Several years ago I wrote a piece calling for a seventh-year sabbatical on R&D for new products. It was a modest proposal that did not call for any end to commerce, or the shutting of restaurants, or the suspension of travel and entertainment. All I imagined was a year in which we continued to buy the previous year’s car models, the previous year’s cellphones, the previous year’s apps and programs, and the previous year’s packaged foods, cosmetics, fashions etc.
I envisioned a one-year hiatus on the perpetuo moto of consumerism; the frenzy of material one-upmanship, the mental disorder of standing on line for two days to be among the first to own the newest iPhone, the desperation of having to have the new skirt or bag that no one else has, at least not yet.
In my fantasy, one could still purchase a new car or a new phone or a new dress – but it would be no different than what had been available a year earlier. In this way people would buy new things if they actually needed them, and not just out of some programmed impetus to spend money on something only because it is recognizably new.
It was a theoretical exercise. Not for a moment did I imagine my lone and rather anonymous voice resonating in Cupertino, on 7th Avenue or in Detroit. And, so, the new products and new versions and new designs kept on coming with greater frequency, velocity, fanfare and … needlessness.
Somehow I imagined, as well, that a small step like this for homo-consumeroso (my apologies for the neologism) would have a domino effect that would impact on humankind and our planet by slowing things down.
Envision billions of gallons of gas being saved as people have little motivation to go to the mall. This alone could, if nothing else, spare us the unpleasantness of a Greta Thunberg. There would be no need for mass, programmed, juvenile hysteria because the world would be undergoing its own en passant environmental correction. Emotionally challenged adolescents could remain in school where they belong, and actually learn something.
A few years go by and, lo and behold, the Coronavirus delivers my dream — by a quantum factor, no less.
We obsess over the virus itself – and understandably so – yet most of us have failed to take note of its collateral gifts. These rewards are ultimately far greater and farther-reaching than the regrettable loss of life that is causing today’s international paralysis.
For indeed the world is now in the first quarter of an unprecedented global sabbatical. Yes, we are not creating or buying anything. No marketing machine in the world can get us to rush like lemmings to a sporting event or Broadway show. No one is shopping for a new car. And the old one – still good as new – sits forlorn in its parking spot, dying of thirst as petroleum remains underground, its price tanking.
Even as all this is going on, or rather not going on, the air in our megalopolises is getting cleaner, the waters clearer. The canals of Venice are nearly as transparent as a Beverly Hills swimming pool. Stars are emerging in the skies after a long hiatus.
And it is not just our air and water that are getting a good scrubbing. It is our souls.
Suddenly our savage, soul-destroying, sabbathless, 24/7 shopaholic culture has come to a grinding halt.
Bereft of marketing-driven diversions, human beings are impelled to re-calibrate their priorities and come to grips with what is really necessary and what truly matters.
Parents and children are learning how to live together, entertain one another, find fulfillment within a vastly curtailed radius, recognizing that house is also home.
True, we are briefly becoming more addicted to social media. Yet it will not surprise me if this will change radically once we emerge from the COVID-19 tunnel.
When that happens we will all be starved for genuine human contact and interaction, for real voices and gestures, for actual physical embraces. We will recognize how ersatz was the erstwhile addiction to the cold socializing of Whatsapp, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. Because there is no substitute for physical, in-person, human engagement. We will once again value a handful of genuine friendships, and flee the statistical insanity – and inanity – of Facebook ‘friendships’; of scores, hundreds even thousands of virtual friends who are ultimately strangers. Indeed, we have become estranged even from ourselves after having ‘packaged’ our own self-images into a few clever descriptive lines per the diktats of Facebook.
Once COVID-19 has been subdued, the world that awaits us will look very different – physically different, spiritually different, culturally different, economically different, athletically different. And it will all be for the better because, if nothing else, many of us will have learned the difference between “need” and “want”, between being a doer and being a spectator, between what counts and what doesn’t. For there can be no greater gift than understanding what it is that truly matters. If only a small percentage of humankind learns the lessons of this sabbatical, the positive change in our world will be immeasurable.
Indeed there is no greater gift than COVID-19, a gift that will keep on giving for long into the future.