From coronavirus to climate change, our lives will never go back to ‘normal’

This essay was first published in our semi-weekly newsletter, Climate in the Time of Coronavirus, which you can subscribe to here.

Tiny socks. Disposable razors. A Tinker Bell bag. A waterlogged Bible.

It was the fall of 2018, and I was schlepping through layers of muck and life inside a home that Hurricane Maria had devastated roughly a year prior. After two months of volunteering with ongoing recovery efforts outside San Juan, Puerto Rico, repairing and rehabbing roofs that leaked every day and mold-ridden homes, I began to fear that these houses would all blur together. I decided to start jotting notes about each home’s story at the end of the day. Some stories I learned from laughing or tearful homeowners over lunchtime plates of arroz con habichuelas; others I gleaned from everyday items peeking out of the mud in the remnants of a living room.

I find myself once again attuned to seemingly banal details and customs, like shaking hands, the meaning of which has been luridly transformed by the circumstances. My own COVID-19 story is textured with countless details that once seemed ordinary, but are now weighted with new meaning: My mother isn’t simply a nurse in Santa Clara, California; she’s on the front lines of a crisis. My father, a Home Depot employee in his 60s with COPD, is now an “essential worker.” A month ago, I was a student completing my master’s degree at Stanford. Now I’m attending an online university. Common facets of millions of lives are exactly like this — suddenly spotlighted and made alien by an external power beyond our control.

Every day, we ask when this will end — when we’ll unpause the clocks and go back to normal. The virus, like a hurricane, began with a pinpointable when, a chapter one, and so we believe an ending may be possible too, even as experts warn that there will be no return to normalcy anytime soon.

When I reflect on the longing with which we seek clean endings, I wonder what that means for the tales we tell about climate. Its story doesn’t have a well-defined beginning, and it certainly won’t have an ending. Our shared climate narrative did not end with the Paris Agreement, did not peak with multiple category 5 hurricanes (like Maria), will not stop with November’s election, does not conclude in 2100. It’s not a story any of us will witness the end of.

Will the climate crisis leave us a legacy as victims or victors, or somewhere in between? In a hundred years — in a world transformed by climate change, for better or worse — the stories we leave behind will shape the answer to that question.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline From coronavirus to climate change, our lives will never go back to ‘normal’ on May 5, 2020.