What can the theory and philosophy of climate change teach us about COVID-19?

Aug 24, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic shares a number of structural similarities with the great environmental crises that define our time—climate change and biodiversity loss—inviting a slew of reasoned comparisons between planetary disasters. In March, the French philosopher Bruno Latour published a brief essay with the English title “Is This a Dress Rehearsal?”, arguing that the pandemic makes abundantly clear the conditions and exercise of state power needed to save human life on earth, not only from the virus but from the impending ecological collapse. Other voices have echoed this sentiment, with policy and infrastructure imperatives attached. In July, the New York Times hosted a panel debate around the question, “Has Covid-19 created a blueprint for combating climate change?” Such titular questions register a hard-headed human optimism: we long for some silver-lining to our newly reduced circumstances, some indication that we will leave the COVID era with a door-prize that might arm us for the battles to come.

The flavor of optimism that prevails during COVID-19, in fact, feels familiar from the rhetoric of climate crisis that preceded it: it’s a technological optimism grounded in the enduring hope that our societies will innovate a way out of lockdown and mass death through efficient bureaucracy and lightning-fast advances in science and design. As we wait on a viable vaccine, we hope to find ourselves living out that familiar narrative arc, whereby an imminent apocalypse intensifies human ingenuity and inevitably produces a cure for what ails us.

But the pandemic also resists neat and satisfying storytelling in much the same way as climate change. Like other environmental crises, COVID-19 poses not just a technological and scientific problem, but a challenge to the basic concepts that we use to represent the world and our place in it as human individuals. These challenges aren’t new: environmental thought has now spent decades exploring the demands climate change poses to human thought, ethics, and narratives. After all, climate change is not the simply next crisis after the pandemic, but also the already on-going crisis that precedes and predicts the realities of life in 2020. Climate change not only the is the performance for which we are currently setting the stage, but also the dress rehearsal and the blueprint that should have prepared us, in some way, for COVID-19.

So what can recent environmental thought illuminate about the predicament we find ourselves in in the coronavirus era? First and foremost, environmental humanists and scientists have long noted that climate change occurs at scales that are difficult or impossible to represent. We have trouble feeling the urgency of climate change because we cannot directly describe the relationship between our day to day actions and experiences and the fate of the human species as a whole. When I decide to purchase and discard a plastic bottle of water, I contribute to the environmental crisis by raising the demand for petroleum-based plastic products and by creating some amount of plastic pollution. But the effects of my individual action are so insignificantly small as to be virtually meaningless. It is at the scale of a vast collectivity—the 7 billion members of the human species—that such actions actually alter and destroy the conditions that support life on earth. 

This incommensurability of scales—the unbridgeable gulf between the individual and the species—speaks to the strange status of personal responsibility during the pandemic as well. Much as we might like to trace the virus’s deadly spread back to the actions of particular, irresponsible individuals, we cannot explain the mass death and suffering of these times by villainizing individual decision-making. Our failure to contain the virus is not about that person in the elevator whose mask does not cover his nose—it’s about the structure of our societies, our shared values, and the web of planetary interconnection in which we operate. But knowing that the pandemic implicates the species more than the individual is of little use to me when I must decide whether or not to visit the store today. Both crises—climatological and epidemiological—require an ethics and a politics that are not grounded in the import of personal actions.

In the past decade, scholarship in the emerging environmental humanities has agonized over how to conceive of the human species as itself an agent whose actions have planetary consequences. At the same time, even as we talk about species-level effects, the radical inequalities of human societies demand that we acknowledge the uneven distribution of both the causes and effects of environmental crisis. The species does not act unilaterally or speak with one voice. Likewise, COVID-19 forces us to recognize both our implication in the human species as a whole, and the heterogeneity that prevents ever positing the species as a monolithic entity. Though we often discuss the progress of the pandemic through statistics linked to individual states and smaller-scale communities—infection rates, total deaths, test positivity, etc.—the very advent of the pandemic forces us to speak about species identity. The virus’s spread registers aspects of our existence as a species: our interconnection with one another, our impingement on various ecological systems, our technological capacities, and most importantly, our biological vulnerabilities. We are all human and mortal, and it is this fact that makes us susceptible to the virus. But at the same time, COVID-19 has taught us that even though the risk adheres to every member of the species, it is not evenly distributed. It falls most heavily on those whose labor puts them in harm’s way, on those who have reduced access to health care or are otherwise structurally disadvantaged by their positions within racial and ethnic hierarchies, on those whom the state fails to extend all the resources and protections at its disposal. Like climate change, the virus is the crisis from which wealth and privilege both do and do not defend us.

The story of the pandemic is also not one in which humans are the only relevant characters. Just as environmental crises force us to recognize our imbrication in non-human processes and systems—our dependence on these systems for our very survival—the pandemic is a multispecies encounter. It emerged out of the wet markets of Wuhan where animal bodies are sold for human consumption. Reflecting these zoonotic origins, we share our vulnerability to the virus with a litany of other mammals. Our inability to cheat death by COVID should deflate our sense of human exceptionalism, re-emphasizing that we are also animals. More radically, the pandemic runs on infection, the process by which our very bodies are permeated by other forms of life—forms of life so alien that, as viral microbes, they hover on the boundary between life and nonlife. The pandemic thus enforces, like climate change, an occasion to rethink our habitual anthropocentrism, the persistent illusion that human beings stand above and apart from the rest of the planet, its environments and inhabitants.

Both the pandemic and climate change have been framed in various environmentalist discourses as comeuppance for our failures to live rightly, and indeed both crises arise from and are catalyzed by our unsustainable relationship to the planetary systems on which we depend. The same systems of relentless expansion that demand we burn every last deposit of fossilized carbon out of the earth’s crust also make it possible for the virus to spread out of control, and seemingly prevent us from pursuing the slow, hyper-localized forms of life that would enable us to contain it. Both the virus and the climate crisis are thus both paradoxically natural and unnatural—‘natural’ feedback generated by our ‘unnaturally’ damaged relations with the nonhuman environment. As such, both present the realization that environmental thought has reiterated for decades: that the very category of the natural, or even of the ‘environment,’ is a fiction that human logic deploys in order to enforce our own distinction from and superiority to everything that is not human. Our condition during this pandemic and under the shadow of climate change cannot be described as a distortion of the natural order. There is no eternal balance that we can somehow put right. And our decisions about how we respond to these crises should not be guided by a vision of the natural order as the highest good—at least, not without the recognition that declaring something to be ‘natural’ is always a politically motivated act.

For most of us though, the very question of what actions we might take, our sense of personal agency, has been strongly diluted during the pandemic in a way that echoes our feeling of a diminished agency under the shadow of climate change. The scale problem that I have outlined above contributes to this uneasy feeling, but two other factors—temporality and visibility—substantially intensify it. In the empty, boring time of quarantine and lockdown, we orient ourselves toward a future in which the pandemic will have been successfully vanquished. Many of us recognize a need to sacrifice the present in order to save the future, a mini-version of the calls for intergenerational justice made by climate activists who recognize the need to share the planet’s life-support resources not only amongst currently living humans but also with those who have yet to be born. Social media memes tell Americans to wear masks in August so that children can trick or treat in October. But these calls to control the virus elide the very real sense in which the pandemic is a catastrophe that has already occurred. We passed the threshold for containing the virus months ago; now, we can only find ways to live with it. The temporality of the virus thus resembles the temporality of climate change: always framed as a problem that will be solved at a future date, when, in reality, the moment of crisis is already far in the past, concurrent with the invention of the steam engine or the rise of global agriculture. 

This feeling of living with a catastrophe that is already well underway but has not yet happened to us contributes to the general invisibility of the crisis, a final quality that it shares with the ongoing environmental collapse. Once again, this invisibility is unequally distributed across class and geographic divisions. From my vantage point, sheltering in place in a high-rise apartment building in Doha, the virus has a numbing intangibility in my day to day life, at odds with my rational knowledge that infection has spread widely amongst Qatar’s migrant populations, and that worldwide death totals creep closer to a million with each passing day. The literary critic Rob Nixon draws a vital distinction between the spectacular violence that animates both news cycles and popular fictions and the slow violence that is the common outcome of environmental disaster—the violence of pollution, contamination, rising oceans, desertification, drought, etc. We know such processes have tangible effects on both human life and the ecosystems that support it. But economic and geographical privilege—as well as the hierarchies of race and nationality that support them—allow many of us to live secure in the illusion that these violences take place in a perpetual elsewhere and elsewhen, rather than in our own here and now. For the moment, we treat the violence of environmental crisis as an externality—in much the same way that the lives of essential workers have been treated as an externality to the health of the global economy. 

All this is to say that perhaps, from the perspective of contemporary environmental thought, our inability to control the virus or to meaningfully enact the kinds of systemic changes that this moment demands should not surprise anyone. We fail to control the virus because we haven’t yet figured out how to think about crises that implicate our species in complex systems of human and nonhuman agency, that take place at geographic and temporal scales that are ill-suited to human attention, and that exploit the inherent inequalities in our rubrics for valuing life. When we have fully normalized life with COVID-19, our new viral companion, we will still be dwelling under the shadow of environmental collapse. Now is the appropriate moment to ask what aspects of our climate predicament have been underlined by the events of 2020, to jettison our belief that human exceptionalism and technological prowess will win the day, and to begin the hard work of adaptation and revaluation that climate crisis necessitates.


Article by Victoria Googasian, Assistant Professor of American Literature at Georgetown University - Qatar


For Further Reading:

Ghosh, Amitav. The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. Chicago UP, 2016.

Morton, Timothy. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. University of Minnesota Press, 2013.

Rob Nixon. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Harvard UP, 2011.

Dipesh Chakrabarty. "The Climate of History: Four Theses." Critical Inquiry 35.2 (Winter 2009), 197-222.

Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke UP, 2016.

Latour, Bruno. "Is This a Dress Rehearsal?" Critical Inquiry: In The Moment. (Blog Post). March 10, 2020. https://critinq.wordpress.com/2020/03/26/is-this-a-dress-rehearsal/

"A Rescue Plan for the Planet?" The New York Times. July 10, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/10/climate/netting-zero-debate.html?searchResultPosition=4 


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