Old habits die hard … or when faced with a global pandemic. In recent years, the idea that humans won’t change their behavior spurred a whole field of economics developed to “nudge” people to subconsciously do socially — and individually — beneficial things.
This field was based on the idea that certain shortfalls of the human mind — for example, a hyperfocus on the present — could only be corrected by playing mind games with people. Our collective response to COVID-19 shows that we can be capable of much more — changing behavior on our own accord and in drastic fashion when faced with high enough stakes. In the span of a few days, most of us have entirely upended our daily routines and adapted to life in a living room (minus a few jaunts outside). So what other behaviors should we change during this crisis as well as after it?
First, we ought to permanently drop our travel-first mentality. I am guilty of booking a flight at a moment’s notice for a “weekend getaway,” one-day conference, and quick family visits. All of these are subjectively worthy trips. But, objectively, the inclination to travel for any seemingly justifiable reason has wrecked our planet. Carbon emissions, especially from plane travel, imperil our collective long-term well-being. Staying in place makes clear that we can and must in get by in the future without being “there” — whether “there” is for personal or professional reasons. This shift won’t come easily — few people prefer Zoom to in-person interaction — but it is nonetheless necessary both now and post-COVID-19.
Second, we need to all engage with our local community. The response to COVID-19 demonstrates that even the most global issues require local action. In an era of political corruption and institutional decline, the general quarantine is a reminder of the power of action on a community level. People like Mitch Daugherty, founder of Built Oregon, have rallied behind small businesses, empowered nonprofits, and coordinated with various community groups. Mitch is weaving a new social fabric to deal with these unprecedented times. That fabric should be maintained and strengthened even when social distancing is no longer necessary. Here are some easy ways you can start that process: Take this time to learn your city councilor’s background, study the politics of your state representative and state senator and plan how you will get more involved with your neighbors when social distancing is no longer the status quo. In short, continue to pay attention to who is shaping local affairs and how you can participate in those processes.
Third, we should continue to prepare for the worst. Unfortunately, this will not be the last time a “black swan” event — one that no one saw coming — disrupts daily life in unexpected ways. Empty grocery store aisles and insufficient kitchen supplies are all signs that messages about disaster preparing went unheeded by most of us (myself included). Once COVID-19 has passed, we should all take time to ready ourselves and loved ones for the next disaster. Moreover, we should also support nonprofits focused on helping marginalized communities do the same kind of prepping. After all, preparing for a disaster is a costly and time-intensive activity that is out of reach for people struggling to get by on a day-to-day basis. We are all better off by making sure that everyone is ready for the unexpected.
People never change … until the stakes are high enough. COVID-19 clearly passed that bar — most of us have done a tremendous job of foregoing individual desire for the benefit of the community. That sacrifice need not stop when COVID-19 does. The threats posed by the other dangers facing our planet — climate change, broken politics, vast inequality — may not feel as immediate as COVID-19 but they deserve and require the same level of response. Three simple behavioral shifts — staying local, thinking local and prepping to remain local in a disaster — have already and can continue to make our world a healthier, more equitable place.