In an era of megahazards, immediate concerns need to give way to the bigger picture of how human beings relate to the planet and one another.
Causality is not a chain, but a network
Whenever there is a natural disaster, for instance “once-in-a-century” floods, or when bush fires chewed up the whole south east coast of Australia, sober voices remind us that is impossible to say that any single event is caused by climate change. This, despite the fact it is clear to most of us that the fires exist in a network of events that includes the very massive presence of a climate changing rapidly under the weight of human activities.
Likewise, at this moment of pandemic, any analysis of what caused this crisis, beyond pointing the finger at the hapless Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, exists in a theoretical space far removed from the more important decisions of whether I should buy more toilet paper (no!) or extract all my money from the bank (what money?)
In the darkest of times, it has become a kind of ritual for the media to roll out Steven Pinker to remind us of how much more difficult life was before modernity transformed food production, warfare, and medical technology. Indeed, as a per capita average we are less likely to die of starvation, pestilence, or at the end of a battle-axe than in medieval times. It nevertheless seems observable that this accumulated benefit of modernity has run its course, and that new, megahazards are replacing death at childbirth, or a marauding army as frightening ways to suffer and die (although both remain very real ways to die in 2020).
Something feels wrong, has felt wrong for a long time. It feels good to say this, to rest for a moment in the imprecise totality of a feeling I’ve carried for as long as I can remember and not feel the need to censor this feeling by either tying it up in a chain of factuality, nor to dismiss it as irrational. It is not the virus that disturbs me. Or not only what disturbs me.
It is the crowd rushing the supermarket, instagramming photos of empty shelves before taking four packages of toilet paper, not making eye contact with the people beside them. Moments like these are observed as a curiosity, a passing phenomenon an overflow of panic to be stemmed so we can focus on the real necessary goal at this moment: infection control.
But it’s not the panic buying that is the problem. Or even the buying itself. It is the anonymity, the self-orientation, the emotional flows that are engaged whenever we buy toilet paper and take toilet paper home.
Let me say this clearly: There is a horror in supermarket shopping. In general. In times of pandemic and at all other times. You know this, but your forgot it. As I forgot and everyone forgot it in the trance of lives structured around consuming. We know, somehow, somewhere that these acts are straining the planetary resources, and that is alienation eats us from the inside, yet we feel compelled by an alien force to continue. These phenomena, alienation and environmental destruction I address as discrete because grammar forces me to do so, but they are in fact the same thing, or at least they are so tightly woven together that is not possible to extricate one from the other and need to be understood, as I said above, as a network.
I have distinct memories of reading ecologists who said that the expansion of urban space and the depletion of natural spaces will bring human beings into ever increasing proximity, and that this proximity will lead to new pathogens crossing the threshold into the human territory. Yet we continue, hoping that the inevitable will not come, at least not now, not this year, not this week.
Knowing that it will come. And then the shock that it has come. I had become so habituated to the idea that ruin lay just around the corner, but never here, where I am now.
What is new about this crisis, for me at least, is the realisation that this human species that has multiplied itself and fulfilled its needs at the expense of all other species now finds itself raw material for another entity to replicate itself and fulfil its needs. In colonising, modernising and territorialising every inch of planet, we have become a territory ourselves to be marked, mapped and mined by a pathogen that may or may not have spread from a seafood market in China.
By eliminating biodiversity from our planet, in the Anthropocene, we are becoming the territory we conquered, and so in order to innovate, life forms (if indeed viruses can be considered life) are learning to colonise us. Evolution is a mathematical proposition: through an abundance of time, almost every possibility is expressed. Most possibilities stumble, but in stumbling this collective effort of mutation learns the territory that is available, and evolves to it. In order to exist on a planet that has been extracted of everything except the human and what the human determines are its needs, life is evolving to exploit and destroy us. Viruses have always invaded human hosts, but as the planet earth becomes the human planet we can expect this to continue.
How will humans evolve to survive, except to hasten a trend towards crowded isolation? We are becoming human bodies organised into sequential units, sealed off from one another, ordering in, streaming content, and expelling waste.
What this crisis shows us is that proximity is truly multidimensional. We have never been so close to one another before, yet so far away, and in pushing nature to the brink, nature is responding by colonising us, and destroying us.
The thing to do, it seems to be, is to change something fundamental. Anything, to break the reproduction of this social order. Maybe it could be rational, like staging a die-in at an airport to stop planes from trashing our atmosphere. Or volunteering at a hospital. Or is it something irrational, like speaking every sentence without the letter ‘d’. Or walking backwards every Tuesday.
I don’t know exactly. But this world is ODD. And we need to do something to break the terrifying normality of an everyday life that deepens our isolation, and brings us to the edge of annihilation.