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It’s the small things: how viral non-life may teach us a lesson in living

Espen Malling
Mar 24 · 7 min read
The harbinger of chaos and breakdown is also a signal pointing to an opportunity for creativity. In the experience of collapse, humanity has now more clearly received an invitation to step into a role as humble and always adapting participants in a deeply complex world. (Photo by the author: Demonio, unknown artist, 18th century // Museo Nacional de Esculturas)

The amount of disruption associated with the 2020 pandemic outbreak caused by the virus SARS-CoV-2 is immense.

Individuals, families, and entire societies currently find themselves in precarious situations shaped by both direct and derived effects of the virus, and the uncertainty of how it will all develop, even day to day, adds to the potential trauma of these relatively rare circumstances.

But specifics aside, the appearance of the outbreak, the global scale of it, and some aspects of the general societal response to the situation are, at least in part, unsurprising. One of the deeper stories that can be told about our current civilizational setup and its trajectory helps us see why this is so. This deeper story is one that makes it possible to at once acknowledge the catastrophic nature of the corona crisis and how some of its dynamics may play a part in facilitating and nurturing the manifestation of a hopeful future vision.

While discussions concerning, for example, particular measures for suppressing or mitigating the virus outbreak are, of course, crucial in their own right, this is not what the deeper story focuses on. Instead, it goes a step further and incorporates the particular dynamics of a situation such as this into a much broader narrative about what we humans are and potentially can be to each other and to the planet at large. In my view, our current predicament seems to create a particularly meaningful context for engaging in also that kind of more general and, arguably, necessary discussion.

I currently assume the following characteristics and dynamics to be core elements of the deep story:

  1. Based essentially on reductionist and separation-based worldviews, the dominant human system — i.e. modern “westernized” civilization — and its rapid growth and high, centralized complexity creates and strengthens a number of global “risks”, including, but not limited to climate breakdown, economic collapse, runaway tech, and, well, pandemics.
  2. Given those same core characteristics, the dominant human system is extremely fragile in the face of the concrete manifestation of such risks.
  3. As individuals and communities, we’re fundamentally locked into and dependent on said system for the fulfilment of basic human needs, thus constantly perpetuating its essential modus operandi (even if realizing 1. and 2.).

Besides the fundamentally damaging and unethical quality of any system with those traits, it furthermore seems likely that there’s an expiration date on it— and therefore on the current civilizational setup as such.

One way to frame our common future is as a range of possible paths, varying perhaps most clearly relative to the potential for human thriving during and after the transition to whatever more or less stable state of affairs that comes next. A main decisive factor in terms of what route will actually be taken concerns human perspective and willingness for appropriate action at the right time. Two of those general directions, each with numerous more particular paths, would be the following:

Direction 1: Absolute catastrophe. Some risks can, given their potentially huge impact, be considered of an existential kind, and the manifestation of at least the most potent of such scenarios would essentially see the self-terminating tendency of our current system’s characteristics play out in an absolute way. This, in short, means sudden human annihilation. An example of this sort of risk is all-out nuclear war.

Direction 2: Nuanced potential. A general dynamic found in complex adaptive systems is the so-called adaptive cycle, which describes how systems tend to move through phases of “growth”, “conservation”, “release”, and “reorganization”. This also goes for our global industrial civilization. As Nafeez Ahmed describes in a recent article, this system is now well into the release stage, characterized by the cascading collapse of existing structures and increasing fragility in the event of even small shocks that the system would earlier have more easily recovered from. This also means we’re getting closer to liminal territory — a “phase shift” to the reorganization stage where new organization creatively emerge, marking the birth of a new life cycle. This future framing where organized human life may be transformed in a pretty fundamental way, but at least continued in one form or another, and where relative thriving is at least possible in principle, is where I’ll put my money for now and also the focus of this text.

There’s of course no guarantee that whatever emerges through such reorganizing process will be of value to humanity at large, and there are plenty of possible future scenarios for our species that might from one or several perspectives be characterized catastrophic. But — in contrast to the manifestation of the most extreme existential risks — there’s still a more nuanced potential here. This includes, for instance, any number of scenarios with trajectories that spell the potential for a perhaps necessary fundamental transformation away from the systems traits outlined in the list above towards forms of human organization that express increased and long-term systemic resilience and stability.

It’s in relation to those broader systems dynamics and the (positive) potential they hold that the unfolding coronavirus situation is interesting to consider. As also discussed by Ahmed (and others, for example, here and here), it’s possible to look at the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak along with its secondary effects as a symptom of a system approaching or experiencing the beginning of mentioned phase shift, reflected in both the intensifying patterns of disruption and decline associated with the situation (“release stage”) and in the related accelerating emergence and potential for development of novel or currently underrepresented values and practices (“reorganization stage”). Some of the same things can be noticed when looking at, say, the related mega-phenomena of ecological breakdown and climate change (as I’ve done here), but in terms of felt impact and necessary response in the short term, the coronavirus — while perhaps being just as invisible as the gradual breakdown of ecosystems or increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere — takes on a particularly salient appearance. Metaphorically speaking, a changing climate may be perceived a slow push, but a viral outbreak of this scope seems to be a hard-hitting punch.

In short, if harnessed in the right ways, the undoubtedly difficult circumstances we now find ourselves in with the coronavirus may form part of a much broader, long-term positive transformation potential concerning our more general way of relating to each other and to the world around us. A metadesign for our common future that I personally find attractive is the prospect of human beings organizing around a worldview and a set of values that — rather than celebrating a fundamentally unsustainable exploitation of environment and people — emphasize the fact that we’re part of and dependent on a complex, planet-wide system of life, and that properly participating in that system means taking a regenerative approach with the objective of increasing health and resilience for all. One significant benefit for human systems with those qualities is that they’d be less likely to provoke the kinds of crises I mentioned earlier and in any case be less disrupted by them.

It’s of course impossible to be certain about how things will ultimately play out with the current outbreak, including the aggregate outcome of individual and collective measures applied, but I believe we’re seeing some signs that point in at least promising directions.

Some of the both positive and less positive potential may manifest itself as generalized and long-lived particularly ambitious paths of action that emerge from responses to the pandemic itself —among the already plenty of patterns to notice that reflect a more hopeful direction, we see, for example, certain politicians embracing their role as responsible leaders, companies projecting a more community-oriented behavior, and countless acts of neighbourly kindness.

Broader speaking, we may also simply see how the partial and probably somewhat temporary breakdown of standard social structure and convention will have more opportunity space open up for other kinds initiative that in various ways, and not necessarily directly related to the corona situation, attempt to navigate the civilizational “phase shift” by reimagining humanity’s presence on Earth and overcome the interrelated systemic failures of the current setup. Now, at the time of writing (and probably into the foreseeable future), very tight constraints on the movement of people both within and across countries are in place, and options for physically organizing and experimenting with alternative ways to do things are therefore severely limited. That said, I have a sense that the current situation may still act as catalyst for connection and collaboration related to social change efforts in the digital space, including, for example, the development of novel collective action frames and values, which would then be ready to properly activate at a point when regulations are again relaxed.

Whatever way these things will or will not happen, and whether they’d be significant in any broader sense, the point I try to make here is mostly one concerning potential. That, in the current situation, painful as it is, there’s quite some room for hope and even concrete opportunity, especially when considering the larger picture. In particular, and as described earlier, the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak and its various secondary effects (including the stimulation of a hard-hitting global recession) may for the moment be considered the most salient part of a perhaps inevitable major transition that modern civilization is now undergoing. The specifics of the processes of breakdown and renewal found in such event are not necessarily preprogrammed in any absolute way, and there’s more than a little space for human agency to affect our path forward. The potential I hope that we collectively notice here, and which in my view borders on an ethical imperative, is the invitation to actively let go of what no longer serves human and non-human life while creatively innovating and designing the foundation for something truly sustainable and just to emerge.

Again, no one knows how any of this turns out, but the mere act of nurturing awareness of those broader dynamics and the willingness to engage with the world from that vantage point— also when in the midst of circumstances that easily come to seem like they demand of us full attention on more narrow concerns — appears meaningful to me. And indeed, perhaps instead of expecting clearcut answers or immediate solutions, the wisest first step into the future we can take is to slow down and embrace this more or less forced pause for reflection.

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Espen Malling

Written by

I explore, communicate, and nurture regenerative worldviews and practices to help ensure a thriving future for all life.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +610K people. Follow to join our community.

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