“For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them”

Matthew 18: v20

The Bishop of Oxford opened his online diocesan synod on Saturday suggesting that we are entering a ‘season of re-gathering’. His audience of over 100 members were not so sure: physical encounter may be an essential part of humanity, but few people want to fall foul of the dreaded virus.

And thus it remains throughout working Britain. Our cities may resemble ghost towns, but there remains a considerable reluctance to take unnecessary risks when the news vibrates with quarantines and local lockdowns.

There is another dimension, however: to what extent is this caused by anxiety - which will be lifted by the vaccine when it appears - and to what extent does it reflect new way of living and working? This week we consider the extent to which technology has given us a new way forward, and whether it carries with it new vulnerabilities.

Robert Harris’s book ‘The Second Sleep’, published in 2019, lists ‘six possible catastrophe scenarios that fundamentally threaten the existence of our advanced science-based way of life:

  1. Climate change
  2. A nuclear exchange
  3. A super-volcano eruption, leading to rapidly accelerated climate change
  4. An asteroid strike, also causing accelerated climate change
  5. A general failure of computer technology due either to cyber warfare, an uncontrollable virus, or solar activity
  6. A pandemic resistant to antibiotics

.. We regard our society as having reached a level of sophistication that renders it uniquely vulnerable to total collapse. The gravity of the threat has increased vastly since 2000, with the transfer of so much economic and social activity to cyberspace, and yet there has been no corresponding contingency planning at government level.’

This catalogue of potential and actual disasters mirrors experiences both ancient and modern, to which life on earth has had to adapt. When they occur, they leave little time for adjustment, and such is our experience with the current pandemic.

It’s interesting that Robert Harris gathers advanced technology into this array of vulnerabilities, suggesting that it may be part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

That’s not our experience with the current pandemic. Whereas with Spanish flu or the plague, lockdown meant effective imprisonment, technology has liberated us to experience a new way of living. So, while of course people yearn to enjoy social and sporting events in company, we really are quite happy to work from home, order our shopping online, and minimise the amount of travel undertaken: and it all contributes towards holding back climate change.

My guess is that when vaccine distribution is widespread - which could be within the next six months - we will continue to pick and choose what we want to do and how we want to work online as opposed to in person.

So bishops and ministers can appeal all they want for us to re-gather into our empty churches and our ghost cities, but it will be for people to decide: and, at work, that means employers (who relish the prospects of reduced premises costs) and employees (who relish the prospects of avoiding wasted time and money in travel).

One of the most striking investment reports last week was that of Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust, in The Times Business pages on 4 September. Its holdings are heavily concentrated in tech giants and, over the past year, Scottish Mortgage has risen 55.2% compared to the FTSE All World Index of + 0.4%. That’s not to say the sector is invincible: the following day, Times Money greeted a sell-off with the headline ‘Time to ditch your tech stocks?’

But there’s no doubt that human life is adapting swiftly, and much of that adjustment will stay post-vaccine. Will it bring new vulnerabilities, as Robert Harris recounts?

There certainly are risks to a wholly electrified way of living, even though they do offer real opportunities to address climate change. It was just 17 years ago that a widespread power outage blacked out much of the north-eastern and midwestern United States and the Canadian province of Ontario and, although this was caused by a software bug, cosmic events can wreak similar havoc without notice.

It is undoubtedly true that we should undertake a much higher degree of contingency planning for the various types of disaster scenario, as Robert Harris suggests, and such planning should address all areas of increased vulnerability embedded into human life through our modern technological comforts.

But the current level of caution towards personal re-gathering shows that humanity still possesses a healthy dose of common sense, and that those who wish to re-invigorate the economy should look forwards, not backwards. Re-gathering international trade may be more important in this respect, as the links between nations are becoming increasingly strained. Whether it’s Brexit or cutting links with China, there are a growing number of voices warning of the dangers of isolationism: such as Robert Zoellick ‘the world could look like 1900 again’, or Chancellor Rishi Sunak speaking of the risks to trade at a seminar last week. This weekend’s appointment of Tony Abbott may be an indicator of that concern.

However, there is no doubt that we are feeling our way towards a new normal, and that is to be welcomed, not resisted.

Gavin Oldham OBE

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