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Behavior Change
Forest for the Trees:
Is the New Normal a Great Mistake?

I suggest we take a deep breath, pause and assess what our reactions to the Coronavirus will do for the climate crisis and sustainability movement. We may be doing more harm than good in taking these drastic actions to cancel events and meetings aimed to solve much bigger, long-term issues. 

Much has been written about the human toll and toil already resulting from the COVID-19 crisis; and yet, the opportunity cost for the dramatic actions we have and will take to curb human interactions has yet to be measured. How do we know if we are taking prudent measures, if we fail to recognize the opportunity cost to innovation and the other impacts resulting from our draconian actions to curtail gatherings? Is it acceptable to have the new normal be to only meet virtually for public education — and to try to solve the world’s other most intractable challenges, such as climate change? How do we know if we have gone too far too fast in changing our fundamental ‘operating system’ as a human species for solving problems, making money and fostering resilient financial markets?

And when will we adequately address the impact of our actions on those that do the heavy lifting in our service-based economy — those making minimum wage or less? What’s to come of these hard-working individuals that power our service economy that have no or little safety net? Against this backdrop, how much change is desirable or needed now?

At first, we turned a blind eye towards this pandemic in the US; and we’re now seemingly overreacting to an extent that will cause colossal economic hardships for far too many for years to come. Facts are stubborn things. Coronavirus may well be viewed 20 years from now as the next Y2K hyperbole — not because it’s not important and devasting to those impacted, but because the impacts of recent measures to curtail how society works at its core seems likely to dwarf any short-term, accruing benefits. We need a more measured response to the crisis. 

The risks to succumbing to this virus are widely varied across demographics — and we may not have clear answers on this for months to come, as many who contract the virus remain untested. So far, the virus’ effects are highly regionalized — but the public policy impacts are becoming increasingly nationalized. Recently, the Governor of Ohio said it is not implausible for public schools to be closed through year-end. How would we measure the adverse impacts from such a decision? We are being caught up in the moment, and our lens for measuring the true risks to society from the virus seems to be outsized. The resolve to push back must come from the ground up, to restore some sense of normalcy in public gatherings as a fundamental right and necessity, and to usher in a new math for measuring public health risk.

I suggest we take a deep breath, pause and assess what our reactions to the Coronavirus will do for the climate crisis and sustainability movement. I hope I’m wrong, but I believe we are doing more harm than good in taking these drastic actions to cancel events and meetings aimed to solve much bigger, long-term issues. 

Perhaps most people can accept living with a 1 percent risk of dying from this virus, but what about a 99 percent chance that we will delay actions on addressing climate change, sustainability issues, biodiversity concerns and the like? I fear we are driving like Thelma and Louise, accelerating our way toward a sustainability cliff. Time to pump the brakes — and look at the risks through a clear, objective lens that can distinguish between protecting public health while avoiding measures driven by hyperbole and hysteria.

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