Current Commentary

… by John W. Head (posted 10 Feb 2021)

A post-COVID “new normal” aimed at restoration

In a recent opinion column for the New York Times, Roy Scranton urges that we simply forget about returning to a “normal” situation once the COVID-19 pandemic has been put in the rear-view mirror. In his article – I’ve Said Goodbye to ‘Normal’. You Should, Too – Scranton highlights the terrible environmental news that 2020 brought, some of which got overshadowed by the pandemic:

It’s easy to forget that 2020 gave us not just the pandemic, but also the West Coast’s worst fire season, as well as the most active Atlantic hurricane season on record. And, while we were otherwise distracted, 2020 also offered up near-record lows in Arctic sea ice, possible evidence of significant methane release from Arctic permafrost and the Arctic Ocean, huge wildfires in both the Amazon and the Arctic, shattered heat records (2020 rivaled 2016 for the hottest year on record), bleached coral reefs, the collapse of the last fully intact ice shelf in the Canadian Arctic, and increasing odds that the global climate system has passed the point where feedback dynamics take over and the window of possibility for preventing catastrophe closes.

Scranton, who serves as director of the Notre Dame Environmental Humanities Initiative, recommends that we think for a moment just what a return to “normal” really means:

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 agree. Even with the USA re-joining the Paris climate-accords system – and indeed, even if all countries involved in that Paris process did actually meet the GHG-emissions reduction targets they’ve set – the momentum of climate disruption is so great that horrific ecological degradation is already coming our way.

In view of this, I concur in Scranton’s basic message. In rough vernacular, that message is this: “normal” stinks; a return to “normal” equates to a return to a path of disaster. Let’s change things.

Translated into the key elements of the Global RESTORATION Project (, here is how I interpret Scranton’s message and how we should respond to it:

  • Energy policy requires drastic restructuring, to reduce energy demand/use and to wean humans away from fossil-fuel use immediately – surely by 2030 a 50% reduction in that use and by 2050 a 95% reduction in that use. Obviously, a corresponding expansion of non-fossil-carbon-based sources should be undertaken, but energy production via those sources must be kept as simple and as local as possible in order to avoid the environmental damage (habitat destruction, for instance) that even alternative energy sources will have unless we dramatically reduce demand/use. In short, an entirely new “normal” needs to be designed and implemented for energy; let’s use the pandemic (and our emergence from it) as a springboard toward that new normal.

  • The technological prowess needed to arrive at new and better energy sources can follow some of the same patterns as those involved in creating vaccines against COVID-19. Researchers engaged in that project checked first for safety; would the vaccine have too many injurious side-effects to warrant continuing its development? In the context of developing new technologies to address environmental concerns – the climate crisis, the agricultural crisis (see below) – we must check first for injurious side effects. This is the precautionary principle in an aggressive, hard-shelled version: do not adopt or apply any new technology without solid confidence that it will not harm the Earth’s natural systems and processes. In short, rely only on smart technology. And the only way to do that is to ground the technologies under consideration in the natural systems with which they must be compatible.

  • Since agriculture constitutes a massive component of the climate problem and a key cause of ecosystem collapse (through conversion of native landscapes to agricultural production, and then by using extractive agricultural processes that deplete and degrade the soil), we must undertake a broad-based and generously-funded research campaign to develop natural-systems agriculture revolving around perennial grains grown in polycultures (like native prairies & grasslands) – and also to reduce human consumption of meat, thereby reducing the damage caused by livestock production.

  • In order to facilitate these changes – a new energy policy, a new approach to technological development, and a new agricultural revolution – we must press for global legal and institutional reform that will place control over environmental matters where it belongs: at the local and regional levels, based on biogeophysical realities, with effective coordinating support from a global system of collaborative and representative decision-making, with foundations in science, not politics.

I am as eager as anyone to put the COVID-19 pandemic behind us. But in the ways noted above, I see our species facing yet another long slog of a struggle that will test our powers of innovation and dedication at least as much as the pandemic has tested us. Let’s use the pandemic as a trial run for solving the even bigger problems. And let’s do this not by seeking a return to the “normal” we thought we enjoyed before the pandemic struck. That “normal” was a dead end. Instead, our aims should revolve around restoration … as in the Global RESTORATION Project, with its various elements designed to reject the policies – the old “normal” policies – that have created severe ecological degradation. New, non-“normal” policies in energy, in technology, in agriculture, and in global cooperation are needed to restore all that makes Earth a living planet.