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Art Keene

The Good Society is a column about the role of imagination and curiosity in building a better government and a better world. It draws from my experiences teaching in a leadership program at UMass. My course, also entitled The Good Society, was guided by the idea that a better world is possible and that the first necessary step in enacting such a world is to imagine what that better world should look like.  That course, like this column, aimed to expand our sense of what is desirable and possible and to stimulate our imagination by looking at creative things that people are doing or have done elsewhere.

In my last column I wrote about French philosopher and anthropologist Bruno Latour’s effort to mobilize a global conversation on “where we want to land” after the pandemic. Here I attempt to answer some of the guiding questions for that conversation.

Latour notes that a lot of current writing points us toward a return to the pre-pandemic norm, which may initially feel comforting, but may also be catastrophic as “the global climate emergency is only increasing.” He argues that we need to shape a vision of our future that goes beyond “recovery” from the pandemic. Latour exhorts us to take advantage of the current crisis to land on a more habitable earth. He says: 

“we must prepare ourselves for it now, during the confinement, before the return to “normal” erases from our memory the total strangeness of the situation. Let us take advantage of the forced suspension of most activities to take stock of those things we would like to see discontinued and those, on the contrary, that we would like to see developed.” 

Indeed,  many of us have changed our behaviors in ways that we would not have imagined possible prior to the pandemic.  And one important lesson is that we are quite capable of changing our behavior in ways we did not think likely.  Latour offers questions to guide our imagining. In my last column I promised to share some of my responses to these questions.  Each of the questions invites considerable exploration.  Here, I provide only a brief listing of points. Think of them as conversation starters, as invitations to further exploration and conversation.  

LaTour’s Questions
Here is what Latour would like us to consider. Based on our experiences with the pandemic, what behaviors that we have suspended should remain suspended, what behaviors should be continued and what behaviors should be reimagined? (look here for his specific framing of the questions here.

Behaviors That Have Been Suspended that Should Remain So. 
I will limit myself here to just six of the things that came to mind as I began to ponder the question.

  1. Consumption – many have observed a dramatic decrease in personal consumption during the pandemic.  I have only filled my gas tank once since the March 13 lockdown began, and I know many others who make the same claim.   Several writers have noted a decrease in greenhouse gases during the pandemic and while the significance of said decrease is widely debated, it’s certainly possible that our suspension of certain activities like driving, have been impactful.  My credit card bills are substantially lower because we’re not spending as we did before. Regrettably, there are fewer concerts and films, no meals in restaurants, no sports events, and we’ve just kind of stopped acquiring stuff.  (We’re still trying to support artists creatively online).  And we’re wasting a lot less.  Because my access to groceries now poses a challenge, I’m much more circumspect about how I use provisions and have reduced our household food waste to next to nothing.

    In response to being locked down we’ve dialed down how we think about what we need.  We are living somewhat more sustainably. As a nation, our current consumer practices are not sustainable. Dramatic changes in our behavior are necessary to avert extinction.  My family’s little experiences within the pandemic show us that we are capable of changing how we think and how we behave and to do so within a very short time frame. What we need to do to save the planet may indeed pose a daunting challenge, but the pandemic hints that it is not impossible.
  1.  Evictions – there is currently a moratorium on evictions in most states  and while the consequences of this have not yet been widely studied, the ban has clearly prevented putting some of the most vulnerable members of our communities out onto the street in a time of extreme need (e.g. when 40 million Americans have registered for unemployment benefits and where millions were unable to pay their rent when it came due on May 1).  Harvard’s Matt Desmond documented the eviction crisis in the country, noting how existing eviction policy has played a central role in feeding inescapable cycles of poverty and has fostered an epidemic of homelessness.  While some landlords are also struggling to survive in the midst of the pandemic-induced economic crisis, the moratorium invites us to think about why housing is so unaffordable in so many places and what a more humane and just approach to housing might look like. How we move toward a society not made up of winners and losers but one that prioritizes the common good? 
  2. Incarceration – some municipalities have as a matter of public safety, suspended incarceration of people awaiting trial or who have been jailed for minor offenses like failing to pay fines, minor drug offenses, or for their inability to make bail. The world did not end as a result of non-violent offenders walking free and indeed, there does not seem to be any indication that public safety has been diminished in communities that have embraced decarceration strategies.  So we might ask, why go back to filling our jails with people who might be more usefully engaged elsewhere or who might be helped to more purposefully address the challenges in their lives?  And what alternatives might we imagine to jail in favor of supports that maximize human potential?  Both eviction and incarceration are activities that invite us to think about the burgeoning inequality and institutional injustices with which they are entwined and to imagine, in their continued suspension, what a more just and equitable society might look like.
  3. Local Food Systems – My wife and I have reduced our dependence on long food chains by greatly diminishing our buying from big supermarkets and buying locally.  Think of the transportation costs alone of transporting your produce from California). For us, this is at least partly in response to the risks posed by in-person shopping. (We’re senior citizens, and I have underlying health conditions that put me at higher risk.)  We are growing some of  our own food, patronizing local farms and supporting our CSA (Simple Gifts Farm). If wait lists for CSA’s and local farm subscriptions are any indication, more people are buying locally than was the case last year and that’s a good thing for the local economy, for sustainability, and for the environment.  So this seems like a good thing to continue. One of many ways that we can build community resilience is by meeting local needs with local resources. 
  1. Suspended Municipal Budgets – Both nationally and locally, folks have had to reorganize their budgets to meet new needs. The coronavirus emergency has turned into a budget emergency. The situation invites a new consideration of spending priorities, of community needs and particularly of those whose needs may have gone unmet prior to the pandemic.  In Amherst, there is a lot of talk about planning for resilience. and this means putting everything on the table.  Where are the needs greatest in our community and how has the pandemic changed the needs? If we have become a community with widespread unemployment, widespread hunger and with reduced anticipated revenues,  how should this alter our thinking about spending and investment? Can we invest to ameliorate the next big crisis, and can we spend to make our infrastructure and our social structure more responsive to the needs of all of our residents?  Can we work toward a  budgetary framework in which we ensure that we are responsible for and to each other?  We could start by embracing the idea that budget planning in the post-pandemic world needs to be different from what we did before, beginning with a re-evaluation of needs and priorities. 
  1. Rituals of Greeting. This is not a big deal but I can’t imagine ever going back to shaking hands with anyone. We’re a flexible species  and we can readily invent and incorporate new rituals of greeting that are pandemic averse. My favorites –the hand on the heart greeting and the Vulcan Salute (live long and prosper).

Behaviors that have been suspended that should be resumed.
Here, we only have space for a small list but I would include immigration, naturalization, civil discourse, unhindered international travel, in-person schooling (when it’s safe)  and with a re-imagined approach to curriculum and to a more equitable distribution of educational resources (more below). 

What Behaviors Should be Reimagined? 
Latour did not ask us, what behaviors have not been stopped but should have been.  That would require another essay.  For me, imagining a better post-pandemic world requires changing much of what we do and how we think – requires rejecting much of what we accepted as normal prior to the pandemic.

A more just and sustainable society ought to be able to provide meaningful and sustaining work for all who seek it, and the appropriate education or training to undertake such work. We could get that started now with a massive public jobs programs in the spirit of the New Deal to ensure that everyone who is able has meaningful work and can contribute to the building of a sustainable and just society. Two examples that could be brought on line fairly quickly to meet pressing national needs are The National Public Health Service Corps proposed by Greg Gonsalves and Amy Kapczynski and a massive environmental jobs program proposed by Bill McKibben and several advocates of a Green New Deal.

The misery brought on by this pandemic was exacerbated by the general incompetence of our government (which has mustered what is widely regarded as the worst response in the world), a widespread contempt and disregard for science and specialized expertise, widespread profiteering in almost every dimension of the pandemic from masks to medications,  time and again putting profits over people, and replacing policy based interventions with graft. The failings of America’s healthcare system were also glaringly evident from under-supplied and under-staffed hospitals to under-insured citizens. The pandemic has laid bare the failings of capitalism and suggests that the transformation we need is a shift to a more humane and more sustainable economy with more accountable and more democratic governance.  

So what does this mean for me?  Here’s a wish list of some things we might seek: 

  • A new kind of economy – more humane, more sustainable, more just, more equitable, where the distance between the economic floor and ceiling has shrunk – something resembling some form of democratic socialism (see here or here for a cogent discussion).
  • More democracy – including the promotion and practice of greater civic literacy, greater civic participation, greater civic empowerment and greater civic imagination.
  • Secure voting rights and the protection of election security to guarantee free and fair elections.
  • Greater investment in public education and a new, radical approach to teaching and curriculum that supports many different learning styles and embraces non-standardized curricula and pedagogies that nurture exploration, discovery, joy, wonder, imagination, compassion, emotional well being, and the mastery of diverse skills and knowledge.
  • Demolition of corporate hegemony, the reigning in of corporate power, the rejection of graft, corruption, and profiteering, the regulation of money in politics
  • Just and Equitable funding to meet social needs and address pernicious inequalities, supported by taxation in which the rich pay their fair share. 
  • Guaranteed meaningful fairly compensated work for all who seek it. 
  • A widespread commitment to eliminate human misery and suffering.
  • The promotion of solidarity and a purposeful assault on invidious distinctions not limited to racism and sexism. 
  • A concerted plan to eliminate the massive inequalities that now characterize our nation.
  •  Promotion of a culture that embraces equity and celebrates diversity. 
  • Universal Basic Income and a guaranteed living wage.
  • Universal Health Insurance.
  • A near universal understanding that we live within an accelerating climate emergency that threatens our survival and the incorporation of that reality into all planning across all sectors of society and economy.

Einstein said that we can never hope to solve our problems with the thinking that we used when we created them. I have been trying to “think differently” (to paraphrase an old Apple campaign). It’s not just about where I want to land – it’s what I think is necessary to save us.

In my next column I’ll explore municipal plastic bans which some communities in Massachusetts have adopted with positive environmental impacts. Some of these bans have been suspended by State mandate in response to coronavirus-related public safety concerns raised by the plastics lobby). 

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