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Some Thoughts on What Comes After a Mobility Shock

By Mimi Sheller, PhD, Director of the Center for Mobilities Research and Policy

Empty city street with no traffic due to coronavirus


March 31, 2020

This article was originally posted on the blog of the Critical Automobility Studies Lab.

As the coronavirus sweeps around the world, outpacing public health efforts to contain it, all human mobilities have been brought to an abrupt halt. People have stopped going to work, children are kept home from school, many businesses have closed their doors, airplanes have stopped flying, cruise ships are turned away from ports, borders are closing, factories have stopped churning out products, and the shipment of goods globally has vastly slowed. The governing regime of mobilities has been thrown into sudden disarray, and with it the world economy. Under these exigencies to de-mobilize our lives, we are forced to adopt new routines, new habits, and new ways of stilling ourselves, our economies, and our social interactions. Universities, of course, have also closed, and I write this from home under orders of social distancing, while I prepare my spring-term course for online teaching.

Shortly on the heels of this global slow down, there is also a mounting shift towards new patterns and kinds of mobilities: We hear of evacuations of travelers returning from abroad, essential workers getting to their jobs by bike or walking, and university students moving out of their dormitories. Governors are calling for surge capacity, mobilizing the National Guard, and perhaps the military armed forces. Local communities are planning for drive-in virus testing, online working, delivery services, and logistical processes to re-fill grocery store shelves. We learn that if governments do not extend the social safety net, at least here in the United States, we will soon see evictions, homeless people roaming the streets, and further uncontrolled spread of COVID-19. Amid these unfamiliar mobilities we hear calls for social solidarity, as much as social distancing.

Crucially, there has also been a global slowdown of fossil-fuel consumption, and a collapsing price for oil. As transportation and production seize up, and international travel shuts down, the demand for fossil fuel is plunging. If airlines go bankrupt, if trucking is severely reduced, and consumers stop buying new cars, will this actually kickstart the transition away from fossil fuels? As countries seek to recover and pull out of this mobility shock, will we seek to return to the high-mobility, high-energy, high-carbon economy of the past? Or will we begin the urgently needed shift to a low-carbon economy, one premised on more resilient, regenerative, and circular forms of local exchange? Could this be the push we needed to truly implement the low-carbon transition that scientists have warned us is necessary to stop the global climate emergency?

While some might see this as the wrong time to worry about climate change — in the midst of a viral emergency that needs immediate response — for others, these two things are connected. While it may not be clear yet whether climate change has facilitated the jump of new coronaviruses from wildlife to humans, certainly scientists have been predicting increasing risks of pandemics. Even more to the point, though, our response to COVID-19 may share crucial elements with our needed response to climate change. Both problems remind us that the world is interconnected, and we cannot wall ourselves off. And while some societies might veer towards authoritarian and military responses, demonizing outsiders and rallying nationalism, others are recognizing the need for international cooperation, mutual solidarity, and shared resources and knowledge.

Above all, though, it is becoming clearer that the response to both coronavirus and climate change share common elements. Proponents of the Green New Deal in the United States, or the Green Deal in Europe, have been calling for a massive transformation of our energy infrastructure, housing, and transportation systems through public investment in renewable energy, energy efficiency, and low-carbon transportation. These proposals are exactly the kind of government stimulus that could also help pull our economies out of the current slump, and build more resilient communities with greater social solidarity.

So, while we are still in the midst of the immediate emergency response, it is also worthwhile to begin to envision and plan for our recovery and rebuilding process. Mobilities theory is crucial to this planning because we have been focusing for the last fifteen years on the problem of low-carbon transitions and understanding how everyday social practices are embedded in complex systemic change. Changing the ways that we do mobilities will be crucial to the post-COVID-19 world. And making sure we do so in a socially equitable and just way will be crucial to the future of the world.