Is the Return to Normal a Return to the End?

Over the last few months, I’ve observed a gradual transition out of the COVID-19 lockdown that was put into force back in March of this year. Slowly, it looks as though things are returning to normal. As many places have re-opened their doors, my social media feeds have once again been flooded with people going out for food and drinks, and social events.

As I’ve scrolled through evidence of a return to normal, a deep sense of dread has washed over me. Something about these sudden and very public displays of socialising were deeply unsettling to me, and for a while I couldn’t quite figure out why.

A rare moment in which I have been able to push past my concerns and enjoy a the re-opening of my country, despite the lack of summer weather.

Was it my mental health? Was it an unhealthy desire to continue shutting myself away from the world because my inner introvert found comfort in complete isolation? Eventually, it dawned on me, that it wasn’t just these things. My inner turmoil existed because I was watching a “return to normal”. And that is actually terrifying.

The world shutting down gave us a rare opportunity to reflect. It allowed us to recognise all the problems with our past lives. For me, I’ve yet to learn to effectively manage my mental health because I’ve used business to distract myself from it. Lockdown finally gave me the chance to see how much work I need to do to live a healthier life. Not only that, but it has also allowed me (and many others) to recognise how awful current systems are. I have learned a lot about the struggle and pains others go through, and how I’ve been ignorant to them due to my privilege. Finally, I understand just how deadly and harmful “normal” was.

So a return to normal is absolutely not okay. We need laws that hold the 1%, corporations, politicians, and even law enforcement themselves, accountable. They are responsible for the damage they do. We need a green recovery so that we can build a more sustainable society. We need to tear apart the rule books of our current system and re-write a guide that allows us to build back better.

Unfortunately, re-opening retail and hospitality, encouraging holidays abroad, and sending kids back to school does not fulfil any of these needs. There have been no recent examples of long-term changes or improvements to society. Instead, big polluters are still lobbying for bailouts, and demanding the relaxation of environmental regulations – something that shouldn’t even be a part of any conversation. As such, people are continuing to campaign for a better and greener society – an idea that the Government should have already embraced and started putting into practice.

I’m disappointed, but not surprised by the Government’s failure to take an opportunity to create something good. The social and economic recovery from COVID-19 will probably be the difference in whether or not we manage to meet the Paris Agreements. Right now, we are on the path to failure. Which is also the road to the collapse of civilisation. As the only generation that can prevent a complete climate collapse, this will be our legacy. What we choose to do right now will make history.

Even worse still, is that every day in which we fail to radically overhaul an unjust system, the situation worsens. The wealthy elitists get richer, and more of the poorest people die. So to me, it can feel like every pound spent on unnecessary experiences and items is an unwritten agreement to continue to live in a dirty, dangerous system. Every party and pub-booking and pint is a nonchalant “cheers!” to us all for failing to protect the future.

Surely, I’m not alone in feeling this way. Back in July, a poll conducted by BritainThinks found that only 12% of Brits actually want a return to normal, or for life to be “exactly as it was before”, once the pandemic is over (whatever that means). This shows that the vast majority of Brits are unsatisfied with the society we live in. We want more. We need something better.

Yet we are not seeing these public attitudes factor in to the UK’s COVID-19 recovery. A cognitive dissonance is likely at play. This describes a situation where one’s behaviours or attitudes are not aligned with their beliefs, or where someone has multiple attitudes that contradict each other, creating a sense of discomfort. Examples of this could be a desire to want to solve the climate crisis, whilst also buying private jets and lavish mansions, or claiming to love all animals whilst also eating them.

Right now, as people seem to be all too happy to return to the old ways of unnecessarily spending money, as though it is the latest fashion, we are not collectively showing a disdain for our old business-as-usual lives. Too many of us say that we want the Government to do better, but fail to follow through in our actions. As such, cognitive dissonance kicks in, and causes a sense of unease. We battle a war inside ourselves.

Back To The Future: as I struggle with my inner discomfort around the return to normal, there is a disturbingly fitting sense of having already returned to a pre-COVID world, as the deadly wildfires that ravaged Australia at the start of 2020 are now razing California, USA.

So how do we handle this cognitive dissonance?

There are three possible solutions:

  • Justify your beliefs and behaviours – this could involve internal reassurances of “I’m only one person, I can’t possibly make a difference”
  • Change your beliefs – try to find facts that counteract your current knowledge
  • Change your behaviour – align your actions with your beliefs

The coping strategy employed by many seems to be an attempt to justify counter-intuitive behaviours: to underestimate our potential impacts on the world, or to forgive ourselves for doing something we deem to be wrong. Whilst this may be acceptable when our actions only affect ourselves, the same cannot be said for our behaviour towards social justice issues and a COVID-19 recovery. The stakes in this are too high for us to dull down our attitudes, or make excuses. Cognitive dissonance can be like a disease, and it may very well mark our downfall. A widespread inability to sit with discomfort may cause our generation to turn a blind eye to the wider needs of society.

We have an incredibly limited timeline in which we can prevent a climate breakdown. If we don’t make massive emissions reductions in the next decade, we will set of a chain reaction of events that will tarnish the future, and make 2019 the peak of human existence. I personally do not want to see that happen.

Thus, the unease and fear that arises within me, whenever I see evidence of a return to normal, is not a reluctance to return to my normal life. It is another manifestation of my eco-anxiety. It is the realisation that the lives we are returning to have an expiration date.

We have not yet recovered from this economic crisis and global pandemic, so there is still time to turn things around this; to change the narrative. However, there is an ultimatum that we need to deal with, and our time to do so is limited. Will we manage to take the broken pieces of our society and glue them together into a brand new masterpiece? Or will we just loosely stick everything back into it’s original slots with a return to how it was before?

Will we return to normal, and sentence the future to death? Only time will tell.

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