Not since WWII has there been such an opportunity for self-examination and behavioral change. The COVID-19 pandemic poses the same unsettling force to societies around the Globe, with one big difference, the enemy is not some other nation, but an invisible, still mysterious force. If the US is an example of what is being done in other nations, the immediate responses have been to isolate individuals to slow down the spread of the virus and pump money into the economy to soften the blow, caused by the first step.
As I write this, the number of cases of COVID-19 and associated deaths is still sharply on the rise in the US and also globally. The growth curve for total cases is still virtually headed straight up. There is no good way to test the efficacy of the medical strategy, lacking any controls, and the results of all the financial measures are still is the future. In my world of scholars and others concerned about the other great threat to human settlements, climate change, and other growing signs of systemic breakdown, another question looms as large as those related to the immediate virus threat. Will the world be different after COVID-19 disappears, at least for the time being? Will we see significant changes in human behavior such that economic, political, and social institutions will become restructured in alignment with, hopefully, sustainable conditions and individual flourishing.
I begin my own inquiry into these questions with a couple of assumptions. The first is that technological fixes, although important to help bend the curve (as is so popular in talking about the corona virus), cannot compensate for the continued reliance on growth in material consumption that underpins virtually every political economy on the globe. I include any neo-classical economic policy in this category because the inherent assumptions about human nature and normative goals driving all such policies are also based a technocratic foundation. None of these will do anything significant in putting the Planet on a path to a state where humans and other life flourishes as the normal condition, implying stability over time.
So far, I have merely restated the basic premises of my books. The next assumption, found in the last book, is that the failures to create such envisioned conditions and its opposite, the production of precarious state for the world for humans, other life, and the Planet itself, can be traced back to a single root cause: the domination of the brain by its left-hemisphere. I can’t begin to develop this any further in this short blog; you can find the argument in my book, The Right Way to Flourish: Reconnecting with the Real World, and in the work of Iain McGilchrist. Based on his work, I argue that the only possibility to escape further deterioration of the Planet and the human condition is to shift individual behavior and all major institutions toward right-brain mastery and its consequent behavioral norms.
The primary difference would be a move toward the intersubjective, caring aspect of human actions and away from the controlling, economistic, acquisitive behaviors so central to modern cultures. The bi-hemispherical brain model recognizes both possibilities and offers a practical path to shift the destructive norms of the last four or five centuries in the West. We are not, by nature, the Smithian, self-interested, never-satisfied being that has been assumed by our political economy designers and governors. That is but one side, put and kept in place by our institutional rules and structures, of a dichotomous pair of characteristic ways of attending to the world.
The right brain captures the richness of the highly interconnected and context-rich world out there and hands it over to the left which removes all the critical context and reduces it to abstractions and generalizations, resulting in behaviors that reflect the past and not the present situation. In one of those uncanny synchronies that never seem to amaze, one of the articles by Wendell Berry I had assigned to yesterday’s class of senior citizens pointed to the polarity of nurture and exploitation that has been evident in the New World since Cortés swept across Mexico. These two words do a very good job of characterizing the central behaviors associated with right and left sides of the brain.
So back to the present, crazy as it is. What is going to happen when the virus threat subsides sufficient that we can go back, but back to what? The massive financial package just enacted by the Congress aims at a return to the same old, same old world we had just left. Same ignorance of looming systemic changes that climate change is going to produce. Same growing inequality. Same dysfunctional political system. Same obscenity in the billionaires who exist side-by-side with the masses who live day-by-day and month-to-month. Same lying and obfuscation in a so-called democracy that can survive only by sharing the facts. And more…
Or is to be a temporary version of this world, but operating at a reduced level of output for a while—less consumption—maybe a few more hugs reflecting the horrors of being separated for so long. Cleaner air, but only for a moment because regulations are being relaxed to ease the burden on the corporate world in order to get back to the conditions in the last paragraph. Many of my colleagues are looking at the reductions in consumption, which are real, and hoping they reflect some sort of structural change and will remain lower.
I do not think this will happen, for many reasons, including the demands of the political economies of so many nations to fire up the engines and get moving again. But the most critical is that meaningful structural behavior change must follow or be concomitant with a change of brain hemispheric dominance. Only then, can we begin to capture the richness and complexity of the world and recognize our embeddedness in a living, holistic world. Only then will we begin to see that our primary job as the wonderful, intelligent species we are, is to take care of that system so that it hangs around and all of its living creatures can flourish. Our exploitative ways can be replaced by those of traditional husbandry, taking what we “need” to flourish, but not at the expense of destabilizing the earth system.
Paul Romer said, “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” It will be wasted if those with dreams about a robust, equitable future go about rebuilding the world, but on the same foundation. Only if we use a different set of plans, drawn on the criticality of re-balancing our brains can we truly change our future; otherwise we will only leave the guts of the old in place. The US was built from the ground up on a foundation completely different from what was familiar, but unwanted, by our founding fathers. They build it on new ideas. Once again, we have an idea so powerful that it can change the course of history, as it has done before in shaping earlier cultures that were caring and communitarian.
The challenge is immense. Even those with that vision of a flourishing world must give up the rules for getting there that they have deeply rooted in their left-brains. For us who have made our way so far in the world by using our left-brains, this will be very, very difficult, but is absolutely essential. Those who have risen to positions of power and leadership have gotten there largely because of abilities springing from the left-brain. All of our major institutions are built on structures that rely on the left-brain. The odds of success are not promising. The same old, same old is the vision to bet on (very left-brain utterance), but it is a bet that Faust would have jumped at.
The Right Way to Flourish was published well before the coronavirus onslaught. It followed from my previous works as I became ever more convinced that the idea and vision of flourishing had the power to guide us toward a future that could persist. By chance, I stumbled upon McGilchrist and his model of the divided brain. The light went on. Here was something that could explain both why we have gotten in the whole we have been digging, in spite of all the promises that the Enlightenment brought to modern human beings, and also could serve as a foundation for efforts to build a new world. I completely rewrote the book. And that’s what needed now. Not just a copy-editing job, but a comprehensive rewriting. Let’s not waste this crisis.