When Social Distancing Ends, Will We Rethink the World We Want?

Long before the virus, Americans had become socially isolated, retreating into sprawling suburbs and an online world of screens. When we emerge from our pandemic-mandated separation, can we reconnect with each other and reconsider how the way we live impacts the natural world?

Patterns are notoriously hard to break, even when you have to. Studies find that more than half of smokers diagnosed with lung cancer keep on smoking, even though their odds of survival would go way up if they stopped. Nicotine is powerfully addictive, of course — but we’re beginning to suspect that’s true of lots of other human behaviors too: checking your phone, for instance, which seems strongly linked to the supply of dopamine (which is what nicotine affects as well). One tells oneself that one will change — but change is hard.

Which is one reason the current moment is so interesting. Lay aside the death and the illness and the fear and the economic hardship for a moment, and just think about the sheer unlikeliness of what we’re experiencing. For the first time in most of our lifetimes, the population as a whole has been told we have to shut down normal life, abandon most of our regular routines. That we have to change. It’s hard, but since it’s necessary we’ve done it — and surprisingly well. Yes, there are knuckleheads crowding the beaches, and yes there are scary guys with guns showing up at the Michigan state house. But most people got with the program — hunkered down, sucked it up, and figured out Zoom.

How we behaved during this period of quarantine will fascinate researchers for years to come, I imagine. It’s what they call a “natural experiment,” and I’m willing to bet people are already busy studying everything from cortisol levels to social media patterns to sourdough starter production. But what happens when we are released from detention will be at least as compelling — and for those of us hoping for an environmentally different future, it may be telling. Will habits shift straight back to hour-long commutes and trips to the mall? Or might this strange, sudden bend in our existence — by far the biggest societal detour in my six decades on the planet — leave us thinking differently about the world, and behaving differently in it?

Will we stick to patterns that have helped drive temperatures ever higher, or will we develop some new ones?

If so then this stretch won’t have been an entire waste. Because the biggest patterns we need to break are obvious: the routines of getting and spending that abuse and exhaust the earth, the habits that leave us tied to screens, instead of in contact with one another or the world around us. Will we stick to the patterns that have helped drive the temperature ever higher, or will we develop some new ones?

One possibility is that when all this is over we will revert straight back to normal, or even to some worse version of it. In search of recovery, nations could respond by trying to prop up old businesses like the fossil fuel industry (indeed, that is what our country is doing). Maybe in cities like New York people who can afford it will abandon the subway for private cars. Privacy and seclusion could become a fetish — at the first sign of trouble many city dwellers who could afford it headed for their second homes in the country. Some may only come back reluctantly or not at all, especially now that they’ve learned to tele-commute. That has its upsides — those of us who live full time in rural America know we could use some more neighbors — but it’s also clear that our cities are more efficient places to live.

But most people won’t change geographically — the question is, will they start to change psychologically in ways that might help build a more sociable future, one that might actually trade stuff for people.

One possibility — and it’s only a possibility — is that we might actually find ourselves embracing gregariousness. In truth, we began social distancing a long time ago. First came the move to the suburbs: In the postwar years, America spent the bulk of its prosperity on the task of building bigger houses farther apart from each other. This caused environmental woes — all those big houses to heat and cool and migrate between — but it also meant that we simply ran into each other less. The average size of a new house has doubled since 1970, even as the number of people living in it has steadily shrunk — the average density of most recent housing developments is about two people per acre, down from about 10 persons per acre for cities, suburbs, and towns in 1920. Between 1974 and 1994 the fraction of Americans who said they frequently visited with their neighbors fell from almost a third to barely a fifth. That number has kept dropping, now less because of suburbanization than because of screens: If you look at teenagers, for instance, a wild behavioral shift is noticeable beginning about 2012 when the numbers of Americans with a smartphone passed the 50 percent mark. The number of young people who got together with their friends in person every day dropped by 40 percent from 2010 to 2015, a curve that seems to be accelerating according to Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University.

The average size of a new house in the U.S. has doubled since 1970.

The average size of a new house in the U.S. has doubled since 1970. Shutterstock

Have these new habits made us happy? Not really. The percentage of Americans who say they’re very happy with their lives peaked somewhere in the 1950s, according to the pollsters. In a survey released recently, 13 percent of Americans said they were not happy with their lives in 2018, up from 8 percent in 1990. That’s a 50 percent jump in glumness. The World Happiness Report, released in March, found that “overall life satisfaction” fell 6 percent in the U.S. between 2007 and 2018, “continuing a slow decline ongoing since at least 2000.”

It’s actually not that hard to understand that decline: We are socially evolved primates, and we’re not really designed to be as apart from others as we now find ourselves. It’s been more than two decades since Robert Putnam published the finding that joining a club of any kind halves the risk that a previously solitary person will die in the next year, and since then researchers have uncovered an endless stream of data showing the dangers of this kind of hyperindividualism. Above 80 and with a “poor social network”? Your chances of dementia grow by 50 percent. Those kids huddled in their bedrooms looking at Instagram? According to Twenge, eighth graders who are heavy users of social media up their risk of depression 27 percent. Here’s an especially salient one for those of us fretting about Covid-19: In a 1997 Carnegie Mellon study that involved researchers spraying samples of cold virus directly into subjects’ nostrils, “those with rich social networks were four times less likely to come down with illness than those with fewer friends.”

Those changes came slowly, and without us noticing — living on screens was the classic frog-in-the-pot scenario, as we progressed gradually from pcs to flip phones to holding most of your life in the palm of your hand. The coronavirus quarantine, by contrast, came like a stroke of lightning from a bright blue sky. One day we were worrying about Super Tuesday or about Australia on fire or about spring training or about any of the million other things humans worry about, and the next day we were all thinking about exactly the same thing. Which was that we had to stay inside, by ourselves. Couldn’t go see our friends. Couldn’t go for a walk in the park.

We are on the closest thing ever to a worldwide meditation retreat, with billions finding time to think about their lives.

That shock means, perhaps, that this time we will notice — that the long, slow slide into a kind of solipsistic trance will suddenly register. Maybe, when we get out of solitary, we won’t want to go back to “normal” as it existed in February. Maybe we’ll want to go back to something more like the normal that has defined our species for most of its existence: a desire for contact with each other, and with the natural world.

I dislike the protesters rallying to “open things up,” but not because I don’t yearn to open things up — I saw an interview recently with the premier reporter on infectious disease, Laurie Garrett, where she said, “If I don’t get hugged soon I’m going to go bananas. I’m desperate to be hugged.” Still, Garrett is smart and disciplined enough to know our desires don’t mean a thing to the COVID microbe, any more than they do to the carbon molecule. For the time being we need to pay attention to epidemiology above all.

When we are finally out of quarantine, however, the great hope must be that we take pleasure in the things we’ve denied ourselves these past decades, and especially these past months. A walk in the park, a simple dinner with friends. We’ve been told — and eventually told ourselves — that consumption was our joy and our job. But if we’re going to deal with the overarching climate crisis, one thing we need to do is substitute some non-consumptive pleasures for some of that stuff. A walk in the park, not a flight to the other side of the world.

That’s a hard message to get across — some of us have tried, for instance, to mount campaigns to change the way we celebrate the holidays. And everyone nods, understanding at some deep level that we probably need to change, but then the world gets in the way. Well, all of a sudden there’s nothing in the way. We are on the closest thing we’re ever going to get to a worldwide meditation retreat, with billions of people finding a little time to think about their lives. Much of that thinking is necessarily fearful: Will I live? Will I have a job? But some of it, just maybe, will be expansive: Given that we’ve broken pretty powerfully with the past, how do I want to live from here on in?