By Erick Huerta Velázquez, Institutional Relations Coordinator
This piece was originally published in Spanish at https://comunicares.org/2020/06/03/nueva-normalidad/
“The virus is new, but nothing is innovative about this crisis.”
-Jean Luc Nancy
When checking the news in these pandemic times, especially those regarding the telecommunication sector in which I work, it seems like this post-COVID “new normality” is necessarily one where Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) have a transcendental role, most notably in their most horrifying aspects related to surveillance and Artificial Intelligence. It seems like we survive thanks to Amazon or to the fabulous possibility of having all of our movements monitored through our cell phones. Also, thanks to ICTs, our kids can continue to take classes, even if the results are not at all rewarding. It surprises me that in this new reality the role of technology is more visible than the core issues that make them necessary and that we should be trying to solve, instead of just mitigating, the effects of such innovations. I’m lucky to work with indigenous communities, and also to spend the quarantine period in a rural area and have a neighbor and friend who harvests under a permaculture model.
The resiliency of these communities, not to the virus, but to the state of siege the pandemic has created, is impressive. Many go on with their lives in an almost unaltered way, with perhaps the only exception being that many communities have prohibited the entrance of people from outside. A large percentage of the municipalities in Mexico that remain free of COVID-19 are indigenous ones. When journalists have approached me worried about how indigenous people don’t have the connectivity in order to continue their schooling or education, I wonder: how can I explain that this is in fact a great opportunity for them to have meaningful learning experiences and to re-focus on the essentials of life-knowledge that their communities have to offer, such as the cultivation of the milpa (cornfields), the understanding of nature, art and conservation of the land? The current crisis sheds light on the many issues generated by the dominant civilizatory paradigm, whose solutions cannot be found in the technology that supports it’s expansion and that is today revered as the holy grail. It is rather in the ways of life of indigenous peoples—those that have allowed them to survive for thousands of years—where we should be looking for answers.
If the lesson the pandemic leaves us is that we will survive thanks to connectivity and technology and we do not realize rather that what saves us is that the dominant model of civilization has not yet expanded thoroughly, then we are lost. How or what the “new normality” will be is a story we will have to write from lessons learned. One of them is the resilience of communities to confinement, which is not found in the characteristics of their telecommunications systems—in fact many of these communities are among the ‘worst’ connected—but rather in their way of life, a way of life to which many of us have been moving farther away. Based on this lesson, I want to share some lines from which I dream a new normality could be drawn:
As far as we know, the coronavirus that produces Covid-19 is directly related to the affectation of ecosystems and the predation of wild species, for example the consumption of animals such as bats, that happen to be essential in pollination. The devastation of forests and jungles has intensified in recent years. National leaders like Bolsonaro in Brazil and Trump in the USA have moved away from discourses that considered environmental protection, at least as an act of decency, and now openly support actions that imply the destruction of natural spaces. The ways in which these spaces are attacked are multiple and are plain to see: mining, deforestation, and massive energy projects, among others. The place I write this from is a vast jungle area. But looking into the future is disheartening, as maps indicating urbanization projects appear next to the dirt roads. I am saddened when I think about the fate of all the species that inhabit this place: the toucans, parakeets, iguanas, snakes, foxes, deer and frogs. I wonder what will happen with the viruses that live among them. Will we cause another mutation similar to the coronavirus? The new normality I dream about imagines ways of urban development that privilege wildlife conservation, where biological corridors are created, new construction standards are established, and where a large portion of the wilderness is protected. A model where life is privileged not only on paper, but also in schools, universities and the media, generating a new social idea of growth, where ecosystem conservation is upheld above mining, urbanization and tourism.
The other line elucidated by indigenous communities is the sustainable production of food, which has found its worst enemy in formal education. We even consider it an accomplishment when a child doesn’t stop going to school to help with the cultivation of the cornfields. But how will they learn to sow? From their textbooks? You learn how to sow by sowing, just as you learn to love by loving.
Cities are increasingly disconnected from the food they consume. This has created a loss of culinary culture in the country, which has a less diversified diet as a consequence. It has also popularized diets based on highly refined products and fats that increase the chance of obesity, diabetes and hypertension which, in this pandemic, have been essential factors in the high mortality rate in Mexico. I imagine a new normality with urban orchards in each neighborhood, where people who don’t have room in their houses can just go and ask for a piece of land to produce food in a sustainable manner. I’ve visited two experiences of this kind in Washington and Stockholm and I’m sure many people would enjoy something similar in their cities. The spaces don’t need to be too big. There is, for example, Huerto Romita in Mexico City that, in less than 70 square meters, provides a space for training in urban agricultural techniques. The urban production of food through environmentally friendly techniques is something we should try to implement in a generalized way within five years. Research by the World Bank and Meryl Lynch shows that 47% of jobs in the USA will be lost in the next decades due to artificial intelligence and automation. In countries like India or Thailand the number goes up to 70% . We’ll need to ensure, at the very least, that people who don’t have a job can eat. I can also imagine a reappraisal of the role of agricultural areas close to cities, protecting them from urbanization and recognizing their economic and cultural importance. In short, what we consume in cities should increasingly come from these areas. A greater appreciation of rural and farming life could reduce migration, considering that some youngsters will prefer to stay in their communities as they recognize they have the possibility to live good lives by staying put.
The other important line to help draw a new reality is a radical change in education, which has had some of the worst results in this pandemic. Instead of increasing connectivity so schools can reach more people, we should reduce teachers’, parents’ and students’ workloads so families can spend more time together and learn by living and sharing. Above all, I think we should be less ‘connected’ and not more. Reality can teach us a lot. Nature is a school. I’ve heard the wisest words from men and women who live by working the fields and could barely read or write. The most important things I’ve learned has been from people like this, because they pay attention to their surroundings and are able to find the answers to their questions looking at nature instead of Google or Wikipedia. I want to emphasize the importance of spending more time with family. It was my grandmother who taught me the most important lessons of my childhood, like culinary culture, for example. Recently I had the chance to meet a famous chef whose original profession was business administration, but who learned to cook from his grandmother. I also remember that my understanding of the Revolution and Mexico’s Independence did not come through primary school textbooks, but rather it was the trips to Guanajuato with my grandparents who told me the stories they had heard from their parents, about how this nation was forged. Those stories made me love Mexico and convinced me to work for its betterment. While in Mexico we think it is important to increase the hours in the classroom, Nordic countries have reduced them, along with overall workloads, so everyone can spend more time with family, with very positive results in the learning levels of their children. I imagine a less invasive education, one that recognizes the vast knowledge that exists in communities and leaves room to transfer it. I hope for a less alienating school that, instead of forcing knowledge into the minds of students, establishes dialogue that allows different cultures to enrich each other.
Lastly, I think a new normality requires a new urban architecture. Another lesson learned from indigenous and rural communities are their settlements: a plot of land for the house and a planting area. Houses are small, but gardens are large and have everything: vegetables, farmyard animals, play areas for children, etc. Being confined in such a place could be quite pleasant, plus there is the agricultural land I spoke about earlier. Meanwhile, cities are getting more and more overcrowded. Rich people’s houses look like hotels and those of the poor look like prisons, yet neither has large green areas. Most have none at all. The ground is covered in cement, the hotel-like houses provide pools and roof gardens, but nothing that lets you step on the soil or grass. Despite all the existing regulations that obligate developers to donate a piece of their land for green areas, at least in Mexico City, it is very easy to escape such obligations by donating money to the environmental fund instead. It is nonsense to think that, regarding environmental issues, money can equal the true value(s) of the land. My new normality would have more, and bigger, green areas in neighborhoods, more parks, a bigger protection of urban woods, a new way of building where every area has a bit of green. Actually, this is just a turn back to the beginning: ecosystem preservation.
The new normality does not need to be dictated by big digital monopolies and their renovated discourses about the benefits of 5G, artificial intelligence and Big Data. A new normality can be, if we want, one that takes us closer to nature, and for that we have the wisest teachers of them all: our rural and indigenous communities.
 See: Ernst et al. The Economics of Artificial Intelligence: Implications for the Future of Work, ILO Geneva 2018 p.3. Available at https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—dgreports/—cabinet/documents/publication/wcms_647306.pdf