In the face of the prospect of imminent and indiscriminate death, communities have an irrepressible tendency to bond together in fear and shared repentance.
This is the third and final installment in a series. I began by looking at the latest findings about the CoV-2 virus and its effects on the human anatomy. Last week, I looked at the mental damage and how that is compounding an already negative trend in the global culture of the 21st century and how it adds synergies to Covid-19, making it even more devastating.
When I began this series within a series I said we would first look at the scientific and factual evidence about the virus and its pandemic consequences and then try to tease out some implications for what may lie ahead.
The questions most often raised are how long before we get back to something resembling the old normal and what will have changed.
What’s the best thing that can happen with the coronavirus from a public health standpoint? Since we don’t yet know for how long blood antigens confer immunity, a drug that works to block viral uptake or a therapy that quickly neutralizes Covid would be great. Nobel Prize territory. If that can happen quickly, by the end of 2020, so much the better.
What’s the worst that could happen with this pandemic? The coronavirus may be far more virulent and insidious than we are yet supposing. It can reignite everywhere from a small outbreak anywhere. It can damage many separate organs in different and lasting ways. The virus may take up residence in its victims and chronically produce Covid over and over again for a lifetime. Judging by the charts of exponential growth and the fact that most major hotspots are in gateway cities, I think this pandemic has only just begun and as the curve of infection turns up it will compound at ever-faster rates. Here in México both cases and deaths are rising consistently at more than 8% week over week, a doubling every 9 weeks. If that rate continues, half a million cases become a million in two months, two million in four months, and so on.
The newly observed symptom of long-term hair loss may create societies where everyone looks like Buddhist monks. But the brain-damaged younger patients whose numbers are now multiplying may require lifelong assistance, as do those with renal failure. What does a world with 100 million of those victims look like?
There are consequences to nearly all governments’ neglect of adequate preparation and then the disparate response ranging from malignant tardiness to crass indifference until, like in México, crematoria were overcome with a backlog of bodies to burn. The few bright spots — New Zealand, Vietnam, Iceland — are overshadowed by their neighbors’ unprotected kill zones and exposed millions. What might have been contained and even extinguished in the early months is now too endemic in the world population for anywhere with an open border to ever be Covid-free.
Recent stories in the science press have suggested that SARS-Cov-2 will eventually run its course the way SARS-CoV-1 has, although there are important differences in virulence between the two that suggest that course could be very long in running and the final tally most gruesome. There are rumors both favorable to and disparaging of vaccines. It is likely we will find ourselves in August a year from now in a very similar condition to where we are now: the hammer and the dance; reductions in death-to-case ratios owing to improved therapies; perhaps some relatively small number of people showing immunity via vaccination; but universal public masks, bans on large gatherings, travel restrictions, and mandatory distancing, ventilation and disinfectants in sparsely frequented public spaces like offices, schools and airports.
In other words, it won’t be over.
In my new book, Plagued: Surviving A Modern Pandemic now going to press August 24th, I offer a number of lessons we, collectively as a species, could be learning from this experience, but I have more recently been sobered and chastened by reading Virus in the Age of Madness by Bernard Henri Lévy, only just translated a few weeks ago by Yale Press.
Virus in the Age of Madness | Yale University Press
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In my book, and in these blog posts, I took the position that viral pandemics have stricken human civilizations for more than 7000 years and inevitably expose cultural fault lines. They are a painful but necessary corrective. It is easy to see how much larger is the swath Covid has cut through populations of lower caste — racial and ethnic minorities; indigenous peoples; migrant refugees, prisoners, and our neglected elderly and handicapped. But to impute catharsis, Lévy scolds, is to overreach; that falls into the realm of hope and belief, not evidence or logic.
In prior segments I looked at at least some of the worst the virus might have in store for us. But let’s ask the other side of that question. From a planetary health standpoint, what’s the best that can happen?
The best outcome is that it reduces human population and its pollution footprint back to where it last found relative harmony with the rhythms of the natural world. That is a very large demand, and not likely to be met by Covid. Ugo Bardi points out:
At the end of the current cycle, the number of victims will probably be around 2 million, maybe more, but that’s hardly a way to exterminate humankind if you consider that every year in the world some 60 million people die and about 140 million are born.
Covid not only won’t exterminate enough humans to bring back a balance of natural regulatory systems, it won’t even slow human population growth very much. Climate change, on the other hand — the latent impact of our overshoot — could usher in human extinction within this century. The worst outcome of Covid, therefore, might be for it to conclude before our all-devouring industrial juggernaut wipes nature from the map once and for all.
But Lévy chastises me for imagining that. He writes:
Perhaps [the pandemic] was the victory of collapsologists who, always alert to the end of the world, see it heading towards us once again and giving us one last chance to repent and reset.
There are two schools of thought that have been particularly egregious; two, whose sanctimonious warnings to the effect that the coronavirus is speaking to humanity, have done the most damage.
On one end of the spectrum there are those who believe the human actions made the virus, arguing that when we disrupt natural habitats and meddle with ecosystems, viruses emerge, or that human overpopulation provokes viral exchanges from animals to humans, as David Quammen argued in The New York Times.
And, there are those who would have us believe that Covid-19 is the direct result of human hubris, interconnectedness, and globalization, or that nature is sending us a message, in the words, alas, of Inger Andersson, the Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme, or as filmmaker Michael Moore postulated, that the virus is a gentle warning from the planet before it takes revenge on humanity over climate change.
These ecologists, sovereignists, and anti-globalists wanted us to know that they knew all along, and saw it coming. Crying, “I told you so,” they have been all too happy to remind us that we had to pull back from globalization, manufacture at home, consume fruits only in season, and beware of international markets.
The most eminent of the servile contingent was French philosopher Bruno Latour, who had the gall to write that the virus was a tremendous opportunity, that it is an invisible hand, that with a great screech of the brakes will help ecologists advance their landing program, whatever that means. [See Latour, 2017: Where to land — How to orient yourself in politics ] “We are faced with an emergency challenge,” he said, “to combat the coronavirus spread by becoming like the virus, globalization cut-off switches, whose small, insignificant actions, laid end to end, will do like the virus does through small exhalations from mouth to mouth, namely, bring about the revolutionary suspension of the world economy.”
This is the old Marxist refrain of the final crisis of capitalism in her morning-after guise of collapsology, or one of the children’s diseases of socialism, updated as disasterism. I know this all too well, having been born and raised in it. It is disastrous indeed, and obscene.
In his most recent monthly Museletter, Richard Heinberg waded into the feud between Extinction Rebellion and Deep Adaptation. Both take as a given (as do I) that a near-term collapse of global financial arrangements is inevitable. The pandemic lockdown is likely to hasten that day of reckoning, as Nate Hagens predicted in March in his prescient Overview of the Systemic Implications of the Coronavirus. The latest numbers from the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and others well situated to measure the damage forecast an economic downturn of unprecedented scale, but those same institutions nonetheless predict gradual recovery over some years to decades, eventually to pre-crisis GDP and renewed growth. That irrepressible optimism is what buoys stock exchanges. The World Trade Organization estimates that global trade is poised to fall by between 13 and 32 percent in 2020, the worst crisis since the early 1930s, but evoking the 1930s seems also to promise a New Deal just over the horizon.
And yet, in the real world, entire industries are now confronting the same realities as sports franchises. Many shuttered retail storefronts and eateries will never reopen. Business-school models that augured success pre-2020 no longer apply in a semi-constant-pandemic world. And yet, disruption alone does not assure collapse. It may, however, incentivize repentance and reform.
There was another thing that I found increasingly difficult to bear as we settled into the crisis and that was the rapt remarks I heard both in conversations among friends and in print on the theme, “I saw a deer crossing the Champs–Elysées, a hummingbird was at my window, the sky has never been so blue, nor nature so pure, nor New York so beautiful as during the time of the coronavirus.”
I am as sensitive as the next guy to the sweetness of decarbonized air. I too notice myself experiencing moments of grace at the sight of my city slumbering under the sun, crystalline, abstract. And it goes without saying, but is just as well said, that I view the fight against climate change as one of the great emergencies of our time and consider climate change deniers, led by Donald Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, to be dangerously disingenuous at best, and close to criminal. But, as always, there are good ways and bad ways of putting things. And there was, in this particular way of admiring nature, an embarrassing combination of pious sentiment, bad instincts, and for anyone with a modicum of historical sensibility, echos that were regrettable, to say the least.
The litany begins with people’s suffering, the canters perching on the shoulders of the dead and the revived alike. Oozing goodness and contrition, they sing, reminding us that even before the pandemic they warned against the folly of a world that could not continue as it was, a world headed straight into a wall. They fob off on us, disguised as good medicine, old finger-pointing claptrap that they hope this time will stick. With restrained but cruel gloating, they hail the revenge of the real, or the natural, over the arrogance of man and his sins. The deviousness of these flagellants — trying their damnedest from their perch on the backs of the victims to scold the survivors and overwhelm them with remonstrances. The calls for a change no less than the streams of reproof and the invitations to rebirth echo the sermons France heard in 1940 asserting that the country had had too much fun; that it had reaped more than it had sown; that it had marched, said Andre Gide, blindfolded to defeat; and that it was time to turn everything around. But they also echo the words of the proponents of America First in the late 1930s. They too viewed the calamities befalling old Europe as the price to be paid for sins that had gone unpunished for too long.
In 2020 in any case both the French and the Americans found themselves in … a giant penitentiary … with Father Paneloux [in Camus’ La Peste] castigating his flock for their criminal indifference and intoning, “Calamity has come to you my brethren, and my brethren you deserved it.”
Nostra culpa. And finally, there was a foolish conceit: the idea that the virus is speaking to us; that it has a message to deliver; and that because nothing in this world happens without cause or intention, this particular virus, this coronavirus, this virus with spikes and a crown, this king of a virus, must be secretly invested, like a cunning ruse of Hegelian history, with a part of the spirit of the world, and thus with a mission to re-orchestrate the fanfare of all against the government, to function as an unsparing critic of failed globalization….
As if a virus could think, know, or intend anything, As if a virus was living.
From this dark providentialism, this punitive magical thinking, this viral catechism that turned our lockdown dwellings into so many purgatories and lazarettos, no one was exempt. And perhaps it is a general principle of pandemics, in the face of plague, of the implacable, in the face of the prospect of imminent and indiscriminate death, communities have an irrepressible tendency to bond together in fear and shared repentance and to offer up a promise to the virus god never to return to the old ways but rather to invent themselves anew.
Albert Bates's books on Goodreads (117 books)
Albert Bates has 117 books on his all shelf: The Virus in the Age of Madness by Bernard-Henri Lévy, Wild Bill: The True…
I would say if there is a lesson we can take from this pandemic, even as it grinds on, it is that a trillion dollars, three trillion, ten trillion, are not that big a get when the chips are down and you are confronted with far greater losses if you don’t spend for prevention. Even knowing that modern currency systems are fictions, as easily erased as written into existence, climate change has always been nickel and dimed by national legislatures since before the Kyoto Protocol. The mere billions pledged to the Green Climate Fund have amounted, so far, to only a jar full of paper IOUs. Some, like Bush’s and Obama’s, rather than be called in for payment, have been retrieved from the jar and burned.
This essay has already run overlong but bear with me a short while more. In his most recent GatesNote, Bill Gates runs some useful numbers:
You may have seen projections that, because economic activity has slowed down so much, the world will emit fewer greenhouse gases this year than last year. Although these projections are certainly true, their importance for the fight against climate change has been overstated.
Analysts disagree about how much emissions will go down this year, but the International Energy Agency puts the reduction around 8 percent. In real terms, that means we will release the equivalent of around 47 billion tons of carbon, instead of 51 billion.
That’s a meaningful reduction, and we would be in great shape if we could continue that rate of decrease every year. Unfortunately, we can’t.
Consider what it’s taking to achieve this 8 percent reduction. More than 600,000 people have died, and tens of millions are out of work. This April, car traffic was half what it was in April 2019. For months, air traffic virtually came to a halt.
To put it mildly, this is not a situation that anyone would want to continue. And yet we are still on track to emit 92 percent as much carbon as we did last year. What’s remarkable is not how much emissions will go down because of the pandemic, but how little.
In addition, these reductions are being achieved at, literally, the greatest possible cost. To see why, let’s look at what it costs to avert a single ton of greenhouse gases. This figure — the cost per ton of carbon averted — is a tool that economists use to compare the expense of different carbon-reduction strategies. For example, if you have a technology that costs $1 million, and using it lets you avert the release of 10,000 tons of gas, you’re paying $100 per ton of carbon averted. In reality, $100 per ton would still be pretty expensive. But many economists think this price reflects the true cost of greenhouse gases to society, and it also happens to be a memorable round number that makes a good benchmark for discussions.
Now let’s treat the shutdown caused by COVID-19 as if it were a carbon-reduction strategy. Has closing off major parts of the economy avoided emissions at anything close to $100 per ton?
No. In the United States, according to data from the Rhodium Group, it comes to between $3,200 and $5,400 per ton. In the European Union, it’s roughly the same amount. In other words, the shutdown is reducing emissions at a cost between 32 and 54 times the $100 per ton that economists consider a reasonable price.
If you want to understand the kind of damage that climate change will inflict, look at COVID-19 and spread the pain out over a much longer period of time. The loss of life and economic misery caused by this pandemic are on par with what will happen regularly if we do not eliminate the world’s carbon emissions.
Gates then goes on to show how, within a few decades, climate change will be costing 5 times the number of lives each year as Covid is expected to take in 2020. It is likely costing some of those lives this week in summer heatwaves where there is no electricity to run air conditioners because it was knocked out by the most recent of the record-breaking Atlantic hurricanes, El Derecho, or monsoonal rains. His three pieces of advice:
- Let science and innovation lead the way.
- Make sure solutions work for poor countries too.
- Start now.
Pandemics have always been a part of living on Earth. They have been with us since we began. They can never be eliminated, but they can be tamed. There will be times when you have to stay home and miss sports, concerts, eating out, and other gatherings, but it’s not all bad. These can be special moments if you choose to benefit from them.
The climate crisis is infinitely worse than any pandemic, and yet most people continue to ignore it and assume there is nothing they could do that would make a difference. We ignore the warnings. But human extinction is a much larger threat than losing some percent of the population from a virus. What a pandemic shows is that small changes by individuals — wearing masks, keeping physical distances, avoiding closed-in spaces full of strangers — add up to a large collective effort that can arrest the disease. Likewise, small steps, such as using solar power, making biochar for your garden, and not burning things if there is another way to “dispose” of them, can make a big difference to the climate.
Lévy asks if Covid is a
…triumph of the masters of the world, who see in this great confinement the English translation of le grand renfermement [the “great confinement”] Michel Foucault spoke of in his early speculations on the power systems of the future in madness and civilization, a rehearsal of sorts for a new way to arrest, oppress and detain a mass of people.
Was it a reign of terror akin to the one born after 1789 with its explosion of fake news, conspiracies, frantic flights, and, soon enough, dark uprisings borne of hopelessness?
Or perhaps it was the opposite: a reassuring sign that the world had changed; that at last life has been made sacred; that from now on, when we come to a choice between life and economics, life will win out.
I think in that last line Lévy sets up a false dichotomy. Economics is the system for öikos — managing one’s home. We need a systemic approach that is life-affirming and provides our needs. We need a new system that works equally well in a time of plague and climate emergency. We used to speak of universal basic income as a theory, but Covid made it real. Debt jubilee is a theory, but it may soon be widely applied. All the parts are there, laid out before us, we only need the quiet determination to take our time and assemble them now, with care and thoughtfulness, and craft a better world.
Too lazy to be ambitious, I let the world take care of itself. Ten days’ worth of rice in my bag; a bundle of twigs by the fireplace. Why chatter about delusion and enlightenment? Listening to the night rain on my roof, I sit comfortably, with both legs stretched out.
This is the last of multiple parts.
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