The pandemic is undoubtedly the most devastating public health crisis in living memory. Any discussion of what it has given rise to must first acknowledge the suffering it has caused.
Those who were not directly affected by the disease often resented the lockdown precautions, chafing against the restrictions put in place for the public good. Yet the lockdown has had a number of positive impacts, both societal and environmental, reaching beyond even the lives it saved.
Remember how excited we were by the clear canals of Venice? How enthused we were by clapping for the NHS? How nice it was to say hello to neighbours we’d never spoken to when we went out for our once-a-day exercise? And how, as the air began to clear over our cities, there was a very real feeling that we could do things in a different and better way?
For the first time in our generation, we were left in clear understanding, even awe at the power of nature. We were humbled and we began to behave differently. A third of UK councils reported they collected up to 50% more recycling during lockdown. After decades of rising, CO2 emissions actually dropped by 6.4% in 2020 – the biggest decline since the end of World War Two. Toxic fumes emitted by cars and factories have decreased all over the industrialised world. As we stayed inside, the Earth was allowed to breathe again.
But as restrictions continued for over a year, our collective patience began to wear thin.
In my day job as the director of an advertising agency, I study consumer behaviour across the spectrum. We compile research into shoppers' attitudes and confidence, and are seeing a steady but undeniable return to ‘the way we were before’. People are using the money they saved over the last year to splash out on big-ticket items, and that confidence is now filtering down into the high street.
From an economic perspective this is welcome, but from an environmental standpoint this ability to forget so quickly is disastrous. Greta Thunberg recently said, "Our relationship with nature is broken… we are creating the perfect conditions for diseases to spill over from one animal to another, and to us. The next pandemic could be much, much worse – but we can change."
Our brains are hardwired to amend our memories as we access them; when we look back on the pandemic my worry is that we’ll remember how our lives were interrupted and erase the part where we, for a fleeting moment, began to see the need to repair our relationship with our planet. We need to be reminded not to revert to type, not to rush headlong back into our old destructive ways, ignoring the planet and the communities around us.
Literature can play a critical role in this reminding, acting as a cultural wrapping of events, forewarning us about them and allowing us to process them afterwards.
Dystopian fiction has been preparing us for something like Covid for hundreds of years. It not only acts as a caution, but actually thrives at times of global disaster: at the beginning of the first lockdown "Outbreak" was trending on Netflix, and there was a surge in sales of 1984 and Brave New World. Perhaps this interest is motivated by the urge to understand where society might end up if nothing changes and think about how we choose to proceed into the future.
There is already a genre known as ‘climate fiction’, or cli-fi, which examines the possible futures we could be hurtling towards as climate change continues to wrack the planet. Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake is set in a future where a plague has killed most of humanity, but climate change had devasted the planet long before that happened. Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver demonstrates the precarious nature of the environment through butterflies which may not survive the winters in their new home. My own Kings of a Dead World considers forced hibernation as a way to reduce strain on the Earth’s resources and asks what the social consequences of such a development could be. Make no mistake: environmental change will inevitably result in radical changes to the society we know today.
Novels have the unique ability to allow us to study events, both from a mental distance, and right up close through the protagonist's eyes. And it is novels which allow us to unpick things, to begin to process them and in the end to learn.
James Attlee’s wonderful Under the Rainbow is a non-fiction record of the year of lockdown, but once we’re through the other side of the pandemic I imagine we will begin to see novels emerge. If Ali Smith’s Autumn was the first post-Brexit novel to seriously discuss the impact of the vote and it was published barely six months after the event, when will we be seeing the pandemic written about in this way? What tangible lessons will such books teach us?
If we allow fiction to remind us that to take a step back from the relentless push of consumerism, to remember the importance of our relationship with the Earth, and do things differently, then the pandemic will have taught us a powerful lesson.
If all of that is possible then we might, just might, be okay.
Jamie Mollart has taught creative writing for Writing School Leicester and is a long-running guest on Litopia, the influential writing podcast. Kings of a Dead World is his second novel. He lives in Leicestershire with his wife and daughter.