There remains a hope that once we get past the economic and social effects of the pandemic, all of us will be able to return to something resembling normal life before the pandemic—even if it is a “new normal” marked by heightened vigilance and protection against infectious disease and more work at home for office workers as companies realize they don’t need to maintain as much expensive office space.
But the date for this recovery to a new normal seems to keep getting postponed. The International Air Transport Association now projects a full recovery in international passenger traffic will take until 2024, a year later than the association projected back in April. The hotel industry will get a bit of a jump on the airline industry with a projected recovery by 2023. The situation is so bad for restaurants that no one seems to be willing to project a date for anything that might be called a recovery.
Office building owners—who are suffering lower rent collections and lease cancellations—seem lucky in comparison with a recovery expected by the end of 2022.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank just signaled that in the wake of such a sluggish economy it will keep short-term interest rates near zero until 2023. One commentator provided a list of hobbies that Fed board members could take up to fill their time between now and then.
So far, I’ve talked merely about the human-built environment. Outside the bubble we call modern life, another set of momentous changes is taking place before our eyes that the Federal Reserve and the political and economic establishment can’t control. Smoke from vast wildfires in the western United States has blocked out the midday Sun in major cities. It’s not just the United States, however. The world’s largest tropical wetland located mostly in Brazil has been burning this year. Fires have consumed 12,000 square kilometers so far. A heat wave in a land practically synonymous with cold, Siberia, has resulted in previously frozen tundra catching fire. Scientists expect things to get worse in the coming years.
Meanwhile, fierce hurricanes have pummeled the American coastline this year. So many storms are forming in the Atlantic this year that the U.S. National Hurricane Center ran out of names reserved for the storms and has resorted to using the Greek alphabet to name the overage.
In August California’s Death Valley hit 130 degrees F, believed to be the highest credible measurement of air temperature on Earth ever.
If we are planning for the “new normal,” this is will be part of it. All of this we humans have had a hand in making through our neglect of climate change. We thought it was a far-off problem that could wait for a response.
Actually, what appears to be ahead for human society and planet Earth is not a new normal, by which I mean a new, stable pattern of events both social and natural. Rather, what appears to be ahead is almost continuous disruption in the natural world that will affect the stability of our social, political and economic world.
And then, there is the trouble we humans make among ourselves. We have built complex, fragile systems with little in the way of buffers, financial or logistical. We call this tragic flaw “efficiency,” “lean management” and “global integration.” And, we have based those systems on unsustainable extraction of resources and poisoning of the land, water and air. We have ignored our contribution to climate change until it is probably too late to do much but mitigate the damage at some point in the distant future even if we take drastic action now.
The natural world is not planning a new normal for us. It is likely to deliver only a continued maelstrom of disorienting emergencies. The social, political and economic world cannot help but be strongly affected by these emergencies.
What seems clear is that the social, political and economic systems we are used to are crumbling. The political fights we see breaking out practically everywhere are about whether we are going to acknowledge that we must restructure everything we do, or whether we are going to double down on protecting the vested interests of the wealthy and the privileged at the expense of the human future.
Photo: Table Mountain (South Africa) as viewed from Bloubergstrand on Christmas Eve of 2007. These ominous clouds were the remnants of a thunderstorm earlier in the day, a rather infrequent weather phenomenon for Cape Town. By Warenski. Via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ominous_-_Flickr_-_warrenski.jpg