Where I live, a small enclave of people who have migrated to coastal North Carolina to enjoy salt air, green grass, blue skies and white sand (plus an occasional hurricane), visits by family members are always special. During the pandemic, it seems like the visits are becoming longer and longer since the fully employed have figured out how to work from anywhere. A friend recounted an evening with her son when the family was discussing the respective merits of meat and vegetarian diets. The son simply said, “I don’t care, I’m a flexitarian.”
Flexitarian, in a word, opens up a thought stream with several interesting tributaries. In the above context, it simply refers to a non-dogmatic, flexible approach to diet. But if you play it out, flexitarian could refer to a way of being, especially during a chaotic, unpredictable, psychologically unsettling time like we’re experiencing right now.
Look back over the past six months and consider how far we’ve come — the tragedies and hardships that we’ve endured, the lessons we’ve learned, the patience we’ve developed, the compassion we’ve discovered and the small miracles we’ve witnessed. We’ve learned how to anticipate, plan, change, and improvise. We’ve learned how to become early adapters, to borrow an old cliché. We’ve become flexitarians!
Flexitarianism is a subtle but significant shift in human behavior. We’ve learned this lesson the hard way, in the midst of a pandemic that is wreaking havoc with human lives, communities and economies. But this is exactly how history progresses. The libertarian philosopher Terence McKenna postulates that history occurs in two modes — through habit or novelty. Habitual history is routine, progressing in an orderly way, more or less in a straight line. But when novelty is introduced — the Agricultural Revolution, for instance, or the Enlightenment or the invention of the internet — historical change is accelerated, almost always in unforeseen ways. The coronavirus is certainly a viral novelty, but it’s also an historical novelty and its social impacts will be long and widely felt.
There is a temptation to regard the virus as a “black swan” (an unpredictable event that is beyond what is normally expected of a situation and has potentially severe consequences), but a pandemic like this has been predicted for years (thank you, Bill Gates). We were so deep in “habitual history” that we lacked the imagination and will to prepare for this eventuality. Now, here we are, frantically making up for lost time.
Novelty demands a response; it is not a spectator sport. And, granted, our response has been sporadic, inconsistent and slow. But many more examples are emerging of how we’re responding in pragmatic, innovative and far-reaching ways. Flexitarianism is one. We are developing, stretching and strengthening muscles we never knew we had — at home, at the workplace and in the marketplace.
Another novel response is coming from the pharmaceutical companies to develop therapies and vaccines. A process that has habitually taken years is being compressed into months. Already, four vaccines have entered the last stage of clinical trials. This process has catalyzed some breakthrough approaches, such as “platform” technologies for vaccine development that can potentially bypass the need to build every new vaccine from scratch. It has also demonstrated that you can build effective, efficient and flexible partnerships between government and the private sector — something that is absolutely essential for a prosperous and secure future.
This next example may be a stretch, but optimism requires one to lean forward. The emergence of “normalized” relations between habitual enemies in the Middle East that we’ve witnessed this year is encouraging. It is plausible to think that this trend grew from a pandemic mindset that appreciates our connections, not our divisions. These new rapprochements are not window dressing. My previous employer, Chevron, acquired Noble Energy due in no small measure to Noble’s natural gas assets in the Mediterranean. The fact that Chevron could see a commercial pathway for natural gas development and sales in the Middle East may eventually be judged by history as a catalyst for substantive and sustainable stability in the region.
Here’s the point: Moments of novelty like this quite often come with a dark side that throws so much shade we can’t see the white swans that quietly emerge. Margaret MacMillan explores this phenomenon in a new book, “War: How Conflict Shaped Us.” Wars are always, unequivocally, tragic. But MacMillan highlights the stream of positive contributions that have also sprung out of wartime, everything from croissants to penicillin, highways and universal suffrage (let us not forget the internet was born in the computer labs of the Defense Department).
Some of those white swans are taking wing now. As for flexitarianism, I’m all in. Maybe now I can do yoga without the Motrin!