How does ‘nature’ figure in the way we meet the threat of Covid-19, this virus that is upsetting human life across the world?
The question unfolds in a series of dilemmas that bear the marks of climate derangement throughout, reminding us that nature now refuses to be treated as inert; now it appears as an invisible, death-dealing force with maximum human reach.
- How do we relate to this virus, go beyond the categories of natural as opposite of (often enemy of) human?
- How do we live with the conflict between the vulnerability of the human species that the Covid-19 pandemic has so ruthlessly exposed and our desire for the normal ‘civilized’ life that it is interrupting?
- What price this apparent speeding up of the collapse of neo-liberal globalisation and mass industrial production-consumption, a collapse that from a climate perspective seemed essential to curb human exploitation of the planet?
From a narrow climate perspective (CO2), the current dramatic reduction in global carbon emissions is welcome. I’ve seen it described as mother nature saving the day with a viral intervention. The reduction of industrial production and air travel has made the air more breathable and water sustains life again.
The planet was calling out for an end to infinite growth and now there is degrowth, although it could be temporary. How can we welcome this and at the same time feel sorrow for the livelihoods unravelling everywhere? This is just one expression of the conflict between the vulnerability of the human species that the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed and our desire for the normal life that it is interrupting.
Dominant coronavirus discourse is, predictably, ignoring the link between pandemics and climate derangement. This is facilitated by standard scientific logic that likes to find linear cause and effect, shuns complexity and historically has been motivated by the desire to predict and control in the service of human dominion over nature. Pandemics are more common than they were and this will not be the last. Another pathogen will jump to humans. Zoonotic transmission is a consequence of human activity, increased populations colonising land, putting pressure on other species, including animal populations, whose habitats are reduced and disturbed. Global industrial expansion and mobility amplify the risk of the spread of these diseases. ‘If we think coronavirus is bad now', says Nafeez Ahmed, systems analyst, 'our unsustainable climate trajectory is setting us up for a future of both vector-borne and zoonotic pandemics that could make the coronavirus pale in comparison’. With the help of science and technology, humans have distanced ourselves so far from our creatureliness that we are vulnerable to the natural environment.
Nature as ‘the Real’ is pressing into consciousness, demanding recognition. Simon Western in a Lacanian treatment of the corona virus, defines the ‘Real’ as the kind of knowing that is ‘beyond language, an essence that can’t be symbolised’. He cites J. M. Miller’s assertion that ‘capitalism and science have combined […] to make nature disappear’ and adds that nature is now reappearing and undoing humans’ omnipotent fantasies. This is the profound message of the pandemic. Moreover – again according to a Lacanian approach – the virus is an extra potent messenger because it is a “master signifier”: of contagion. With it spreads fear of death – into a global West that is notoriously death-denying. With access to the power of mathematical modelling, the exponential global spread of Covid-19 contagion can be graphically illustrated. It is by virtue of such powerful science and technology that governments have been persuaded to act strictly to minimise social transmission.
Individual lives at risk of, or saved from, death are the units of computation, mediated by whether the health service can treat or be overwhelmed by the numbers of seriously ill, and keep its front-line staff safe from death in the process. Human civilization is dependent on what distinguishes it from nature – science, technology and institutions – to vanquish what feels like the enemy. The current absence of a vaccine makes this ‘war’ against a natural threat all the more focused on the attempt to ‘fight this pandemic into submission everywhere’, as the head of the Wellcome Trust described the strategy against COVID-19.
Dominant humans (not including indigenous peoples) have been on a course of attempted separation from nature for hundreds of years, an attempt that has been remarkably successful and has embedded our position that dominion over nature is justified and secured. Covid-19 is threatening this tenet most powerfully and the question beyond fighting it into submission is how we can take responsibility for the exploitation of nature that has isolated us and thrown the Gaian ecosystem into dysregulation. The dilemma of humans’ natural immunity is exemplary: it has been decided with little debate that global populations cannot face this pandemic with just our natural capacity for auto-immunity; too many would die. Even at risk of economic collapse, governments across the world are falling into line in closing down much economic activity in the service of preventing virus transmission. It seems that the claim that ‘you judge a society by how they treat their vulnerable people’ (a vociferous objection by a local Councillor in England to the government’s brief flirtation with a policy guided by “herd immunity”) is being realised in action. Contrast this principle with responses across the world to deaths from air pollution. At one point it was looking as if ‘world leaders have decided to prioritise the reduction of deaths among the old and very old at the expense of the livelihoods and prospects of those who are still at work’.
Human populations were already suffering from ‘civilization’: without even entering the terrain of mental suffering, just consider the prevalence of ‘underlying conditions’ that hugely increase vulnerability to COVID-19, at whatever age. The grieving husband of a 52-year old woman with diabetes who had just died of the virus in an Indonesian hospital poignantly said that he hardly knew anyone in his age cohort that didn’t have an underlying condition. Perhaps it is the soaring ill health of ever younger population cohorts (think obesity, high blood pressure, the rise in auto-immune diseases, lung disease from polluted air) that justify the current claim that ‘we’re all at risk’; that ‘nobody should think they are immune’ [Director of the Wellcome Trust on BBC Radio 4]. We might tend to dismiss such hyperbole as part of a current moral panic and an attempt to declaim away the different vulnerability of old and young. However, under 65s constitute half of the COVID-19 intensive care bed patients in Lombardy’s hospitals. This pattern is now emerging across the developed world: the health of young people too suffers from global pollution and hyper modernity. Here too is the intrusion of the Real: our dependence on bodies that could never be wrenched away from nature.
At such a fearsome moment in human history, it is hard to identify with this viral messenger. Yet now, in response to evidence of revitalised non-human species and clear skies, word is going around that ‘we are the virus’. Kristin Flyntz’s Imagined Letter from Covid provides a less binary perspective, through an identification with virus as a messenger from ‘we’ of the interconnected earth (of which the following is a short extract):
We will interrupt this broadcast, the endless cacophonous broadcast of divisions and distractions,
to bring you this long-breaking news:
We are not well.
None of us; all of us are suffering.
Last year, the firestorms that scorched the lungs of the earth.
did not give you pause.
Nor the typhoons in Africa, China, Japan.
Nor the fevered climates in Japan and India.
You have not been listening. […]
Despite what you might think or feel, we are not the enemy.
We are Messenger. We are Ally. We are a balancing force.
We are asking you: To stop, to be still, to listen…”.
Perhaps the forced pause of lockdown can provide a resetting of what constitutes normal life, a resetting that will not revert ‘afterwards’.
Fast-forward historical processes
History has a new periodicity: BC and AC, Before Corona and After Corona. Yuval Noah Harari, highly respected for his grasp of global social dynamics and possible futures, believes that ‘many short-term emergency measures will become a fixture of life [because] emergencies fast-forward historical processes’. The speed of change is dizzying (writing this ‘Digest’, I found the news almost indigestible): shutdown of international travel, working from home, local reliance, all of which are good for the planet. (But see here for discussion of the ecological damage wreaked by protective measures.) The threats, in Harari’s view, are totalitarian surveillance and nationalist isolation. We see moves in this direction. China may be only the first to adopt blanket virtual surveillance in the name of crisis management. Regarding nationalism, most nations have now closed their borders, projecting the virus threat out there, when it is also here, but at the same recognising the necessity of cooperation.
This crisis, like the climate and biodiversity crises, is an expression of humanity’s inability to accept our species’ position as interconnected, interdependent, with all other life on planet earth and live accordingly. Nafeez Ahmed talks of a ‘synchronous failure’ in the global system, being expressed in this historical moment of multiple crises which include the coronavirus. ‘Intersecting energy, economic and environmental crises have formed destabilizing loops with social political and cultural systems’. His diagnosis of the ‘final stages in the lifecycle of industrial civilization’ may sound doomist but it provides space, he says, for renewal. This brings us to the Deep Adaptation Forum and the regenerative culture strand of Extinction Rebellion, who – recognising imminent social collapse - are imagining, creating and enacting cultures that protect and sustain our Earth. Many people of all ages seem to have reacted more strongly to the Covid-19 crisis than the climate crisis – feeling emotional, scared, destabilised – in a way that they’ve been able previously to suspend because climate change appeared not to have immediacy. This means new levels of loss and anxiety; further need for the kind of therapeutic outreach that CPA is engaged in. These are some of the fast-forward historical processes (climate psychological ones) that are extracting us from business as usual.
Covid crisis is climate crisis
Inevitable change is happening: this is climate change, an early iteration. We must insist, in our actions and our language, that these are not separate phenomena. When climate change is framed narrowly, in terms of greenhouse gases, there is no apparent link with this pandemic. To this extent, it provides a lesson in the need for a wider, deep ecological, view. David Quammen, in an interview ranging with perfect balance from hard science to broad ecology, tells us just how intertwined this virus and its spread is with humans’ ravaging of the living earth. Mother Earth, malign as well as benign, now appears as an actor in human history, acting interconnectedly with humanity and science-technology. Perhaps an important consequence of this upsetting shared experience is there will be new levels of recognition that change is possible, because change is happening all around us, faster than we could have imagined. Change, in Kristin Flyntz’ opening words, is no longer a request. It is a mandate.