May 20th, 2020 by C. Goldberg in the Public Philosophy Journal
“Corona consciousness” (alternately, “COVID consciousness”) has permeated psychic and pragmatic domains globally, presenting new opportunities for, and challenges to, prospects of radical inclusivity and disability justice. On the one hand, “COVID consciousness” reflects ethics of “universal” care, comprehending the direct and indirect risks of individual and societal choices on those most vulnerable (specifically to COVID-19). On the other, it fails to fundamentally undermine dangerous and divisive discourses and biases pervading healthcare, community, and family settings. My discussion of this concept’s ethos began prior to the novel coronavirus’s emergence; yet I credit COVID-19 with bringing a particular constellation of relevant issues and possibilities to the forefront of the public imagination, ushering in a zeitgeist potentiating unprecedented (inter-)personal and collective responsibility. In this piece, I bring together diverse sources to explore sometimes-paradoxical approaches to, and motivations underlying, “flatten the curve” pandemic responses. This piece problematises appeals to the so-called “greater good” premised on ableist—and arguably eugenic—attitudes and practices that devalue the lives of, and in some cases literally sacrifice, people with disabilities (e.g., through rationing life-preserving resources and equipment).
As recently as early March, had somebody asked me how epidemics factored into my proposed interdisciplinary doctoral work on how people with non-obvious disabilities negotiate access within embodied interactions (including touch), I would likely have answered: “They don’t.” That was before the novel coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) began shifting sociality patterns around the globe. Now, the overlaps between the current pandemic and my research—which spans Critical Health, Madness/Mental Health, Sexuality, and Disability Studies—seem both critical and fraught. As I detail below, a zeitgeist-shifting “COVID consciousness” has permeated psychic and pragmatic domains, paradoxically promising both new opportunities for and challenges to radical inclusivity and disability justice prospects.
In recent months, local, national, and international responses to the highly contagious, often debilitating, and sometimes deadly COVID-19 have dominated the news, while landscapes of physical proximity and interpersonal contact have been radically reconfigured. Governments of diverse nations have severely restricted their populace’s bodies and proximal relations. Cultures and subcultures have drastically altered entrenched, seldom-questioned affiliation norms, including how members greet, spend time, and communicate with one other. Individuals have revised and, at times, altogether abandoned former habitual behaviours. “Routine” activities like going to work; shopping; exercising (indoors or outdoors); visiting relatives and friends; accessing para/medical services; going on dates (with strangers and established partners alike); and organising and attending rituals, gatherings, and events are increasingly conscientious and frequently digital. Negotiations of touch and other forms of intimate inter/activity face new challenges, imbued with life-or-death implications; outside of existing cohabitating relationships, physical contact has become not only less accessible but, in most circumstances, taboo—leading to widespread “skin hunger.”
It is indisputable that many have made substantial sacrifices—often at great personal and financial cost—to take recommended precautions to “help stop the spread” and “flatten the curve,” frequently in the name of protecting those more at risk than themselves of COVID-19 complications. Over the course of this pandemic, I have observed fewer and fewer non-immunocompromised individuals in my own circles justifying exposing themselves to COVID-19 (e.g., by engaging in unnecessary self-benefiting social activities)—a trend I have heard others echo. Initially blasé attitudes held by some—who reasoned that because they would likely survive if they got sick, they could afford to risk exposure to COVID-19—appear to have been replaced by concern about possible pre-symptomatic, symptomatic, and asymptomatic transmission to others. While not everybody is equally committed or able to follow “social distancing” (or “physical distancing”) practices to the same degree, or for the same reasons, there seems to be a general acceptance and promotion of the logic of following these guidelines.(1)
The care expressed and actualised by those seeking to prevent their own actions from jeopardising others’ health/lives in this pandemic has been remarkable in two ways: 1) because it emerged so seemingly suddenly surrounding COVID-19; and 2) because it revealed that our capacity to mobilise related resources and behavioural changes—which many denied was possible before COVID-19—evidently existed all along. The immunocompromised (whose greater risk of complications spans a range of illnesses, from COVID-19 to the common cold or flu) would always have benefited from others prioritising their “out of sight” vulnerabilities. Yet, now-mainstream imperatives, such as (potentially) sick individuals staying home from work/school/bars/etc. and/or wearing masks to prevent themselves from becoming contagious vectors, would have been considered exceptional—nay, extreme or paranoid—by most North Americans before COVID-19, and certainly lacked mass appeal.
In early April, during a Q&A following my presentation at the Society for Disability Studies conference, I coined the term “corona consciousness” (alternately, “COVID consciousness”) to describe the zeitgeist surrounding the nascent, highly contextual sense of (inter-)personal and collective responsibility ostensibly motivating responses to COVID-19 (Goldberg, 2020/04/05).(2) My discussion of factors underlying this concept’s ethos began prior to the novel coronavirus’s emergence; yet, I credit COVID-19 with bringing a particular constellation of relevant issues and possibilities to the forefront of the public imagination. For example, the minutiae of embodied interactions were rarely overtly addressed before COVID-19, making it difficult for those with non-normative access needs to request accommodations, especially in interpersonal situations (e.g., those with compromised immunity or joint issues negotiating greetings other than handshakes in formal settings without inciting awkwardness or offense). Now, customised modifications to previously-taken-for-granted interactions, including normalised handshake alternatives, are common. From mainstream media to social media, from storefront signs to Zoom meetings, people are sharing candid details of health-and-body-protecting and risk-minimising practices. Households and communities are conversing about what activities constitute (un)acceptable risk for their members. People are taking cues from “foreign” cultures (e.g., where sick people wearing masks out of consideration for others, or for other reasons, has already become normative) and sharing tips on negotiating preferred no-touch greetings, Do-It-Yourself (DIY) mask-making options, etc.
While the “horrifying global surge in domestic violence” has inspired local and international responses, few are accounting for the “touch-and-intimacy privilege” held by those currently residing with close others, as compared to those who live alone; with strangers/acquaintances; or in other settings where their only access to intimate contact is either screen-mediated or otherwise severely limited. As researchers point out, supportive social connections help prevent suicide, with suicidal thoughts and behaviors increasing with isolation and loneliness (Reger, Stanley, & Joiner, 2020). Along these lines, I am concerned about the implications of all-or-nothing “stop the spread” messaging(3) that makes no space for mitigating the fallout—including exacerbated mental health and addiction issues—of one-size-fits-all approaches to this crisis. The proliferation of “snitch lines” and legal sanctions for violations of COVID-19 distancing mandates elevates the possible consequences for individual defiance beyond social opprobrium, effectively forcing “underground” those whose non-compliance with single-issue “stay home” protocols may be justifiable for complex reasons, including competing access and survival needs.
Given the stakes, what are the costs of silencing the perspectives of those who may not be able or willing to physically distance to regulated standards for the duration of this pandemic (however long it lasts)? Moreover, what lessons might we borrow from communities and groups that have already tackled related questions and established “wise practices” (4) that we might adopt and/or adapt? For example, polyamorous communities(5) have designed functional alternatives to nuclear-family-based intimacy units, taking into consideration individual pod members’ comfort levels with different kinds of “risky” activity. BDSM practitioners have normalised conversations that enable societal defaults for embodied interactions to be replaced through negotiations based on involved parties’ needs and desires, employing risk-management strategies cognisant of community standards. “Harm reduction” workers, having learned from the failures of “abstinence-only” sex education and “just say no to drugs” campaigns, have devised more productive ways to work in communities where “zero tolerance” is simply unrealistic. And people with disabilities and chronic illnesses have long navigated different degrees of “self-isolation” and creatively constructed networks of care similar to those seemingly-spontaneously springing up now.(6)
“COVID consciousness” calls on everyone to depart from established “scripts” (Simon & Gagnon, 2003), in public and in private, in ways that could radically combat hegemonic ableism if extended. However, this collective consciousness is by no means cohesive; it is a split consciousness, containing but not reconciling divergent values and priorities. Permeating “caremongering” and other pandemic-inspired initiatives—which, on the whole, encourage “healthy” people to radically consider and act with others’ idiosyncratic needs in mind—is a COVID-19 exceptionalism that undermines the plausibility that related paradigm shifts will endure after the pandemic subsides. Amidst the rallying cries for all to do their part right now to support those in need is a general anticipation—an expectation—that doing so will (and should) enable and effect a future in which things return to “normal” (i.e., the pre-COVID-19 “status quo”) as soon as possible.
On the one hand, “COVID consciousness” reflects ethics of “universal” care, comprehending the direct and indirect risks of individual and societal choices on those most vulnerable (specifically to COVID-19). On the other, it fails to fundamentally challenge dangerous and divisive discourses and biases pervading healthcare, community, and family settings. For example, medical triaging policies can discriminate against people with disabilities, in some cases literally sacrificing them through rationing life-preserving resources and equipment (i.e., ventilators) in ways that prioritise non-disabled patients’ needs. Such ableist—and arguably eugenic—practices “based on faulty presumptions and stereotypes about living with disability” (Mykitiuk, 2020) are often justified by appeals to the so-called “greater good.”
On a more optimistic note, there is no reason that disability/social justice-oriented initiatives instigated under the banner of “curve-flattening” could not be maintained after COVID-19, both in spirit and practice, with renewed benefits. Government supports (such as universal basic incomes) could be reassessed, community-based care-for-all-who-need-it efforts continued, and platforms enabling remote access to previously analog-only employment and social environments sustained. By thus removing barriers prevalent before COVID-19, people with disabilities and impairments, as well as other constraints on full participation in different kinds of activities, could have unprecedented access to realms that were previously in(consistently)-accessible. Further, by leveraging new COVID-19-inspired templates for the explicit (re-)negotiating of physical interactions to encompass different access needs and preferences, we might expand notions of and possibilities for intimacy that stretch beyond what the majority feel most familiar and comfortable with, towards a “new normal” that explicitly includes those who were historically excluded.
How each of us will navigate the post-pandemic world remains to be seen, as does the degree to which the threads of COVID-19-era developments will be woven into our social and political fabrics. The question remains: once COVID-19 has disappeared from the headlines and faded(7) from our psyches, how can we remain conscious of our capacity to mobilise towards collective care and imbue our daily habits with the flexibility, communication, and concern with which we have approached this pandemic?(8) Moving forward, as government-mandated physical interaction restrictions ease and initial “lockdowns” end, the importance of our ongoing engagement in constructive dialogues around these issues—on individual, interpersonal, institutional, and community levels—intensifies.
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Fitzgerald, S. (2020, March). 6 ways people around the world say hello—without touching: From the Thai wai to the Zambian cup-and-clap, these no-contact salutes convey respect and welcome. National Geographic. Retrieved from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/2020/03/ways-people-around-world-say-hello-without-touching-coronavirus/
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Radtke, K. (2020, March 19). Op-art: What do we lose when we stop touching each other? New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/19/opinion/coronavirus-touching.html
Reger, M.A., Stanley, I. H., & Joiner, T. E. (2020, April 10). Suicide mortality and coronavirus disease 2019—A perfect storm? JAMA Psychiatry. Retrieved from https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapsychiatry/fullarticle/2764584
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Sheff, E. (2020, April 21). Polyamorous during the pandemic: Most of the advantages and disadvantages depend on living together or not. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/the-polyamorists-next-door/202004/polyamorous-during-the-pandemic
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Thoms, M. J. (2007) Leading an extraordinary life: Wise practices for an HIV prevention campaign with two-spirit men. Prepared for Two-Spirit People of the First Nations: Toronto. Retrieved from http://2spirits.com/PDFolder/Extraodinarylives.pdf
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- At least for now, there appears to be sufficient social and political pressure to yield compliance on a global scale, but how sustainable is this model? As Steve Joordens, University of Toronto psychology professor comments: “It’s easy to plan video chats and phone calls when we’re stuck at home, but once people see their loved ones again, the urge to come closer than two metres will be hard to overcome” (Loriggio, 2020, May 8).
- I thank those whose insights and suggestions informed the development of this piece. Society for Disability Studies “Broadening Bodyminds, Remaking Safe Spaces” session attendees and co-presenters took up Chair David Adams’s invitation to engage in fruitful post-session discussion on—in fellow presenter Rebecca Monteleone’s words—the “pushback against how medical authority has defined what kinds of lives are livable, what kind of bodyminds are acceptable and (allowable) in terms of receiving caring” and alternatives beyond traditional “social model” approaches. Stephanie Jenkins importantly asked what “non-physical touch” might look like for those unable, or possibly not wanting, to touch others during COVID-19 (and beyond), with a reminder of the many for whom hugging and hand-shaking (etc.) exacerbate chronic pain and who might therefore be relieved by reduced social pressure to engage in such common touching acts, while desiring more intimacy at a physical distance. I especially wish to acknowledge the contributions of early readers/listeners, including: Alexandra Rutherford, Jesse Ovadia, Jennifer Collins, Jordana Greenblatt, Leah Kesselman, Sandra Dyer-Ramezani, Sharoni Sibony, Susanne Pytela, Tal Davidson, and Wendy Heller; their encouragement and editorial comments greatly improved this text. I am also grateful to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) for supporting my research as a Canada Graduate Scholar.
- For example, on April 4, 2020, an emergency government alert text message ordered all Ontarians but essential workers “to stay home” unless “absolutely necessary to pick up groceries, prescriptions or go to a medical appointment” to prevent “devastating effects” including “endanger(ing) lives.”
- I thank Indigenous scholar Tracy Coates for introducing me to the term “wise practices.” J. Michael Thoms (2007) adopted this titular term in his 2007 report about the delivery of services to Two-Spirit individuals diagnosed with HIV/AIDS for the Canadian Aboriginal Aids Network (CAAN) in response to their concerns about using the more common term “best practices.” He explains that the former term “is more reflective of Two-Spirit ontology (worldview) and epistemology (ways of creating knowledge) embedded in (his) study.” The concept has since been popularised with credit to Thoms/CAAN in reference to “the interventions and protocols for violence and treating addictions that are more reflective of Aboriginal peoples’ ontology and epistemology” and, more generally, “progressive approaches First Nations, Métis, and Inuit communities use to address health and wellness concerns” (Wesley-Esquimaux & Snowball, 2010). Prior to its present usage in Indigenous contexts, the term was presented—also presented as a novel alternative to the more popular concept “best practices”—by O. L. Davis Jr., who described “wise practices” as always “situated thoroughly in their context” and “recognizable” by their common usage by “ordinary individuals” in “real, specific circumstances” in a 1997 article in the Journal of Curriculum and Supervision.
- Although, ironically, rather than offering alternatives models, some of North America’s premier polyamory advocates appear to be embracing monogamy in the face of this pandemic (summed up by the March 31, 2020 Savage Lovecast teaser: “Just when you thought you understood the world, Dan chats with open relationships guru Tristan Taormino, to tell you to CLOSE IT UP. Monogamy is where it’s at these days. Just for a while.”)
- As Susanne Pytela (personal communication, May 18, 2020) notes, the networks of care and communication developed as COVID-19 responses are influenced by Indigenous values and draw on the wisdom and experience of people with in/visible disabilities and chronic illnesses (e.g., those who pioneered the use of virtual working and communication tools), often without due credit. Templates for the now-global phenomenon of COVID-19 request/offer support groups organized by city/region are modeled on disability-justice-based care networks, such as groups common in chronic illness and disability online support networks. For example, one such “spoon sharing” group invites members to ask others for/about: “physical labour! (laundry, housework, moving stuff…)”; “emotional labour! (venting, sharing stories of marginalization because of disability, validating, listening…)”; rides; “online/community resources! (poems, articles, events, podcasts, movies, memes…)”; “health care providers! (doctors, specialists, bodyworkers, councillors, online & in-person support groups…)”; “food! (meals, meal prep, potlucks, delivery, company when eating…)”; etc.
- Hopefully, with as little traumatic residue as possible.
- Or, as disability justice advocate Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha frames it: “In two months or six months or a year when there’s a vaccine, will we just go back to the ableist normal? And all of these things we fought for will all the sudden be too difficult? Or is this an opportunity and an opening for there to be a sea change around us all really taking ableism seriously and remaking the world?”
C. GOLDBERG 2020 COMMENTS ON THIS SUBMISSION Craig Macphail May 21, 2020
The article was insightful and was successful in posing important questions about the impact of COVID-19 on current and potential future behaviours and viewpoints. As a compliant locked-down individual, I identified with the concept of “skin hunger” in our current zoom-mediated interactions. I have heard the phrase from progressives that “it is a shame to waste a crisis.” We are faced with an opportunity to channel the individual and institutional compassion generated by this crisis to change the way we treat individuals with obvious and non-obvious disabilities. With C Goldberg, I look forward to a “new normal” that is more inclusive.
The Coronavirus Is Rewriting Our Imaginations
What felt impossible has become thinkable. The spring of 2020 is suggestive of how much, and how quickly, we can change as a civilization.
By Kim Stanley RobinsonMay 1, 2020
The critic Raymond Williams once wrote that every historical period has its own “structure of feeling.” How everything seemed in the nineteen-sixties, the way the Victorians understood one another, the chivalry of the Middle Ages, the world view of Tang-dynasty China: each period, Williams thought, had a distinct way of organizing basic human emotions into an overarching cultural system. Each had its own way of experiencing being alive.
In mid-March, in a prior age, I spent a week rafting down the Grand Canyon. When I left for the trip, the United States was still beginning to grapple with the reality of the coronavirus pandemic. Italy was suffering; the N.B.A. had just suspended its season; Tom Hanks had been reported ill. When I hiked back up, on March 19th, it was into a different world. I’ve spent my life writing science-fiction novels that try to convey some of the strangeness of the future. But I was still shocked by how much had changed, and how quickly.
Schools and borders had closed; the governor of California, like governors elsewhere, had asked residents to begin staying at home. But the change that struck me seemed more abstract and internal. It was a change in the way we were looking at things, and it is still ongoing. The virus is rewriting our imaginations. What felt impossible has become thinkable. We’re getting a different sense of our place in history. We know we’re entering a new world, a new era. We seem to be learning our way into a new structure of feeling.
In many ways, we’ve been overdue for such a shift. In our feelings, we’ve been lagging behind the times in which we live. The Anthropocene, the Great Acceleration, the age of climate change—whatever you want to call it, we’ve been out of synch with the biosphere, wasting our children’s hopes for a normal life, burning our ecological capital as if it were disposable income, wrecking our one and only home in ways that soon will be beyond our descendants’ ability to repair. And yet we’ve been acting as though it were 2000, or 1990—as though the neoliberal arrangements built back then still made sense. We’ve been paralyzed, living in the world without feeling it.
Now, all of a sudden, we’re acting fast as a civilization. We’re trying, despite many obstacles, to flatten the curve—to avoid mass death. Doing this, we know that we’re living in a moment of historic importance. We realize that what we do now, well or badly, will be remembered later on. This sense of enacting history matters. For some of us, it partly compensates for the disruption of our lives.
Actually, we’ve already been living in a historic moment. For the past few decades, we’ve been called upon to act, and have been acting in a way that will be scrutinized by our descendants. Now we feel it. The shift has to do with the concentration and intensity of what’s happening. September 11th was a single day, and everyone felt the shock of it, but our daily habits didn’t shift, except at airports; the President even urged us to keep shopping. This crisis is different. It’s a biological threat, and it’s global. Everyone has to change together to deal with it. That’s really history.
It seems as though science has been mobilized to a dramatic new degree, but that impression is just another way in which we’re lagging behind. There are 7.8 billion people alive on this planet—a stupendous social and technological achievement that’s unnatural and unstable. It’s made possible by science, which has already been saving us. Now, though, when disaster strikes, we grasp the complexity of our civilization—we feel the reality, which is that the whole system is a technical improvisation that science keeps from crashing down.
On a personal level, most of us have accepted that we live in a scientific age. If you feel sick, you go to a doctor, who is really a scientist; that scientist tests you, then sometimes tells you to take a poison so that you can heal—and you take the poison. It’s on a societal level that we’ve been lagging. Today, in theory, everyone knows everything. We know that our accidental alteration of the atmosphere is leading us into a mass-extinction event, and that we need to move fast to dodge it. But we don’t act on what we know. We don’t want to change our habits. This knowing-but-not-acting is part of the old structure of feeling.
Now comes this disease that can kill anyone on the planet. It’s invisible; it spreads because of the way we move and congregate. Instantly, we’ve changed. As a society, we’re watching the statistics, following the recommendations, listening to the scientists. Do we believe in science? Go outside and you’ll see the proof that we do everywhere you look. We’re learning to trust our science as a society. That’s another part of the new structure of feeling.
Possibly, in a few months, we’ll return to some version of the old normal. But this spring won’t be forgotten. When later shocks strike global civilization, we’ll remember how we behaved this time, and how it worked. It’s not that the coronavirus is a dress rehearsal—it’s too deadly for that. But it is the first of many calamities that will likely unfold throughout this century. Now, when they come, we’ll be familiar with how they feel.
What shocks might be coming? Everyone knows everything. Remember when Cape Town almost ran out of water? It’s very likely that there will be more water shortages. And food shortages, electricity outages, devastating storms, droughts, floods. These are easy calls. They’re baked into the situation we’ve already created, in part by ignoring warnings that scientists have been issuing since the nineteen-sixties. Some shocks will be local, others regional, but many will be global, because, as this crisis shows, we are interconnected as a biosphere and a civilization.The New Yorker’s coronavirus news coverage and analysis are free for all readers.
Imagine what a food scare would do. Imagine a heat wave hot enough to kill anyone not in an air-conditioned space, then imagine power failures happening during such a heat wave. (The novel I’ve just finished begins with this scenario, so it scares me most of all.) Imagine pandemics deadlier than the coronavirus. These events, and others like them, are easier to imagine now than they were back in January, when they were the stuff of dystopian science fiction. But science fiction is the realism of our time. The sense that we are all now stuck in a science-fiction novel that we’re writing together—that’s another sign of the emerging structure of feeling.
Science-fiction writers don’t know anything more about the future than anyone else. Human history is too unpredictable; from this moment, we could descend into a mass-extinction event or rise into an age of general prosperity. Still, if you read science fiction, you may be a little less surprised by whatever does happen. Often, science fiction traces the ramifications of a single postulated change; readers co-create, judging the writers’ plausibility and ingenuity, interrogating their theories of history. Doing this repeatedly is a kind of training. It can help you feel more oriented in the history we’re making now. This radical spread of possibilities, good to bad, which creates such a profound disorientation; this tentative awareness of the emerging next stage—these are also new feelings in our time.
Memento mori: remember that you must die. Older people are sometimes better at keeping this in mind than younger people. Still, we’re all prone to forgetting death. It never seems quite real until the end, and even then it’s hard to believe. The reality of death is another thing we know about but don’t feel.
So this epidemic brings with it a sense of panic: we’re all going to die, yes, always true, but now perhaps this month! That’s different. Sometimes, when hiking in the Sierra, my friends and I get caught in a lightning storm, and, completely exposed to it, we hurry over the rocky highlands, watching lightning bolts crack out of nowhere and connect nearby, thunder exploding less than a second later. That gets your attention: death, all too possible! But to have that feeling in your ordinary, daily life, at home, stretched out over weeks—that’s too strange to hold on to. You partly get used to it, but not entirely. This mixture of dread and apprehension and normality is the sensation of plague on the loose. It could be part of our new structure of feeling, too.
Just as there are charismatic megafauna, there are charismatic mega-ideas. “Flatten the curve” could be one of them. Immediately, we get it. There’s an infectious, deadly plague that spreads easily, and, although we can’t avoid it entirely, we can try to avoid a big spike in infections, so that hospitals won’t be overwhelmed and fewer people will die. It makes sense, and it’s something all of us can help to do. When we do it—if we do it—it will be a civilizational achievement: a new thing that our scientific, educated, high-tech species is capable of doing. Knowing that we can act in concert when necessary is another thing that will change us.
People who study climate change talk about “the tragedy of the time horizon.” The tragedy is that we don’t care enough about those future people, our descendants, who will have to fix, or just survive on, the planet we’re now wrecking. We like to think that they’ll be richer and smarter than we are and so able to handle their own problems in their own time. But we’re creating problems that they’ll be unable to solve. You can’t fix extinctions, or ocean acidification, or melted permafrost, no matter how rich or smart you are. The fact that these problems will occur in the future lets us take a magical view of them. We go on exacerbating them, thinking—not that we think this, but the notion seems to underlie our thinking—that we will be dead before it gets too serious. The tragedy of the time horizon is often something we encounter, without knowing it, when we buy and sell. The market is wrong; the prices are too low. Our way of life has environmental costs that aren’t included in what we pay, and those costs will be borne by our descendents. We are operating a multigenerational Ponzi scheme.
And yet: “Flatten the curve.” We’re now confronting a miniature version of the tragedy of the time horizon. We’ve decided to sacrifice over these months so that, in the future, people won’t suffer as much as they would otherwise. In this case, the time horizon is so short that we are the future people. It’s harder to come to grips with the fact that we’re living in a long-term crisis that will not end in our lifetimes. But it’s meaningful to notice that, all together, we are capable of learning to extend our care further along the time horizon. Amid the tragedy and death, this is one source of pleasure. Even though our economic system ignores reality, we can act when we have to. At the very least, we are all freaking out together. To my mind, this new sense of solidarity is one of the few reassuring things to have happened in this century. If we can find it in this crisis, to save ourselves, then maybe we can find it in the big crisis, to save our children and theirs.
Margaret Thatcher said that “there is no such thing as society,” and Ronald Reagan said that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” These stupid slogans marked the turn away from the postwar period of reconstruction and underpin much of the bullshit of the past forty years.
We are individuals first, yes, just as bees are, but we exist in a larger social body. Society is not only real; it’s fundamental. We can’t live without it. And now we’re beginning to understand that this “we” includes many other creatures and societies in our biosphere and even in ourselves. Even as an individual, you are a biome, an ecosystem, much like a forest or a swamp or a coral reef. Your skin holds inside it all kinds of unlikely coöperations, and to survive you depend on any number of interspecies operations going on within you all at once. We are societies made of societies; there are nothing but societies. This is shocking news—it demands a whole new world view. And now, when those of us who are sheltering in place venture out and see everyone in masks, sharing looks with strangers is a different thing. It’s eye to eye, this knowledge that, although we are practicing social distancing as we need to, we want to be social—we not only want to be social, we’ve got to be social, if we are to survive. It’s a new feeling, this alienation and solidarity at once. It’s the reality of the social; it’s seeing the tangible existence of a society of strangers, all of whom depend on one another to survive. It’s as if the reality of citizenship has smacked us in the face.
As for government: it’s government that listens to science and responds by taking action to save us. Stop to ponder what is now obstructing the performance of that government. Who opposes it? Right now we’re hearing two statements being made. One, from the President and his circle: we have to save money even if it costs lives. The other, from the Centers for Disease Control and similar organizations: we have to save lives even if it costs money. Which is more important, money or lives? Money, of course! says capital and its spokespersons. Really? people reply, uncertainly. Seems like that’s maybe going too far? Even if it’s the common wisdom? Or was.
Some people can’t stay isolated and still do their jobs. If their jobs are important enough, they have to expose themselves to the disease. My younger son works in a grocery store and is now one of the front-line workers who keep civilization running.
My son is now my hero: this is a good feeling. I think the same of all the people still working now for the sake of the rest of us. If we all keep thinking this way, the new structure of feeling will be better than the one that’s dominated for the past forty years.
The neoliberal structure of feeling totters. What might a post-capitalist response to this crisis include? Maybe rent and debt relief; unemployment aid for all those laid off; government hiring for contact tracing and the manufacture of necessary health equipment; the world’s militaries used to support health care; the rapid construction of hospitals.
What about afterward, when this crisis recedes and the larger crisis looms? If the project of civilization—including science, economics, politics, and all the rest of it—were to bring all eight billion of us into a long-term balance with Earth’s biosphere, we could do it. By contrast, when the project of civilization is to create profit—which, by definition, goes to only a few—much of what we do is actively harmful to the long-term prospects of our species. Everyone knows everything. Right now pursuing profit as the ultimate goal of all our activities will lead to a mass-extinction event. Humanity might survive, but traumatized, interrupted, angry, ashamed, sad. A science-fiction story too painful to write, too obvious. It would be better to adapt to reality.
Economics is a system for optimizing resources, and, if it were trying to calculate ways to optimize a sustainable civilization in balance with the biosphere, it could be a helpful tool. When it’s used to optimize profit, however, it encourages us to live within a system of destructive falsehoods. We need a new political economy by which to make our calculations. Now, acutely, we feel that need.
It could happen, but it might not. There will be enormous pressure to forget this spring and go back to the old ways of experiencing life. And yet forgetting something this big never works. We’ll remember this even if we pretend not to. History is happening now, and it will have happened. So what will we do with that?
A structure of feeling is not a free-floating thing. It’s tightly coupled with its corresponding political economy. How we feel is shaped by what we value, and vice versa. Food, water, shelter, clothing, education, health care: maybe now we value these things more, along with the people whose work creates them. To survive the next century, we need to start valuing the planet more, too, since it’s our only home.
It will be hard to make these values durable. Valuing the right things and wanting to keep on valuing them—maybe that’s also part of our new structure of feeling. As is knowing how much work there is to be done. But the spring of 2020 is suggestive of how much, and how quickly, we can change. It’s like a bell ringing to start a race. Off we go—into a new time.
A Guide to the Coronavirus
- Twenty-four hours at the epicenter of the pandemic: nearly fifty New Yorker writers and photographers fanned out to document life in New York City on April 15th.
- Seattle leaders let scientists take the lead in responding to the coronavirus. New York leaders did not.
- Can survivors help cure the disease and rescue the economy?
- What the coronavirus has revealed about American medicine.
- Can we trace the spread of covid-19 and protect privacy at the same time?
- The coronavirus is likely to spread for more than a year before a vaccine is widely available.
- How to practice social distancing, from responding to a sick housemate to the pros and cons of ordering food.
- The long crusade of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the infectious-disease expert pinned between Donald Trump and the American people.
- What to read, watch, cook, and listen to under quarantine.
Kim Stanley Robinson is a science-fiction writer who lives in Davis, California. His next novel, “The Ministry for the Future,” will be published in October.