Our global civilization may be doubting its mastery of the Earth as we temporarily shutter many of our societies due to COVID-19. Among ecologists, a conversation focused on how the destruction of wildlife and habitat and the destabilization of ecosystems might be linked to our current pandemic. Some even claim – as ecologist Vijay Kolinjivadi recently wrote in uneven land — the coronavirus is a product of capitalism’s own making.
The head of the United Nations environmental program and other experts say the current pandemic is a warning sign from nature. They believe this could be the start of the spread of more infectious diseases.
This is nothing new, however. The history of the birth of our current environmental state goes back more than 12,000 years.
Are we the virus?
Following our recent retreat indoors, animals have begun to reclaim human-dominated spaces. Our stalled economy has improved air quality in major cities. The immediate effects of our societal contraction are striking.
This brought forth an eternal narrative and a fear, quickly dismissed, that humans are the real virus and that COVID-19 is Earth’s vaccine. However, people were right to point out that a small minority of actors – big business and governments – are responsible for the vast majority of ecological destruction and carbon emissions.
As we debate proposals for what the world should look like after the virus, we need to discuss the roots of what got us here. It will help us to change systemically, rather than on the surface.
Origin stories and the Anthropocene
We have changed the planet so much that it can be detected in the very crust of the Earth. This has led some to name our current era after our species, calling it the Anthropocene.
When did the Anthropocene begin? An often-suggested answer is the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, when some humans began to change the planet at a remarkable rate. This includes pumping out the first significant greenhouse gas emissions.
However, not all human beings have participated in this process. This is why some have argued for naming our era after the social and economic arrangements that created it. The development of capitalism is often singled out as the defining characteristic of our times.
But we need to look further back to discover the genesis of our current series of crises: environmental, inequality and domination, and epidemic disease affecting both ourselves and domestic animals, including COVID-19. They all have their roots in the first tilled soils.
Fertile soils (for diseases)
The Agricultural Revolution began about 12,000 years ago and triggered a cascading change in human-environment relationships among some peoples that has yet to end. The domestication of grain and livestock, on which this revolution is based, has created the population sizes and densities that are the basis of disease epidemics.
From these initial centers, the Agricultural Revolution arrived in the Americas (although it too had already begun here), carried and implemented by European settlers – with disastrous results.
It continues into the Amazon rainforest as the forest is cleared, logged and planted. Indigenous peoples are again at major risk of introduced diseases.
Society, not the species
Agriculture began shortly after the end of the last major ice age. The stable climatic conditions made planting cereals viable. Agriculture sprouted in several places around the world around the same time.
However, over the roughly 300,000 years of modern man’s existence, our current style of agricultural civilization accounts for no more than four percent of humanity’s time on the planet. This is the era that is taught to students in schools. But this is only one part of human history.
This story is the origin story of our culture. No wonder it’s so hard for us to think there are viable alternatives. The idea of the Anthropocene merges the very definition of our entire species with a unique way of life that itself has been a relatively recent development.
The vast majority of humanity’s time has been for us to experience in an entirely different way. Some indigenous peoples, from the Amazon to the Bay of Bengal, continue to live in some approximation of this different way of life to this day.
It is implicit in the idea of the Anthropocene not only that all of these societies are unimportant, but also, in a way, that they are not even truly human. It further gives a sense of inevitability to our present. It seems to say that our rampage of the planet is unfortunately just an unavoidable part of our nature. Sounds like “we are the virus” – doesn’t it?
Civilization and survival
Maybe we need a new setting and a new name for our current era instead of the Anthropocene. This could allow us to see alternative futures.
This does not mean that we have to dismantle our modern structures to live as hunter-gatherers. Nor does it mean that hunter-gatherers live without hardship, or that the rest of humanity has fallen out of favor, although climatic destabilization may eventually make current agricultural practices impossible.
There are many aspects and achievements of agricultural civilization such as modern medicine, internet and scientific advancements, that if we were to lose them it would diminish us. We rely on many of the most developed medical and logistics services during this pandemic.
Post-pandemic – and if we are to survive this geological age – we must re-establish mutually rewarding relationships with the Earth and with each other. There is perhaps no better way to do this than to look to successful societies, such as hunter-gatherer societies that have generally discouraged hierarchy and maintained lasting and flourishing relationships with the Earth.
Responses to the COVID-19 pandemic are refracting through inequality, private property, class structures and state power – all agricultural legacies. The temptation exists, for example, for states to tighten control over human and non-human populations.
These patterns have reproduced in crisis over the past 12,000 years, and there are disturbing signs of what is already happening around the world.
We must strongly resist this inclination. Rather, we must strive to use this moment, and our best civilizational legacies, in mitigating our worst, and in the service of just and sustainable cultures. In doing so, could we live not in an old way, but in a totally new way.