More than sudden illness, what has been shocking is the speed with which power sheds the polite fictions of a stable democratic order. The logic of crisis always serves to excuse the deepening of control. The terrible irony is that a virus – a scientific quandary, questionably neither dead nor alive – has become the occasion for managing life itself.
But life cannot be contained or managed so easily. For each new technological ploy, there are the kids who defeat it. For each new zone of abandonment, there are those in revolt. For each measure of distance imposed, there are new forms of conviviality. Not to mention all those everyday acts of courage and compassion, as communities around the world care for themselves amid failing healthcare systems. Ensuring that the elderly are checked up on, that people have enough to eat, that there is still a communal fabric even as governments seek to tear it further – these are the small triumphs of decaying circumstances.
Power’s hold over us is equally demonstrated by emergent forms of social control and by the utter disregard with which they cast aside our lives. Our inability to survive outside their broken system is rapidly being confronted by our dwindling chances of surviving within it. To resist their control has become inseparable from the urgent need to care for one another. How to treat illness, how to care for the vulnerable, how to overcome isolation, how to reinvent presence, how to live with dignity and perhaps how to die with it. These are among the revolutionary questions of our times.
The stars are just visible. The clear cuts have ended and the forest ahead of you is thick and ancient. It seems to suck in the darkness like a deep breath, exhaling a wind filled with the sweet stink of pine warmed against granite. With every gust, the foliage of the weeping spruce shivers. Pinecones drop like dice. You stare back along the road, barely visible in the darkness—of such strange magnitude that it seems not even to have been built by humans but dropped maybe by some itinerant god who had no use for it. And you can only wonder at that obscure disaster: Did we ever really think we knew where we were going? That there was just this one path to get there?
But what of those birds that lay their eggs on bare earth? When you turn the moon is the color of ice melting into black soil, the horizon limned with it and you know that the cold, blue-fired liquid will sink into the tops of the mountains and into the forest’s many throats, channeled through branches and mycelia and finally into the million warm and ancient hearts sitting deep down in things. You know that the nightjars lay their eggs for love and love only, that without hope there is at least love in the darkness, that gamble against all odds that the eggs not be dashed apart by some passing behemoth.
And you can only cradle your lost cause for love, loving wild and desperate in the face of that determined destitution—loving as one can only love in free plummet to doom and freed maybe at last of doom in the only way possible: through loving. Loving organized. Loving aimed at that horizon, dead reckoning by the stars.
Emergency action would be unmistakeable. On the political right it might look like a Universal Basic Income; a very swift end to all fossil fuel subsidies; a lunar landing-scale investment in zero carbon technology; pushing for legal rights for nature in international negotiations; and hundreds of billions invested in new forests, rewilding and high-yield organic farming. More attractive to the left might be a four day week; sweeping tax reforms to incentivise clean tech and make fossil fuels history; climate reparations for the global south; nationalising and then investing hundreds of billions in clean, efficient, accessible and ubiquitous public transport; and guaranteed, subsidised retraining for everyone in fossil-fuel based jobs. These would represent a start. They’re old ideas.
After that we could look for new ones: a primary National Curriculum based on the permaculture principles; a moratorium on all moving-image advertising by for-profit companies; a lending library on every estate where you can borrow things you no longer need to own like tools, camping gear, private vehicles and barbecues; a ban on the private ownership of media outlets; a gradual, universal jubilee – the cancellation of all debts…
What they found was that the mice with very specific defects of mitochondrial energy production experienced profound deleterious effects from the level of the cell all the way through to the entire organism. Their organs, their axes, and the entire mouse failed to adapt to the insult of restraint stress if the right defect in energy production was introduced. Some were more deleterious than others, but the overall point stands: if you can’t produce energy under stress, whether it’s psychological or physical materialist in its nature, you fail to adapt down to the level of your lived biology.
In my speculations, though this hasn’t been shown to be the case in humans yet, there is no reason to suspect that our own responses to psychological stress aren’t mitigated in the same or similar ways, and modern life in bureaucratic, systematic civilizations is one long constant stressor of domination that strips people of their autonomy. I think on a near societal scale we are experiencing learned helplessness from chronic psychological stress, and the people who have successfully evaded state control to self-determine their circumstances not only have a desire to do so, they also have real, material, physiological advantages, if the story I’ve woven together makes sense.
The notion of the inexistence of man, that we are mere simulacrum of an alien mind, that our lives are but the tributary flow of a malevolent thought would in the tradition of religious iconoclasts be a foolish rebirth of ancient gnostic thought as if the world were the dramatic stage of some elder monstrosity, a demiurgic entity full of blind urges whose creation is a catastrophe – a kenosis, a vastation of immanent oblivion. But this would be wrong, a false estimation of ET’s work. No. He was no latter day Gnostic. His thought is closer to an alien incursion from the future, an artificial thought from some machinic world neither transcendent or parallel to our own, but rather our own world and thought known through an unknowing and non-knowledge, an immanent exploration of the Great Outdoors of our own forgotten reality. For it is us who are the fakes, the lost ones wandering in the maze of an illusory order of our own making. Long ago we built up and constructed this false order to hide from ourselves the very monstrosity of our own hideous life. We are the ones who created this counter-world, a utopia of pain and endless labyrinth of death based on our disgusting need to survive.
An ecological civilization would be based on the core principles that sustain living systems coexisting stably in natural ecologies. Insights into how ecologies self-organize offer a model for how we could organize human society in ways that could permit sustainable abundance. Organisms prosper when they develop multiple symbiotic relationships, wherein each party to a relationship both takes and gives reciprocally. In an ecology, energy flows are balanced and one species’ waste matter becomes nourishment for another. Entities within an ecology scale fractally, with microsystems existing as integral parts of larger systems to form a coherent whole. In a well-functioning ecosystem, each organism thrives by optimizing for its own existence within a network of relationships that enhances the common good. The inherent resilience caused by these dynamics means that—without human disruption—ecosystems can maintain their integrity for many thousands, and sometimes millions, of years.
In practice, transitioning to an ecological civilization would mean restructuring some of the fundamental institutions driving our current civilization to destruction. In place of an economy based on perpetual growth in GDP, it would institute one that emphasized quality of life, using alternative measures such as a Genuine Progress Indicator to gauge success. Economic systems would be based on respect for individual dignity and fairly rewarding each person’s contribution to the greater good, while ensuring that nutritional, housing, healthcare, and educational needs were fully met for everyone. Transnational corporations would be fundamentally reorganized and made accountable to the communities they purportedly serve, to optimize human and environmental wellbeing rather than shareholder profits. Locally owned cooperatives would become the default organizational structure. Food systems would be designed to emphasize local production using state-of-the-art agroecology practices in place of fossil fuel-based fertilizer and pesticides, while manufacturing would prioritize circular flows where efficient re-use of waste products is built into the process from the outset.
In an ecological civilization, the local community would be the basic building block of society. Face-to-face interaction would regain ascendance as a crucial part of human flourishing, and each community’s relationship with others would be based on principles of mutual respect, learning, and reciprocity. Technological innovation would still be encouraged, but would be prized for its effectiveness in enhancing the vitality of living systems rather than minting billionaires. The driving principle of enterprise would be that we are all interconnected in the web of life—and long-term human prosperity is therefore founded on a healthy Earth.