Doubt entered our way of knowing, alongside danger: another feature of the Anthropocene. – Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing and Niels Bubandt, “Swimming with Crocodiles”, Orion, Spring 2020, 70.
Like many, I have become somewhat obsessed with the novel coronavirus. Most days I spend a good chunk of time tracking the tragedies and transformations it has already wrought, as well as trying to understand the shape of what is to come.
How I think about the virus and its impacts changes at least a little every day, and has changed quite a lot over these weeks. I wrote earlier that I thought of the coronavirus as a message, and I still think so. Not that I think of it as an intentional message from God, Nature or Gaia, so much as a foreshadowing of what is coming, what is unfolding. Many of us have had the luxury of living within a benign, stable environment for all our lives. The coronavirus may be the first wave of the cataclysm we have called “climate change.” This is what climate change will be like, to live it. This uncertainty. This pain. This breakdown of systems designed to function under stable environmental and social conditions. The difference is that this is just a little nudge, just one little ripple on a global scale, rather than the relentless cascade of breakdowns that climate change will bring. And this little nudge is sending us into a tailspin.
With its free-market approach to health-care and weak social safety net, the U.S. is especially ill-adapted among the rich industrialized nations to deal effectively with the pandemic. Tens of millions have lost, in a few short weeks their jobs and the health insurance tied to those jobs. It is bewildering to say the least. No one understands what is happening to us right now, much less what the long-term implications might be. The uncertainty is making us anxious, fearful, and impatient.
Even as the contagion curve has flattened in most places here in the US, there is no solace in that fact. Fighting the virus via lockdown may have been the easiest part. Figuring out how to live with each other again, how to re-engage while minimizing the risks of another contagion, will be at least as treacherous, as demonstrated by the anti-lockdown protests happening in some parts of this country.
We have gotten over the initial panic-buying of food stuffs and our food system seems to be functioning, but there are stresses showing in price increases and blank spaces on the shelves in the supermarket. The consolidation of meat-processing into a small number of gigantic facilities – many of which have had to close due to Covid outbreaks among the (overwhelmingly immigrant) workers – has become a liability, a weak link in the supply chain. Everyone chafes under the separation of the workforce into essential and non-essential, over the unfair distribution of risk and disruption. Other debilitating consequences will undoubtedly unfold over the coming days and months. How we deal with these consequences will determine what kind of society we will become as a result of this challenge.
The virus has called into question our values, the values that are embedded in the systems we have built, those systems that are failing us. It took a virus holding an invisible gun to our heads. Nothing else could do it. Not species loss, income inequality, refugees dying in the Mediterranean, storms, floods, fires. It took the immediate threat of death to ourselves and our loved ones to make us look at what is necessary and what is not. To force the question – what is more important: the consumerist way of life or life itself? And some of us are still can’t make the distinction . Because our “fragile, profit-driven system” is all we have ever known. This economic engine that has provided for our needs and pleasures, more or less reliably, all of our lives long, is the framework that we actively serve and maintain, or, at a minimum, survive within. To have a framework, however irrational, unsustainable and unjust, is less scary that to have no framework at all. To be come face to face with the abyss is intolerable.
There are very big crocodiles swimming in the abyss, no doubt about it. Can we learn, in the midst of catastrophe, to look at, without flinching, our crocodiles, our coronavirus, our climate change? And then from that looking change our way of life so that we serve systems that are less grandiose but also less fragile.