Culture

What normal?

So what is ‘normal’?

In essence normal evolves slowly, or is a state suddenly imposed on us to which we then adjust. Sometimes we try and shape it through our beliefs.

When the combustion engines all stopped in March 2020’s lockdown, we heard the silence. The birds we amplified. It seemed the humans had retreated, gone from the surface of the planet and the wild animals reclaimed the space. It gave us all a rare peep into a world of ‘what if?’

For introverts, the covid silence was an oasis and for many a time when we could speculate that the things we were all told were impossible, were not. Like the monumental change to de-couple from carbon dependency could in fact become real. We could reduce car and plane travel at a stroke, house the homeless overnight.  

One commentator coined it this way, as the world saying to us all, ‘go to your room humans and have a really good think about how you are behaving.’

The absence of the incessant hum of engines was noticed by all and some dared to hope as they were grounded by an unhappy earth, that human society had been given a jolt, a reminder that things need to be different

As I write, this horrible disease of covid has killed 129,881.The total is still rising daily.  To find the total daily death figure takes some searching.  You have to follow a link to ‘all deaths data’ on the UK government website.

The infamous Lockerbie bombing traumatised a nation when 270 people were killed in a single plane crash in that small Scottish town. 11 people on the ground also died. The sudden and instantaneous shock and horror of such a thing stays with folk. Since March 2020 there have been the equivalent of 479 Lockerbie bombing casualties. The weekly death toll that initially chastened us all has been sent in reverse and today we do not see the deaths total rolling across TV screens. It’s become a hidden statistic.

For those in any tragedy whose loved ones are lost, there is little comfort other than finding out the reasons and learning the lessons so others don’t suffer. Where there is neglect or malicious intent this too must be identified and dealt with. All these bereaved people must still build their lives around loss.

The normal that we are being driven towards is a numbing of the horror of the scale of deaths. This is deliberate. Were the UK deaths similar to those of other countries then we would all be in the same boat, but they are not and we are not. Only an enquiry will tell us, much later down the line when the dead are long buried, what the failings were and how they should have been addressed. Those daily plane crash figures that went on every day for more than a year will need explained. Meanwhile the UK government has barely concealed its impatience to get the ‘economy’ up and running. That is their type of economy at any rate.

The ‘normal’ we have become conditioned to in the last 16 months is that human health, the protection of it, the acceptable level of illness and death are all political. That the numbers of total covid dead is no longer easily accessed online and is displaced by vaccination numbers may be to bring forward a positive story, but also to hide a more difficult story.

There is a thing called homeostasis – its the balance or sweet spot where things have to be in order not to tip into chaos. Its most commonly referred to in body temperature. If your body temperature drops or rises due to illness the body tries to do things to regulate the temperature and get it back to normal . That’s why we shiver or get goose bumps or the hairs on your arms stand up. If your body doesn’t soon return to within its working  parameters of temperature, you are in pretty big trouble.

This summer we are seeing the planet’s reaction to its stasis coming under stress. Record temperatures, drought, fires and floods. And when it hits the wealthy developed world it makes the news. Seeing trim white houses in tidy Germany floating like lego blocks, is much nearer to our collective consciousness than a brown person clinging to a submerged tree in Bangladesh. The way we all live in the rich world is causing this, we know it and it will cost us in lives, but of course more importantly for our bit of the world, it will cost money. In our economy only loss of money to the wealthy effects change. The economy designed by those that would have us brazen through covid19 is being frog-marched towards a return to their preferred normal. A normal where homeless people beg on the streets of our cities, and in Orkney we approach another winter with over 50% of our homes in fuel poverty.

Did we get the tantalising glimpse of a different possible world in March 2020 only to have the shutters violently slammed down up on us?

Here in our corner of the world we have choices about the kind of normal we want. We do not need to accept the ‘normal’ that others might impose on us. We can shape a normal more fitting with the scale and resilience of our islands, our folk and our community.  Now is the time to consider if these things are in balance – in stasis. Is our community temperature in a place where it can function without the body overheating, becoming ill?

In our Orkney microcosm of society, the voices that clamoured for ‘opening up the economy’ won the day against the cautious. And while we were gently adjusted to strangers coming back among us, moves were already eagerly well afoot, in secrecy it would seem, and without any community consultation, to return us to the false normal that brought mass cruise tourism to us. We were told in rather coercive tones it was not ‘if’ but ‘when’.

And there it is, an economic normal is being levered onto us with the same myopic mantra that it is ‘good for us’, ‘good for the economy’. Justifications that argue from a point of lowest common denominator like, ‘well tourists have been coming and going for months’, don’t cut it. This is not what it’s about. Adding numbers by the thousand or multiple thousands at one fell swoop does nothing to alleviate the many other concerns that the community ‘body’ of Orkney are unsettled with.

Fossil fuel use is only one. Others are ethical employment practises, and the cost benefits set against the reputational and physical destructions to the existing infrastructure of roads and wild spaces, the detriment to the quality of ‘offering’ that Orkney has and which has so quickly turned off many loyal caring visitors. 

The development of mass cruise tourism exploded exponentially as a policy of Orkney Islands Council. But no councillor stood for election proposing the development of this business model, No councillor suggested that the OIC should even go beyond its modest reach of providing safe and efficient services for its existing users and embark on a trajectory that would effectively eject these rate-paying users in preference to this oversized brutalist, kitch and alleged cash cow. Mass cruise tourism arrived without a single voter consenting.  Officials went on to defend its money-making necessity. But there are ethics to money making, or are we to suppose that the OIC would also defend the storage of nuclear waste or the slave wages of trafficked women in nail bars? There are ethical choices about how you balance the books.

 ‘Normal’ is another of these moveable feasts like ‘common sense’. Everyone can declare a different meaning for it from their individual standpoint.

But collectively we can try to shape the normal we want to see, not from a standpoint of individual personal benefit or greed but looking at the bigger picture for a normal that will keep others in both our community and further away, even in Bangladesh, safe. A normal that will reduce pressures not increase them, decrease inequality not entrench it and assist in ways that help wean us off fossil fuels and exploitative business models.

 There was a sickness ‘normal’ pre covid – it’s trying to force itself back onto us all, trying to smother us. It does not need to be the normal the rest of us endorse.

Our votes, when we next get the chance whether that’s in a local election, a national one or indeed a referendum on Scottish independence will matter. We can and must shape a better normal.

image credit: B Bell

6 replies »

  1. Yes, Fiona, yes to all that you say here.

    But – are people paying attention? And, will they remember all this next time there is an election – either local or national?
    I get the impression that they don’t, and they won’t.

    Money – talks – and talks very loud.

  2. Another great piece Fiona, thank you. Some places around the world have learned lessons and used the pandemic to implement better active travel options, etc. Sadly between the SUVs and cruise liners I don’t think Orkney will be leading any kind of positive change.

  3. Great article. But no piece can really capture the sadness and frustration I feel about the incompetent handling of the pandemic (in many nations… but amongst the top messing-it-up governments is definitely the UK).
    We have some twisted sense of ethics: Why, for example, is the ethical argument for local livelihoods being used for propaganda for carbon-intensive tourism (cruise ships, air travel) when at the same time the ethical argument does not count when it comes to the global community which is affected by rising (or returning) emissions from the very same ships or planes?
    Yes, we could (theoretically) and we should (in reality) ‘shape a better normal’. But this may – perhaps – only happen if things get even far much worse. As long as the scale of the catastrophes is limited to other places, there won’t be substantial change in Orkney and I cannot see the ‘leading’ role.
    Mankind knew about many problems (climate change as well as the risk of new pathogens with pandemic potential) for many decades but governments succumbed to industry lobbying and the public to being brainwashed by social media. Now the situation is dire… but again there is pressure from industries. Comments on social media resemble parrot-like repetition of tweets (and other ‘brain farts’) without evaluating the truth or the validity of them. Abstruse comparisons to death tolls from other diseases, accidents and whatnot are being drawn to artificially weaken the impact of horrendous Covid death numbers, making them a ‘normal’ occurrence as a price to be paid and accepted. By whom?
    And even our efforts to reduce the damage this disease does in this country by depriving developing nations from access to the much needed vaccines, comes with a price tag. Who pays this price? And is it justified that the developing nations pay this price for the questionable pleasure of residents in industrialised nations to go back to a ‘normal’ we just found to be significantly flawed?

    Is there a way out of this predicament?

    I very much hope so… but I have my doubts.

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