumption, but normal life depends on its resumption. The compound, cascading
effects of dysbiosis push us towards what some scientists warn could be global
polls on this issue are also clear: we do not want to return to this madness. A
survey suggests that 8 out of 10 people want the government to prioritise
health and well-being above economic growth during the pandemic, and 6 out of
10 would like it to stay that way when (if) the virus abates. A survey
by Ipsos produces a similar result: 58% of British people want a green
economic recovery, while 31% disagree. As in all such polls,
Britain sits close to the bottom of the range. By and large, the poorer the
nation, the greater the weight its people give to environmental issues. In
China, in the same survey, the proportions are 80% and 16%, and in India, 81%
and 13%. The more we consume, the more our moral imagination atrophies.
the Westminster government is determined to shove us back into hypernormality,
regardless of our wishes. This week, the environment secretary, George
Eustice, signalled that he intends
to rip up our system of environmental assessments. The government’s
proposed free ports, in which tax and regulations are suspended, will not only exacerbate
fraud and money laundering but also expose the surrounding wetlands and
mudflats, and the rich wildlife they harbour, to destruction
and pollution. The trade deal it intends to strike with the US could override
parliamentary sovereignty and destroy our environmental standards, without
Just as there has never been a normal person, there has never been
a normal time. Normality is a concept used to limit our moral imaginations.
There is no normal to which we can return, or should wish to return. We live in
abnormal times. They demand an abnormal response.