Something strange happened upon completion of my first book. In the midst of the final submission of the manuscript I began to hear talk of a brand-new disease emerging out of China. Covid-19 or corona virus. I was working in a tiny bar in a ski resort in Austria and thought very little of it at first. I remembered the fear-mongering and exaggerated stories in the press about how ebola, swine flu, bird flu, and the zika virus had come and gone to little fanfare. Why wouldn’t this be the same? Within weeks it became obvious that there was something a little different here. China was locking down entire cities and soon other nations began to follow suit in one way or another. As governments and populations grappled with the mass upheaval caused by a global pandemic I became (rather selfishly admittedly) concerned that this was going to derail the relevance of my book. Having written primarily about politics and society I wondered how any book written pre-corona could possibly be relevant to the world post-2020. Brexit, a word we in the UK felt we may never hear the end of, was scarcely mentioned. I dare say this was a relief for many who felt that the all-consuming nature of the beast of Brexit was preventing both our political system and the nation as a whole from moving forward. The 40 months from June 23rd 2016 until the first cases of covid-19 were uncovered in December 2019 comprised of little beyond economic and political stagnation, it is little surprise that Johnson rode to electoral triumph on the back of “Get Brexit Done”.
The lockdown was a challenging period for the entire globe, completely wiping clean our collective calendars and timetables. Holidays, conferences, festivals, weddings, and birthday parties were cancelled, many had their livelihood tugged abruptly from under them, whether temporarily, for those lucky enough to end up furloughed, or indefinitely. Our entire way of life on every single scale from micro to macro, from the mass transit of international trade and travel to the way in which we visit the shop for milk in the morning or greet our loved ones, was disrupted. The word unprecedented is thrown around much too often these days to retain its power, but the events of 2020 truly carry no historical precedent. We can explore the pandemics of the past, the economic crashes, the environmental disasters, and society wide mass hysteria, but nothing is comparable in scale or potential impact.
The universe has a great sense of humour and of timing. It’s like a truly great comedian, offering us opportunities to laugh at ourselves and to reflect deeply on the roots of what we do as individuals and a society. In a moment where our time to act is rapidly depleting, 2020 was to be the moment to forge decade zero of humanity – the final years of the ‘Teenies’ may have felt like some kind of horror-coaster, accelerating faster and faster as humanity was befallen with disasters of increasing size, magnitude, and frequency. Yet they say the night is darkest right before the dawn and 2020 was to be the year it could all change.
Within months we had discovered that this was all true, but in no way was it how we imagined. All our best laid plans discarded. The routines that we had built over years, decades, and centuries disappeared into the ether like smoke into the atmosphere of our burning world. For a time there was panic. Yet in this moment of true struggle we saw solidarity and community emerge. I found myself reconnecting with friends because of both fear and boredom. I began to realise how much I cherished both my time in nature and my interaction with my closest friends and family. At the same time I watched as governments around the world did what I had been told was impossible. They mobilised trillions of dollars, passed laws with sweeping powers to transform societies, and populations readily accepted that these hardships were necessary for the survival of many of the elderly and vulnerable in our communities. I saw a sense of solidarity emerge and the genuine kindness of humanity show itself in places where we had been told it had disappeared from. All of this began to convince me that this could be a truly transformative moment for society. On a personal level I watched myself, as well as close friends and family, use the lockdown as a way to reconnect with nature, to slow down their hectic lives, to take time to appreciate the house they lived in and to take time to care and nurture their gardens. Almost everyone I know was suddenly growing plants, taking care of their gardens or balconies, even growing food for themselves, be that tomatoes or potatoes, herbs like mint and basil; my best friend has been diligently tending to his avocado tree.
On a personal level I took time to improve first my physical well-being, starting with yoga and some meditation, I watched less TV, consumed more books than ever before, and began to research on the connection between what a friend describes as the four pillars of life. That is your mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being. I had long understood that these ingredients of life interacted, but I had never chosen to put them into practice in the way I did during lockdown. Suddenly I was eating better, sleeping better, smoking less weed and drinking almost nothing (although my winters running a bar means I don’t really find myself wanting to drink for the months after I return home). I was reading instead of watching TV, journaling about stoicism, my writing and critical thinking improved markedly, and I ended a relationship that had been drifting for a while. These transformations in my own life that were prompted by nothing but the idleness and space in my mind that had been gifted to me by the pandemic, which convinced me that it was possible that this moment could provide the catalyst for some massive changes in society, ones that had been looming but struggled from inertia. Radical changes that had long felt impossible for even the most optimistic of dreamers now seem within reach – crisis acceleration can affect societies as well as personal relationships.
On the other side of the coin it is clear to me that this storm of crisis could be used by all the worst forces of humanity to destroy all chance we have at building a better world. At times I have despaired at the fake cancel culture war, the blinkered and sheep-like way we responded to the pandemic, even with hindsight. The mass hysteria, the worst aspects of corruption and incompetence in our politics, as well as the sheer unpreparedness of our system of governance to cope with large-scale problems on almost every level. It was these concerns that inspired me to start work on my second book. I believe that now is the moment in which we can rebuild our entire world, from our relationship to the earth and our communities to our economic and political systems. The universe has for whatever reason, chance, coincidence, or sheer divine intervention, given us this opportunity and I believe it is our moral responsibility as custodians of the earth to use this moment for our collective betterment. As Naomi Klein has repeatedly explored, massive shocks provide the catalyst for rapid change. This moment of shock may be the last opportunity and it is certainly the best one that has presented itself to humanity in the modern era. Let’s not waste it.