THR Web Features   /   June 18, 2020

Pressing Pause

In a post-COVID world, instead of locking us down, pressing pause could actually open us up.

Joshua Burraway

Shenandoah National Park, untouched by the public for over two months, had an uncanny feel to it. Not having seen the woods since before spring, I was struck by the eruption of life—the bare trees of my memory now replaced by an almost tropical density and verdure. As I headed toward a narrow trail, I wondered if I was the first to walk it. I got my answer in silk. Every few steps entangled me in a spider’s fresh handiwork, and, underfoot, the normally worn paths were carpeted with newly sprouted wildflowers. Given room to breathe, the forest had rediscovered a primordial part of itself.

Nature’s restorative powers have been given some much-needed time during the pandemic. While images of animals flourishing in quarantined cities have captured the popular imagination as icons of hope, most have been debunked as fake—including, alas, those of dolphins cavorting in the canals of Venice. Nevertheless, the circulation of these doctored images gestures to a deeper truth about our increasingly unsustainable relationship with nature: We can see the iceberg coming, but, paralyzed, we just can’t turn the wheel. Those Venetian dolphins we wish were truly reclaiming polluted waters speak to the part of us that hopes the iceberg will move for us. Alas, Mother Nature will not hit the “reset button” without us.

Instead of the reset button, though, perhaps we can press pause. This is about more than allowing reclusive animals to reclaim space; it is about restructuring our worldview in line with a commitment to ecological sustainability, future resilience, and human flourishing.

Pauses are nothing new to human culture. They are a fundamental part of religious life. The Abrahamic faiths all have a holy day set aside each week for prayer and self-reflection when all commercial activities cease. During Nyepi, Balinese Hindus follow a day of silence on which all work is prohibited, devoting themselves to fasting and meditation.

 Weekends look like a secular pause of sorts, though in truth they remain tied to the demands of a market economy. Like their bigger siblings—vacations—weekends are (for those don’t have to work them) mostly a time to switch gears from production to consumption.

The form of pause I am calling for would need to exist outside the production-consumption symbiotic cycle. It would be closer to the religious forms, in spirit if not in letter. Given the global nature of the climate crisis, such a pause would need to be global in scale but localized in practice. Imagine a significant portion of the year—an extended duration or a series of smaller periods—during which we suspend the globalized circulation of people, goods, and money. Ground flights. Halt manufacturing. Pedestrianize cities. Shut down the stock market. This is not just about reducing our carbon output. As scientists have shown, the reduction in emissions during lockdown has been inconsequential in and of itself. We require far more extensive behavioural, technological, and structural change if we are to rescue the planet from disaster.

A utopian fantasy?  Not necessarily. Regular pauses could be a substantial force for the common good as we look to reshape our fraught relationship with the global order, including its exclusive and quite dystopian preoccupation with getting and spending under the imperative of endless growth. Certainly, such a pause would work best if underwritten by changes to social welfare and public infrastructure—from housing to healthcare to transport to food supply.  It could also be a practical way in which to test the idea of the Universal Basic Income (UBI).

The drive to implement the UBI is, in fact, gaining momentum across the political spectrum in both the United States and elsewhere, and while it may look new and radical, it can be traced in spirit to the vision of John Maynard Keynes.  In his famous 1928 essay, “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren,” the estimable British economist argued that humanity’s technological advancements would soon make much human labor redundant. The average worker would have to put in no more than three hours a day each work week. Keynes also predicted that such progress would lead to a crisis of leisure, forcing humans to imagine new alignments of work, free time, and human creativity. What came to pass would have disappointed him:  Technological progress, while significant, has not diminished the compulsion to work but instead fetishized it as the sole determinant of moral personhood.  At the same time, our so-called free time has been largely co-opted through the twin forces of commodification and distraction.  We buy far beyond our needs and amuse ourselves endlessly to death.

One result of work fetishization, as the anthropologist David Graber argues, has been the proliferation of “bullshit jobs”—the work dominated by a managerial class that, despite its relatively high social status, is functionally useless and existentially vacuous, even by its own admission. Counterintuitively, those who do things of real social value—nurses, teachers, farmers, meatpackers, caretakers, grocery clerks, and so on—earn far less and suffer from disproportionate levels of precarity.  Graeber’s (deliberately provocative) point—that if most of these bullshit jobs disappeared, the world would not miss them—looks more compelling than ever in the wake of the current pandemic, when the ranks of “essential workers” included very few of those managers. At a deeper level, Graeber’s point is that the stakes underpinning this dual crisis of work and leisure concern nothing less than the potentiality of the human condition. Given sufficient time away from the unending oscillation between production and consumption, we might begin to view leisure less as a besotted release from the pressure cooker of jobs than as an opportunity for seeking new forms of community engagement and creative enterprise.

In a post-COVID world, instead of locking us down, pressing pause could actually open us up, providing space and time to reconnect with the people, passions, and projects that we have otherwise neglected or been cut off from.  Exhausted parents would have a chance to connect with their children. Communities, rather than fracturing, would now have citizens endowed with time to rebuild and participate in local government and civic life. With ceaseless production and mass consumption put on pause, we might all have the chance to rediscover the creative and restorative uses of leisure—restorative to nature as well as to ourselves.