As the world opens up again, people are, understandably, looking forward to ‘going back to normal’. But the pandemic, as well as all the horror and grief, also offered humanity the opportunity to pause and consider our relationship with the planet and with others. By going back to normal, will we squander the opportunity to create a better new normal? And was the old normal so great anyway?
Mel Young: Here in the UK and in many other countries, the good news is that the vaccination programme to tackle Covid-19 is working well and millions of people now have protection against the virus. I do not underestimate how positive this is – it is excellent news – but I find it very disappointing that leaders and media commentators are rejoicing with the phrase ‘return to normal’. Despite all the negatives of Covid-19 and the lockdowns, there was a huge opportunity to come out of this into a “new normal” and create a much more sustainable way of life. The roads are jammed full of cars again for example and I am a little sad. Am I right about this? Could we have created real change?
Alex Matthews: You’re right, it is a real shame and a missed opportunity. There was so much conversation at the beginning of the pandemic last spring about how the ‘great pause’ was a chance for us to reflect on our relationship with the planet and reconsider how we act. Many of us turned to nature to help us maintain our sanity, and we enjoyed the cleaner air and being able to hear birdsong – I live in London and even we felt more attuned to nature. It seemed that everyone was ready to harness those experiences and transform how they behaved when lockdown was over.
That doesn’t seem to have happened, and I think it’s a result of many different factors. Politicians undoubtedly hold some of the blame, as they haven’t put new structures and systems in place. However, we as individuals are responsible too. We’ve chosen to get back in our cars, to book holidays and return to our old behaviours and mindsets. Perhaps it’s partly because the pandemic has gone on for so long and we are yearning for our old lives, because in those lives we could see our friends and families, travel and enjoy ourselves.
MY: Yes, that’s true. We are all reaching for our ‘comfort blankets’ of the past, which is fair enough. But after we have put the comfort blanket aside, we are going to find that nothing has fundamentally changed. I guess there might be some understanding about supporting local businesses and initiatives which in turn create local jobs and a greater appreciation of our neighbours and community but the old system remains. We could have done so much better. What about your generation – what can be done in the future, what can young people do right now on a practical basis to create change?
AM: There’s so much isn’t there. There is all the stuff that we can do as individuals – driving less, eating fewer animal products, taking fewer flights, using less single-use plastic. And I think that making our voices heard is the other part of it. I was reading this morning that, in the local elections we had last week, the Green party increased its number of council seats in Bristol (a city in the West of England). While a council of course only has limited control, I think that it will send a strong message to the local MP and hopefully to the wider ‘powers that be’ that the environment is an important issue to young people – the people whose influence and power will only increase over the coming years.
We also need to share and discuss our opinions – there are lots of conversations happening now around climate change and the threat facing the planet, and they are so important as they raise awareness and help people to understand the gravity of the situation. The UK is hosting COP26 at the end of this year, and I think young people need to ensure that their voices are hear and their demands taken into account by the leaders who attend the conference.
MY: As we have written about in the past, we have to look at this through two lenses – the macro, which is about global system change and the micro, which I believe is about our own behaviours. Individually, there is a lot we can do by changing our lifestyles to protect the planet as well as lobbying for a change in macro policies. As individuals it might appear that we are a tiny voice in the wind, but if we act together then we can create a very strong wind ourselves. So, it is a question of us making decisions to change our lifestyle in the first place – will we do it? Will we buy fewer clothes, stop flying, start cycling, eat differently and so on or will we leave it for someone else to sort out the climate crisis? Our generation has failed badly, how will the next generation get off the roundabout and stop continuously going backwards to the bad old ways?
AM: I don’t know what the answer is – but I do know that it will involve working together with everyone, no matter how old they are or where they are from. One voice is too quiet to be heard, but many voices joining to demand the same thing are loud enough to be heard by leaders and people who can make a difference. I think we are slowly coming off the roundabout, to continue your metaphor, or at least recognising that we have to choose our turning. People are making those hard decisions – vegetarianism and veganism are far more mainstream than they were even 10 years ago. I think there is reason to hope that that mindset will start extending to flying, fashion and all parts of our lives as we talk more about the impact of our behaviour on the planet. So we have to talk – on The New Ism of course, but also in the media, between ourselves and on big platforms such as COP26.
MY: On an optimistic note, we have made some advances in both our lifetimes where things like recycling are now commonplace or mainstream whereas they weren’t just ten years ago. So, we have made a lot of advances but time is against us, so there is no room for any complacency. We need a new global system to come into play very soon and we need to be very aware of our own individual responsibility to the planet and to future generations. There’s lots to do, pandemic or no pandemic!