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Empty shelves are visible at a Target retail store in Contra Costa County, San Ramon, California, as residents purchase all available stock of toilet paper, paper towels, canned goods, hand sanitizer and other essential items during an outbreak of the COVID-19 coronavirus, March 12, 2020.

Empty shelves are visible at a Target retail store in Contra Costa County, San Ramon, California, as residents purchase all available stock of toilet paper, paper towels, canned goods, hand sanitizer and other essential items during an outbreak of the COVID-19 coronavirus, March 12, 2020. (Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)

The New Abnormal

Randall Amster

This is a moment, to be sure. There aren’t many of this magnitude over the course of a lifetime, and the effects can linger for decades after the immediate emergency passes. Whatever shape the trajectory of the coronavirus takes in the weeks ahead, the sociocultural implications alone are staggering and will continue to reverberate. Moments of crisis can call forth panic and fear, evidently, but they can also elicit bonds of community and expressions of solidarity. Whatever transpires, it will be meaningful.

Like you, I’m trying to make sense of this moment. Grade schools are closed and my university is going virtual for the foreseeable future. Mainstream stores are getting picked clean (despite people outwardly dismissing suggestions of panicking), while the local food coop’s bulk aisle seems to have more people looking out of place and unsure about how to bag and tag their gleanings. Then the President takes the pulpit, reminding us that this is the greatest disaster response ever and that everyone else is to blame.

I’ve spent (too) many years studying, researching, teaching, and just plain grooving on dystopian and apocalyptic parables. As a grad student back in the Y2K days, one of my earliest solo courses explored film and literature in the genre (circa 2000). In the years between, I taught courses on utopian theory and practice, visiting intentional communities and other experiments in living. Now, I’m facilitating a seminar course on “ecotopian visions” that explores similar themes of action, imagination, and emotion.

I share this here to provide some context for my observations. I don’t know what will happen next, obviously, and this is clearly an unprecedented situation—like an earthquake or hurricane but on a national/global scale, and with a more complex vector of human impact while leaving infrastructure basically intact. Holding this up to the arc of narrative depictions, it feels like we’ve just entered the second reel of the flick: innocent observation has yielded to improvised adjustment, as reality sets in.

In the third reel, things often deteriorate to the point where all bets are off that a recovery to “business as usual” will ever be possible—all while a plucky band of protagonists makes their way through the rubble together. Some of them get picked off in the process: will it be the portly comic-relief character, the flower child urging kindness, the lone person of color on the core team? We’re not there yet, and this could still turn out to recede in a few weeks’ time. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make for a movie.

Even at this relatively early juncture, though, the seeds of disconcerting drama are sown. As my teen son said upon returning from a provisioning (scavenging?) run to a few local stores, ‘it’s a lot to take in to see our country so messed up right now.’ True, although the “bare cupboard” hoarding aesthetic on display also suggests just how paper-thin the line between business as usual and Lord of the Flies might be. (At least it seems that way, notwithstanding any indiscriminate neighborliness just outside the media gaze.)

If the only choices are between “Business as Usual” (BaU) and pandemic pandemonium, then the former will be preferable to most. Yet that only serves to mask the deeper realization that BaU wasn’t working so well to begin with, and is a primary reason we’re in this remarkable moment at all. The simmering cauldron of political vitriol, reifications of otherness, escalating inequality, endless war, even more endless waste, and a rapidly warming world hasn’t exactly set us in good stead to weather the storm.

Still, there is an obvious silver lining here, which might help us either (a) move into reel three with our dignity intact or (b) refuse to go back to the “long emergency” normality of BaU if this crisis too shall pass. What the last few days have shown us, for better or worse, is that apparently we can mobilize at a societal level: deeply rooted social norms can change quickly and ingrained purchasing patterns can be upended. As it turns out, the no-exit view of impossible change at scale wasn’t quite, you know, true.

We can afford such musings in reel two, caught up in the heady anxiety of preparation and transition, staring into the abyss of close quarters and too much idle time to think. There’s a certain exhilaration in seeing the old normal wane, even as there’s terror in not knowing where the new normal will settle—or if/when it ever will. We have no template for this moment, coping with a speculative viral neutron bomb that has emptied stores, streets, and social interfaces in rapid fashion. None of this is remotely normal.

Indeed, it’s all so strange, yet familiar. We’ve seen this story unfold, or at least something in the general area. A culture obsessed with end-time prophecies and zombie-apocalypse allegories is always a step away from the precipice. There’s a cyclicality to this moment, a routineness to the rupture. Somehow we’ve made the mundane apocalyptic, and the apocalypse mundane. ‘Are we allowed to play outside?’ asks my erstwhile cynical teen, on cue. ‘Yes, totally, I was hoping you would.’ Now let’s normalize that.

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Randall Amster

Randall Amster

Randall Amster, J.D., Ph.D., is co-director and teaching professor of environmental studies at Georgetown University. His books include "Peace Ecology" (2015), "Anarchism Today" ( 2012), and "Lost in Space: The Criminalization, Globalization, and Urban Ecology of Homelessness" (2008).

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