Imagining a Gaian Reality After the Virus

Imagining a Gaian Reality After the Virus

by Matthew Segall

What follows is a brief paper outlining a path forward for post-pandemic humanity. It attempts to integrate Marxist critiques of capitalism with the efforts of contemporary Whiteheadian philosophers to compose an alternative ecological civilization. 

Audio of this blog post.

A specter is haunting modern civilization—the specter of Gaia. All the powers of the global capitalist market have been entering into a holy alliance to exorcise this specter. The name “Gaia” is borrowed from the scientific hypothesis of James Lovelock, who himself borrowed it from author William Golding, who in turn borrowed it from Hesiod’s telling of ancient Greek cosmogony. Do not imagine an anthropomorphized goddess, “Mother Nature,” when you hear this term. Imagine instead a gigantic, even monstrous assemblage of coevolving lifeforms precariously perched upon a complex, self-organizing set of geochemical feedback loops necessary for maintaining the habitability of this planet. For several hundred years, this living Earth has been treated as a mere background to human activity, a storehouse of raw materials to be violently exploited, a passive stage upon which our technological progress could unfold indefinitely. But Gaia could not be dispelled by the industrial might or monetary magic of global capitalism. Gaia has only been further provoked by it. 

Despite the wishful thinking of capitalist economists, the market is not a “perpetual motion machine” insulated from the biophysical inevitabilities of entropy and extinction. Since the end of the last ice age 12,000 years ago, the human economy has always existed at the grace of the Earth’s ecology. Whether agricultural, industrial, or informational, our species has undertaken each new mode of production with tremendous Promethean creativity, but also with increasing ignorance of the geophysiological conditions making it all possible.

“Gaia’s intrusion,” as the philosopher Isabelle Stengers has referred to it, has always been inevitable, but until very recently, it was for the most part only decipherable scientifically through complex data sets and computer simulations of global temperature rise, biodiversity loss, and many other relatively abstract metrics detailing the fraying of its feedback loops. Timelines stretching to the end of this century warned of the dire consequences of failing to take bold action to curb greenhouse gas emissions and reverse other ecologically unsustainable practices. Insurance companies were beginning to feel uneasy about the increasing severity of droughts, wildfires, and hurricanes, but surely Gaia could wait for the market to adapt. 

With the rapid and virulent emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic (likely a spillover effect of habitat loss), the situation is just as it was before, only massively accelerated. After a decades-long trial period, planetary transformation is now no longer optional: “we do not have any choice, because [Gaia] will not wait.” 

What remained a specter only a few weeks ago—a barely perceptible threat safely hidden behind the noise and smog of business as usual—has now brought the entirety of modern human civilization to its knees. The immediate public health threat posed by the virus is potentially catastrophic on its own. And with most of the world’s human population unable to consume or produce at the ever-increasing rates required of a capitalist system, the economic fallout threatens to become even more severe. 

Marxist philosopher Fredric Jameson once said that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.” Jameson’s statement was borrowed from H. Bruce Franklin, whose original utterance was composed as a question: “What could [our species] create if [we] were able to envision the end of capitalism as not the end, but the beginning, of a human world?” With the old world now on the brink as humanity is brought to its knees by Gaia,—the for too long taken for granted ground beneath our feet,—our species has a fateful decision to make. Will we continue to pray to the God of the Market by imposing another round of what Naomi Klein has called “disaster capitalism,” or might we invoke an older god? 

To Marxist ears, the invocation of a god, especially one with the mythic residue of “Gaia,” resounds of ideology. Why leave our capitalist chains behind only to succumb to a new, or ancient, opiate of the masses? Worse, my narrative account of our current situation as the disruption of the human political economy due to the intrusion of a seemingly outside natural power appears to be a textbook case of the process Roland Barthes warned about more than half a century ago, whereby “the bourgeoisie transforms the reality of the world into an image of the world, History into Nature”; this, according to Barthes, is “the very principle of myth: it transforms history into nature.”

But Gaia has not come in any form recognized by the terms of the modern constitution, signed by Marxists and capitalists alike, which placed a metaphysical chasm between human society and physical nature: the historical realization of freedom on one side, mere matter to be mastered by it on the other. “If man is shaped by the environment,” Marx wrote, “his environment must be made human.” Even Marx’s dialectical materialism remains insensitive to Gaia’s non-modern mode of composition. Gaia is not “the environment,” not “Nature” as modern people have conceived of her. Gaia does not passively suffer our historical projects. Nor has Gaia come in the ancient form imagined by our ancestors. Gaia is not natural and not mythical. Gaia is a geohistorical hybrid, to use Bruno Latour’s favored definition. Latour asks us to face Gaia not as a transcendent mythical or immanent natural unifier, but as a call to return to concrete, earthbound existence as members of a Whiteheadian “democracy of fellow creatures.” Gaia is just as much a historical agent as we are, if not more so.

Finding ways to get along with the bizarre biological neighbors modernity has for several centuries prided itself on ignoring will not be easy, as the still unfolding COVID-19 crisis exemplifies. Human survival in this new/old Gaian reality will require reimagining our political, religious, scientific, and artistic forms. Our concept of “society” will need to be expanded to include non-humans. Time itself will need restorying: History has always been ending; myth endlessly beginning; and creation forever ongoing. We are not the rational animal capable of calculating profit and loss in advance of our exchanges. We are not lords of the land and owners of private property. We are coevolving creatures like all others, bound by a single atmosphere, of a kind with the bacteria that fertilize the soil, with the wheat and fruit trees, with the bees that pollinate their flowers, with all the other plants and animals. Becoming Gaian is not so much a matter of reinventing ourselves as “merely” biological organisms as of shedding our god-like Promethean ambitions, of learning to settle down here on the earth beneath the sky instead of setting sail once more, this time beyond all finite horizons, as if Mars, too, could be colonized and capitalized. Contrary to the dualisms of the modern world view, the capitalist economy cannot float above its material conditions like a perpetual motion machine. Contrary to Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, our species is not destined for space capitalism. All that is solid has not melted into air. Even the “cloud” that hosts our digital economy depends upon massive super-cooled server farms and undersea cables to power its invisible network. 

Marx and Engles could not have foreseen the specific condition—a viral pandemic—that would finally initiate the dialectical self-overcoming of capitalism. But they did predict that capitalism, by expanding the market over the entire surface of the globe and establishing connections everywhere, would at last compel each of us to face with sober senses our real conditions of life, and our true relations to others of our kind. Our conditions of life, and our shared vulnerability, have never been been more apparent than during this planetary quarantine. Millions of people will soon find themselves in need medical care, and billions more will need an economic lifeline. All humanity, despite our social distancing and our cultural diversity, must now unite against a common enemy. But who is this enemy? COVID-19? If we are no longer modern, we cannot so easily disentangle ourselves from this viral agent, as though “Nature” had raised a microscopic army against us. After all, maybe we are the virus. Maybe COVID-19 is a Gaian antibody. Nonsense: we, too, are Gaians. We, too, have a place on this planet, if only we would learn to inhabit it more humbly. 

What would it mean to be civilized in a humbler non-modern, or ecological way? Alfred North Whitehead was willing to consider that even some squirrels may be capable of it. For Whitehead, civilization implies conscious participation in the creative power of ideas—like freedom or love—to shape history. Whitehead is not an idealist, however. He is an organic realist. Ideas only have power when the material and historical conditions are ripe, when a particular habitat is capable of supporting their ingression.

Many moderns, Marx included, have too anthropocentric an idea of ideas. Ideas were already active in evolutionary processes long before conscious human beings emerged on the scene. Ideas are not just conjured up in human heads or typed into computers by human hands. Whitehead’s philosophy of organism is an invitation to consider the possibility that the idea of the Good participates in generating the light and warmth of the Sun no less than the nuclear reactions and electromagnetic radiation known to physicists, that the idea of Beauty is at work in the evolution of peacocks, butterflies, and roses and not just in Beethoven’s 9th or the Mona Lisa. Ideas don’t just shape history, they shape geohistory and indeed cosmic history.

Whitehead: “The basis of democracy is the common fact of value-experience, as constituting the essential nature of each pulsation of actuality. Everything has some value for itself, for others, and for the whole.” Every bacterium enriching the soil, every bumble bee making honey in the hive, every human laboring in the economy, every star spiraling in the galaxy has value for itself, for others, and for the whole. Nonhumans not only have value, they are agents of value creation.

What is value? Debates continue to rage among economists about the differences between use and exchange value, or between objective and subjective value, but ultimately Marx locates value in a social relation determined by the amount of labor time required to produce a commodity. So far so good. If the global quarantine has taught us anything, it’s that the value of the stock market is utterly dependent upon billions of workers showing up to their jobs every day. But the implication is that only humans create value by working on raw material or dead nature.

Is all value really produced by human labor alone? Is there nothing extra-human that supplies value? In Whitehead’s cosmos—and the Gaian reality we moderns are falling into—there is no more mere matter or dead nature, no inert or raw material to be appropriated by someone called Man. “We have no right,” Whitehead admonishes us, “to deface the value-experience which is the very essence of the universe.” Value is typically linked to agency. Moderns, whether Locke, Marx, or Hayek, have limited agency and thus value creation to human beings (or worse, as within capitalist social relations, value creation is even further delimited to those lucky enough to be owners of capital). 

Despite his recognition of metabolic rift, Marx was fully modern in his commitment to what Latour calls the “double task of emancipation and domination.” The emancipatory task was political: to end exploitation of humans by humans. The task of domination was techno-scientific: to become masters of nature. 

Gaia’s intrusion in the form of a viral pandemic is turning our lives upside down and inside out. Perhaps now, from the perspective it has granted us, we will come to see that we are in a crucial sense surrounded by the Earth, enclosed within it, trapped, earthbound. We cannot escape to a beyond, Musk and Bezos’ extra-terrestrial utopianism notwithstanding. 

We must re-think human freedom and human-earth relations as though Gaia mattered. Humans are not as free and teleological as moderns have imagined; nor is nature as dumb and deterministic. Marx said that the worst human architect is distinguished from the best honey bee by the fact that the former designs his building ideally before constructing it materially. Man has a plan. Bees, apparently, are simply automatons obeying blind instinct. But is this really how human or bee creativity works? Organic architect Christopher Alexander studied how medieval cathedrals were generated over generations in a purposeful but not centrally planned way. This is akin to the way insects build their nests, following a simple organizational patterning language out of which emerges enduring forms of beauty. Buildings that are designed and built in the way Marx imagined tend to be dead structures meant for money-making rather than living. Consciousness of the power of ideas does not mean mastery over ideas. Ideas possess us, purpose us; we participate in their power, co-workers and not free inventors.

Where to go from here? In place of deterministic teleology, we need processes of relational creativity. In place of individual competition and class hierarchy, democracy and social solidarity. In place of a Big Plan from on high, playful kin-making with the community of nonhuman beings we breath, kill, eat, love, and otherwise share this planet with. Instead of providential history, we must settle for what anthropologist James Clifford calls “big enough” stories that remain “ontologically unfinished” and “situated in zones of contact, struggle, and dialogue.”

We need new practices of aestheticization, new stories, new rituals (or perhaps we need to respectfully recover “old” practices, stories, and rituals) to help sensitize us to the values of nonhumans. Our survival depends on it. 

Becoming sensitive to the values of nonhumans doesn’t mean we don’t still have a hierarchy of values that in many cases puts humans at the top. As Whitehead says, “life is robbery.” But, he continues, “the robber needs justification.” What is the human, anyway? Are we one species among many? In an obvious sense, of course we are; and we ignore our dependence upon and embeddedness within wider ecological networks to our own peril. In another sense, we are not just another species. We have become, for better or worse, a planetary presence, a geological force. How are we to justify our presence on the Earth? What does ecological justice look like when the idea of justice is expanded beyond just human society? These are questions any civilization hoping to survive the next century is going to need to answer.

Human history is a geophysical event. Whether we date the history of this event to the emergence of symbolic consciousness 200,000 years ago, the Neolithic revolution 12,500 years ago, the capitalist revolution 500 years ago, the industrial revolution 250 years ago, the nuclear age 75 years ago, or the information age 30 years ago, it is clear that the Earth has by now at least entered a new phase of geohistorical development. Whether we call it the Anthropocene, the Capitalocene, the Plantationocene, the Chthulucene, the Entropocene, or the Ecozoic, diagnosing the metaphysical roots of the present ecological catastrophe is a necessary (though not sufficient) part of imagining and materializing a post-capitalist world.

Marx, of course, was not unaware of our profound connection to the Earth: “Nature is man’s inorganic body, that is to say, nature in so far as it is not the human body. Man lives from nature . . . and he must maintain a continuing dialogue with it if he is not to die. To say that man’s physical and mental life is linked to nature simply means that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature.” In Capital, he writes of labor as a process “by which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates, and controls the metabolism between himself and nature. He confronts the materials of nature as a force of nature.” I do not mean to downplay the extent to which Marx’s dialectical understanding of the human-earth relation goes a long way toward describing our new Gaian reality. But he still could not shake the all too modern tendency to treat Earth as dead and awaiting the value-creating power of human consciousness. So with Whitehead, I have argued that value is not just a human social construct or free creation of human labor or desire (modern thinkers as diverse as Locke, Marx, and Hayek agree on this) but a cosmological power from which our human values, and our human power, derives.

Bibliography

Neil Irwin, “One Simple Idea That Explains Why the Economy Is in Great Danger” in the New York Times, March 17th, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/17/upshot/coronavirus-economy-crisis-demand-shock.html?referringSource=articleShare

Sarah Zohdy, Tonia S. Schwartz, Jamie R. Oaks. “The Coevolution Effect as a Driver of Spillover.” Trends in Parasitology, 2019; 35 (6): 399 DOI: 10.1016/j.pt.2019.03.010

Isabelle Stengers, In Catastrophic Times, 50. https://meson.press/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/978-1-78542-010-8_In-Catastrophic-Times_Stengers.pdf

Fredric Jameson, “Future City,” New Left Review 21 (May/June 2003), 76. 

Franklin, “What are we to make of J.G. Ballard’s Apocalypse?”; https://www.jgballard.ca/criticism/ballard_apocalypse_1979.html; credit is due to Matthew Beaumont for pointing out Jameson’s sources (see “Imagining the End Times: Ideology, the Contemporary Disaster Movie, Contagion” in Zizek and Media Studies: A Reader (2014). 

Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine (2007)

Roland Barthes, “Myth Today,” in Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers (London: Vintage, 1993), 141, 129.

Bruno Latour, Facing Gaia (2017) and We Have Never Been Modern (1993)

Whitehead, Process and Reality and Modes of Thought

Karl Marx, “Estranged Labor” (1844). 

7 Comments

  1. Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
    As I foretold you, were all spirits and
    Are melted into air, into thin air:
    And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
    The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
    The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
    Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
    And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
    Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
    As dreams are made on, and our little life
    Is rounded with a sleep . . .

    I do hope that you are right; And that the insubstantiality, as well as unsustainably, of a rapacious capitalist system—“perpetually” snuffling-out one site after another, to dig deep holes, and to expose yet more commodities to scoop out of the earth and consume—will clearly be irrefutable in the face of a post-pandemic breakdown of economic systems; where excess, exploitation, and god-granted exceptionalism are slogans and not sins. But my flinty stone heart still doubts that the Cartesian duality that has animated the ghosts of our ingenuities, as well as our monstrous machines, for so long will be able to reframe our sensibilities definitely, even in the face of such unavoidable collapse. In a Latourean approach toward our very non-modern modernity, the crisis; the tipping point; the wake-up call; is and has been happening like an burning, orbital klaxon for decades—and yet still, old gods reign, while nature and culture are are encouraged to define themselves as separate mysteries, locked in a struggle for dominance.

    In any case, I still would like to be on the side of the (r)evolution. Thanks for this.

  2. I share your hope that the global plague of 2020 may inspire us to rethink our relationship to nature. Once we understand that we are part of nature, rather than apart from it and able to exploit it with impunity, then we can hope for patterns of behaviour that are less ruthlessly consumptive, as we realize that by consuming the Earth, we are consuming ourselves. But I don’t share your optimism that this is the crisis that will turn the tide. The consequences of the Covid-19 outbreak, as it wrecks an economy founded on capitalist expectations of infinite growth and simultaneously throws each individual into the realm of the personal, of family and friends, home and neighbourhood, do not need to reach beyond the world of the human. We are not called upon by this crisis to care for the soil, or the trees, or the squirrels as they count their young. In our efforts to fight the disease, we have dissected its genetic code, and we are frantically manipulating matter, indeed the very stuff of life, to control it — not to live symbiotically with it. Nor is this a bad thing, all considered.

    We can hope that this catastrophe, with its prolonged requirement for a communitarian mindset, may shake some from the complacency of isolationist individualism that underlies so much of capitalism and its rapacious excesses. This may happen because people are forced by circumstance to recognize that caring for oneself and caring for others are one and the same; or more personally, it may happen because people are brought closer together, paradoxically, by enforced isolation, and brought to understand this way “for whom the bell tolls.”

    You ask, “What is value?” Perhaps the pertinent quote from Whitehead is this: “For Goodness is a qualification belonging to the constitution of reality, which in any of its individual actualizations is better or worse” (Adventures of Ideas, p. 268). Each occasion simply evaluates “better or worse”; the Marxist definition of value, and most every other, is some complex, highly articulated expression of this primal valuation. As you suggest, this valuation of “better or worse” is not necessarily a selfish choice for the occasion, since the occasion is in interaction with, and in significant ways constituted by, every other occasion. But all life, from humans through squirrels down to the quasi-life of viruses, moves at each instant toward an immediate goal, based on a simple, inchoate, primitive opposition to be characterized as “better or worse.” This is, I think, for Whitehead the ultimate source of value.

  3. Some thoughts:

    The first is that whether we acknowledge it or not, we make up Gaia (or whatever we define Gaia as). I appreciate your acknowledging of dualism, and I wonder if any separation between humans and Gaia continues this severing. In that regard, we are not so much “becoming Gaia,” as we are “becoming aware of ourselves as Gaia”. Small difference maybe, but important I think. 

    Gaia is not then “waiting for the market to adapt,” or refusing to wait and bringing “civilization to its knees.” Rather, the markets and civilizations are also Gaia, the organs and essential networks and systems that allow Gaia to live in this particular form. Gaia is then (merely?) indoctrinated by a capitalist mentality, the economic fallout of which undermines Gaia’s own ability to survive, suffering from a maladaptive cosmology which has itself become a suicidal pathology. The god of the market in this regard is one archetype out of many Gaia must contend with I think. 

    Moving to Marx, I want to suggest a reason for Gaia’s depression, alienation, and suicidal tendencies. Marx writes: “The mode of production in material life determines the general character of the social, political, and spiritual processes of life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but the contrary, their social existence determines their consciousness.” 

    To explain that, the technological infrastructure and economic mode is characterized by very specific energy constraints conditioned by that infrastructure, tech, and economic mode, constraints which are themselves bureaucratized and made sacred by the wider society and culture it defines. This is why we get free market fundamentalists, a national security state more willing to fight to preserve “our way of life” than address the root issue generating violent opposition to that lifeway, and a counter climate change movement divorced from reality that ritualizes denial and promotes false consciousness: the economic mode is a survival technique, and has been made sacred. Anything that challenges it is heresy, and made taboo. 

    Not even realizing the economic mode is maladaptive will be enough to change society — only changing the economic mode will address the alienation and schizophrenic self-hatred driving Gaia towards psychological and physical collapse. 
    I love the characterization of Gaia as a geohistorical hybrid with concrete, earthbound existence, the nature of which reimagines and restories time itself. Dividing time up into past, present, and future similarly seems problematic, fractured into separate parts by the imposition of linear perspective (perhaps through written language?). 

    Instead, I appreciate a comment someone made to me once: “history is space through time; geography is time through space.” The nature of our place in spacetime is unique, and requires a depth of awareness to root ourselves and feel back into the whole that unites each point, reconceiving of the energy pathways and circumventing mediating institutions that we have made ourselves dependent on. 

    What I would like to bring up however, is the “enemy,” and perhaps relate it to civilization, which as you might have found by now, I think is an extremely problematic entity to fetishize. In the first place, my impression is that the depth of our rootedness into a spatial and temporal whole (“integral time?”) is perhaps severed through the choice/need to anchor ourselves into a sedentary lifestyle and impose our own egocentric values upon the wider bioregion. Whether this was done for necessity or convenience is nearly irrelevant — the effect is we no longer choose to follow migratory patterns or practice our discernment when it comes to wild species of plant, when we can domesticate them and intensify our “productivity” instead of moving to them. We are severed from the symbiotic whole and occupy a place outside of time and space. Gaia has dissociated due to an original trauma that egocentrism has wrought, before it evolves into tribal-centric, national-centric, anthropocentric forms of consciousness. That centrism is the basis of the autoimmunitary disease we are threatened by. As one person writes:

    “We had time to prepare for this pandemic at the state, local, and household level, even if the government was terribly lagging, but we squandered it because of widespread asystemic thinking: the inability to think about complex systems and their dynamics. We faltered because of our failure to consider risk in its full context, especially when dealing with coupled risk—when multiple things can go wrong together. We were hampered by our inability to think about second- and third-order effects and by our susceptibility to scientism—the false comfort of assuming that numbers and percentages give us a solid empirical basis. We failed to understand that complex systems defy simplistic reductionism. 
    https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2020/03/what-really-doomed-americas-coronavirus-response/608596/

    This is the basis of civilization I think, defined in terms of the enclosure of the city, which requires the importation of resources from “elsewhere,” and in doing so, cultivates a population defined by the nature/culture, wild/domestic, human/non-human divisions that severs them from the symbiotic whole. Urbanized human natural intelligences are neither developed nor integrated with other intelligences (perhaps I am speaking for myself), and so their is a deformation of the human, scaled up to deform Gaia. The logistics needed to maintain this social arrangement demands exploitation, intensification, and large-scale coordination which in turn tends towards authoritarianism, patriarchy, institutionalized violence, intense stratification, dependence on hypercomplex technology, and an economy characterized by extreme specialization and with it the total loss of autonomy as we outsource our basic survival functions to an impersonal mass we are separated from through long supply lines that function as concretizations of our globalized alienation. 

    There is a reason why every single civilization has collapsed: their thermoeconomic governance processes break down when resources are depleted and the stratified social hierarchy can no longer legitimate itself, creating so many grievances that people finally become conscious that the source of disorder becomes the social order itself. Gaia is, in a sense, thermoeconomic governance writ large, and the cosmions we call our civilizations and cities are in a sense, very much a virus, if we define them only by their effects. http://www.brontaylor.com/courses/pdf/MacDougall–HumansCancer.pdf
    If nonhumans not only have value, but are agents of value creation, it may be the case that civilizations, cities, and the economic infrastructure and mode of production is, from their eyes, without value, an enemy of value, the antithesis of value. That is, our civilization is worthless. More than worthless, it is an existential threat to the well being of the nonhuman and human alike. It is an enemy to life. 

    But it is hard to put the desires of a nonhuman over the desires of a human. And we should remember just how easily authoritarians are so willing and able to dehumanize those with desires that do not conform to the sacred ideals they are willing to sacrifice everything for. The conversation these last days of risking millions of lives to stabilize markets is only the most recent demonstration of inhumanity that our sense of “value” has afforded. 

    To end, I am not sure civilization should attempt to justify itself so that Gaia feels better good. To do so might be simply to normalize what is unjustifiable. I think, Matt, your willingness to focus on “value” is core, but I think any answer will be limited and problematic. 

    Value, justification, and answers are all going to be different depending on our places in spacetime, and how deep we are rooted to the symbiotic whole. What we should cultivate is a dialectical process in which those competing perspectives can be brought into compassionate dialogue that can be sustained and nurtured, and where any common ground these perspectives find in doing so can become honored and supported as the new infrastructure of the ecozoic era. 

    I agree diagnosing the metaphysical roots of catastrophe is necessary to materialize a post-capitalist world, one that is self-aware of how to effectively metabolize energy into something of value. Those outside of those human arrangements commonly called civilizations have does this sustainably. I do disagree with you when you say value is not a desire however, but perhaps can compromise by saying value is a cosmological desire that draws Gaia to actualize a form worth becoming, that gives Gaia the power to integrate subject-with-desire and object-of-desire. 

    In that regard, my impression is we are responsible for considering the lifeways we want to make permanent (acknowledging their necessary impermanence), and work to habituate these. Our urban lifestyles are the greatest threat to life on earth. If we don’t acknowledge that, the suicidal effect accompanying a complete psychological and social collapse will come, and what ever left after will be so impoverished it may be hardly recognizable as the divinity it was once declared to be. 

    Thanks for the thought provoking essay~!

    TLDR: yes, the pandemic is awakening to the injustices of our political economy. Because the political economy generates those injustices, including the very causal processes that produce pandemics. Because political economy is, at its essence, grounded in injustice: settler, colonial, extractive, instrumental, egocentric processes that commodify life into civilized human defined value (out of touch with the symbiotic whole). And the hubris we approach value-making with (fallacious misplaced concreteness) comes back to us in the form of a pandemic. 

    1. I don’t have the patience to rewrite everything, but I’ll just share the highlights. Thanks for this insightful and important reply.

      1) Yes, humans and even capitalism are certainly part of Gaia. There is no dualism. And yet, there is a metabolic rift that, because of our species’ planetization, threatens to unravel many of of the feedback loops that keep the Earth community viable. I say Gaia “intrudes” not into the material-semiotic conditions of capitalism (since these conditions *are* also part of Gaia), but into the false consciousness that had led capitalist societies to imagine that their economy existed in a protected bubble floating above these conditions. The question of human/earth duality is right at the heart of the ongoing polemics between metabolic rift theorists (e.g., John Bellamy Foster) and world-ecology theorists (e.g., Jason Moore) (see https://footnotes2plato.com/2016/06/17/the-ecology-of-capitalism/).

      2) I am aware that “civilization” has more often than not been used as an excuse for barbarism. And you may be right that “agrologistics” (Tim Morton) and sedentary lifestyles may be at the root of our problem. But short of a truly massive human die off, I do not see how we can return to a nomadic existence. I believe an ecological civilization is possible, that technology can be miniaturized and agroecology can be regenerative of planetary life systems, rather than extractive.

      3) I did not mean to imply that value is not related to desire. I just meant value is not merely about *human* desire. Nonhuman value is indeed akin to a cosmic eros.

      1. Regarding 2), I don’t think that a human die-off is necessary to return to nomadic existence. How many refugees will be displaced in the upcoming years? One can imagine ecologizing cities in ways where food is available for passers by, whether that implies turning golden gate park into a food forest, or ensuring there is a ratio of square footage for urban farms per capita, or if people break up concrete and plant habitat, small scale horticulture, etc. Even providing co-ops or centers where resources are available to be shared can institutionalize principles, rather than necessitate wage-slavery. Greening the cities in ways that allows people the equivalent might be helpful, along with rewilding 50-70% of land and encouraging subsistence…all of these are pathways to move people towards the “other” side of the domestication spectrum, even if they only go so far. And of course, this would not be immediate, but transitioning over however many years/generations.

        I am skeptical of an ecological civilization, but I do believe the attempt to do so will soften the collapse, even if it cannot sustain itself ultimately. Indeed, my point above is basically this: civilization represents our highest ideal at the moment, because our imaginations are constrained by the infrastructure and bureaucratizations of the economic mode that we currently maintain the same image of the good life, and just leave out all of the bad stuff that we end up repressing. I’m concerned an “ecocivilization” is impossible, and just greenwashing what we already have, and projecting utopianism that ends up becoming dystopian very quickly. I always find it so interesting that while activists promote indigenous groups as models, when it comes to truly implementing the models, people don’t actually think those are viable. My guess it is less about viability and more about convenience. People want electricity, computers, heat, air conditioning, and running water, but don’t want to take responsibility for the mining, energy, labor, complex supply lines, and technocrats that will be needed to ensure those services are maintained, which in turn creates the same non eco-civilization we live in today. My two cents at least.

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