City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

2: The pitiless crowbar of events

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Afternoon walk, Stockholm 3 April 2020

How will we remember the coronavirus? While we are ‘flattening the curve’, how can we think about the curves beyond?

Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets

This essay is a bookmark, a note pencilled in a margin, a knot in a handkerchief. A small quiet place to return to, I hope, amidst generalised chaos outside the window. I started writing it as the Australian bushfires were blazing at continental scale, during January 2020. I stopped, but then picked it up again in the early stages of the Coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. It builds on pieces I wrote in Australia from 2007 to 2011, amidst fires, heatwaves, dust storms, and floods.

Each time I’ve written, or started writing, it is with the instinct that we must remember what it feels like at this point, such that, a few months later, when the disaster passes, we can return to the rawness of this moment, remember how many people responded, and build anew in that direction — rather than snapping back into business-as-usual, reaching back for a false memory of ‘before’ from the transformed ‘after’, pretending that the disaster was a one-off, a blip, an exception to the norm.

In fact, the disasters were designed by us. And so they were normal. Or perhaps, there is no normal. These events were bound to happen. Effectively, horribly, they were planned for, albeit accidentally. Whether conscious or not, they are the outcomes of the systems that we have designed, working precisely as they should. Recall the quote attributed to W. Edwards Deming:

“Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets”

As Frank M. Snowden writes, “Epidemic diseases are not random events that afflict societies capriciously and without warning. Every society produces its own specific vulnerabilities. To study them is to understand that society’s structure, its standard of living, and its political priorities.” (From ‘Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present’, 2019)

These are systemic outcomes, and cannot be addressed otherwise. Unless we look at where and how our own crises originate, and then why they propagate so fiercely due to choices about our systems of living, our society’s structures and priorities, we must assume they will keep coming, more frequently, with each wave bigger than the last.

What we have to remember in a few months, perhaps years, is the rawness of this moment, the emotional shock we are in. But also, we must record in detail the way that people are responding, often quietly magnificently in everyday acts of solidarity, as well as through impressive governance and collective action. In doing so, we can better understand how these moments, and those to come, are an outcome of the way we have designed the world. For if we have designed it, we have a choice as to what we do differently, next.

But we have to notice this first. As Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing says, at the start of her book ‘The Mushroom at the End of the World’:

“More and more of us looked up one day and realized that the emperor had no clothes. It is in this dilemma that new tools for noticing seem so important.” — Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing

Later, Tsing describes how the matsutake mushroom grows amidst ecological ‘disturbances’—her book is somehow about mushrooms and everything else at the same time—and she writes “I make disturbance a beginning, that is, an opening for action. Disturbance realigns possibilities for transformative encounter.”

At some point, we must transform and stop snapping back to business-as-usual. We returned to that, almost completely, after the Australian floods and fires, as noted later, and there is every chance that the virus, though it feels like an unprecedented global event right now, with ever-mounting daily horror, will subsequently be seen as deeply unfortunate, once-in-a-century event, a bullet not exactly dodged, but if we’re lucky, just a flesh wound. And so we speak of recovery already, of getting back to normal.

Some will already be working hard to ensure that the business is as-usual. These are the last lines from a leaked Goldman Sachs briefing for investors I chanced across two weeks ago.

House view from GS. COVID-19 Analysis by Goldman Sachs
Date: March 15, 2020 at 9:42:49 AM EDT
There is NO systemic risk. No one is even talking about that. Governments are intervening in the markets to stabilize them, and the private banking sector is very well capitalized. It feels more like 9/11 than it does like 2008.

Isn’t it interesting how the global finance sector has an instinctive typology of crises to hand, with which to gauge an impact on the capital in the private banking sector: “Nah mate, this is not a 2008-er, it’s a straight-up 9/11, but perhaps with a hint of 1979, yeah?”

So at that point, a couple of weeks ago, Goldman Sachs were, like President Trump happily looking forward to an Easter egg hunt, already trying to hold the line about normality. Meanwhile, in Beijing, and apparently having flattened the initial curve of the virus, China is already attempting to reboot some version of business-as-usual.

Average daily coal consumption is rising daily and compared with an average of the past 3 years is 80.6%. It was 534,000 daily tons on March 13th.

And with the factories switching on, other engines ignite:

In another sign that normal life was starting to return in China, there were reports of traffic jams in Beijing on Monday morning.

(This, despite recent modelling in The Lancet which suggests that opening up the economy in Wuhan during March would only lead to a second peak in August. Slowly easing restrictions during April suggests a second peak in October, “affording health-care systems more time to expand and respond.”)

In weary Wuhan, it must feel like a starter motor tentatively firing, waiting the engine to catch. The New York Times states that “Stopping the Chinese industrial machine was painful for China and for the world — and restarting it may be even harder.”

Why is it a problem to just restart the engines as soon as possible? Because as well as the very real horror, the mass slowdown caused by the virus is giving us a glimpse of something else, aspects of another green world just within reach. In fact, “stopping the Chinese industrial machine” was not painful, in a sense. It improved the environment in China immediately, and markedly. The virus is painful. The clean air over Wuhan is not.

To be crystal clear: the virus must be dealt with immediately. All available energy, mental and otherwise, must be devoted to flattening its curves of infection, to preventing further deaths. Ed Yong wrote a great analysis of what to do a few weeks ago. At this point, it should almost be impossible to focus on anything else. So I choose not write in great depth about how we make things happen next, at least not right now.

Except. Except. We must also create some space to think about the next curves to come, and how flattening the curves on the coronavirus might enable us to squeeze the curves on the other, deeper crises we are facing at the same time.

So these papers are about two things: 1) remembering this moment by noting and writing such that we learn as much from it as possible, in order to motivate the systemic changes that can prevent it happening again, and 2) framing questions, at high-level, about how our tactical reactions to flattening the curve of the immediate threat could also be strategic responses that build a new world at the same time. How might we accelerate out of the curve with renewed energy and deeper insight with which to address the even greater challenges and opportunities that are still lying in wait once the virus is dealt with?

How we do that is by taking advantage of this momentary slowdown. Amidst the thicket of links below, and the memories they will subsequently trigger, there is, for me at least, a flickering image of the end of something and the beginning of something else, another green world suddenly within reach.

We should not overestimate the fact that emissions have been reduced for some months. We will not fight climate change with the virus. It is important that all the attention that needs to be given to fight this disease does not distract us from the need to defeat climate change. — UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, 10 March 2020

Antonio Guterrez’s first and third sentences are fundamentally important, but I think, with all due respect, that he misses a chance with the second sentence. Could fighting the virus also begin to fight climate change with the speed and energy actually required to do so?

As head of the United Nations, Guterres has to balance his messages across, let’s just say, a ‘rich tapestry of opinions’ from member states. Yet as the custodian of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), he will also be well aware that we are making little progress towards the three linked crises of climate, health, and social justice embedded in the SDGs, despite the mountain of roadmaps, platitudes, and well-meaning commitments.

Yet the virus has rapidly demonstrated two things with startling clarity, in less than a month of concerted interventions across multiple countries. Firstly, that behavioural change en masse can create a slowdown and potential reset which generates some progress against key SDG arenas, and secondly, that, in patches, this slowdown gives us some brief indication of what a world that has meaningfully addressed these linked crises might look like, what it might feel like.

This experiment in mass behavioural change is important because the virus will take months to deal with. That will be exhausting, and with often terrible outcomes, in terms of both mental/physical health and social/political relations. But somehow, no matter how impossible it is to phrase this ethically, we must be open to the positive aspects of some of these new behaviours. Behavioural research suggests that an average period of around 66 days is long enough to build new habits (though it varies, clearly), and thus change mindsets and opinions.

Indeed the Overton Window demarcating currently acceptable public and political opinion has been obscuring the actions required to address our various linked crises for decades. Rightly or wrongly — or let’s face it, wrongly — that window tends to be smashed only by what Alexandr Solzhenitsyn called “the pitiless crowbar of events.”

A crowbar is now at hand, in the form of the virus, and it’s hammering against that Overton Window before our eyes. Once the virus is addressed, we have a brief moment to construct another worldview, to release our thinking and action from the “petrified armour around people’s minds.” (These quotes are from Solzhenitsyn’s 1978 Harvard Commencement Address, “A World Split Apart.”)

For that to happen, however, we have to more carefully observe what’s going on, and this time, learn from it. Sadly, we do not have the best recent track record in that respect.

Slowdown Papers

These are a series of observations, reflections and ideas, emerging from my view of the early impact of the coronavirus COVID–19 pandemic in the first quarter of 2020, but following the Australian bushfires over Christmas 2019.

1: Writing to memory

Observing, listening and writing, as a way of remembering the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, from within the midst of the slowdown.

2: The pitiless crowbar of events

How will we remember the coronavirus? While we are ‘flattening the curve’, how can we think about the curves beyond?

3: Remember the bushfires to remember the virus

The Australian bushfires and floods as harbingers of the coronavirus, and a world wearing masks and blinkers.

4: We make the virus and the virus makes us

The reversed dynamics of coronavirus and climate, and how the destruction of biodiversity that created the climate crisis probably also created the virus.

5: The curves beyond the curve

Flattening the curve on corona, squeezing the curve on climate.

6: A language in crisis

How key words, phrases and concepts are being bent out of shape by the coronavirus, shaping how we think about what follows.

7: Cultures of decision-making, in Sweden and beyond

Sweden’s ‘Middle Way’ approach to the coronavirus, democracy as a political system for people who are not sure that they are right, and the role of trust, expertise and citizenship, as compared with other Nordics, Taiwan and China.

8: An A/B test on our way of life

The lumpiness of history, how events change the world, World A versus World B, and six questions to prompt reflections about what the coronavirus might mean.

9: The restoration

The coronavirus immediate creates a restored and regenerative environment, and the Slowdown starts to create new habits.

10: Another Green World

Slow cities, flightshame, fast and slow layers, energy use maps the permanent weekend, the acceptance of essential infrastructures and Universal Basic Services, and is the coronavirus forcing us to sketch new forms of governance?

11: Post-traumatic urbanism and radical indigenism

How cities post-coronavirus can benefit from the distributed patterns of post-traumatic urbanism meeting radical indigenism, Wakanda meeting Aalto, and ‘Lo-TEK’ nature-based technologies meeting contemporary infrastructures.

12: Between the roots and the stars

Another green world lying just beneath ours; what our response to the coronavirus can learn from the night sky after Katrina, a 6000 year-old eel machine in Victoria, and a spruce tree in Sweden.


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