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When Social Distancing Ends, Will We Rethink the World We Want?

Long before the virus, Americans had become socially isolated, retreating into sprawling suburbs and an online world of screens. When we emerge from our pandemic-mandated separation, can we reconnect with each other and reconsider how the way we live impacts the natural world?

Patterns are notoriously hard to break, even when you have to. Studies find that more than half of smokers diagnosed with lung cancer keep on smoking, even though their odds of survival would go way up if they stopped. Nicotine is powerfully addictive, of course — but we’re beginning to suspect that’s true of lots of other human behaviors too: checking your phone, for instance, which seems strongly linked to the supply of dopamine (which is what nicotine affects as well). One tells oneself that one will change — but change is hard.

Which is one reason the current moment is so interesting. Lay aside the death and the illness and the fear and the economic hardship for a moment, and just think about the sheer unlikeliness of what we’re experiencing. For the first time in most of our lifetimes, the population as a whole has been told we have to shut down normal life, abandon most of our regular routines. That we have to change. It’s hard, but since it’s necessary we’ve done it — and surprisingly well. Yes, there are knuckleheads crowding the beaches, and yes there are scary guys with guns showing up at the Michigan state house. But most people got with the program — hunkered down, sucked it up, and figured out Zoom.