Adrian Ivakhiv: Pandemic politics, or what a disaster can do for us

Editor's note: This commentary is by Adrian Ivakhiv, who is a professor of Environmental Thought and Culture and a UVM Public Humanities Fellow at the University of Vermont.

The school at which I teach, UVM’s Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, recently undertook a strategic planning exercise that envisioned four different scenarios for how the world might look in 20 years. We settled on two main axes for distinguishing the scenarios: (1) scarcity versus abundance of resources, and (2) integration versus separation or atomization, where what's “integrated” is both society (less conflict-ridden, more egalitarian) and its relationship with the natural world (more biocentric in its sensibilities). The resultant four scenarios, named with a little levity, map against the axes like this:

The point of the exercise was to help the school prepare for pursuing its mission in each of the four quadrants. By definition, we are currently at the center of the diagram, so the task is to imagine how we will respond if the world moves in one or another of these four directions. 

We all know what's happened since then. With coronavirus taking its toll on our economies and everyday lives, and with local and national lockdowns being implemented to varying degrees, the result will include businesses closing, people losing work and not being paid, food becoming less available, anxieties and crime spiking, and the global economy contracting. How governments respond is a relevant variable, but at the very least the pandemic portends an overall shift leftward in the diagram. The question is whether we move into the “Rational Rations” scenario, dealing with the scarcity of resources reasonably, justly, and with minimal conflict, or into the “Handmaid's Tale” scenario, with, as Werner Herzog once put it, “every man for himself and God against all.” 

Disasters are never just disastrous; they are also an opportunity. The fairly robust literature on “disaster capitalism” documents the ways in which the shock of disasters (“natural” or not) has been taken advantage of to bring in regimes more favorable to corporate interests and their government lackeys. Naomi Klein, who coined the phrase “disaster capitalism,” has recently argued that we are now seeing its analogue, "coronavirus capitalism": 

In the somewhat mundane context of public education, schools and universities have moved quickly to require their employees to work and teach online. While that’s a good thing insofar as it allows students to continue with their studies, the sudden mandate for “onlining” education, as Anna Kornbluh argues, “threatens to trigger a breakneck paradigm shift with unforeseen ramifications. Shock doctrines make emergencies the new normal—they turn temporary exertions into permanent expectations.” 

Disaster environmentalism?

If disaster capitalists are poised to take advantage of coronavirus, “disaster socialists” like Klein see this as an opportunity to prove the ultimate superiority of a public-sector forward model of society. But the ones who are best poised to say “I told you so” may in fact be “disaster environmentalists”— climate doomers, "deep adaptationists" like Jem Bendell, Transition Town activists, Extinction Rebels, and some of the local economy advocates, bioregional radicals, and “Degrowthers” who believe we should all be preparing for large-scale societal collapse so that we can rebuild a more beautiful world when (not if) it comes. 

The connections between COVID-19 and ecology deserve consideration. Infectious diseases are spreading around the world much more rapidly than in the past. Globalization is an obvious cause of this: airplane flights alone averaged a whopping 40 million a year worldwide up to this point. But another is the increasing ubiquity of species-to-species spillovers brought about by human encroachment on the remaining areas where wild animals have managed to survive. All of that is exacerbated by loss of biodiversity and warming temperatures. China's wildlife markets have been a source of a few of the best known recent pandemics, but feeding a growing human population will never be free of such risks. 

In the spirit of a "disaster environmentalism" of a more intellectual kind, the public humanities center I coordinate, EcoCultureLab, is reaching out to academics at universities who had been preparing to mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day by some combination of public events — high-profile speakers, panels, teach-ins, green-ups, climate strikes, and the like — to see if we could organize a multi-institutional, even international, online and public Earth Week teach-in. We are calling it the EarthDay+50 Pandemonium Teach-In. The idea is to substitute regular classes — which by then should be wrapping up or petering out — with a week of talks, conversations, and deliberations about how the current pandemic presages a time of cascading global crises, and how we can guide those changes in a good direction — toward “Rational Rations” (if not its more abundant cousin, “Earth Charter”) rather than “Handmaid’s Tale.” 

For me, this is in part a reaction against the push for “business as usual” in these strange, new times. “Keeping calm and carrying on” works for some, but easily becomes an excuse for disaster capitalism: if you can't work normally, we'll have you work from home. (That your kids are suddenly there with you all day, “zooming” into their classes, and that you’ve just brought your mother-in-law home from her precarious seniors’ community, and that the fridge is getting empty, is all irrelevant.) We'll have you work harder to learn new tools that we can then require you to use when things have returned to “normal” (and if you don't, then someone else can fill your shoes). 

The other strategy is to stop and ask ourselves what’s really important. What do you need to do to protect your loved ones? Do you even know who your loved ones are? (How wide does that circle extend?) What work will keep you going in a world where business-as-usual has become an unaffordable luxury? When there's so much to do to be happy and safe, some “bullshit jobs,” as anthropologist David Graeber call them (no mincing words), might start to look expendable. 

Taking stock, for me, means asking: how can institutions of higher learning reach out to the communities we serve to help us transition into times of likely scarcity, in which the temptation for hoarding, closing borders, and “disaster capitalizing” — the temptation of the Handmaid’s Tale — will be all too palpable? How do we re-engineer our societies to preserve and enhance democracy, equality, and ecological integration when things get bad, as any good “disaster environmentalist” knows they will? That’s the challenge ahead of us, and COVID-19 is its messenger.

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