Each crisis in our modern existence has a clear human component. Most of them are even almost fully man-made, such as the financial crisis, the migration crisis, trade wars and conflicts. But the coronavirus originated in the wilderness and took modern man by surprise. The virus, however, was not what caused the pandemic. Large-scale ecological destruction by humans most likely contributed to the rapid spread and deadliness of the virus. Will this crisis change the way we relate to nature?
Crises in modern societies are often man-made. Take, for example, military conflict, financial crises, trade wars. The corona crisis on the other hand, is neither solely caused by humans nor is it a purely “natural” phenomenon like famine or the climate crisis. The possibility of a sudden and swift emergence of a new, deadly virus in our modern, globally connected lives, was a risk that was barely acknowledged by most of us. The new virus has awakened the realization that humans are a part of a complex world, in which human and non-human life are connected. Furthermore, it has raised questions about how man relates to his natural surroundings. COVID-19 is a zoonotic virus, meaning it’s transferrable from animals to humans, putting into question how we relate to other, non-human life and, more broadly, how we as humans relate to natural ecosystems.
From the onset of the outbreak, the virus has not only exposed the differences and rivalries between countries but has especially shown which ideas are predominant in our consideration of the way humans relate to nature. The corona crisis has not only fueled discussion between political leaders, the pandemic has also been taken up as ammunition in the defense of several ecological stances, often in order to identify guilty parties. The pandemic is said to be a “warning of Mother Earth”. These interpretations comprise largely Western and modern views on nature, dividing the world into man versus nature, the moral division of nature as harmonious and good and humans as harmony-disrupting and wicked. Supposedly, mankind, not the virus, is the disease ravaging mother Earth, as is shown by the position that mankind is the cancer of the Earth in the second report by the Club of Rome. The Cartesian relationship between subject and object, between culture and nature are clearly highlighted in this. It gives humans a central role in life on Earth, and with that, the possibility to control this life. The corona crisis provides insight into the flaws of these apparent contradictions.Even before modern man, there was no harmonious natural order, the earth has always been an inhospitable place where live organisms are continuously exposed to disease, parasites and natural disasters. But modern man mostly considered himself to be separate from nature and romanticized living in harmony with it.
Karen Barad’s concept of intra-action offers an escape from this way of thinking about nature, which is failing us in the corona crisis. She defines intra-action as the mutual constitution of intertwined agencies. This means we should not just understand the corona crisis in terms of a corona virus, but as a phenomenon that has arisen between human and non-human actors and the virus itself. It’s unlikely that everyone on Earth will be exposed to the virus, but it’s a given that everyone will have to deal with the corona crisis, dividing responsibility among constitutive entities. Intra-action questions the artificial boundaries that characterize our thinking and our actions (subject-object, culture-nature). In an ecological system, each part is connected to the others by countless relationships, and these relationships define life, just as social contact between humans humanizes.
Barad’s concept is also in line with the Gaia hypothesis of James Lovelock, who, despite his ecological outlook, also broke with the environmental movement, due to his view that it invariably oversimplifies reality, putting all the blame on humans. He understood the earth to be a superorganism that we’re part of. This undermines micro-perspectives on the virus. The virus and its spread can be perceived as part of a complex system, just as much as humans can. Both the concept of intra-action as well as the Gaia hypothesis acknowledge humans as an integral part of a complex and dynamic system that humans cannot control but are (partly) responsible for. In this sense, this kind of thinking is reminiscent of metamodernism. It foregoes the modernist subject-object opposition, nor does it succumb to post-modernist relativism. It urges us to acknowledge the complexity of life on Earth and to take responsibility for it. The current pandemic makes it necessary to embrace this type of thinking.