Ilustración por Mario Chaparro
Mario Chaparro Rubio.

The lessons that coronavirus can teach the human species

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(Originally published in Spanish in El Salto. Translated by Jeffrey Pituch.)

In the last 6000 years, but above all in the past 200, and more concretely since the 50’s, human societies have been gaining altitude. A lot of altitude. From up here, we look down at a microscopic virus and, maybe, we can learn something from it.

From the height of Anthropocentrism

Primitive humans were predators who could also be hunted by other predators. But thanks to their incredible capacity for coordination and their technological development, they conquered the peak of the trophic chain, thinking themselves to be invulnerable and all-powerful.

However, life emerged from the most miniscule living beings, and continues to be built on them. Not on the super powerful. The kingdom of the little provides for the existence of life on the planet. Without bacteria, there would not be fertile soil and many other things. In the most general terms, without them it wouldn’t be possible to recycle the elements (carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, etc.) which they do in degrees unimaginable by human technology (on the order of 99.5-99.8%). We can’t forget that we live on a planet where new matter doesn’t enter, we have to get by with what’s already here.

The coronavirus can serve as a reminder that the microscopic is decisive on Earth. And that, in the storyline of life, we are expendable.

From the heights of the agroindustrial system

For our control of all living beings, the agroindustrial system turns out to be decisive. The domestication of some animal and vegetable species, and the transformation of ecosystems so certain ones can get ahead and others can’t.

Since the beginning of agriculture and ranching, this has provoked distinct viruses that have jumped from other animals to human beings: from cows, measles and tuberculosis; from pigs, whooping cough; from ducks, influenza. This has not stopped happening as such in recent decades. It’s actually increased, and has accelerated in concordance with the destruction of various ecosystems. As Sonia Shah reflects: “Since 1940, hundreds of pathogenic microbes have appeared or reappeared in regions which, in some cases, they had never been observed. It’s the case of HIV, of Ebola in west Africa, or Zika in the American continent. The majority of them (60%) are of animal origin. Some come from domestic animals or cattle, but mostly (more than two thirds) come from wild animals.” This seems to be the case with the coronavirus, which could have had its original host in bats.

In another way, the agroindustrial system is also one of the direct causes of climate change, as we know. A recent study shows how climate change helps the transmission of virus between distinct species of mammals. In this way, in a world where ecosystem disruption is the norm, human beings don’t only have fewer defenses (for example, the loss of pharmacological substances, because the majority of them come from other living beings), but it also suffers from growing threats. The ecosystemic disequilibrium on all scales, including the microbial, fully affects human beings. One example is the coronavirus.

From the heights of the West

Let’s enter into human societies, because in these there have also been escalations in particular forms of social organization. The western way of life has laid waste to all others. It’s become a hegemony, one that has entailed an important social homogenization. One example is the supremacy of the urban, the modern, and the technological. A supremacy that has been equalizing the spaces of human sociability on the entire planet but that has, undoubtedly, its epicenter in the central regions.

The coronavirus makes this supremacy look ridiculous. The infection began in the urban world. In one of its territories of greatest development, and from there, it’s expanding to its equivalents marking almost with perfection the veins through which globalization flows. In any case, it’s also telling that in the northern hemisphere it’s winter (or how we usually called this season before climate change).

The virus expands itself easily because we have cut off human diversity in a global village. In the history of life, the appearance of more complex forms has not come with the disappearance of more simple forms, but it has produced a symbiotic re-accommodation (from a macro perspective). This has permitted systems to be more resilient. However, in the dominant societies– and more so in capitalism–, the rise of complexity has destroyed the less complex forms, losing cultural, economic, and political diversity.

From the heights of neoliberalism

Capitalism has arrived at its climax with globalization and neoliberalism, even though in reality they are two faces of the same process.

One of the results of the victory of neoliberalism is the dismantling of the public. It’s spent many years dismantling the public health so that now, dramatically, we discover that it’s the only thing that has any possibility to stop the coronavirus and, at the same time, it is the system most vulnerable to the infection, that for which schools, cities and countries are closed in order for it to avoid collapse.

The second is the dismantling of the community. More dramatic than the collapse of the public has been that of the community. That of the networks of mutual support that permit processes of self-organization. It’s the victory of ‘save yourself, whoever has the means to’. Of absolute individualism. The epidemic of coronavirus shows how absurd that strategy is. Human societies are based on hyper-cooperation (asymmetric, very asymmetric).

There is no possibility that anyone saves themselves alone because we depend on the work of so many other people. We believe ourselves to be individuals because we hide the relationships of forced cooperation (we can call them exploitation) that sustain our individuality. But the coronavirus arrives further. The isolation to stop the spread of contagion is, probably, the torpedo to the weak point of who we are, as the most important species of the current situation we are experiencing.

From the heights of globalization

Capitalismo, tecnolatría, antropocentrismo
Rubén Uceda
The current socioeconomic system has important elements of resilience. One is that the high connectivity augments the capacity to quickly respond to the challenges. For example, if the harvest fails in one region, the food supply can guarantee it from another part of the world – if that’s what it’s interested in– and the same can be said in a substantial part of the industrial system.

However, the connectivity also increases the vulnerability of the system, because, from one doorstep, one cannot face the challenges, and the collapse of distinct parts affects the whole. The system functions as completely interdependent, and not as isolated parts that can survive alone. From whichever element, like the collapse of emergency services by oversaturation, this shortage transmits to the whole. In this sense, too many interconnections between unstable systems can produce by themselves a cascade of systemic failures. What’s more, greater connectivity implies that there are more nodes that can trigger the collapse.

But global capitalism is not just interconnected, but instead a network with a few central nodes. The collapse of one of them would be almost impossible to offset, and would transmit to the rest of the system. Some examples: i) the entire economic grid depends on the creation of money (credit) for the banks, specifically those that are too big to fail. And, the banking system has become more opaque, and ultimately, more vulnerable with the supremacy of shadow banking. ii) the production in global supply chains dominated by a few multinationals makes the economy depend on the world market. These supply chains function just-in-time (with little storage) and are strongly dependent on credit, cheap energy, and many distinct materials. iii) Cities are spaces of high vulnerability due to their dependence on every type of external resource that they can only acquire thanks to large quantities of concentrated energy and an economic system that permits the suction of wealth. But, at the same time, they are a key agent in the technological, social, and economic grid.

The collapse of this tangled mess will not have just one cause, but instead it will be produced by that incapacity of the system to resolve a multiplication of challenges in distinct planes in a situation of lack of resilience. The collapse will yield situations of high stress level in distinct planes of the system. The same that happens with coronavirus: the people that die from the infection already had a chart of preexisting conditions.

Covid-19, more than a metaphor for the vulnerability of systems with multiple challenges, is one more challenge to the system, argues Nafeez Ahmed. Global capitalism was already in crisis before the coronavirus pandemic —one can read Michael Roberts—, but the measures of public health being taken reinforce it. First, by significantly reducing the number of people working for the reproduction of global capital. Second, by diminishing the number of people who put out goods and services produced (tourism is a clear example). Third, because production itself is compromised by cutting the chains of production (lack of activity in some places, lack of transportation in others).

More than these general indispensable elements for the reproduction of capital, there are concrete elements in the current circumstances that are central. The capitalist crises bring an increase in competition between the economic entities supported by their states that could be fatal. For example, in the energy field, where there is already a situation of deep crisis due as a result of having reached peak oil and getting closer to the rest, the fight has gotten worse. Saudi Arabia has caused the collapse in prices of crude (already low due to the economic crisis). With this they are trying to twist the arm of Russia, but the U.S. will suffer most.

Of the three giants of hydrocarbon extraction, the latter is who has the highest extraction costs, and ultimately, who will suffer most due to prices of crude in the gutter. And the question is not just about the American oil and gas industry, but the finance industry, not in vain the first to be sustained by gigantic investments by the second. And to say that there are problems with American finance is to say that in reality, the entire world’s finances are at risk. We remember the crash of 2007/2008.

The question is not just about a crisis of the economic system, but also about the political and state organization. The state has increasingly less capacity to confront a broad spectrum crisis. The coronavirus signifies a challenge that pushes the health system to its limit (we’ll soon see if it can beat it). Now we understand in Europe the construction of a gigantic hospital at a forced march in Wuhan.

But the question is not just about the health system. It’s also about social control. Until now, fear of contagion and civic responsibility have permitted the implementation of very strict measures of social control. What we have seen in China is unprecedented, at least in recent decades. But in Europe, it’s taking a similar course (with the pertinent politico-cultural adaptations). How long will this be possible? For example, if the mix between children’s unschooling and closure of businesses drags on, how long will it take to see eruptions in the most vulnerable populations? Let’s not imagine organized bursts of civil disobedience, but more like disorganized explosions in the form of supermarket pillages. Some outbreaks that could reactivate the expansion of coronavirus, incidentally adding more complexity to everything.

Before those outbreaks, we can foresee a very virulent response– the adjective comes in handy– of the booming far right, that could add fire to the war that they’ve declared on the most vulnerable social groups. This could further complicate the systemic destabilization if it fails to succeed.

Let’s pull more threads. Without doubt, the state will try to respond to all of the challenges. It will put up money to sustain the oil and gas industry, it will put up money to sustain speculative funds, it will put up money to repress the population, it will put up money to cushion the blow to the most complaining classes… until it can’t do it anymore. This could be sooner than later in a situation of exhaustion of remedial measures taken to confront the crisis of 2007/2008, that there’s not enough space to expand upon.

These are just a few examples, we could think of more. The summary is that the coronavirus is not the factor that will provoke the collapse of social order, but it could be that which unleashes it amidst a context of multiple systemic vulnerabilities (crises of energy, climate, material, biodiversity, inequality, exhaustion of investment potential, delegitimation of the state, etc.). And if not the coronavirus, it will be another straw that breaks the camel’s back.

From the heights of technology

In the collective social imagination is the idea that, whatever happens, human beings are capable of resolving it thanks to technology. We do not say it as such, but we believe that technology permits us to be omniscient and omnipotent.

However, this is not true. Technology has many limits. One central limit —but not the only one— is that for its development it needs huge quantities of energy and material resources, exactly two of the central elements that are failing in the many crises that we are experiencing. In the past, climate changes and pandemics were determining factors in the evolution of the human population. If in recent history it hasn’t been that way, it’s thanks to the fact that we have had great quantities of energy at our disposal, transformed into technology, that has allowed us to avoid these challenges. This availability of bountiful energy —and thus technology— will stop being a reality forever.

But, more than that, technology does not generate immediate solutions. In the case of medical research, to design a vaccine could take 12-18 months, optimistically. And to design a vaccine does not mean to make it universally available, because after development you must address the problems of profitability, financing, manufacturing and distribution, which are not trivial. Maybe it could be too late to avoid a systemic crisis. When societies confront multiple vulnerabilities, time is a major factor.

Therefore, one of the principle lessons that we could take from the coronavirus is that human beings are vulnerable, we live in bodies that can die without being able to avoid it.

Landing

In conclusion, maybe what we can learn from the coronavirus is that we need to land. To come down from the heights of hyper technological capitalism until we understand that we ourselves are woven into the fabric of life. To banish anthropocentrism.

From an ecocentric viewpoint, for the entirety of life, for Gaia (Mother Earth) —from that which we aren’t more than a simple organism—, the coronavirus is excellent news. This signifies a great halt to the economic activity that entails an obstacle to environmental destruction, the first of all climate distortions.

Let’s not deceive ourselves, this type of quick, clean break is one of the only things that can prevent runaway climate change which would be an unimaginable catastrophe for the entirety of life, which would be an unimaginable catastrophe for the entirety of life. These are the results of a recent work, in which we have shown what could be those transitions of the Spanish economy. The only thing that could give us options to avoid climate catastrophe is to rapidly get onboard the degrowth–ruralization–localization triad with the object of reintegrating ourselfs harmonically into ecosystems. That is the path that the coronavirus teaches us.

The microorganism also tells us that for reorganization to take place with some form of guarantee for social majorities, strong redistributions of work and wealth are essential.

One of the organisms that make up Gaia, thanks to a mutation, has converted into a pandemic that is putting it at serious risk. The coronaviruses of Gaia are anthropocentrism, capitalism, and technocracy. Therefore, we need to banish them urgently, taking the draconian measures that are necessary.

Illustration by Mario Chaparro
Mario Chaparro Rubio.
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Member of Ecologists in Action, where he was the federal co-ordinator for 9 years. In his professional life he works in education and research on subjects related to ecology and pedagogy, at FUHEM and at the Garúa S. Co-operative, Madrid. He is author and co-author of dozens of books which look at distinct facets of social ecology.

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