Still thou are blest, compared wi’ me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But Och! I backward cast my e’e,
On prospects drear!
An’ forward, tho’ I cannot see,
I guess an’ fear! (Robert Burns, “To a Mouse,” 1785)
This will be a short post. I was thinking of people’s perceptions of the present and the future, with all of the messiness in the US right now: the coronavirus pandemic and the inadequate government response, the BLM protests in the streets against racism and police brutality, the social divisions, the high unemployment rate, and the dual crises of climate change and species extinctions. Things don’t feel great right now.
Some people have tried to predict what the US will look like in the near future, ranging from dystopian hellscapes including the end of the country engulfed in food shortages, unchecked spread of COVID-19, and even civil war. Others have suggested there will be a return to normal with a new, less divisive, administration that will be more proactive in tackling the pandemic and stabilizing employment in an FDR-style presidency.
Predicting the future is not easy (though some, like Peter Turchin have tried). I was thinking that we perceive our current social environment similarly to how we perceive velocity in a car or plane. When a vehicle’s speed is constant, it becomes almost imperceptible to us since we are also going at the same speed along for the ride. In a commercial airplane at cruising speed, people walk freely through the aisle without noticing much. The same applies to the earth, which is rotating at over a thousand miles per hour (and so are we). It’s only when the vehicle slows, accelerates, or turns do we feel the shift.
I’d say that something similar happens in how we perceive other aspects of our environment. A 70°F day (21°C) may feel warm or cool depending on the season or what the temperature the previous day was. Anyway, here’s my point: the way the world feels right now depends on context and how we perceive not only our current position, but the change in direction and where we might be headed.
If yesterday we had just experienced a horrible period that was worse than this one, such as — oh I don’t know — the Bubonic plague, or maybe the Rwandan genocide, then today’s situation would feel pretty good. But perceptions are not always the best guide. As the first cases of coronavirus reached the US, most people reacted with trepidation, since it was new and the future seemed uncertain. Then people became attenuated to the situation over a few months, like the proverbial frogs being slowly boiled. Then almost every state eased their stay-at-home orders, even though the number of new cases per day is higher than when those lockdowns were initiated.
I suppose what I’m saying is to remember that as bad as things are right now, they could always get worse. Hopefully not. With foresight, planning, and effort, we can get momentum going in another direction.