Let’s start with some context. The Great Depression of the 1930’s was a worldwide event, the economic effects reached at least 90% of the world’s population in significant ways. World War II, that followed (with the two events developing over 15 years or so) also had economic effects that probably reached at least 90% of the world, and the significant political effects were also up in the 90% levels, with many populations affected by civil wars, refugee flows and urban warfare.
My best judgment as a historian is that the Corona virus catastrophe is already, for all living generations, our version of the Great Depression.
In 2020 I said, if the pandemic goes on with shutdowns of events over 10 people over large portions of one’s country for the next four or six months – or with massive die-offs in the countries that haven’t locked down enough in that time period – or if it comes roaring back in the fall after an attempt to return to normal in the summer – the Corona virus will be our World War II as well. Now in June 2021, we can see that many nations did have renewed waves of virus last fall, some large “developing” nations are still having raging pandemics, here in the USA many states are trying to loosen restrictions, yet the un-vaccinated are still a large minority, and they may still be falling sick and dying at relatively high rates. Therefore, we can say that yes, for all living generations, this is our version of the Great Depression and World War II, a serious disruption of normal patterns that has had economic and political effects for at least 90% of the world’s population.
So far, in the more advantaged parts of the world, strong government action has prevented urban warfare, yet the looming, inter-related challenges of Climate Change, Political Inequality and Economic Inequality are getting the attention of thoughtful young people. Like after World War II, some decades of very agonizing “Cold War” (as the huge Asian dictatorships seem to be more aggressive) with continual outbreaks of real war on the “borderlands” (which may run thru cities) keeping everyone uncertain and unhappy, may be in our global future.
Nearly every society will be undergoing massive changes in social attitudes, in institutions, in politics high and low, and in economics high and low. This Pandemic is already Massive, and the worst is the huge number of uncertainties surrounding our scientific knowledge of the virus and its socio-political-economic effects, uncertainties which are just as large in 2021 as they were in 2020 – on top of all the usual local political, economic and personal uncertainties we all face every day.
There are so many questions for which even the best authorities just can’t provide definite answers. What’s the death rate, what is happening in the countryside in India and Brazil? Why the large disparity between many mild cases and the worst cases? In the rich nations, strong government action has prevented the worst effects of economic depression, what if there are further virus variants stimulating new waves of infection, could we yet fall into a deep economic hole? There seem to be long-lasting effects of the virus for those infected, is that another 2% or 5% of the population on permanent disability? The questions go on and on.
Currently some people are trying to make a controversy over the origins of the virus, realistically the specialists have already been arguing for over a year, though nearly all agree there is still no strong evidence of any particular theory, and unless the Chinese government takes a completely new attitude towards releasing information this question may remain forever disputed. To digress for a moment on another current argument, people like Dr Fauci, who did his best to represent and explain the best consensus of the scientists that day (and the consensus did change through the crisis) will look much better in historical perspective than the crew of professional liars around ex-President Trump.
I’m not the guy who’s here to give my predictions and prognostications and surmises on just how it will all turn out, on just what the huge adjustments that we will be making, will turn out to be.
I am the guy who’s here to pound on the point that your thoughts and actions (and everybody else’s thoughts and actions) is what will determine and create that future history that all of us – all of us who survive — will be experiencing. The zillions of hourly and daily thoughts and actions of all the world’s 8 billion people over the next year and more will be what determines our human future, our individual and social/national/global futures as well.
As a caution to all, including myself, against trusting your latest great insight, it is very easy for individuals in relatively small subcultures to feel that “the world is going one way” even though the muddled mass of global humanity may be moving in quite a different way.
I am the historian who says that we could understand nearly all historical situations, assuming we could get the data on people’s thoughts and actions. Of course that’s near impossible for the past (barring great archaeological discoveries) yet for us, now, in the 21st Century of drones and data banks, it does become (at least theoretically) possible to do something I wrote about 40 years ago – a Science of History that includes Every Single Person on this earth.
If this sounds ridiculous to you, you should consider that the Chinese government (with the help of American technology companies) is certainly trying to construct a database of the thoughts and actions of any one of the billions of persons under their control, and probably anyone else they can get to.
I am also the historian who has tried to develop an understanding of how our zillions of everyday thoughts and actions do in fact create the data of our histories and our cultures, the data that the social sciences are attempting to explain. And I’ve tried to provide some tools to help you in analyzing the social science data that you can get, from your everyday life, from your interactions with others, and from simple basic research you can do on people and situations in your life. I’ve been developing these tools for over forty years, and I believe they’ve helped me in my life situations.
So if you do have more time on your hands, I do invite you to visit the rest of my high-class, no clickbait, deeply longform website that’s been going for 10 years now (and according to Cloudflare service has received hundreds of thousands of readers coming in for over 3 million hits in the last four years). The whole site (with lots of autobiography, my best published work and other recent articles) is the size of a small book; read my article on why polling is never as accurate as claimed, or my article on reforming the advertising industry for a more progressive society.
My main article on how we simultaneously create history and the social sciences with our every thought and action is at least a 20-30 minute read, 9200 words or about 14-24 book pages depending on format. Please take your time to read it, in my old age I’m finding that my clearest writing usually means adding more words to help distinguish all the shades of gray we encounter in the human historical panorama.
In my old age, I’m also coming to realize that a lot of my personal success comes from a personal ability to understand and accept uncertainty and risk. I’ve always tried to accept that there are huge uncertainties in all our human situations, whether at the world-historical level, or the personal level of “what is my friend thinking/trying to do” in some particular situation. I’ve always tried to accept that there are great amounts of risk in every significant action I might take. I look at other people, and I see a lot of you tearing yourselves apart because you’re longing for certainty in some situation important to you, you crave it, and want it, and that’s understandable.
Yet we hardly ever have the kind of data on our fellow human beings that could allow us to make “absolutely certain” judgments on them, and our fellow human beings always have the theoretical possibility of doing something completely new.
In human situations and social environments, a lot of us can’t even have certainty in ourselves, that’s a big first step. Yes, small groups that work together closely and communicate can have a very pleasant certainty in each other. Beyond that there is very little certainty to be found. It gets worse the larger the group, so considering the whole human population is the most uncertain area of all.
And so here we all are. A global, life-and-death crisis with huge economic, political and personal effects reaching well over 90% of human populations, about which we cannot be too certain in any direction of analysis or planning. The fact that the USA is still recovering from being led by a severely mentally-ill individual supported by a party in denial of reality, supported by 20-30% of citizens living in private fantasylands backed up by fantastical commercial and social media, and that two-thirds of the world lives under dictatorships whose decisions may be far from what any citizen of their nation or other nations desires, means the global outcomes are likely very bleak, poor and depressing.
And again, it is highly likely that many of our current institutions and social arrangements and personal preferences are actually going to be completely reformed after the effects of this pandemic, because that’s what happens when many many people’s personal lives are entirely disrupted by world-shaking events like the Great Depression and World War II. The Corona virus catastrophe is one of those events.
Yet I do have to be an optimist in my personal life, I’m always trying to see a way out of whatever mess I’m in (including the world-historical messes way above my level of influence.) And so I’m trying to rouse and raise my own efforts and visions in this crisis, and I want to urge you to rouse yourself and raise yourself as well. We desperately need bravery and courage in this Sick New World. We need each other to provide it. We need each other to provide Bravery in the face of devastation and obstacles.
The clear model for all of us in our future attitudes and behavior should be the hundreds of thousands of selfless, hard-working medical professionals and hospital workers. They have stepped up and done their job in the face of a thousand obstacles, and all the rest of us need to do the same. We all need to be saying, “What is necessary, right now, to help the most people, let’s all pitch in and get the job done.”
Please, face down your fears, do your best to help create the better human societies that we all need very much. All the other problems of human society are still out there, needing to be reformed by our thoughts and actions. Big changes will come from the crisis – we need to be insisting that these changes really work to the benefit of the majority of the population.
The children and grandchildren we will hopefully be leaving our legacy to will need those better societies even more than we do.