Stopped In Our Tracks

“…all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly… This is the way our universe is structured… We aren’t going to have peace on Earth until we recognize this basic fact of the interrelated structure of reality.” Martin Luther King, Jr. A Christmas Sermon On Peace (1967).

This may fall into the category of “be careful what you wish for.” For decades I have been saying that the trajectory of human civilization is so destructive and the psychological barriers to essential change are so formidable, that we, civilized humanity, need an intervention. We need some force from outside of us to stop us in our tracks. The examples I have given have mostly been positive: meeting a whale, observing the limits of the mind, dwelling in silence. I have certainly been aware that there are negative interventions: loss of a job, loss of a loved-one, loss of a sense of purpose. Anything that disrupts our normal routine can intervene in the perpetual mental activity that turns wild reality into domesticated illusion, forms our most fundamental worldview, and has led us deep into a disconnection from the living world. I was also aware, given the stress the planet is under, and given how ubiquitous global travel and transportation are, that a global pandemic was certain to occur at some point. I never wanted what we’ve got. There were a million ways to do this gently, the intervention revealing our destructive self-constructs, not threatening our lives.

I cannot deny that the SARS-CoV-2 virus has stopped us in our tracks. But so far, I would have to call this a spectacularly failed intervention, or at best (and not very good at that) a temporary success. Carbon emissions will drop as a result of severely reduced travel. But that will be offset somewhat by rises in air conditioning needed to cool over-worked streaming servers as nearly everyone turns to the internet for entertainment, shopping and work-and-school-from-home. We have been stopped in our tracks, but the sudden collapse of the global economy has made the cry to return to normal louder. Where is the systemic change required to stem the rise of carbon in the atmosphere and the devastation of biodiversity on the ground? As economies reopen (without any effective way to treat or prevent the spread of the virus) I expect environmental stress to increase, even as human deaths rise. The worst of both worlds.

On the positive side, people are turning to walks in nature and online music sharing to compensate for social isolation, which is a healthy impulse. But lives are being lost, and jobs are being lost, and people’s lives are devastated, and I have no sense that there is anything positive that is going to come out of that. You can be certain that and Walmart will do just fine, but what about our local economies? You can be certain that the disaster capitalists are looking for any and every opportunity to position their companies to take over wherever there has been a local loss. If the long-term effect is to hollow out our local economies even more than they are already, this “stop us in our tracks” intervention will have failed spectacularly to move us toward the vibrant, diverse, bio-sensitive economies that we and the biosphere need.

Life survives catastrophe through diversity. The more ways of being that exist, the more likely that some of those ways of being will survive a cataclysm. The less diverse our systems are–the more we depend on only a few companies, crops, species of animal, cultural resources–the more vulnerable we are to extinction. Trillion dollar government bailouts are happening, but so far the bulk of the bailouts have gone to the corporations that need it least. I want people who have lost their jobs to be made whole. But, honestly, I do not want the airline industry to be made whole. I want people to survive, but I do not want the system that is destroying the planet to survive. I want human-and-nature-scaled economies to survive, but I do not want the global exploitation economy to survive. I want people to live in culturally rich and diverse communities, but I do not want anyone to be able to fly anywhere in the world for any reason. The greatest danger of this moment is that it may reduce biological and cultural and economic diversity even more, and set us up for an even bigger fall next time. And there will be a next time.

Whatever the proximate cause of the SARS-CoV-2 virus outbreak turns out to be, the ultimate cause is the total appropriation of Earth’s “resources” by humans. We have invaded every corner of the globe and taken everything for ourselves. And then we travel everywhere as if we own it all, and somehow we are surprised that we spread invasive organisms and diseases with our travels. A fungus we spread has been devastating bat communities in North America. Other fungi that we unwittingly spread, the chytrid fungi, are killing amphibians in staggering numbers. Now a virus we spread is devastating our own communities. I would hope that the primary lesson of this outbreak would be that we need to curtail global travel and shipping. Global travel and shipping are destructive in ways we mostly do not get to see directly. Now we get to see it.

But once this disease has run its course, and we have suffered our terrible losses, will we learn that lesson, or will we return to business-as-usual? Will we continue to replace shopping sprees with walks in the woods, or will we stay indoors, glued to Amazon and Netflix for entertainment, wedded to Zoom and Facebook for “connection”? Will we discover the joys of solitude and quiet and simple sharing of music and conversation, and hold on to those when the crisis has passed, or will we strive even harder to restore what was lost, to return to our previous definition of “normal?” Will we continue to insist on clean city air and dark night skies and quiet soundscapes full of birdsong but not air traffic or, in our eagerness to get away from this very difficult time, will we allow all of those positive aspects of living a slower, more local life to fade away like a dream? Will we stop flying all over the world, or will we double down on traveling to prove to ourselves that we are the masters of the world after all? Will this crisis be like the Deepwater Horizon blowout ten years ago, one that captures our attention at the time, and feels at the time like the one that changes everything, but is soon forgotten by almost everyone, no lessons learned? Will we allow this intervention to change us, or will we double down on imposing our worldview and the lifestyle it generates onto the world it is destroying?

I see three possibilities awaiting us:

We put all of this behind us as quickly as possible in a rush to get “back to normal” and learn nothing. It won’t quite be normal, because so many small, local businesses and colleges will have closed permanently. We will continue to assault the Earth with our noise and our travel and our digging and drilling, and we will continue to encroach on wildlands all over the planet, reducing living beings to “resources”. The planetary fever will continue to rise, and the abundance and diversity of plants and animals and ecosystems will continue to fall. We will continue to spread diseases to ourselves and other animals, and they will spread diseases to us, and we will be even less prepared for the next inevitable pandemic than we were for this one.

Or, we learn the lessons and we decide that there are aspects of this life we like– the quiet; the clean air, the walks and the music –and things we have lost that we are eager to have back– the local theater and music and food and socializing. We kick to the curb. We stop traveling, the airline industry dead. We stop subsidizing and burning fossil fuels, that industry also dead. We rebuild vibrant, diverse local economies and stay in them because they nourish us. We give the non-human world room to breathe and find a multitude of ways to coexist with our non-human kin.

Something else. Crises like this have a life of their own. We react in both predictable and unpredictable ways. Pulled in one direction by our powerful desire to return to the familiar, pulled in another by a sense that the possibility of something new and better and healthier has been revealed, we end up somewhere in between the two. It makes no sense for access to health care to be tied to employment; maybe that is now so obvious that we do something about it. Attracted back to local community that is scaled to our senses, we try to revitalize our local economies, but are powerless to stop the hegemony of and Walmart and other giant corporations that use this time to consolidate their power and wealth. Repulsed by having been forced to spend so much time at home, we start traveling more than ever. Literally sick to death of this President, we send him back to his lonely New York tower, and the whole planet breathes a sigh of relief. Having already spent trillions trying, and often failing, to prop up the global economy, we lack all will to invest in a Green New Deal; and international efforts to combat global warming and species extinction stall, but pockets of local sustainability initiatives take root nonetheless.

These are not predictions, just possibilities, with the third seeming to me to be the most likely. Reality is messy. It’s never all good or all bad.

If there is one lesson we need to learn from this crisis, it is that we are not in control. We think we are in control of the world. We think we have power over the world, but we have no power. We belong, but we do not control. We need to be careful with this planet. The balance is delicate and on a knife’s edge right now, and we are the ones who have brought it to this precarious place. We are not in control, but we are influential. Our actions matter, which means we need to listen very, very carefully and move forward cautiously, with awareness of the impact we are having. We need big doses of humility, which, I was recently reminded, means being brought down to earth (humility, humus, and human all come from the root word meaning “earth” or “ground”). We are earthlings. Our lives are inextricably bound to the other lives of Earth, “tied into a single garment of destiny.” How we live, where we go (and how we get there), whether we live sensitively or callously, whether we are aware of the consequences of our words and our actions or oblivious to it all, affects everything and everyone. Our destructive ways of living inevitably rebound back onto us. It would be well for us to at least learn that lesson, even if we learn nothing else.