On altering states (part 5)

Bear witness to social change 

Which leads us onto the second imperative, the importance of bearing witness to change. This was brought home to me by two events only a few weeks apart. First I was at a workshop the RSA US hd organised on the art of change. Changemakers from across the DC area shared the wisdom of their insights and actions. One of the core messages that resonated with me was the idea that there are many vital roles in supporting change – it’s not just about the heroic activist or charismatic communicator, equally as important are those who are noticing and valuing the best of how things are at the moment and those who are recording the experience of the change itself. The idea of bearing witness to change lodged in my mind. 

Shortly afterwards my Nan passed away peacefully, only a few months away from her 100th birthday. In giving her eulogy I shared how struck I was that she was born into a world we can barely comprehend today, in a house with an outside toilet, in a world of silent movies, where most women didn’t have a vote and couldn’t open a bank account in their own name, where in the US you couldn’t even buy a drink, where Lloyd George was Prime Minister and Lenin was in charge in post-revolutionary Moscow. I spoke about the fact that Nan experienced first hand the complete transformation of a century of progress across social, technological and knowledge domains, experiencing their impact first hand. It’s easy to look ahead – we tend to do it all the time: next task, next meeting, next meal, next day. It’s not often we look back, reflect on distance travelled, on experiences had, choices made or losses felt. How often do we look back further, charting our own life course and the parallel course of society? Today of course we have the tools and technologies to be able to record this period in our collective history and share it like never before. 

A critical element of this idea of being an observer of change is to track the ripple effects from the CoronaVirus. Because we can’t yet see the shores these ripples will break upon. Will we see a huge in obesity and weight gain as people are confined to home, or will we see more people exercising as they seek to maximise their one permissive trip outride? Will we see working from home become a new norm, now we are figuring out on the fly how to do this and retain business as usual, or will we see the reinforcement of the social and psychological benefits of working with a different group of people?

If we start reducing our hours of work will we see a recognition that a five day week is simply a social construct, or will people be bored with the extra time? Will we value home cooking and fresh food and produce or will we rush out to the nearest take-away? Will we really need to fly away or will we realise that video calling is a viable alternative? These and infinite trade-offs like them will play out over the coming months and years. And what will be the human, the psychological cost? Confinement is a tough call and requires high levels of emotional intelligence and patience to co-exist with the same person or people for extended periods of time. Research shows us just how unpredictable these impacts might be – the spike in divorces after the 2008 earthquake in China (link) and the rapid rise in overall suicide rates following the introduction of domestic gas in the early 20th Century being examples (link). 

Crucially, such a period of uncertainty and change will shift the dial on what we, collectively as a society find acceptable. Policy interventions that were one contentious and pushing the boundaries of public opinion may now be looked upon more favourably. For example, the extension of the ULEZ in London is controversial as it sits right an the heart of the debate between people’s personal freedom and the health of the population. On the one hand, people need to get around to do their work and live their lives, and on the other communities have a right to good air quality and health on the other. Because it results in a charge for people wanting to drive in the ULEZ and whose cars don’t meet the requisite emissions standard, it is likely to disproportionately impact those on lower or more volatile incomes, further impacting inequality.

Yet now we sit at home, car traffic is down, air quality is improving (link); are we likely to be more accepting of this policy intervention in a post-Coronavirus world? % support? Certainly the mayor of London will be hoping so – the introduction of the charge was scheduled for next year, the year after the next mayoral elections, which have now been postponed for a year. Now they’ll coincide neatly – another unintended, and unpredictable, consequence. 

We see further environmental benefits too, from clear waters in Venice to (air traffic?). Might these wider benefits make us, as a society, more open to measures of environmental protection? Perhaps this is the time to think about, and experiment with, new approaches to one of our entrenched social challenges – from inequality to environmental sustainability, from the role of public services to the changing nature of work. Is coronavirus going to last long enough to point the way to the possibilities of new ways of doing things as a society?

This is a useful framing as we seek to track the impact of coronavirus over coming days weeks and months. 

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