The Chinese character for “crisis” is often said to contain two words: danger and opportunity. I’m told it’s more literally translated as “danger at a point of juncture”. The global crisis brought on by Covid-19 certainly contains danger (and with it a degree of fear and overwhelm). What then is the choice it is offering us, the lessons it holds, the potential for a change of course?
Often in a crisis we feel in no position to lift our heads up and consider the longer term. We have to get on with what is immediately in front of us, in order to get through the chaos. Things are very different with this crisis. For many of us, time is one thing we have plenty of. And what better way to use it than to reflect?
Some of the first lessons I was presented with were inter-personal. This is no surprise, both because human relations is my job and because I live in an intentional community – 45 people living in close proximity and working side by side to grow our own organic food.
When Covid-19 first emerged, some of my more vulnerable neighbours were understandably upset and frightened. My attempts to calm their fears fell on rather stony ground. Lesson One was that I had not paid enough attention to listening to, acknowledging and confirming their concerns. This is something I already knew and would have applied in any formal “work” situation. But (Lesson Two) we often rush past the skilful approach when dealing with those closest to us, partly because we’re inevitably part of the dynamic rather than outside it facilitating.
Lessons have been coming thick and fast since then. Our community moved quickly to support those who were self-isolating – preparing meals, delivering milk, eggs and vegetables, collecting medicines. It seems the rest of the world has done the same. There are now over 900 local mutual-aid groups in the UK alone[i]. Our collective generosity and willingness to help others is awe-inspiring (Lesson Three). There is, it seems nothing like a crisis to bind us together in mutual support (as well as to reveal the shadow side of what’s lurking under the surface).
Covid-19 is teaching us a lot about the modern world we live in, too. Perhaps it’s obvious but in such an interconnected and fast-moving world, disease (like information, products, memes) travels fast and can become widespread in the blink of an eye.
And there is a deeper lesson too – hidden in the origins of the virus. The head of the UN Environment Programme, Inger Andersen has put it like this: “Never before have so many opportunities existed for pathogens to pass from wild and domestic animals to people. Our continued erosion of wild spaces has brought us uncomfortably close to animals and plants that harbour diseases that can jump to humans.”[ii] Like climate change, forest fires and melting ice caps, Coronavirus is sending us a warning that our relationship with the natural world is severely out of whack (Lesson Five).
This might be the juncture we face. Whether to continue Business As Usual or to radically readjust our relationship with the world around us. One of the amazing and unexpected consequences of the virus has been the speed with which nature has rebounded in response to the close-down of the world economy. Social media has been full of stories of wildlife returning to areas where they haven’t been seen in years. Data from satellites suggests that pollutions levels in China, which kill a million people every year have fallen by around a half. The same results have been found in New York city.[iii]
Lesson Six then, seems to be that it is within our gift to regenerate rather than destroy the natural world – and that nature can repair itself remarkably quickly when allowed to do so. Covid-19 is teaching us that this is no longer a nice-to-do. It’s a must do. Climate science has been saying for several years now that Business As Usual will result not just in climate change and extreme weather events. It is also undermining the very fabric of the world’s ecosystems. Whole landscapes are being degraded and their soil stripped of its fertility. On top of this, our food distribution systems are so reliant on a “just in time” approach that our stocks of essential items are very thin – as we can see from the empty supermarket shelves following just a few weeks of panic buying.
This all adds up to the distinct possibility of a future of collapsing food systems, accompanied by the spread of infectious diseases to which we have no immunity. Some projections suggest that billions of lives could be lost in this process. If we do not face into this reality, Coronavirus will not be the last event to spread fear across the face of the world.
Even in this sobering scenario, if we look closely enough, we can find its opportunity. An ecosystems perspective of the world suggests that each species on the planet, animal and plant, has a specific and in some way essential purpose to perform. The same is true of viruses. Uncomfortable as it is to consider here in the anguish and pain of the pandemic, viruses are here for a purpose.
We know this purpose from our own personal experience, when we have the flu or something similar. Viruses force us to slow down. To stop. To rest. They bring to our attention that something is out of balance. They force us to reflect on and reconsider our current path (Lesson Seven). If we “fight” them we are tempted to go on without changing. If we take the opportunity to consider the juncture that faces us we are given the opportunity to learn, to evolve and to move forward in a new direction.
At the level of the human species, this juncture is between Business As Usual and a different path, one that places the natural world at the centre. We’re starting to call the eco-centric civilisation. There is much to be explored and investigated here both in terms of what that looks like and how we go about creating it.
On the latter point Yuval Noah Harari has observed: “In this time of crisis, we face two particularly important choices. The first is between totalitarian surveillance and citizen empowerment. The second is between nationalist isolation and global solidarity.”[iv] This is essentially the choice between which parts of the human soul will guide us into the future: the more generous and collaborative parts or our shadow side.