My percipient friend Ben emerged from his Upper West Side COVID cave in beleaguered New York City yesterday morning, alarmed by the crash of oil prices enough to share a Financial Times story that in effect (if I read it correctly) said oil was selling for negative $37 a barrel. Today the New York Times quoted some oil trader as saying that if you had an empty oil tank that you could make $37,000 simply by accepting a 1,000 barrel delivery.
My favorite part of the NYT story was the comparison of all those supertankers now steaming from the Persian Gulf to America full of worthless oil with the Cold War bombers that missed the recall signal and were still approaching the coast in Fail Safe.
I get it, but I don’t get it. If the energy industry can’t make a buck because the world took a mulligan this spring and stopped driving and flying and cruising, then pretty soon there won’t be anyone left who can keep pumping and digging the stuff out of the ground until we drain the tanks and need more to refill them. And so on and so forth.
But what if …..(after this all sinks in and becomes the new normal), that along with handshakes, a third of the world decides that going forward it doesn’t need to drive to the office, take the girl’s travel soccer team to the tournament, or book a 10-night cruise on the Princess Corona? What if we decide it’s cheaper and healthier to keep eating rice and beans and working through the cans of Hormel chili in the pantry than going to Fudruckers for a Blooming Onion and the Fire-Breathing Wings? What if we stop driving the minivan every day to the hardware and drug and liquor and grocery and convenience stores and just have everything delivered to our doors? Does the great divide in society become one between those who can be “virtual” and those that have to show up and punch a clock? Do cities decline and suburbs get bolstered? The unforeseen is breathtaking, but for the life of me I can’t say with any convinction what will change as I’ve been avoiding people for decades and feel no regret that I won’t be able to attend my 40th college reunion, because I didn’t go to one before.
If I were going to search for the opportunities to emerge from this collective global trauma, I’d say the safe bets would be on developing the measures to anticipate the next pandemic. Sure, it took 102 years for a pandemic to remind us a microscopic virus can make more of an impact on more people than terrorists flying jets into buildings, but it’s a sure bet that some things are going to change now that we’ve experienced one in our lifetimes.
One of history’s great lessons is that most historical events or crises have little to no direct impact on most people. The Battle of Waterloo was a great battle, but in terms of direct impact on people it meant nothing more than wounds or death or medals for those who participated that day in Belgium. When a crisis is completely pervasive, when the threat is — to use the current phrase of the zeitgeist — “existential,” then history is pretty clear on how human nature reacts, responds and adapts to the invisible enemy of a virus. First is the pressure on science to explain and detect the threat and then defeat it. Second, once science fails to save the day by figuring out a vaccine or successfully launching Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck into space to drill a hole into the approaching asteroid and blow it up, mankind tends to declare everyman for themselves and turns to magical thinking and prejudice to explain the inexplicable. The 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic also saw a failure of Federalism as President Woodrow Wilson refused to acknowledge the problem and Governors and Mayors tried an uncoordinated hodge-podge of public health measures ranging from locked down borders to imposing curfews and bans on public gatherings.
But the Spanish Flu didn’t render twenty-five percent of the population unemployed. In fact, it wasn’t really that much of a crisis for the simple fact that it occurred in a disconnected, un-networked world where there was very little news, and very little data. My grandfather may have felt differently after coming home from school in Portland Maine one day to learn his mother had died from the influenza. But he hadn’t been pulled from school and sequestered at home for weeks prior to her death because the apparatus to do that, the entire field of public health and pandemic response simply did not exist.
This crisis is unique in the history of plagues for one reason — the pervasiveness of instant communications and the ability to quarantine vast segments of the population while remaining in operation thanks to the instant communications enabled by the Internet. If there was no 24-hour news cycle to fill with pointless, divisive debates about whether calling the virus “Chinese” is racist or not; if every skeptic and crank like myself lacked a Twitter account or a blog to vent their spleens or comment on the news, then a great deal of the anxiety behind the COVID crisis wouldn’t be able to spread. But spread it has, and ironically as the virus goes viral, the data scientists are turning to such Internet hits as the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon and the 2005 World of Warcraft “Corrupted Blood” plague to better understand how people spread the coronavirus.
I think the remaining months of 2020 will go down as one of the most important periods on history’s timeline, months that will mark the start of some substantial and long-lasting changes to civilization. In the short term, as oil falls to a negative price, as Neiman Marcus and the New York Sports Club files for bankruptcy, as unemployment overwhelms the old software that pays its claims, there will be more fear and more divisiveness to keep us awake at night or howling at the television set. In the medium time frame — the six months remaining until the election here in the US — the crisis will continue to be politicized and the conversation will grow ever more partisan and bumptious the closer we get to an election likely to wind up in the courts.
But in the long term I turn to Barbara Tuchman, one of my favorite historians, who wrote in her collection of essays about the craft of writing history to remind “…people in a despondent era that the good in mankind operates even if the bad secures more attention.”
So yes, we can celebrate clean air and views of the Himalayas for the first time in decades. We can celebrate the immense collective discipline we exhibited when we stayed home to flatten the pandemic’s curve. But to look at the current climate of messy histrionics and political theatrics and be afraid, to wonder if we’ll ever go out to dinner again or take that cruise to Guadalupe, we should once more turn to Tuchman and her prescient words, written in 1973 as the House voted to impeach Richard Nixon:
“Nor should we be paralyzed by fear of exacerbating divisions within this country. We are divided anyway and always have been, as any independently minded people should be. Talk of unity is a pious fraud and a politician’s clicne. No people worth its salt is politically united. A nation in consensus is a nation ready for the grave.”