Zoom out with your mind for a moment and picture planet Earth from a distance. Note the clusters of light at major cities on the night side. Picture the airplanes and container ships slowly creeping vast distances. Cars like ants along their sugar highways. Everyone jostling and bustling and hustling.
When I do this, I see humanity mostly obsessed with pulling ores out of the ground and piling them up to make cities. If you were trying to make sense of an ant colony, you would see them doing the same sort of thing as they moved dirt one direction and food the other way. Nearly eight billion of us, spread across the globe, all moving things around in a dance of city-building.
Then a small bit of chemistry came along, too small even for microscopes. A virus, which isn’t even a thing alive, but more an environmental detritus that persists because our bodies are receptive to its programming. Our bodies have cell walls that need to allow good communication through, and material for making copies of good cells, which leaves us open to all kinds of mistakes and marauders.
This tiny strand of chemistry jumped from a (likely) single bat to a single human. And the whole endeavor shut down. The planes quieted. The humans quit moving piles of dirt into cities. Everything froze and the economy stalled. It’s pretty remarkable when you think of the size and scale involved, how something vanishingly small exposed the fragility of civilization.
Of course, it is a temporary stall. We have enough altitude to pull out of this glide. China is already rebooting their economy. This thing will move like waves, and it’ll resurface and bounce back, but a cure will be found and life will go on, but we’ll be changed by this global scare. Hopefully in more good ways than bad.
The United States has yet to receive the full brunt of this pandemic, but some of the potential good can already be seen. Politicians on the right have called for what amounts to a universal basic income, which is an inevitable good that ought to arrive sooner rather than later. More businesses are going to realize their workforce can be productive from a distance, which will reduce commutes and traffic, make child care easier, increase happiness and productivity, and increase profit margins as costly real estate is reduced. Hopefully, hygiene will go up and handshaking will disappear for good, which will mean fewer people getting sick from other bugs and a reduction from the tens of thousands who die from the flu every year.
But the big lesson for me is this: We’ve always been told that to make change in our system, we need to take to the streets and stay in the streets until we are heard. I’ve always wondered how we could be expected to pull that off. How do you use the bathroom? Where do you get your food? How do you rest? Or stay focused or entertained?
Turns out we had it all wrong. Before I point out the obvious, I think we should all be angry. Republican, Democrat, Independent, Libertarian, Green, whatever. Because we keep hearing that the things we and our families need (healthcare that’s universal and guaranteed, loan forgiveness that kills us with payments and debt, free education for ourselves and our children, a smart grid, a switch to green energy) is all too expensive, that there’s no way to pay for it. But without debate and with no delay, another 1.5 TRILLION dollars has been handed to banks, investors, and corporate interests. The fed rate has been slashed to zero. Extreme measures just to keep the stock markets happy. Meanwhile, nothing for you.
Imagine this for a moment: Imagine if 60% or 70% of Americans agreed on a handful of points. Imagine if we made a list of demands so that everyone has housing, education, healthcare, opportunity. And instead of having to go out in the streets, all we had to do was slowly stock up on canned ravioli and then start catching up on our reading lists and our TV. Just stay home. Kill the engine that right now benefits the people at the top far more than those who are truly driving that engine. All the ants stop until the queen is forced to listen.
Strikes helped win concessions that all workers enjoy today. The refusal to allow inequities to continue. One of the most brilliant and pernicious propaganda campaigns of the last century has been to highlight where unions have been corrupt in order to get enough workers to reject the idea of unions altogether. Unity was the key to so much of what we won. Since we’ve been divided, our wages haven’t kept up with the price of keeping ourselves and our families healthy and educated. Since we’ve been divided, minimum wages have stayed put while inflation makes everything more expensive and those in charge have given precedence to the stock markets.
Changing the world ended up being simple. Just a little strand of chemistry making a tiny leap. Imagine if we went about it in a smarter way.