One year after the sanitary emergency and the beginning of restrictive measures, speculations about the post-Covid future are beginning to emerge. What is in store for us after the pandemic ends? Societies that managed to neutralize the massive spread of the virus, such as New Zealand and Australia, or that quickly implemented a vaccination process for their citizens, such as Israel, appear as optimistic reflections. Rugby stadiums full of fans without masks, as in Oceania, or emblematic tourist destinations such as Jerusalem rehearsing their opening to visitors become portraits of what -in theory- could be anticipated once the pandemic has been overcome.
The combination of events with crowds, unlimited mobility and economic reactivation seem to indicate a return to the old normality. Are we expected to return to the past? Or will we see the changes experienced during the pandemic perpetuated, affecting how and how much we work, educate ourselves, have fun, eat and socialize?
These are the questions that animate the book Sustainable Lifestyles after Covid, recently released by Routledge from publisher Taylor&Francis. Throughout its 152 pages, this co-authored study by a group of experts on sustainable development dissects the long-term trends triggered by policies to combat covid-19 at the level of social behaviour. The book addresses the tension between a return to pre-covid business as usual versus the emergence of a “new normal” and sketches four scenarios for how we will live in the future.
Elaborating post-crisis scenarios reintroduces a sense of order, anticipating trajectories and outcomes and reducing the anxieties of leaders, organizations and citizens about what is to come. Scenarios are stories about what the future will be like, speculative narratives about how people will live their lives after the impact of covid. To the extent that consumption and sociability were the dimensions that changed most radically in volume, format and even in their objectives, they constitute the basis for generating scenarios.
A strongly restricted consumption suggests two possible responses from individuals: to embrace a vindictive behaviour that seeks to compensate for the feelings and experience of repressed consumption and delayed gratification or, on the contrary, to value the more frugal, self-sufficient and less materialistic life inherited from the lockdown. Privilege of those who did not lose income with the pandemic, the first reaction is the return to conspicuous consumption and accumulation of goods – the “old normal”.
For many governments it is the bet to beat the crisis, encouraging purchases, the familiar “business as usual”. A future that excites many in the short term but clashes with the coming agenda of climate change mitigation, which demands the reduction and dematerialization of our consumption and the reversal of levels of waste production and natural resource extraction.
Social relations have also been dramatically impacted by scarcity, thus becoming more valuable and desirable. Two responses are possible: immersion in face-to-face social encounters seeking to reverse the experience of affective deprivation and social belonging or, conversely, habituation to remote connection where the benefits of privacy, security and comfort outweigh the cost of loneliness. The second illustrates the “internalization of virtuality”. Following one or the other situation will depend less on social class and more on generational breaks.
Interweaving these four possible responses, the four scenarios emerge. Those who react with vindictive consumption and social immersion will compose the basis of the “old normal”. They will be driven by material incentives or mediations in their affective relationships as well as entertainment, valuing status and convenience, associating well-being with tangible consumption of services and products. This subgroup is in favour of work and education in conventional modalities and will be philosophically opposed to new quarantines.
Those who combine vindictive consumption orientations and internalized virtuality will constitute the “virtual materialists”. They will be supporters of social control, dependent on online shopping and delivery, inattentive to wellness anchored in physical and nutritional health, reluctant to move away from home to work, learn or have fun. They will be characterized as avid consumers of news and the Internet, with little work-life balance.
The third scenario arises from the confluence of those who aspire to social immersion but approach consumption from a post-material frugality. They are the “gregarious simplifiers” who resist both teleworking and online education, associate entertainment and well-being with contact with nature, family life and offline forms of interaction and integration, reject status and aim for intellectual, sensory or social self-realization by participating in volunteer initiatives and favouring local commerce. They adopt collaborative consumption and circular economy mechanisms, minimizing their environmental footprint.
The last scenario is composed by the “online rebels”, who assimilated the social life mediated by computers or applications but from a frugal posture in their role as consumers, politically active in the networks, they understand the online sphere in terms of resistance and cooperation among peers, their distractions as well as their education and work occur remotely via the Internet.
These four scenarios exemplify the different profiles emerging with the pandemic and how they will be linked to everyday tasks and the upcoming agenda centred on concern with climate change. They embody both novelties and intensified versions of old trends; for all of them, the post-covid future is an open-ended, pluralistic and challenging puzzle.
*Text originally published in Clarín newspaper, Argentina.
*Translation from Spanish by Emmanuel Guerisoli
Photo by Jorge Díaz