As a modern human given to the chaotic rhythm of capitalist society, my brain is not adjusted for isolation from work, errands, restaurants, shopping malls. Unmoored from these temporal emblems of our social experiment, I’m easily depressed.
But the physical world is full of lessons about dealing with the chronological nature of human perception. Some insects live only hours or a day, while a volcano hibernates until geologic time and forces dictate. One flickers out quickly, the other has waited out all of human civilization. Neither is on our time. They don’t have time to go to the gym — or they’ll never need to.
This can be comforting when faced with the magnitude of the problems we’ve created, like a global disease.
Natural systems, to be sure, have exhibited stress under the human enterprise for centuries in shifting migration patterns or going extinct or accelerating seismic activity. This shouldn’t be papered over. Biomes are collapsing. Living things large enough to see from space are withering, bleaching out.
But one common trait in the outside places my seven-year-old daughter Harper and I visited in the last week is resilience to the COVID-19 pandemic, which by contrast has left hardly an adult Homo sapiens in peace. If anything, the disease is giving the physical world that exists outside our structures an instant to breathe by loosening the cinch of the human economic hustle.
Certain carbon emissions are decreasing, in keeping with history — such declines have only so far come attached to an economic catastrophe.
Coronavirus, which could kill millions of people, should also not be downplayed. But its important to examine whether this shock to human health, economics, psychology, and politics affects the broader world around us. With the impact of the disease being realized, the ground didn’t shift more frequently and intensely, as it does when we explode chemicals into it to release its liquid fossils. Nonhuman life is not sequestering indoors. In fact, it seems a little more vibrant now that I’m forced to slow down and notice it.
It seems human systems, the ones we use to communicate and organize our societies, are uniquely sensitive to the disease.
Though she’s mostly unaware of the global economy, Harper is familiar with COVID-19. Her school is canceled for weeks. But she doesn’t think too much about it without a prompt. I remind her to wash her hands several times a day, especially when coming in or going out, which we can still do in Texas.
How does she feel about it, I ask her on a walk on a wet trail.
“A little bad and a little happy — that means medium.”
“Because coronavirus is not that bad, and I’m still happy that my family is taking care of me.”
“You have six weeks off school, right?”
“Yeah!” She runs off and stomps a puddle.
“Are you excited for that?”
“Yeah!” She fades off down the track.
Harper is unburdened by long-term thinking. She exists right now, as well as in an enviable neverland. If she has a complaint about time, it’s that she’ll never be eight. Or a teenager. The end of these six weeks does not exist. An hour is a day is a month.
But the reality of time is sparking in her. She’s understanding the concept of over. She’s asked me more than once about death. She knows she goes back to Washington Monday, where the pandemic is much worse. She knows to say she’ll miss me.
I sometimes wish we could avoid temporal thinking. But it seems that we can’t handle the world in the way wildlife or geology or a child does. So it’s important that we plan well and on a scale that spans all life.
Some have called this the “intentional economy,” a way of being and of government that anticipates shocks and prepares for them instead of leaving the world’s life to the jaws of unintended consequences. Ideally, it would ride on the notion that there are physical laws limiting human growth. It would tell us we’re not special, even if we’re probably the first to be the way we are. It would acknowledge that there will be species after us, more advanced ones who might look back and wish we hadn’t ruined everything. It would plan for those species and preserve what’s here for them.
The pandemic exposed flaws in our way of living. Climate change was already busy with this work. And the mass extinction and nuclear proliferation and Big Tech’s outpacing our rule-making capacity.
Wrestling natural resources from the world, converting them to poison, and pumping them back in has the elements biting back at us. We’re working from home now, scaling back our consumption, and that part of this calamity is not bad at all. It’s a great opportunity to listen, to make art, to be quiet, to go for a walk.
We’re trying to get back to the normal crush of daily life. When this is all over, we say, we’ll be back in planes, commuting hours to work, rehitched to the inexorable wagon of economic progress and human expansion. But none of us will be able to look back and say we’re incapable of slowing down.