I’ve Said Goodbye to ‘Normal.’ You Should, Too.
Mr. Scranton is the director of the Notre Dame Environmental Humanities Initiative and the author of Were Doomed. Now What? and Learning to Die in the Anthropocene. The other night, I went to pick up takeout at a local Irish pub. It was a gray and rainy evening at the end of a long week, and my partner and I were suffering from Zoom fatigue. We love this pub not just because it has good food, but because its a living part of our community. Pre-Covid, they used to have Irish traditional music sessions, and any cold and snowy night youd be greeted with a burst of cheer, a packed house, friends and families all out for a cozy good time. Now its a ghostly quiet. Social distancing rules mean that even at max capacity, it still only has a tiny fraction of its usual clientele. Standing in that empty pub, haunted by the sense of what we were missing, I felt an ache for normal as acute as any homesickness I ever felt even when I served in the Army in Iraq. I still feel the twinge every time I put on my mask. I want our normal lives back. But what does normal even mean anymore? Its easy to forget that 2020 gave us not just the pandemic, but also the West Coasts , as well as the on record. And, while we were otherwise distracted, 2020 also offered up , of significant methane release from Arctic permafrost and the Arctic Ocean, huge wildfires in both the and the , ( , coral reefs, the , and increasing odds that the global climate system has where feedback dynamics take over and the window of possibility for preventing catastrophe closes. President Biden has recommitted the United States to the Paris Agreement, which is great except that it doesnt really mean much, since that agreements commitments are voluntary. And it might not even matter whether signatories meet their commitments, since their pledges to keep global warming two degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit above preindustrial levels to begin with. According to , a collaborative analysis from independent science nonprofits, only Morocco and Gambia have made commitments compatible with the goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, and the commitments made by several major emitters, including China, Russia, Japan and the United States, are highly insufficient or critically insufficient. Its also worth noting that the two degrees Celsius benchmark is somewhat arbitrary and possibly fantastic, since its not clear that the earths climate would be safe or stable at that temperature. In the words of a widely discussed research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, even if the Paris Agreement targets are met, we cannot exclude the risk that a cascade of feedbacks could push the Earth System irreversibly onto a Hothouse Earth pathway. More alarming, , a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide over the short term, are so large that if they continue they could effectively overwhelm the pledged emissions reductions in the Paris Agreement, even if those reductions were actually happening. Which theyre not. Meanwhile, the earths climate seems to be changing faster than expected. Take the intensifying slowdown in the North Atlantic current, a global warming side effect made famous by the film The Day After Tomorrow. According to the , We are 50 years to 100 years ahead of schedule with the slowdown of this ocean circulation pattern, relative to what the models predict ... The more observations we get, the more sophisticated our models become, the more were learning that things can happen faster, and with a greater magnitude, than we predicted just years ago. In 2019, the Greenland ice sheet briefly reached daily melt rates . Recent research indicates that rapidly thawing permafrost may than previously thought, which is pretty bad news, because other recent research shows very cold . Going back to normal now means returning to a course that will destabilize the conditions for all human life, everywhere on earth. Normal means more fires, more category 5 hurricanes, more flooding, more drought, millions upon millions more migrants fleeing famine and civil war, more crop failures, more storms, more extinctions, more record-breaking heat. Normal means the increasing likelihood of civil unrest and state collapse, of widespread agricultural failure and collapsing fisheries, of millions of people dying from thirst and hunger, of new diseases, old diseases spreading to new places and the havoc of war. Normal could well mean the end of global civilization as we know it. I remember last March, in the first throes of the pandemic, when normal was upended. Everything shut down. We hoarded toilet paper and pasta. Fear gripped the nation. I was afraid, too: I was afraid for my mother, who has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. I was afraid for my sister, whose husband works in a prison. I was afraid for my cousin, whos a nurse. I was afraid for my country, under the leadership of an incompetent and seemingly deranged president. But along with the fear, I remembered a lesson Id learned in Iraq. Id been a soldier in Baghdad in 2003-2004, where I saw what happens when the texture of the everyday is ripped apart. I realized that what we call social life was like a vast and complex game, with imaginary rules we all agreed to follow, fictions we turned into fact through institutions, stories, and daily repetition. Some of the rules were old, deeply ingrained and resilient. Some were so tenuous theyd barely survive a hard wind. What I saw in Iraq was that every time you shock the system, something breaks. Sometimes those breaks never heal. Theres no way we can undo the damage we did to Iraq or bring back the lives lost to Covid. But sometimes those breaks are openings. Sometimes those breaks are opportunities to do things differently. In March last year, watching an unknown plague stalk the land, I felt fear, but I also felt hope: the hope that this virus, as horrible as it might be, could also give us the chance to really understand and internalize the fragility and transience of our collective existence. I hoped we might recognize not only that fossil-fuel-driven consumer capitalism was likely to destroy everything we loved, but that we might actually be able to do something about it. As the pandemic has worn on, the desire to get back to normal has increased, and I worry that the hope for radical positive change has subsided. But we must not let it dissipate. We cant afford to. Because we wont see normal again in our lifetimes. Our parents and grandparents burned normal up in their American-built cars, with their American lifestyles, their American refrigerators and American dreams. And now China and India are doing it, too, because capitalism is global, and we sold it wherever we could. of all industrial CO2 emissions have occurred since 1945, and since we knew what global warming was and what a danger it posed. Now, as a new administration takes office and we look ahead to life after both Covid and Donald Trump, we need to face the fact that the world we live in is changing into something else, and that coping with the consequences of global warming demands immediate, widespread, radical action. The next 20 years will be a period of deep uncertainty and tremendous risk, no matter what. We dont get to choose what challenges well face, but we do get to decide how we face them. The first thing we need to do is let go of the idea that life will ever be normal again , Ive called this Beyond that, we need stop living through social media and start connecting with the people around us, since those are the people well need to depend on the next time disaster strikes. And disaster strike, you can be sure of that, so we must begin preparing today for the next shock to the social order, and the next, and the next. None of this will matter, though, if our preparations dont include imagining a new way of life beyond this one, after the end of fossil-fueled capitalism: not a new normal, but a new ethos adapted to the chaotic world weve created. Roy Scranton is the author of , including and He teaches English and environmental humanities at the University of Notre Dame, where he is director of the Notre Dame Environmental Humanities Initiative.