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Notes

#StayTheFuckHome & #StayTheFuckCritical

Two nights ago, I watched a man being arrested outside the studio where I am hunkered down in Berlin . I don’t know why. The man could not prove where he lived so he was taken into custody.

My partner and I watched but we didn’t intervene, we didn’t ask the reason or where the man was going. As non-citizens I feel vulnerable at the best of times, but the chilling effect of the Covid-19 outbreak on civil liberties is real and needs our focus.

Let me be clear. The Covid-19 pandemic is a catastrophe and people should the advice of governments and stay at home. At the same time I consider it utterly essential that we question the acts of our governments in the days, weeks and months that follow.

How can these two seemingly contradictory statements coexist? Firstly, we need to differentiate between scientists and governments. I trust scientific consensus on issues like Covid-19 and Climate Change. I trust governments only when I believe there is a good reason to do so. Yesterday, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged people to stay at home so as not to hasten the spread of this dangerous pathogen. She is repeating, almost verbatim, the scientific consensus of epidemiologists. In this context, I trust that Merkel is acting in good faith and that this advice is sound. On the flip side I don’t trust governments when they ignore scientific consensus, for instance when, despite warnings from climate scientists, governments allow coal mining, build airport runways and subsidise polluting industries.

So following the advice of scientists is not the same thing as blindly obeying your government. There are two reasons why this is important. The first relates to the current pandemic. We need to pay close attention to the emergency legislation that is passed because of the powers that it grants governments, agencies, police and the security services. In the UK, legislation to halt the spread of Covid-19 gives police the power to arrest anyone they suspect of having Covid-19. Given that in a pandemic any one of us might have the virus, this is essentially a power to arrest anyone at any time.

While there are strong arguments that such powers are necessary to ensure adherence to the basic behaviours necessary to save our own lives and those of the elderly and immunocompromised, this power should still scare us. We should ask, what oversight is there of these arrest powers? What avenues exist to contend arbitrary detention? And finally is there a sunset clause to these powers? Otherwise these powers could continue indefinitely.

We know already from the September 11 attacks on New York City that security services overreach when there is an emergency situation, that they are eager to assume powers when everyone is so thrown by a sense of crisis that they stop paying attention. I’m not arguing that people reactively resist the directions of governments, police, health agencies during this crisis, but that they pay attention and question the powers these authorities grant themselves.

The second reason why critical thinking remains important at this moment relates to the question of how we got to this crisis in the first place – and how we will avoid or better manage future crises on a global scale. All the economic shocks roiling economies across the world – the grounding of planes, the halting of industry – were deemed impossible just months earlier when they were advocated by Extinction Rebellion to stop Climate Change. Now they are deemed inevitable in the fight against Covid19.

What is especially disturbing with this crisis is that epidemiologists have long warned that human encroachment on natural spaces increases the likelihood of the very event we are living through. Governments and corporations would not act on these warning, or at best barely acted, because it seemed somehow distant and irrelevant compared to economic growth. now the entire world has stopped because the ruling class rightly recognises that even their lives are threatened by this crisis, along with entire social and economic fabric they rely on.

We know from the predictions of climate scientists that this will not be the last crisis that humanity faces, and that crises of this scale will come with increasing rapidity. Will we expect ourselves to suspend our critical judgement each time a new megahazard emerges?

The answer should be no. I urge you to read the legislation that governments pass in response to Covid-19, carefully watch the activities of police and security services and be prepared to call out overreach before it is too late and an expanded security state becomes normalised. And read widely. Haymarket Books just released 10 e-books for free including Angela Davis’ Freedom is a constant Struggle. My goal is to skip Netflix and educate myself on the broader context of these terrifying events now that my freedom to move is so restricted.

The destructive short term thinking that has created the 21st Century of crises will only change if we demand it and we turn a critical eye on the governments and corporations that direct our lives. Which is why it is important that when we implore others to #StayTheFuckHome, we also #StayTheFuckCritical.

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Notes

The terrifying normality of an everyday life that deepens our isolation, and brings us to the edge of annihilation

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.