Amidst the pandemic, fires, and protests, we hear it everywhere: "Let’s get back to normal."
But, the events of this year were not made this year. They are outcomes of "normal." And, during normal, it was already getting harder to breathe for too many of us, whether in California, New York, Minneapolis, Kenosha or Louisville.
We are living through a wrenching time, a transition. We feel it as the loss of employment, income, connection, life. We feel it as uncertainty amidst what seems to be a never-ending wait — for a vaccine, a job, a hug, a breath.
What was this "normal" to which we ache to return?
For too many of us, "normal" was a continual cycle of work, spend, work, spend. It felt like a treadmill. Some of us benefited much more than others, but all of us know this. Many of us lived it. It was hard to breathe.
Normal was profoundly unequal in starting points and outcomes, with daunting social tensions. Real annual wages for an average American had not increased since 1979. Sixty million of us had a net wealth of zero, despite our work. The average white family ($170,000) held 10 times the net wealth of the average black family ($17,000).
Normal was a $20 trillion economy with one of every six of our children — our future — and one in nine of us — 37 million — lacking sufficient food. Normal was deadly. Nearly one-half of us were obese, suicides were at all-time highs and still rising, and drug overdoses were surging.
It was a normal in which our life expectancy had actually been declining: A baby born in the U.S. in 2019 was expected to live a shorter life than a baby born in 2014.
Normal was killing the very material basis for our economy, and indeed our lives: the ecosphere, environment, ecosystem, nature, life. Our normal was the highest amount of atmospheric carbon for at least the past 800,000 years, the hottest five years on record from 2015-2020 and 20 of the hottest years on record in the past 22 years.
Our normal was the loss of more than one-half of all wildlife populations in a mere 60 years, a rate of species extinction not seen in 66 million years.
What is happening to the ecosphere while normal is on pause? Life is recovering. Scientists are optimistic about a slight recovery in the whale population due to a sharp drop in sonar signals emitted from boats and ships, which limited whales’ ability to communicate.
With factories and offices closed, and restrictions on travel, greenhouse gas emissions are down significantly, with estimates that 2020 will see the largest drop in emissions on record. For the first time in 30 years, the Himalaya Mountains are visible. In March, it was possible to breathe the air again in Los Angeles.
As the cities quieted, animals re-appeared: Coyotes were seen on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco; A puma ventured out of the Andes Mountains into Santiago, Chile; Sika deer roamed into Nara, Japan; mountain goats wandered through the streets of Llandudno, Wales.
Let’s not get back to normal. We can build more meaningful lives, together. Start with where you are and who is around you. The time is now, while normal is on pause. We must be able to breathe again.
Matthew Sanderson is a social scientist living in Manhattan.