Here’s a tiny secret. One that Coronavirus should have clued us into. Normal is over. The age of normal is finished, done, a relic of history. Things will not go back to normal. From here, they societies only grow more unstable, economies more depressed, nations more fractured, and lives — yours and mine — more surreal, difficult, and troubled.
There isn’t going to be a return to yesterday’s normal — if by that we mean something like stable, prosperous societies, steadily growing economies, and smoothly functioning nations. That was the rich world, and even in the poor one, normal is over, too. The idea that you can get rich by simply selling stuff to the already rich world — like South Korea did, or China tried — that’s long gone, too.
The effects of Coronavirus are going to last for much of the rest of the next decade. We’re already about six months into a global pandemic, and there’s already no end in sight. Yes, things are reopening — but even that reopening is hesitant and cautious, in wise nations at least, very much unlike yesterday. In unwise nations, like America, reopening is already making the pandemic much, much worse. The lesson is simple: try to go back to normal — bang! — you’re done.
The rest of our lives are going to be much like the last six months. We’re explorers in uncharted territory right about now. How are we to survive things like pandemics, climate change, ecological collapse, mass extinction — and the shattering waves of depression, upheaval, and panic those unleash? Coronavirus is just a warm-up, a drill, a very very tiny taste of the rest of your life.
What’s going to change over the next few decades? What isn’t, is the better question. Now, bare with me. This next part will be a little scary. But stick it out until the end.
Let me give you a small example.
It’s 100 degrees in London today. It should be maybe 75 or so — normal. By 2030, climate change is going to go from intense, to catastrophic. What’s that going to do to you?
There you are, already struggling to eke out a living, like the average American, 80% of whom now live paycheck to paycheck, unable to save a penny, dying in debt they’ve never been able to pay off their whole lives long. You might think: “well, climate change can’t make my life any worse, more unstable, more anxious. What’s the big deal!”
You’d be wrong.
Right about now, you pay something like a quarter of your income for utilities. Water, maybe 5%, electricity, another 5%, insurance another 5%, and so forth. Fast forward a decade. The world is now running out of water. Clean air. Livable temperatures.
Guess which bills suddenly spike? Your water bill now comes to 20% of your income. Your electricity bill — you’ve got to run extra ACs now, night and day — comes to another 20%. Bang! There goes your life. You’re already in perpetual, unpayable debt. What’s going to happen when the costs of the climate crisis land squarely on your shoulders.
Then, one day, you get a bill from the insurance company. Your home insurance premium’s going up 50% a year, you realize, because of the risk of fire, flood, quake. You feel a sudden surge of panic. Your income’s been stuck most of your life. All your credit cards are perpetually maxed out. How are you to afford this? What do you do?
By the 2040s, mass extinction will go from troubling to implosive.The world’s great chains of life will begin to topple, keeling over at the base, as the littlest things finally die off — taking everything else with them. There will be an intense, terrible struggle to keep humanity fed, water, clean, and nourished. The fish don’t clean the rivers anymore: double whammy no food, no water. The insects have stopped turning the soil. Quadruple whammy: less harvest, hotter temperatures, less water, less oxygen.
It all seems abstract to you, until you notice that food prices have been spiraling out of control, as have prices for everything from beer to juice. You used to spend somewhere between 25 and 50 percent of your income feeding your family. But now you can barely seem to accomplish that task on that much. To feed them well, you realize, over the last few years, you’ve had to spend much, much more. And what about all those air purifiers in your home? All those masks everyone wears? All those allergy pills you take? It all adds up. And you realize, horrified, that you’re spending more than half your income now, on such things — the things of basic sustenance, whether decent food, clean air, or drinkable water.
No wonder you’re so deep in debt. No wonder your debts rise every year — and when you think about your financial position, you have panic attacks.
You’re paying the price of mass extinction now — only you don’t quite know it. And it’s bankrupted you, which is why you survive on a lifeline of credit, which, if it were to vanish, would leave you and yours destitute and starving in a matter of not even months, but weeks or days.
By the 2050s, the Final Goodbye will begin. The earth’s great ecosystems will begin to die off, irreversibly. The Amazon. The ocean currents. The glaciers and ice at the poles. All the great systems which keep life on planet earth as we know it breathing, eating, drinking, thriving. But that includes you, too.
And this time, the effects are even more catastrophic. It’s not just water and food bills which rise. Now there are mass shortage of things you once took for granted. That juice, that meat, that bread — it’s not made anymore. It never will be again. The rich have it on the black market, at extortionate prices. That kind of furniture, this kind of clothing, that kind of fabric, this kind of wood — bang! Gone. It’s now the stuff that billionaires keep under lock and key, a trophy, that once used to be a mere shrugging everyday good.
Then there’s medicine, drugs, pharmaceuticals. Without nature to provide many of the basics, medicines, too skyrocket in price. Everything from simple ones to sophisticated ones. Soon enough, you’re spending another huge chunk of income on that. And you get medical insurance bills that make the 2020s look quaint.
But it’s hardly just medical insurance. Insurance of any kind seems to be a luxury now. Who’s going to insure your home, in an age where flood and fire are everyday realities? Who’s going to insure your life, when life expectancy is plummeting? Who’s going to bother insuring your for anything at all — when you’re a pauper, living on life support, who doesn’t have a hope of ever paying off your debts? And you can hardly afford it now, anyways.
Most of your income now goes to two things. One, basics — water, air, food, whether used for cleanliness, nourishment, or sanitation. Two, debt servicing. Even at a relatively low interest rate, you’ll never pay off what you owe.
Meanwhile Amazon and Google hadn’t paid a penny in taxes for decades now. So who can fund a functioning society? You’re spending everything you have on the basics. They’re taking everything they can, and stuffing it in bank accounts. The result is that society’s systems are now simply breaking down, from healthcare to food to water to energy.
You feel a sense of bitter disappointment. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. You try to calm yourself, after a moment seeing red. After all, you’re smart enough to see the effects living at the edge of despair has had on society. Massive waves of people seem to have lost their minds. They cling to bizarre superstitions, spend all day in escapism, flee to conspiracy theories — or worst of all, join one of the many new doomsday cults flourishing everywhere. You remember, hazily, that people used to call the GOP a doomsday cult. It was just the beginning of one. Now there are vast networks of them, people who’ve given up on tomorrow. The skyrocketing suicide of the 20s never stopped rising. Some days, you understand the crushing, mind-numbing fear, too. But the doomers? They’re inconsequential, in the end.
Living without any hope in the future, constantly getting poorer, with no end in sight — it’s created a new politics of fascism.A politics where people are happy to die, as long as their tribe prevails.
Politics is now a brutal contest of power. Which tribe can seize this last morsel of water, air, food?Men with guns roam your streets. You don’t venture out much. You try to make sense of it all. They belong to this faction, that faction. Which one should you join? The idea of a rule of law seems to be a quaint, distant memory. You have to look out for yourself and your own. The tribes distribute these last few resources according to their hierarchies — in which the most violent rise to the top. You’ve never been that kind of person. What hope is there for you, in a world where only the brutal, cruel, selfish, and stupid seem to thrive? How can you protect your kids, and raise them well — or even care for them much at all now?
As civilization’s basic systemshave begun to fail, so too have the everyday systems they depended on. Kids going to school need clean air, water, food, energy. All those things are in short, short supply now. Who can afford to run a world class school system when the prices of those basics have spiraled out of control? Your kids go to school — some days. But it’s a charade, a place they stay busy, maybe out of trouble, for a while.
What happens, you wonder, if you need healthcare? If a school needs clean air, water, food, a hospital does, too, all the more so — and then some. It needs medicine, a constant, dependable supply of energy, sanitation, hygiene. But all those things, too, seem to be vanishing. There are brownouts now, days when the water just stops flowing, days when the smog is so bad you can barely leave the house. You can go to the hospital, sure — but like the school, it’s a barely functional, decrepit place, a broken system. You’re probably better off at home, you realize, taking your chances.
After all, at least at home, you won’t get infected by any of the strange new diseases ripping through society. What had begun to happen in the first decades of the 21st century, it later emerged, was a trend. Ebola, SARS, MERS, Corona. Zoonotic viruses. They weren’t an anomaly — but another kind of catastrophe. As humanity had encroached on nature, its poor and hungry ripping came in contact with, ate, drank, touched wildlife anew. And diseases crossed the species barrier like a great river.
It seemed there was a new one every decade, every five years or so. Coronavirus had been a shock, but only because it was the first one. Now, the world was used to them. And the truth was that the world in 2020 had been both richer and had more willpower to fight. Now? People just shrugged, and went about their business. You took your chances.
The world had grown poor. People’s spirits had broken. Life had become a bitter, brutal contest for self-preservation. It was you against everyone else. You woke up, and had one job: try to acquire the basics for your family to survive this day, this week. From anyone and everyone else. How were you going to get water, food, air?
Economists put that in a different way. The global economy had now become a zero sum game. For basics. Sustenance and nourishment. Hygiene and cleanliness and sanitation. Health. Money to pay off the interest on the debt, without which you wouldn’t have credit, and then you’d die.
Everyone competed against everyone else, every day, for these basic things.
Why? Because the globe had underinvested during humanity’s most critical period. Instead of three massive, historic waves of investment — the first to fight climate change, the second to fight mass extinction, and the third to fight ecological collapse — all those catastrophes had come true. And so had their side effects, which ranged from economic depression to social upheaval to pandemics.
Things like working financial, social, economic systems — banks, hospitals, schools, jobs? A distant memory of better times. Now life was just this endless combat, for survival.
The world had gone American. It had become poor, broken, dysfunctional — and proud of it, in many places. It was now incapable of taking any kind of collective action at all. Predatory elites laughed, and profited from the ruin. The poor begged the rich to be their servants. A new feudal-aristocratic economy had emerged, in which collapse-peasantry and extinction-serfdom were the new bitter realities. Poverty, despair, ruin were watchwords. Nations imploded, as politics became self-destruction — and those were the lucky ones. The unlucky ones descended into chaos, a free for all of every person for themselves, by way of nihilism, theocracy, fascism, and hate — just like America had, in the 30s.
There you were. The average person, trapped in this vicious cycle of self-preservation, too poor, weary, broke now to do anything but watch, in panic, in fear, in fury, as a new dark age fell, and one by one, the lights of civilization went out.
I know that the above is scary — but my point isn’t to scare you. It’s to say that there are profound changes to come over the next three decades, some of the greatest in human history. We can be proactive, and take it upon ourselves to make those changes in manageable ways. Or those changes can and will be forced upon us in ways that we are unlikely to be able to cope with. Coronavirus is just one such change, but there are many more on the way as climate change, mass extinction, and ecosystem collapse unleash waves of depression, upheaval, and dislocation to rival history’s greatest catastrophes — over and over again. So don’t consider this a prophecy — consider it a warning.