Nicholas Christakis has written a long-read for the Wall Street Journal, ‘The Long Shadow of the Pandemic: 2024 and Beyond.’ If you’re not familiar with his work, I heartily recommend Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society from last year — guaranteed to rock your world, your priors and ruffle some feathers.
Christakis is slowly approaching the status of a public intellectual — those rockstar-like characters whose books everyone reads (or knows of) and whose opinions about society are the center of constant debates. I’m thinking of the likes of Paul Krugman, Steven Pinker, Noam Chomsky, Sam Harris, Yuval Noah Harari (yes, all men: I know my library is sexist).
The piece is adapted from Apollo’s Arrow, Christakis’ forthcoming book, which must be one of the fastest full-length (300-pages!) books ever written, edited, published. As it deals with the coronavirus and how it impacted American society — and is to do for considerable time — Christakis couldn’t well have been working on it before February or March this year. Six-seven months later, he has a thoughtful early account on the pandemic. On Joe Rogan’s podcast, I vaguely recall him saying that he worked on Blueprint for ten years, so let’s be generous and expect something that’s about one-tenth as good.
Judging from the WSJ article only, Christakis is both hopeful and gloomy about the coronavirus. He draws on long-forgotten pandemics to remind us of a crucial thing: this too shall pass. And when the austerity of a pandemic panic lifts, societies usually go on a spending spree — the Roaring Twenties followed the 1918 pandemic; monks and nuns and survivors of the Black Plague celebrated the very fact that they were alive like there was no tomorrow.
Zooming out and looking at history also lifts the gaze from the day-to-day chatter, very little of which is useful. Just dropping the year 2024 in the title made me thing “wow, that’s so far away!”. I would not have said that about 2016, which after all just feels like a few days before yesterday. It’s like the pandemic has super-charged and front-loaded our attention span, making us hyper-focused on the next few days, the next few restrictions. I can’t even plan my Christmas holidays yet — can I see friends? Can I be with family? Can I even fly? Will anybody let me in (or out) of various countries?
Lifting the perspective for a minute is very useful. Christakis writes
Over the intermediate term, cities will be duller, as many small retail firms go out of business, leaving only large, well-capitalized chains to fill the urban landscape. As people continue to shift to working from home, employers will realize that they need less office space, which means fewer custodians, building managers, rental agents and so on.
But the piece is also a little hedged; a little too much “maybe this, maybe that.” Then again — who knows? We (by which I mean politicians and their followers) are playing by entirely new playbook, making up rules as they go. What in hindsight seemed obvious and almost bound to happen seems in the present uniquely uncertain and impossible to forecast. Still, Christakis sees the same bleak future I see for governments’ nonsensical mandates on people’s personal lives, all — naturally — in the name of “saving lives:”
Either way, with a good vaccine or without one, Americans will live in an acutely changed world until 2022 — wearing masks, avoiding crowded places and limiting travel, at least if they wish to avoid getting or spreading the virus. This is the immediate pandemic period.
Still, he is nuanced, thoughtful and always interesting. It scares me to think of all the (political, hysterical) powers we have unleashed and how much work it will take to bring them back to sanity — not to mention the unspeakable material damage we’ve done to the world already. I don’t even know if it’s possible. As I argue in ‘Will Things Ever Go Back to Normal?’, I don’t think so: I’ve been influenced enough by political economist and economic historian Robert Higgs not to see the Ratchet Effect of political power in action.
These people discovered that we didn’t mind them stripping us of rights and commandeering us about. They won’t stop just because a (fairly mild) disease may or may not be under control.