COVID-19 has rippled through personal, social, political and financial life in a way hardly experienced before by people privileged enough to have been sheltered in the past by wars and natural disasters. Photo: D. Burton/Unsplash

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REFLECTIONS ON COVID-19

This virus makes us question our established ways

With this pandemic, the opportunity to think outside the box is now

Story highlights

  • Just over a few months we have seen vast changes in behaviors and norms
  • Established baselines have been broken
  • How long this experience will ‘stick’ only the future can tell, but the opportunity to think outside the box is now

DISCLAIMER: This reflection presents insights that are relevant to the discussions related to both the causes for the pandemic and the solutions needed to build a more resilient, global society. Covid-19 affects all aspects of our lives, we want to help make sense of this tragedy, in empathy with all those suffering from it.

SHIFTING BASELINES: Life can change in a heartbeat but for the world to change it seems to have taken a virus. COVID-19 has rippled through personal, social, political and financial life in a way hardly experienced before by people privileged enough to have been sheltered in the past by wars and natural disasters.

But how much and how fast will it change norms, values and behaviours and long will these changes last?

A few months before the world became so different, researchers from the Stockholm Resilience Centre and the Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics published a paper in Nature Sustainability explaining how changes to how we think and behave depend on changes in social, cultural, and ecological contexts around us.

Little did the authors know, while writing this paper, how the perceived realities and the contexts would change so dramatically.

We have been forced to experience alternative ways of doing things and some of our previously established norms and expectations can now be questioned in a way hardly thought possible before.

Forced to experience alternative ways

Our norms, values, and social interactions codevelop with the contexts we live in. Just over a few months we have not only seen massive responses in production, consumption, and mobility patterns, but also vast changes in behaviors and norms that influence both our private and professional lives, such as flying, teaching, consumption and sizes of physical group meetings.

We have been forced to experience alternative ways of doing things and some of our previously established norms and expectations can now be questioned in a way hardly thought possible before, such as the necessity of physical group meetings, or place of residency in relation to work.

These changes have been a response to the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, but they have nevertheless pushed us to think and act differently. Established baselines have been broken. For example, flying was perceived by some as inevitable before the pandemic (even among sustainability researchers) but experiencing a new norm even for a short time may help trigger a social regime shift towards reduced long-distance mobility which may stick with us for a longer time than the pandemic.

An uncomfortable realization

A striking example from how negative consequences from shifting baselines are revealed comes from several Indian cities that for the first time in decades could see the Himalayas from their town center. Not only did this lift the veil of pollution and the consequences of our actions, but also the illusion of inevitability of this situation.

The fact that the contexts and the decisions that are taken within them are inseparable, that they are complex adaptive systems, is a growing understanding among researchers and some policy makers. It can be very difficult to recognise when these context-decision systems evolve into undesirable trajectories. They are often subtle or difficult to grasp but they come with significant consequences.

New perspectives and behaviours can lay bare old ones as wrong and undesirable. There is an increasing understanding that humanity is tightly interwoven with nature. What the world is going through, in all its tragic consequences, can represent a window of opportunity for positive change by forcing many of us to question aspects of our lifestyle and inspire new policies.

How long this experience will ‘stick’ only the future can tell, but the opportunity to think outside the box is now.

Related info

Scientific background:

Schill, C., Anderies, J.M., Lindahl, T., Folke, C., Polasky, S. et.al. 2019. A more dynamic understanding of human behaviour for the Anthropocene. Nat Sustain 2, 1075–1082 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-019-0419-7

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Stockholm Resilience Centre is a collaboration between Stockholm University and the Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

Stockholm Resilience Centre
Stockholm University, Kräftriket 2B
SE-10691
Phone: +46 8 674 70 70
info@stockholmresilience.su.se

Organisation number: 202100-3062
VAT No: SE202100306201