How will COVID-19 change our society, not only in the months ahead but over the longer term? Many are offering predictions about how our lifestyles might change as a result of the pandemic, all of it speculative and much of it dubious but some of it probably well-founded. I’m going to offer a couple of thoughts of my own which are likely more hopes than predictions.
One clear trend that we’ve seen around the world is that major urban centers have taken the brunt of the pandemic, with small towns and rural areas faring much better. Viruses, of course, spread where populations are concentrated, and quarantining and physical distancing are also far more difficult to practice in major cities than anywhere else. Those of us who don’t live in large cities have been tremendously fortunate; in my own case my lifestyle hasn’t changed very much at all. Apart from teaching at the university I mostly work at home anyway, which is outside of a small city in a semi-rural area. I can think out here, away from the noise of the city and the mass society that we often see as an alternative-less order of things. Life in large cities obviously has its advantages, some of them cultural but most of them economic. Major cities are where the jobs are, but it’s commonplace for many who live there to dream of the countryside, cottages and bodies of water where you can experience a very different way of life.
With everyone staying at home, our social and economic networks have moved online. One thing we’ve learned from this pandemic, which has every potential of changing how we live long term, is that it is possible for far more people in many lines of work to work from home than we previously realized. Technology has made it possible for workers across many sectors of the economy to work at home while staying connected to whatever network they need to. In some professions this is surely impossible; in others it is difficult and highly imperfect. In my own profession, for example, it’s possible in a pinch for university professors to move their courses online, and this is exactly what we will be doing for some months to come. I’ll be doing this too. The quality of education will suffer significantly—university marketers would probably prefer I not say this, but it’s true—however it is possible to “deliver the curriculum,” as it’s called, using the technology just as school teachers are currently attempting. It’s far from ideal, but my point is that it’s possible. Joe Biden is even running for president of the United States right now from his home, to take a far more extreme example. There are countless other instances of this that I could mention. Before the pandemic, it was commonplace for many employers to insist that all employees travel daily through rush-hour traffic in a major city to a central workplace when this might not be necessary and when many would strongly prefer to live wherever they want to and phone it in. Many people will always prefer the way of life that is to be had in large cities, but many others do not and for a variety of reasons. I’d put myself in the latter group. Staying home has been no sacrifice for me. I actually prefer it. The only downside is that my gym is closed—but even that isn’t really a problem. I now get my exercise outside, on my bike, in the vegetable garden, I’m replacing an old cedar fence, harvesting next winter’s firewood from the woods behind our house, all of it without machines except for a chainsaw. This kind of labor is strictly old-school and hard work, and that’s exactly the way I like it. I’ve always been very religious about exercise, so our property is looking rather good these days. I mention this because the lifestyle that’s possible outside the major cities is qualitatively very different and, for some of us, highly preferable to urban life. And what we’re seeing is that more people can experience this way of life than we used to believe.
My Philosophy Crush collaborator Rob Faucher lived for years in one of the suburbs of Toronto and commuted daily to his corporate job downtown, a one-hour drive both ways. He hated it, but there seemed no alternative. About a year ago he quit his job, sold up and moved to a town in Prince Edward Island. He now works from home and spends much of his days riding around PEI on his motorcycle and taking photos of birds. This looks like a radical move and it is, but he hasn’t abandoned his social and economic network. He hasn’t gone back to the woods either, but if you ask him which lifestyle he prefers I can tell you what his answer will be.
Here’s another example: in 1922 Martin Heidegger bought a bit of land outside a village in the Black Forest and his wife had built for him a small cabin which they called “the hut.” He was very attached to this building, which is still there and today is something of a tourist attraction. The hut was a very important retreat from the city of Freiburg, where Heidegger spent most of his adult life in spite of his dislike of urban life. For many years, the Heideggers lived in a house in Freiburg and would go to the hut, a short drive away, whenever they could. He would often say that he could do his best thinking and writing there, and he also experienced a peace of mind that he found impossible in the city. He disliked the noise of the city, and much of its social and cultural life. As he would write, “On a deep winter’s night when a wild, pounding snowstorm rages around the cabin and veils and covers everything, that is the perfect time for philosophy.” I feel similarly about my own home. It’s no Walden, but out here in relative retreat from the city there’s a freedom and a stillness that comes from being surrounded by nature, witnessing the changing of the seasons, growing your own vegetables, and cultivating some old and disappearing skills from groundskeeping to gardening, cutting down trees, chopping firewood, putting up fences, shingling a roof. There’s no smog out here, no crowds, no rush-hour traffic, and no neighbors close by. It’s not a lifestyle for everyone, but my point is that living in major cities and going daily to a workplace is a way of life that many would not choose but feel compelled toward because there’s no other option. We’ve quickly learned that there is another option, and once this pandemic passes we ought to try hard to hold onto this option so that people can live where they want to live and experience the way of life that they prefer.
Work that can be done at home, in my opinion, should be done there, or as much of it as possible. We’re learning that many a business, institution, or profession does not require a central and physical workplace where all employees must go at a designated hour and remain for a designated period of time, that it’s possible for those of us who experience life in major cities as disconnected and soul-destroying to get out and to live a very different way of life. My hope is that when this pandemic passes, we won’t lose sight of this in an unthinking return to normalcy. Socially shared adversity is an opportunity to rethink some things, and if right now you’re dreaming about fleeing your apartment and your commute, you’re not alone. I can imagine a society where the countless and dying small towns come to life again with refugees from the cities, where people can live on a more human scale and closer to nature, and where the experience of social life is completely different from what is possible where populations are concentrated. We’d have to let go of our urban snobbery, but that’s not much of a loss.