A Time to Question “Normal”

As many people are pointing out, the slowdown imposed by the Coronavirus pandemic offers us the gift of time and space to reexamine our priorities and sort out what really matters to us (individually and collectively).

The slowdown in the default frantic pace of life can also be a time to question what passes for normal in everyday USA life. I’m constantly doing that anyway, but the slowdown gives more time for it.

The other day I accompanied a neighbor to the hospital for outpatient surgery. It involved an hour’s drive, by medical taxi, down the interstate to the big city. The drive provided time to think, and a cross-section of “normal” sights.

It’s normal to use tons of concrete. TONS, everywhere. When you’re on a modern interstate the whole world seems made of concrete. I cannot imagine the resources it takes to do this — for what? We need these huge walls and pillars and I don’t know what all else, just to provide a surface for our vehicles to get from point A to point B? Seems like backwards evolution to me. If I were a space alien I might think the resident populace was compulsively using up its resources in order to commit species-suicide.

It’s normal to totally scalp the landscape, even on very very steep slopes. Lay the sod and keep it scalped. Turf companies and mower companies must be doing very well.

It’s normal for people to have health insurance. If you have some kind of government-based coverage, everything is covered, even an hour-long taxi ride to a hospital for elective surgery. Of course many people have no insurance. But the system is totally set up for people who do. If you don’t have it … you don’t fit into the system.

It’s normal for hospitals to be huge, lavish Taj Mahal-like palaces that even keep advertising themselves once you’re inside their walls and have presumably become a paying customer. It’s normal to bombard hospital patients, in their beds, with a constant TV screen of pharmaceutical advertisements.

It’s normal to cram all the used linens into a giant disposable plastic bag. I assume they were being taken to be laundered, not thrown away. In that case why not use a cloth bag and wash it along with the linens? But maybe they were throwing the linens away? In any case, what they were doing is normal.

It’s normal to use straws. Disposable, one for every drink. You’re still weird if you question that. And it’s work if you want to try to get a drink without a disposable plastic cup and straw. These things are normal.

It’s normal, even outside a building (as opposed to inside), to have movie screens flashing garishly colored digital ads. It’s normal to intrude on the outdoors in this way. Ditto for intruding on the outdoors with sound (music, ads, etc.), as many businesses do. If you question that, people will just look at you like you’re nuts.

It’s normal to have a car. It’s not normal not to. If you don’t have a car, the default environment is not set up to accommodate you.

It’s normal to view the vast majority of nonhuman species (both plant and animal) as “pests”, and spend millions of dollars trying to eradicate them. Even many people who profess to believe in God, do not think twice about doing this to God’s creatures.

It’s normal to keep indoor environments heated or cooled so far from the ambient outdoor temperature that you need, for example, to wear a jacket indoors when it’s nice and warm outside. It’s normal to construct whole buildings with no windows that can be opened.

It’s normal to try to keep the outdoors “neat” using landscaping practices such as edging, leafblowing, that do violence in the form of noise pollution, air pollution, and disruption of natural restorative processes.

A few years back, I attended a talk by Joel Salatin, a farmer who engages in regenerative practices. He’s quite a speaker. One of his favorite phrases is, “Folks, this ain’t normal!” (describing mainstream industrial ag practices). This phrase might serve us well as we move through our days, noticing the various default settings that pass for “normal” in mainstream USA. Questioning normal is always a healthy reality check, even when what’s normal appears to be working. Especially when what’s normal appears to be working. Because it’s probably not working for everyone or for Mother Nature.

People who question the norm are labeled pests and freaks. I know I have been. Don’t let that stop you. Question “normal”! If you go out today, see how many examples you can find even in just a few minutes, of things that usually go unquestioned but are really crazy. It can feel demoralizing, noticing all the craziness without feeling you can do anything about it. But noticing it is the first step. There might be people around you who are ready to notice it too, and start joining forces to do something about it.