Where is your heart? Apparently, for many Americans today, it is not at home. The old saying, “Home is where the heart is,” retains little meaning these days. The heart seems located at our next destination. When the COVID-19 disease went pandemic, one of the first things I noticed was how crazy people were becoming just because they had to stay home a lot.
Decades ago, most folks had a clear image of “home,” whether they had been there in recent decades or not. Today, a home is little more than a waystation between commuting and travel. Some serious but unacknowledged changes in modern societies have made a big difference in how we see our home.
Moving People, Processes, and Products
Mobility is a key factor. The more people move around, the less sense of place they retain. So many folks today live in a non-located world. That is largely because where they live their lives changed so much. Much professional and technical work was done remotely even before “the corona.” Attachment to place is at an all-time low. Americans more than anyone, it seems, are ready to move anywhere for a better professional opportunity or just for a livable wage. Both may in fact be mirages. The grass is always greener in the mind.
Americans come from a tradition of movement. We are a nation built on immigration from all the places in the world where opportunity lagged or oppression reigned. Then there was the genocidal expansion of the western frontier, mostly in the nineteenth century, which continued abroad framed as a “Manifest Destiny” of the global expansion of the industrial-consumer economy right up to the present.
So, where are we all going? Few know, but most feel the compulsion to drive, fly, or board that Caribbean Cruise ship. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has exposed many social vulnerabilities, but the greatest is our sense of entitlement to go, somewhere, anywhere.
Converging Crises in Motion
As John Urry (2011) has pointed out, industrial ‘moderns’ are so comfortable with mobility that it is now seen by industrialized peoples as an entitlement and an integral benefit of the natural world. It never was, of course. Scary as it seems to the inveterate airline traveler, road tripper, or daily commuter, the era of unlimited mobility is fast ending. I say that, knowing that such a claim will sound both absurd and a bit out of touch with the modernist culture that we frame with industrial-consumerist ideation. The culture of mobility knows no other reality.
The hard physical facts, which, by the way, have no political legs despite the weight of overwhelming physical evidence, are that human survival on this planet will depend directly on the extent to which the people of the industrial civilization drastically reduce consumption of the various forms of carbon-based high energy technologies that afford so many so much mobility.
The catastrophic convergence of crises, including ecological collapse, climate chaos, economic and political instabilities, along with crop failures, starvation, migration, and consequent armed conflict, will soon cause a great deal of depopulation around the world. The complexities involved prevent precise prediction of specific incidents in particular locations. Yet, the larger trends are clear. The only benefit of the COVID-19 pandemic is intellectual, in that it keeps exposing the greatest vulnerabilities of the self-assured modernist illusions of endless economic growth and consumption as the one indicator of human progress.
The two keys to the rapid global spread of the COVID-19 disease are 1) high-frequency global air travel; and 2) asymptomatic transmission of the virus. (A third, of course, is the failure to execute well-known proven epidemiological strategies to contain the spread based on 1 and 2.) Without the first factor, public health practices could have much more easily controlled transmission within the region of origin. In a similar manner, growing resource-exhaustion and climate disruption stem from the same source. Neither pandemic nor climate emergency would happen in a more localized, lower-mobility world. The mobile world required the energy drawn from burning a lot of fossilized carbon to fuel it.
We moderns relish planning that next trip to the other side of the world; we expect easy (if time-consuming) mobility within and between cities. Yet, much of that disappeared rapidly. It is unlikely to return. By the time the novel coronavirus is brought under control, the accelerating climate and ecological emergency will have become so obvious that all but the most die-hard deniers will know that we must severely constrain the mobility of both ourselves and the production of the materials and products it enables. And in that context, we will all be staying home much more. Perhaps we will rediscover the value of place (1972).
“Are we there yet?”
“No, we just got on the freeway!”
Urry, John. 2011. Climate Change & Society. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
Place. 1972 (Vol. I, No. 1). San Francisco: Natural Wonders, Inc.