Conjunctural Insurrections – “COVID-19, the Anthropocene, and the Revolutionary ‘Stop’”

In a recent Guardian article, Peter Daszak, an expert on zoonosis (diseases spreading from non-humans to humans), argues we are entering an era of pandemics which will only end when we live in a more ecological way. He asserts that COVID-19, like Ebola, Zika, and even AIDS, started by humans coming into contact with a virus prevalent in wildlife. In previous eras this would have been a rare occurrence and posed far less of a threat, as the virus remained within small groups. However, the encroachment of development on areas of wildlife, alongside greater movements of people and things, has made for a lethal combination. In short, the Anthropocene “has changed everything”, says Daszak. And crucially, rather than being reactive to COVID with vaccines which offer too little too late, we need to fundamentally reassess our relationship with nature, reducing “the rampant consumption that drives deforestation and wildlife exploitation”. Only when we accept that human activity is what led to this, might we manage to move out of the pandemic era. In other words, the Anthropocene caused this, and we need to proactively deal with the Anthropocene.

Since COVID emerged I have been insisting on the pertinence of the Anthropocene to the crisis, not in such a specifically causal way as Daszak, but in the philosophical sense that like climate change, COVID knows no nation states. Despite huge disparities in how it affects different demographic groups, and their ability to safeguard themselves against it, COVID insists that we are all in this together. Furthermore, COVID brought us down a similar to path to that which an ecological crisis would. Things stopped. Humans consumed fewer resources and polluted the planet less. Nature returned to places from which it had been absent. Just for a moment, the Anthropocene was a little calmer.

Of course, calmness in the Anthropocene spells economic trauma, hence Boris Johnson’s predictable advocation to “build, build, build” and “eat out to help out” in the UK. These out-dated appeals to the citizen-consumer, with their post-war ethos and lack of environmental concern, are pitifully lacking in vision and imagination. History will prove them to be dangerously banal. We have a terrific opportunity in this moment to do something different, and any action will need to address the Anthropocene. Johnson’s decision to merge the Department for International Development with the Foreign Office, enabling us to promote “our culture” to developing parts of the world, is not only horrifically neo-colonialist, but also indicative of an ethos in which nation state reactions have become increasingly self-interested. But the pandemic era, like climate change, will unravel global society in unpredictable ways regardless of which nations have stock-piled the most vaccines. It is time to take degrowth seriously and go beyond “green neoliberalism” (see, e.g., here and here). Time to allow this momentary “stop” to be the revolutionary “emergency brake” that Walter Benjamin wrote of. In resisting exponential growth, degrowth seeks to escape the “iron cage of consumerism” as Tim Jackson (pleasingly re-framing Weber) describes it. And if we trust Daszak’s thinking, it is consumption of the world’s resources that just may have led to this pandemic in the first place.

Alison Hulme, Senior Lecturer, International Development, University of Northampton. [email protected]

For more on Antipode’s “Conjunctural Insurrections” series – an experiment to amplify voices often unheard and invisibilised in politics, daily life, and academic discourse – see