Written May 12, 2020
Edited for length March 15, 2021
Like so many others, I have been thinking a lot about this time in history and what will come from the massive global event that is the Coronavirus pandemic. My thoughts, though, have focused on an extremely broad context and outcome and lead me back into history and prior global-defining moments that changed humanity.
Prior to this crisis, I repeatedly reflected on the life experience of my parents’ generation, the oft-labeled ‘Greatest Generation’.
Many of them were born into a world reeling from the last true global pandemic as well as World War I. Childhood may have allowed them to briefly experience the illusion of unrestrained prosperity during the Roaring Twenties, only to see financial markets implode and launch the world into a decades-long period of economic disaster and inequitable human-suffering. Nationalism and isolationism grew during that period, with destructive narratives and belief-systems seeking global dominance at the cost of targeted populations of humanity as victimization turned to hatred, blame and the rationalization of genocide. Even though there was mounting evidence of a breakdown in humanity, in a growing climate of real or perceived inequality, much of the world reacted with denial, with myopic or even selfish indifference, or without the courage to truly recognize the imminent danger posed by belief systems dedicated to winning at all costs, regardless of any damage experienced elsewhere. The culmination of all these events lead to World War II, which in turn lead to a new world order after years of horrific death and destruction.
The period after World War II spawned massive change, from personal perspectives and priorities, to institutional systems purportedly designed to prevent a repeat of such a conflagration. Growth, prosperity, opportunity, security, and well-being all seemed to be the focus. Political systems differed on methodologies to achieve, expand, and maintain power in a world competing for a place of leadership. Much of the focus was building a society that could exhibit populations of productive, secure, and proud citizens, backed by military might and global influence.
Two competing visions emerged with associated political systems in governance that either prioritized the individual or focused on the social good. Individual freedom competed with social loyalty and commitment. Left unchecked, societies that allowed and encouraged unfettered individual prosperity rose more quickly, but concurrently fostered global political and ideological rivalries.
In the U.S. and other democratic nations, the Baby Boom generation, born and raised under the governance of freedom, was encouraged to educate themselves, establish family units and accumulate symbols of prosperity and security. However, progress became increasingly unequal and inflexible, segregating the results into privileged and under-privileged communities. Much of the difference was race-based, cloaked in a biased system that impeded equality. Citizens of countries that prioritized a belief of societal equality, found themselves bound under a system ill-designed to maximize and incentivize individual capability or threatened by individual freedom or accomplishment that would diminish the value of others in a so-called equal society. Hence, equality often manifested itself in systemic mediocrity and was often compounded by other ethnic, religious, or racial biases.
Neither system ultimately rectified the societal ills that lead to despair, inequality or the growing weight of resentment, tribalism, and hatred. In fact, both systems have failed to deliver on the vision and the promise of universal community security and prosperity. As a result, the world now finds itself again susceptible to myopic and destructive philosophies and vulnerable to ideological leadership that has taken us to a moment of global catastrophe through a climatic holocaust and humanitarian collapse.
And so, I wonder, is the current Covid-19 global pandemic our generations’ equivalent of World War II? Is this the catastrophic, global event that finally catalyzes humanity to act in unison to secure the future of our planet and our civilization? Can we generate an effort that transforms sporadic regenerative dialogue and thinking into a societal imperative, regardless of the disparity of ideological beliefs?
Many of the human emotional symptoms of societal ills that demand action are and have been evident – increasing despair, growing distrust, victimization, blaming, passivity, and ignorance. Many of our underlying systems – environmental, financial, and social – were already breaking down and are now at risk of collapse.
The collective neglect of global leadership has led humanity to press the tolerance of our global ecosystem to the breaking point. Still, many global leaders engage, even now, in old, inane messages of righteousness, blame and territorialism. The pandemic will not subside in response to acts of nationalism or the illusion of financial or political power. Additionally, ending this pandemic while ignoring the vast underlying degradation of sociological and biological systems will only lead to a more dire and destructive future.
In contrast to the events of the 1930’s and 40’s, it is not ill-conceived militaristic adventurism led to the horrific pain and suffering that must force a period of global reckoning. No, it appears that humanity has been dealt this catastrophe due to the systemic assault on our global home, which, despite earlier warnings, has unleashed a devastating and indiscriminate response on decades of planetary and humanitarian abuse. Like World War II, this crisis will result in millions of victims and a transitional reorganization of the global order.
Global leadership is still unevenly focused and largely reactive; deniers exist at all levels; and any belief of a return to a normalized future is a charade that prevents leaders from acting far more aggressively for fear that their own future will be destroyed or, at the very least, transformed in a way that diminishes their power, their platform and their perceived legacy.
Ironically, in 1940, The America First Committee was formed to discourage the United States from entering World War II. With the belief that the US was well positioned to care for itself, there was a strong belief that we did not need to participate in a growing global crisis. As with World War II, the US will pay the one of the greatest prices for the short-term ineptitude and the lack of consistent and definitive actions. However, we can look to the U.S. for a historical template that could result in transformative change.
The ultimate devastation and loss of the pandemic is likely to be far greater than populations around the world are being told. The more difficult and monumental challenge will be thereafter, as humanity will be called upon to change course to ensure the future.
So, what do we do? The actions that will lead to solutions will require courage and commitment. The solutions will be crafted on long-term perspectives deep societal transformation. Look to the post-World War II era described as “The Golden Age of Capitalism”. Within it lies examples of societal growth on the depth and scale of change needed now.
Yes, this IS our moment – our generations’ crossroad that will force us to act. The Coronavirus has laid bare the shallow foundation of our global beliefs in human importance, power, and national identity. We are experiencing the full weight of our neglect of our earth, our civilization, and our societal communities. There is no going back to ‘normal’. There is no individual security and prosperity without equal security and prosperity for all humanity and for everything that is our planetary home. Earth is our host; we are simply the guests. We have abused our stay on Earth and brought forth a cruel, but inevitable response from our host.
This is our moment to change the future of our planet. We can live with a deep respect, caring and love for everything that surrounds us and allows us to exist. We cannot afford to lose this moment and to pretend that our fate won’t be sealed by inaction. Beginning with our leadership across all human society, change will preserve us, but failure to recognize this moment and to revert to a self-focused existence without personal and societal transformation will be devastating, and perhaps, permanent.