Normal, abnormal & hypernormal

There has been a lot of talk recently about getting back to normal. The popular discourse seems to be that we all want to get back to the way things were before Covid-19 arrived. It’s become quite pervasive. The politicians, economists, investment bankers and public servants don’t seem to be questioning this return at all. But what is this normal that they so desperately desire?

In our culture poverty is normal, violent conflict is normal, women being paid less than men is normal, white privilege is normal, anxiety is normal, inequality is normal. One of the most normal things of all is living beyond the Earth’s capacity to supply resources and absorb pollution. We have normalised ecocide.

It strikes me that the normal we are craving isn’t normal at all.

The idea of abnormality becoming accepted as normal was brilliantly explored in Adam Curtis’s documentary, “Hypernormalisation”. A bit like boiling a frog - if the temperate of the water is only increased very slowly, by the time the frog notices what’s happening it’s too late. Cooked. He compares this process to the rise of post-Soviet consumerism, where the most bizarre events slipped into normality (and stayed there) without anyone even noticing.

This is what we live now. A hypernormal reality of fake news, super-consumerism, celebrity culture, narcissism and anomie. All of it undermining the foundations of our survival.

I think that what we are really seeking is security. 

The last time we thought we felt secure was before Covid-19 happened. Now we are nostalgic for that safe golden age. The irony is that were weren’t secure then at all, we were teetering on the edge of ecological catastrophe. As indeed we still are. Nostalgia is hankering after the confected memory of a reality that never actually existed.

But this has all been put on hold. By something we can’t even see, that we didn’t expect (most of us anyway), that we can’t control and that only kills human beings.

We are left with a conundrum. Do we rush back to the last time we felt secure, even though this feeling was hypernormal nostalgia? A normal where despite feeling secure, nothing could have been further from the truth. Or do we invoke a more realistic strategy, as we dangle here suspended between ecological impossibility and the shinking chance that our children might have a future?

I had a dream where I was standing with a group of people on the edge of a deep gorge surrounded by mist. We had to leave our side of the gorge because we were being chased by something invisible and lethal. The only way to do this was to start building a bridge to the other side. Our bridge edged out further and further into the mist, the other side of the canyon obscured. I woke up at the point where we were half way - the structure feeling unstable but holding out none-the-less. A conversation started. Should we not just go back to the familiar, safe ground behind us, even though we knew in our hearts it will eventually be fatal? Or should we continue building with trepidation into the fog, searching for the real security of new ground?

We must choose between fear and courage. Do we fearfully rush back to a fatal hypernormal past, or do we muster the courage to finish building the bridge? After all, there are those that have already seen glimpses of something beautiful through the mist.

Fear, courage, Covid and civil engineering

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