How collective memory could help us reshape our society and determine our future

The past belongs where it is, with undoubtedly many valuable lessons for the present. Similarly, the present is the preparatory process for the future. What we are all collectively experiencing now will be archived in the memory of humankind, marking our turn towards perhaps a different world.

In recent years, sociologists have carried out noteworthy research on how memory is perceived to have an important social role, especially how the long-term impact of a life-changing event can influence individual and thus collective memory. The way we will remember this experience, and the chain of socio-economic events it has unleashed, will determine the changes that will take place in our behaviors as a society. A pertinent example is how the Spanish flu of 1918 became an important event in our history, which led to significant social transformations during the 20th century.

As individual countries in Europe are slowly reopening their economies, there is an evident need to avoid a deepening of what is bound to be the worst recession ever seen, and return to pre-coronavirus productivity levels. At this point, many citizens are either reluctantly leaving their homes to go back to work, or enthusiastically ending their quarantine and resuming their previous routines.

And yet, while countries are lifting their quarantine measures and we attempt to resume some semblance of our previous lives, one cannot help but wonder if we will remember and learn from all of this or will we forget, as is usually the case?

Right now it is fairly easy to engage in discussions that analyze and criticize the whys and the hows, to praise or condemn our leaders’ actions against this pandemic. Nonetheless, as time goes by marking its usual course and we return to the mechanics of our daily tasks and habits, we might no longer remember the urgency and need for change, forgoing the bigger picture and once again enclosing ourselves in our own individual microcosms.

The shock and turmoil of the current healthcare crisis has obvious social and political ramifications for all -some experiencing it more intensely than others- and has undoubtedly provoked a shared sense of fear and insecurity. It has also inspired the necessary resilience and determination to resolve and overcome hardships. Just like any other crisis in history, this too will form our collective memory, influencing our capacity for social reconstruction and inciting a cultural shift towards the development of a more sustainable and conscious society. Our recollection of the past months, and the months ahead, can give us a new sense of a shared identity: we are ultimately the generation that has witnessed the worst pandemic and recession in a century. A powerful collective memory which can be the basis for a true cultural change: one that makes financial sustainability, social equality, and environmental awareness a second nature. Politics and economics are aspects of our national cultural development -if we improve our mentality, then we can improve the rest.

However, this novel, traumatic experience might have a different impact on people’s memory. Some deal with traumatic, difficult or inconvenient experiences by opting to forget about them- an emotional process that eases social recovery and moving on with life as it was. Consequently, some events are better remembered than others as their recollection is often distorted through time. For instance, aggravated republican protesters who are seeking to reopen the economy despite all warnings against it, are negating the long-term implications of not adhering to an orderly opening of the economy. One could argue that the frustration shared among the protesters is deliberately promoting the disregard of the pandemic, as they seek to resume their previous lives.

Whether the economy opens sooner or later, remembering the severity of our unsustainable practices would be a real opportunity to evolve in all ways possible. From state governance to private governance, collective social and institutional memories serve to help our societies learn from previous practices, both good and bad, and implement sound risk assessment and management strategies for similar future events. Forgetfulness should not be an option. The next time you storm into a store, once restrictions are no longer in place, will you remember that mass production is one of the leading causes of our unequal capitalistic system? That consumerism and our supply chains can be improved to be more ethical and responsible? That our healthcare and social welfare systems need serious reform? Perhaps it is easier and more convenient to forget and move on, but remembering is our moral obligation in order to progress towards a social reconstruction that works for all. This pandemic experience ties us all; on a transnational level our co-dependence is deeply interwoven and profound.

From a social perspective our collective memory is pivotal. Thankfully, in an era of hyper-connectivity and social media sharing, a cultural shift towards sustainability might be easier to achieve. The wide range of evidence-based information available on issues pertaining to political accountability and social well-being serve as constant reminders, raise awareness and eventually influence our daily practices. It forces us to rethink our current situation, re-educate ourselves and to aspire for a better, more equitable society.

As the generation that will most vividly remember this pandemic, we are the ones who will also “write the event’s history, influencing the collective memories of succeeding generations”, as scholar James W. Pennebaker cited in his book “Collective Memory of Political Events” (1997). The coronavirus pandemic is the defining characteristic of this new decade, and as we continue to establish the facts of the health crisis and its underlying variables, let us remember how deeply problematic this world is, how nature has benefited from our long silence; and how we can achieve a cultural shift that is aligned with the sustainable development of our world. We are witnesses of a powerful global event with multiplying effects of historic importance. By the same token, our collective remembrance of the current social processes is fundamental for the new cultural awareness and adjustments required for our future “new normal”.

Originally published at

An internationalist. A traveler and explorer of cultures, an advocate for sustainability.