This page, added in 2020, reprints writings about the pandemic that touch on the climate crisis and the future of our species and, in particular, U.S. government and society. These selections, by a NY Times columnist and critic of Silicon Valley, an acclaimed author of “speculative fiction,” a journalist recalling Europe’s WWII descent into barbarism as he battles the coronavirus, and an attorney specializing in energy projects, are evocative and wide-ranging.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
There are no good choices, by Ezra Klein
The Coronavirus Is Rewriting Our Imaginations, by Kim Stanley Robinson
From Climate to Covid, and Back Again, by Andrew Ratzkin
Write us at email@example.com to suggest your own candidate post.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
There are no good choices, by Ezra Klein (Sept 14)
In shifting so much responsibility to individual people, America’s government has revealed the limits of individualism.
Where I live, the sky is choking. Wednesday was the worst. The day was a dark, burnt haze; red as the end of the world. My dogs paced and barked. The animal in me panicked, too. If the sky couldn’t breathe in the light, how were we to breathe in the air? My son is too young to wear a mask, too energetic to trap inside. How could I protect him? We wanted to flee, all of us. But where were we to go? We couldn’t shelter indoors, taking refuge with friends or family, because of the coronavirus. We couldn’t slip into nature because of the fire. There were no good choices.
This is the era of no good choices. Take schooling, for example. Keeping children home robs them of education and socialization. It scars their futures, steals their joys. It makes it impossible for their parents to work, or even to rest. But sending them to school endangers their health, and that of their teachers and their families. The argument is so heated because the choices are all bad, at least by the standards of the lives we used to lead. We battle like there is a good answer, like we will discover one side is right and the other is wrong. But we won’t. There is no answer. Whatever we pick, it will be horrible.
Everything is like that right now. Do you visit your parents, let them see their grandchild? How do you weigh the risk of contagion against the risk of isolation? If they’re sick, does that make visiting them more dangerous, or more necessary? How about your friends? What is the cost to your child of growing up without community, without other hands to take care of them, without other adults they’re allowed to hug, to play with? Do we reopen restaurants? If they do reopen, do we go to them? The risks are terrible, but so is the thought of losing an entire industry, of seeing all those dreams die, all those futures shatter. As the Senate dithers, these decisions are being left to us, and it is tearing us apart.
In America, our ideological conflicts are often understood as the tension between individual freedoms and collective actions. The failure of our pandemic response policy exposes the falseness of that frame. In the absence of effective state action, we, as individuals, find ourselves in prisons of risk, our every movement stalked by disease. We are anything but free; our only liberty is to choose among a menu of awful options. And faced with terrible choices, we are turning on each other, polarizing against one another. YouTube conspiracies and social media shaming are becoming our salves, the way we wrest a modicum of individual control over a crisis that has overwhelmed us as a collective.
“The burden of decision-making and risk in this pandemic has been fully transitioned from the top down to the individual,” says Dr. Julia Marcus, a Harvard epidemiologist. “It started with [responsibility] being transitioned to the states, which then transitioned it to the local school districts — If we’re talking about schools for the moment — and then down to the individual. You can see it in the way that people talk about personal responsibility, and the way that we see so much shaming about individual-level behavior.” (You can hear my whole conversation with Marcus on this podcast.)
But in shifting so much responsibility to individuals, our government has revealed the limits of individualism.
The risk calculation that rules, and ruins, lives
Think of coronavirus risk like an equation. Here’s a rough version of it: The danger of an act = (the transmission risk of the activity) x (the local prevalence of Covid-19) / (by your area’s ability to control a new outbreak).
Individuals can control only a small portion of that equation. People can choose safer activities over riskier ones — though the language of choice too often obscures the reality that many have no economic choice save to work jobs that put them, and their families, in danger. But the local prevalence of Covid-19 and the capacity of authorities to track and squelch outbreaks are collective functions. They rely on competent testing infrastructures, fast contact tracing, universal health insurance, thoughtful reopening policies, strong public health communication, reliable economic support for the displaced, and social trust. Managed well, they lower the background risk, making more activities safe enough to consider, making the decisions individuals face easier. But in America, that public infrastructure has failed most people, in most places. The result is a maddening world of risk that individuals have been left to navigate virtually alone.
In the absence of an effective public response, we turn our frustrations on each other, as we fail to navigate the impossible choices we’re left with. We shame each other for going to beaches, to protests, to bars, to schools. We’re angry at college kids attending parties and bikers attending rallies and runners who don’t don their masks as they speed by, each exhalation a threat to ourselves and those we love.
“The way that we get control of fear, which is driven by this sense of uncertainty, is we put the locus of control on individuals, because then we can be angry at people,” says Marcus.
Like everyone else, I have my views on which activities should be sanctioned and which should be shunned, but I also have my lapses, my compromises, my trade-offs. We all do. And as the pandemic wears on, those differences sharpen, cutting into even loving bonds. I know families being torn apart, and friendships and relationships fraying over differing views of risk and reward. Politics, too, is tipping into a darker, more dangerous place, with President Trump preemptively undermining the election, with millions out of work and furious at those they see as causing or dismissing their pain.
There are dozens of ways the government could make it easier for individuals to make safe choices, ranging from effective policies to control the spread of the virus to a renewed economic support package that would allow people to protect their health without sacrificing their livelihoods. This is how other countries are responding to the crisis, and it is working. But Trump has refused to put forward — much less follow — a plan to suppress the virus, and congressional Republicans have insisted on withdrawing support from the labor market, in a bid to force workers to return to jobs. In that way, the impossible choices being forced on Americans are a policy decision being made by their elected leaders.
We have been set up to fail
The closest thing the GOP has to an actual policy to suppress the virus was articulated by Vice President Mike Pence at the Republican National Convention. “America is a nation of miracles,” he said. “And I’m proud to report that we are on track to have the world’s first safe, effective coronavirus vaccine by the end of this year.” But even if that’s true — and that remains a big “if” — it does not mean the crisis will end, or that our former lives will resume, in the fall.
“Even if the vaccine were to come this fall, it would take us over a year to get the number of doses needed to vaccinate the population,” says Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. “A year from now we’ll still be dealing with this situation. So I’m not here thinking about how to get through the next election. I’m thinking about how to get through the next few years.”
Imagine Joe Biden wins in November, and Democrats also take the Senate. What options will be open to them? Would the nation follow a lockdown, if one were needed? Would disappointed Trump voters heed a renewed push on masking, or would that simply feed the arcane phantasmagoria of QAnon? Are we prepared, socially and psychically, for a vaccine that fails, or even just disappoints? Will enough of us even trust a vaccine given the Trump administration’s relentless promotion of untested cures?
We have been set up to fail. Admitting that may, at some level, help us be more compassionate toward each other. We have been left without good choices, and so we are upset at the bad decisions our neighbors, friends, and families are making, even as they are angry at the trade-offs we choose. We are right to be upset. Our reality is enraging and terrifying. But more of our ire should be directed at the government that has left us in these straits.
Governmental failure has paved the way for social fracture. If the US government had succeeded as Canada or Germany’s governments succeeded, it would be easier to trust each other because we would pose less danger to each other. If we could depend more on the state, we could make more reasonable requests of ourselves. In the wreckage of state failure, though, it is nearly impossible for us to thrive.
This is a lesson the coronavirus is, or should be, teaching us, but it applies to far more than this moment. I began this column with the fires that have burnt my region; fires worsened, year after year, by unchecked climate change. There, too, our failures as a polity have left us adrift as individuals — free to flee our homes, but not free to breathe air that doesn’t leave us choking. It is a thin form of liberty, but it is all we will have left if we cannot govern collectively. We all want to be free to make our own choices. But we need government that works well enough so we have good choices to make.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The Bay Area Billionaires Are Breaking My Heart, by Farhad Manjoo (May 13)
Looking for hope in San Francisco
New York Times opinion columnist Farhad Manjoo, who reports on Bay Area politics, culture and tech wars, captured the poles of optimism and defeat, possibilities and realities, in this NYT Sunday review piece.
One sun-drenched afternoon last month, I took a long solo bike ride through the San Francisco Bay Area. I rode from my home to Mountain View, near the once-desolate stretch of marsh that Google has leased from NASA to build a monumental new campus. It looks like a collection of lunar bases made out of origami.
Construction has been paused under lockdown, and on the fetid plains surrounding the million-square-foot project, birds sang and wildflowers painted the horizon, and the trails that run beside the site were packed to socially distant capacity with masked families on foot and wheel.
Bicycles and pets, not sirens and fridge-truck morgues, have become the unlikely icons of the pandemic in the Bay Area. Bike shops and animal shelters say they’ve been inundated with demand. With the streets free of cars and full of people, the air clean, the cavernous office buildings empty and their endless parking lots turned into carefree pedestrian plazas, you’d be forgiven for mistaking some areas of Silicon Valley under lockdown for outtakes from the “The Good Place.”
On my way to the Google lunar landing base, I passed by Santiago Villa, one of the area’s few remaining mobile-home parks. It was built in the 1960s as an affordable retirement community. In January, its residents, who rent the space on which their mobile homes stand, petitioned the City Council to include trailer parks in Mountain View’s rent-control rules.
They’re worried that wealthy Googlers looking for a kitschy pied-à-terre near the new campus will push them out. The anger has been rising. Last year, the same City Council prohibited RVs and trailers — many of them used as homes — from parking on the street; a petition to overturn the RV ban will be on the ballot in November.
But as I rode past Santiago Villa, all that rancor felt like a remnant of the Before Time. Everything was quiet — then, from one of the trailers, a jolly trumpet began blowing loud and out of tune.
It was then that I first had the ghoulish idea: Could the coronavirus have an upside, at least in this one place? What if the pandemic and its aftermath lead Googlers and trailer park residents to find common cause? What if, after the virus, the Bay Area’s wealthy gained a new appreciation for those who live on its edges, and finally made room for them in this digital wonderland?
I have lived in the Bay Area for almost 20 years, and for most of that time, I’ve felt this place creaking steadily into uninhabitability for all but the wealthiest few. We have one of the world’s highest concentrations of billionaires, and yet we have not been able to marshal our immense wealth and ingenuity against our most blatant and glaring challenges — including the lack of affordable housing and entrenched homelessness.
But in this crisis, the Bay Area’s response was an unexpected success. And that has given a lot of people, including me, new hope about what’s possible. Yes, it sounds hokey, but this might be a time for hokeyness.
The first big moment came on March 16, when the six counties around the San Francisco Bay ordered the first shelter-in-place rules in the United States. Google, Apple, Facebook and other large employers fell right into step; they ordered all of their employees to work from home, setting the pace for most other local businesses to close up shop. And the tech giants set an important example — they made a commitment to keep paying their on-site service workers, even if they could no longer come on-site to work.
San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose secured thousands of hotel rooms for homeless people, away from the streets and the risk of the virus in crowded shelters. Cities opened their streets to pedestrians and bicycles and closed them to cars. Perhaps most important, officials in the area were the picture of calm leadership.
When I despaired about our national failures, I found myself tuning into hear the plain-spoken exhortations of San Francisco’s mayor, London Breed. “This is going to take all of us,” Breed told the city late in March. “This is going to take all of us coming together and sacrificing so that we get through this.”
And it worked. Thanks to some combination of early action, collective adherence to public health guidelines, a concerted effort to help the vulnerable, and perhaps just blind luck, mass death missed the Bay. By the start of May, fewer than 30 people had died of Covid-19 in San Francisco; in the greater Bay Area, deaths stand around 350.
The toll is probably an undercount, and blacks and Latinos are disproportionately represented in it. Still, compared to many American metropolitan areas, this ranks as a near miracle. San Francisco’s death rate of four per 100,000 residents is one-fourth the rate in Los Angeles, a fraction of the national average, and nowhere near New York’s.
In the absence of mass death, people around here have had time and psychic space to imagine longer-term possibilities. If we could band together so quickly to beat the virus, making so many big changes so seamlessly, what else are we capable of doing?
I was not alone in my vague sense of optimism.
In an article that went viral among techies last month, the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen characterized the pandemic as a call to arms to rebuild American institutions, including our cities. Like many of the Valley’s tech princes, Andreessen has often been skeptical of government and its champions, but now here he was, cheering them on: “Demonstrate that the public sector can build better hospitals, better schools, better transportation, better cities, better housing,” he wrote. “Stop trying to protect the old, the entrenched, the irrelevant; commit the public sector fully to the future.”
I heard a similar urgency for grand reform from nearly every Bay Area official, activist and resident I spoke to — even those who had clashed with the tech industry or those whose fights earlier seemed unwinnable.
Libby Schaaf, the mayor of Oakland, opened up 74 miles of city streets for pedestrians and moved hundreds of homeless people into hotels. She saw the crisis as an opportunity to make permanent improvements.
One example: Schaaf required that the hotels which the city paid to house the homeless during the pandemic offer the city long-term leases. “I do not want, at the end of the health emergency, to turn homeless people back out onto the streets,” she said.
In April, Ro Khanna, who represents parts of Silicon Valley in the House, introduced legislation to provide greater pay, health care and labor protections to workers deemed “essential” during the pandemic. “When we talk about who are the ‘essential workers,’ very few people are saying it’s lawyers or middle or senior management,” Khanna said. “They’re saying, we want the person who’s delivering our groceries, the person who’s keeping the internet open, the electricity flowing, or the person who’s taking care of our kids.”
In a similar way, the crisis illustrated the importance of keeping everyone healthy — even people who lack a place to live. “Housing is health care,” explained Abigail Stewart-Kahn, director of the San Francisco Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing. “That’s something, in my field, that people have been saying for a long time.” Now, the connection was inescapable — people who lacked housing were also outside of the health care system, and during a pandemic, their presence on the streets created a risk for everyone else in the city. “What this has shown us all is that everyone’s health is intertwined,” she said.
These were all officials and experts — people who might be biased toward finding “silver linings” in any crisis. But was anything really changing for homeless people around the Bay Area? I contacted several homeless people who have been placed in hotels during the pandemic. They spoke rapturously about their sudden fortune in an otherwise grim time.
“Oh my God — I can really breathe and be myself.” That was the reaction from a 33-year-old woman who had been living in a hotel for weeks with her 12-year-son. She asked me not to use her name. Before the virus, they had spent years bouncing from couch to couch around the Bay. Under lockdown, their lives were, in many ways, freer than before. For the first time in years, she no longer felt that crushing dependence on other people. “I can move as the adult I am, and no one dictates what I do or how I move,” she told me.
The hotel room has two beds and a private bathroom. It was starting to feel like a studio apartment — like a kind of home, she told me. “I only wish we could have a deep fryer.” It is only guaranteed for three months, but she has begun to see the possibility of a new life in the uncertain distance: “I just know that I am on my way to my place.”
As the weeks of lockdown dragged on, San Francisco began to break my heart again. While the number of coronavirus cases and deaths remained low, the full gloom of the coming recession began to descend into view, and with it, the same ageless, endless political squabbles. The basic problem is that despite the region’s apparently limitless wealth, there were not enough ready resources available to public officials to reach everyone in need. And in the absence of more help from the state and the federal government, or from the region’s billionaires, the Bay Area’s needs simply outmatched its capacity to meet them.
Even after the huge effort to move people into hotels, there are still thousands of homeless people on the Bay Area’s streets, and little prospect that many will be housed anytime soon. My hopes for inspiring leadership began to fall apart when a fight broke out recently between San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors and the mayor over how many more homeless people the city could house.
The board passed an ordinance to secure 7,000 hotel rooms for homeless people who are now on the street, but the mayor refused to comply. She said it was impossible; the city is straining against its limit already. So far, San Francisco has placed 965 homeless people in hotel rooms, and has signed contracts for 2,731 rooms for homeless people and essential workers.
This fight hinges on the usual things — money, willpower, staffing and basic municipal capacity. But it also lays bare how ephemeral our coronavirus-inspired unity may be. “To the extent we have restored faith in what is possible, we have also underscored, sadly, our city’s limitations,” Matt Haney, a member of the Board of Supervisors, told me.
When I asked the mayor about her dispute with the supervisors, she was cordial but clearly annoyed. Annoyed that the supervisors hadn’t considered the limits on the city’s capacity. Annoyed that she agreed with them — more homeless people could be taken off the streets if only she had the funds or the people to make it happen.
The federal government has promised to reimburse cities for part of the cost of housing the homeless, but Breed says she is not sure whether those funds will come through. “There’s a huge difference between what we all want, which is to get every homeless person off the street, and reality,” she said.
And instead of bringing the region’s wealthy and its needy together, she suggested that the pandemic might pit the less needy against the more needy. “I think many people are like, ‘Well, wait a minute — I lost my job where I was making minimum wage. I can’t pay my rent. I can barely eat. Where’s my help from the city?’” Breed said.
When I asked if the virus had created much political room for bold action to address inequality, she said, “It’s going to make it even harder.”
Is this really the best the city can do? The further we move from the initial crisis, the crazier my bike-riding optimism now sounds. Rather than fostering some new sense of civic unity, the virus is just as likely to worsen inequality further.
Margot Kushel, a physician and scholar of homelessness at the University of California, San Francisco, suggested that this was the “nightmare scenario” for inequality in San Francisco: low-income jobs disappear, so more people lose their homes, but because the tech industry keeps doing well, home prices remain high, and housing slips further out of reach for everyone else. “Those who are housed are fully aware that they’re one thread away from losing that housing,” Kushel said.
San Francisco and other Bay Area cities have imposed temporary moratoriums on evictions caused by virus-related economic disruptions. But those will expire later in the year, at which time a wave of tenants may be kicked out of their homes unless they can pay months of back rent. At the same time, the virus has given more political ammo to those NIMBYs who have long opposed urban density and blocked the construction of more housing.
All is not lost. I do feel a renewed sense of pride and possibility about the Bay Area — the way our leaders responded to the virus did strengthen my faith in our local institutions, and we certainly seem better equipped to address long-term challenges than I once thought we were.
There might still be a window for substantive action: Our local governments can use the new leverage to push for bold ideas — among other policies, a plan for rent relief, rather than simply an eviction moratorium, so that more people don’t lose their housing.
I’m also waiting on the city’s billionaires to open up new floodgates of generosity, at least for mitigating the immediate pain of the crisis. Jack Dorsey, the chief executive of Twitter and Square, recently pledged $1 billion to coronavirus relief; but of the nearly 100 billionaires reportedly living in the Bay Area, only a handful have donated to the city’s coronavirus relief fund. Mary Kate Bacalao, the director of external affairs at Compass Family Services, a nonprofit group that helps homeless families, told me that with a few big checks, the Bay’s wealthiest could instantly make a difference.
But I wouldn’t be surprised if we — the people of the Bay Area, our lawmakers, our billionaires and our ordinary, overburdened citizens — end up squandering this moment. Rebuilding a fairer, more livable urban environment will take years of difficult work. It will require sacrifices from the wealthy. It will require a renewed federal interest in addressing the problems of cities. It will require abandoning pie-in-the-sky techno-optimism.
This isn’t a problem that will be solved by flying cars; it will be solved by better zoning laws, fairer taxes and, when we can make it safe again, more public transportation. We will have to commit ourselves to these and other boring but permanent civic solutions.
I’m hopeful we’re up to the task. We cannot go back to the way things were. But as the immediate danger of the pandemic recedes, it will be all too easy for many of us to do exactly that.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The Coronavirus Is Rewriting Our Imaginations, by Kim Stanley Robinson (May 1)
What felt impossible has become thinkable. The spring of 2020 is suggestive of how much, and how quickly, we can change as a civilization.
This penetrating, lyrical article in The New Yorker magazine by celebrated speculative-fiction writer Robinson (Mars Trilogy, New York 2140 and many other works) offers cautious optimism that the new “structure of feeling” sparked by the pandemic might lead humanity to finally address climate change with full force.
The critic Raymond Williams once wrote that every historical period has its own “structure of feeling.” How everything seemed in the nineteen-sixties, the way the Victorians understood one another, the chivalry of the Middle Ages, the world view of Tang-dynasty China: each period, Williams thought, had a distinct way of organizing basic human emotions into an overarching cultural system. Each had its own way of experiencing being alive.
In mid-March, in a prior age, I spent a week rafting down the Grand Canyon. When I left for the trip, the United States was still beginning to grapple with the reality of the coronavirus pandemic. Italy was suffering; the N.B.A. had just suspended its season; Tom Hanks had been reported ill. When I hiked back up, on March 19th, it was into a different world. I’ve spent my life writing science-fiction novels that try to convey some of the strangeness of the future. But I was still shocked by how much had changed, and how quickly.
Schools and borders had closed; the governor of California, like governors elsewhere, had asked residents to begin staying at home. But the change that struck me seemed more abstract and internal. It was a change in the way we were looking at things, and it is still ongoing. The virus is rewriting our imaginations. What felt impossible has become thinkable. We’re getting a different sense of our place in history. We know we’re entering a new world, a new era. We seem to be learning our way into a new structure of feeling.
In many ways, we’ve been overdue for such a shift. In our feelings, we’ve been lagging behind the times in which we live. The Anthropocene, the Great Acceleration, the age of climate change — whatever you want to call it, we’ve been out of synch with the biosphere, wasting our children’s hopes for a normal life, burning our ecological capital as if it were disposable income, wrecking our one and only home in ways that soon will be beyond our descendants’ ability to repair. And yet we’ve been acting as though it were 2000, or 1990 — as though the neoliberal arrangements built back then still made sense. We’ve been paralyzed, living in the world without feeling it.
Now, all of a sudden, we’re acting fast as a civilization. We’re trying, despite many obstacles, to flatten the curve — to avoid mass death. Doing this, we know that we’re living in a moment of historic importance. We realize that what we do now, well or badly, will be remembered later on. This sense of enacting history matters. For some of us, it partly compensates for the disruption of our lives.
Actually, we’ve already been living in a historic moment. For the past few decades, we’ve been called upon to act, and have been acting in a way that will be scrutinized by our descendants. Now we feel it. The shift has to do with the concentration and intensity of what’s happening. September 11th was a single day, and everyone felt the shock of it, but our daily habits didn’t shift, except at airports; the President even urged us to keep shopping. This crisis is different. It’s a biological threat, and it’s global. Everyone has to change together to deal with it. That’s really history.
It seems as though science has been mobilized to a dramatic new degree, but that impression is just another way in which we’re lagging behind. There are 7.8 billion people alive on this planet — a stupendous social and technological achievement that’s unnatural and unstable. It’s made possible by science, which has already been saving us. Now, though, when disaster strikes, we grasp the complexity of our civilization — we feel the reality, which is that the whole system is a technical improvisation that science keeps from crashing down.
On a personal level, most of us have accepted that we live in a scientific age. If you feel sick, you go to a doctor, who is really a scientist; that scientist tests you, then sometimes tells you to take a poison so that you can heal — and you take the poison. It’s on a societal level that we’ve been lagging. Today, in theory, everyone knows everything. We know that our accidental alteration of the atmosphere is leading us into a mass-extinction event, and that we need to move fast to dodge it. But we don’t act on what we know. We don’t want to change our habits. This knowing-but-not-acting is part of the old structure of feeling.
Now comes this disease that can kill anyone on the planet. It’s invisible; it spreads because of the way we move and congregate. Instantly, we’ve changed. As a society, we’re watching the statistics, following the recommendations, listening to the scientists. Do we believe in science? Go outside and you’ll see the proof that we do everywhere you look. We’re learning to trust our science as a society. That’s another part of the new structure of feeling.
Possibly, in a few months, we’ll return to some version of the old normal. But this spring won’t be forgotten. When later shocks strike global civilization, we’ll remember how we behaved this time, and how it worked. It’s not that the coronavirus is a dress rehearsal — it’s too deadly for that. But it is the first of many calamities that will likely unfold throughout this century. Now, when they come, we’ll be familiar with how they feel.
What shocks might be coming? Everyone knows everything. Remember when Cape Town almost ran out of water? It’s very likely that there will be more water shortages. And food shortages, electricity outages, devastating storms, droughts, floods. These are easy calls. They’re baked into the situation we’ve already created, in part by ignoring warnings that scientists have been issuing since the nineteen-sixties. Some shocks will be local, others regional, but many will be global, because, as this crisis shows, we are interconnected as a biosphere and a civilization.
Imagine what a food scare would do. Imagine a heat wave hot enough to kill anyone not in an air-conditioned space, then imagine power failures happening during such a heat wave. (The novel I’ve just finished begins with this scenario, so it scares me most of all.) Imagine pandemics deadlier than the coronavirus. These events, and others like them, are easier to imagine now than they were back in January, when they were the stuff of dystopian science fiction. But science fiction is the realism of our time. The sense that we are all now stuck in a science-fiction novel that we’re writing together — that’s another sign of the emerging structure of feeling.
Science-fiction writers don’t know anything more about the future than anyone else. Human history is too unpredictable; from this moment, we could descend into a mass-extinction event or rise into an age of general prosperity. Still, if you read science fiction, you may be a little less surprised by whatever does happen. Often, science fiction traces the ramifications of a single postulated change; readers co-create, judging the writers’ plausibility and ingenuity, interrogating their theories of history. Doing this repeatedly is a kind of training. It can help you feel more oriented in the history we’re making now. This radical spread of possibilities, good to bad, which creates such a profound disorientation; this tentative awareness of the emerging next stage — these are also new feelings in our time.
Memento mori: remember that you must die. Older people are sometimes better at keeping this in mind than younger people. Still, we’re all prone to forgetting death. It never seems quite real until the end, and even then it’s hard to believe. The reality of death is another thing we know about but don’t feel.
So this epidemic brings with it a sense of panic: we’re all going to die, yes, always true, but now perhaps this month! That’s different. Sometimes, when hiking in the Sierra, my friends and I get caught in a lightning storm, and, completely exposed to it, we hurry over the rocky highlands, watching lightning bolts crack out of nowhere and connect nearby, thunder exploding less than a second later. That gets your attention: death, all too possible! But to have that feeling in your ordinary, daily life, at home, stretched out over weeks — that’s too strange to hold on to. You partly get used to it, but not entirely. This mixture of dread and apprehension and normality is the sensation of plague on the loose. It could be part of our new structure of feeling, too.
Just as there are charismatic megafauna, there are charismatic mega-ideas. “Flatten the curve” could be one of them. Immediately, we get it. There’s an infectious, deadly plague that spreads easily, and, although we can’t avoid it entirely, we can try to avoid a big spike in infections, so that hospitals won’t be overwhelmed and fewer people will die. It makes sense, and it’s something all of us can help to do. When we do it — if we do it — it will be a civilizational achievement: a new thing that our scientific, educated, high-tech species is capable of doing. Knowing that we can act in concert when necessary is another thing that will change us.
People who study climate change talk about “the tragedy of the horizon.” The tragedy is that we don’t care enough about those future people, our descendants, who will have to fix, or just survive on, the planet we’re now wrecking. We like to think that they’ll be richer and smarter than we are and so able to handle their own problems in their own time. But we’re creating problems that they’ll be unable to solve. You can’t fix extinctions, or ocean acidification, or melted permafrost, no matter how rich or smart you are. The fact that these problems will occur in the future lets us take a magical view of them. We go on exacerbating them, thinking — not that we think this, but the notion seems to underlie our thinking — that we will be dead before it gets too serious. The tragedy of the horizon is often something we encounter, without knowing it, when we buy and sell. The market is wrong; the prices are too low. Our way of life has environmental costs that aren’t included in what we pay, and those costs will be borne by our descendents. We are operating a multigenerational Ponzi scheme.
And yet: “Flatten the curve.” We’re now confronting a miniature version of the tragedy of the time horizon. We’ve decided to sacrifice over these months so that, in the future, people won’t suffer as much as they would otherwise. In this case, the time horizon is so short that we are the future people. It’s harder to come to grips with the fact that we’re living in a long-term crisis that will not end in our lifetimes. But it’s meaningful to notice that, all together, we are capable of learning to extend our care further along the time horizon. Amid the tragedy and death, this is one source of pleasure. Even though our economic system ignores reality, we can act when we have to. At the very least, we are all freaking out together. To my mind, this new sense of solidarity is one of the few reassuring things to have happened in this century. If we can find it in this crisis, to save ourselves, then maybe we can find it in the big crisis, to save our children and theirs.
Margaret Thatcher said that “there is no such thing as society,” and Ronald Reagan said that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” These stupid slogans marked the turn away from the postwar period of reconstruction and underpin much of the bullshit of the past forty years.
We are individuals first, yes, just as bees are, but we exist in a larger social body. Society is not only real; it’s fundamental. We can’t live without it. And now we’re beginning to understand that this “we” includes many other creatures and societies in our biosphere and even in ourselves. Even as an individual, you are a biome, an ecosystem, much like a forest or a swamp or a coral reef. Your skin holds inside it all kinds of unlikely coöperations, and to survive you depend on any number of interspecies operations going on within you all at once. We are societies made of societies; there are nothing but societies. This is shocking news — it demands a whole new world view. And now, when those of us who are sheltering in place venture out and see everyone in masks, sharing looks with strangers is a different thing. It’s eye to eye, this knowledge that, although we are practicing social distancing as we need to, we want to be social — we not only want to be social, we’ve got to be social, if we are to survive. It’s a new feeling, this alienation and solidarity at once. It’s the reality of the social; it’s seeing the tangible existence of a society of strangers, all of whom depend on one another to survive. It’s as if the reality of citizenship has smacked us in the face.
As for government: it’s government that listens to science and responds by taking action to save us. Stop to ponder what is now obstructing the performance of that government. Who opposes it? Right now we’re hearing two statements being made. One, from the President and his circle: we have to save money even if it costs lives. The other, from the Centers for Disease Control and similar organizations: we have to save lives even if it costs money. Which is more important, money or lives? Money, of course! says capital and its spokespersons. Really? people reply, uncertainly. Seems like that’s maybe going too far? Even if it’s the common wisdom? Or was.
Some people can’t stay isolated and still do their jobs. If their jobs are important enough, they have to expose themselves to the disease. My younger son works in a grocery store and is now one of the front-line workers who keep civilization running.
My son is now my hero: this is a good feeling. I think the same of all the people still working now for the sake of the rest of us. If we all keep thinking this way, the new structure of feeling will be better than the one that’s dominated for the past forty years.
The neoliberal structure of feeling totters. What might a post-capitalist response to this crisis include? Maybe rent and debt relief; unemployment aid for all those laid off; government hiring for contact tracing and the manufacture of necessary health equipment; the world’s militaries used to support health care; the rapid construction of hospitals.
What about afterward, when this crisis recedes and the larger crisis looms? If the project of civilization — including science, economics, politics, and all the rest of it — were to bring all eight billion of us into a long-term balance with Earth’s biosphere, we could do it. By contrast, when the project of civilization is to create profit — which, by definition, goes to only a few — much of what we do is actively harmful to the long-term prospects of our species. Everyone knows everything. Right now pursuing profit as the ultimate goal of all our activities will lead to a mass-extinction event. Humanity might survive, but traumatized, interrupted, angry, ashamed, sad. A science-fiction story too painful to write, too obvious. It would be better to adapt to reality.
Economics is a system for optimizing resources, and, if it were trying to calculate ways to optimize a sustainable civilization in balance with the biosphere, it could be a helpful tool. When it’s used to optimize profit, however, it encourages us to live within a system of destructive falsehoods. We need a new political economy by which to make our calculations. Now, acutely, we feel that need.
It could happen, but it might not. There will be enormous pressure to forget this spring and go back to the old ways of experiencing life. And yet forgetting something this big never works. We’ll remember this even if we pretend not to. History is happening now, and it will have happened. So what will we do with that?
A structure of feeling is not a free-floating thing. It’s tightly coupled with its corresponding political economy. How we feel is shaped by what we value, and vice versa. Food, water, shelter, clothing, education, health care: maybe now we value these things more, along with the people whose work creates them. To survive the next century, we need to start valuing the planet more, too, since it’s our only home.
It will be hard to make these values durable. Valuing the right things and wanting to keep on valuing them — maybe that’s also part of our new structure of feeling. As is knowing how much work there is to be done. But the spring of 2020 is suggestive of how much, and how quickly, we can change. It’s like a bell ringing to start a race. Off we go — into a new time.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Fighting the Virus in Trump’s Plague
My body is a stranger. It is out there battling the enemy within.
By Roger Cohen, for The New York Times, Sept 4, 2020
A friend of mine opened her closet the other day and felt she was gazing at the clothes of a dead person. They belonged to the world of yesterday. She had no use for them in the age of the coronavirus. It was like looking at her grandmother’s clothes after she died.
Everyone is jolted these days in such ways. I assumed I would not get Covid-19 if I took basic precautions. Now I have Covid-19. My head feels like a cabbage. Aches swirl down my arms and legs. So please, dear reader, grant me a little indulgence this once.
My symptoms began Thursday Aug. 27, a sharp prickling in my throat, from nothing. A cabdriver said, “You are coughing, sir.” I said, I know, I am sorry, I am trying not to cough.
I am in a Paris apartment I have rented for a couple of weeks. On the bookshelves my eyes fell on a copy of Stefan Zweig’s “The World of Yesterday,” written in Brazil before he and his wife, Charlotte Altmann, committed suicide in 1942. A Viennese Jew born into an empire that no longer existed, his books burned in a Europe reduced to barbarism, Zweig wrote: “All the livid steeds of the Apocalypse have stormed through my life.”
A day later my symptoms worsened. I had a fever of 101. Hot flushes, and shivers, alternated. My mind swirled. So, this is it. The plague that stopped the world. I was more curious than afraid. It’s hard to shed the reflexes of a life lived as an observer.
Since the pandemic started, I have wondered, like everybody, how to live. “Stay safe” is no guide to a life worth living. Surrender to fear and it’s over. My most powerful memories and experiences involved risk. When you quit, you’re done. Yet now an invisible enemy demanded prudence.
For more than three months I scarcely moved from my Brooklyn neighborhood. I mourned New York. I tried to get used to the end of conviviality and the way “coronavirus” slips from the tongues of my five grandchildren, aged 2 to 6.
I tried and failed. Still, we have to get on with it, show up. That’s life’s first admonition. I drove to Georgia, did some reporting, and wrote. I came to Europe to look and listen.
Zweig’s book fell open at this: “I have seen the great mass ideologies grow and spread before my eyes — Fascism in Italy, National Socialism in Germany, Bolshevism in Russia, and above all else that pestilence of pestilences, nationalism, which has poisoned the flower of our European culture.”
My president, Donald Trump, is a proud nationalist. He embraces its mythology of violence as he flirts with cataclysm. Jump! he says. How high? says his cabinet. He’s ready to fight his battles down to the last sucker. If he goes down, it will be in flames.
The virus is deadly serious but plays games. A little relief to tempt you into activity — then it smites you with a cudgel. I felt better last weekend until I tried a peach tart. It’s eerie to experience texture without taste. A Coke with ice and lemon was no more than fizz. My body was a stranger. It was out there somewhere, fighting. The fight demanded all its energy. There was nothing left for me.
I stared at the walls. I thought, my world is gone. More than half a life lived in the Cold War, who cares about that any longer, or the values it bequeathed. A phrase of Albert Camus came back to me: “The most incorrigible vice being that of ignorance that fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill.”
For three hours I lined up for a free coronavirus test. A medic told me the swab in my nostrils would be “disagreeable but not painful.” She then stabbed my brain with what looked like a narrow brochette stick. “That was painful,” I said.
My test result, received two days later, was “positive.” I knew it would be, but still reading the lab result was hard. I am not sure why. Perhaps the certain knowledge that a virus is inside you that could kill you. But then so many things can, and death is life’s one certainty — and we don’t stop the world. We try to make life better. The only way out of this is through.
The plague is back. In fact, as Camus observed, it never goes away. It is waiting to exploit stupidity. Trump wants violence. Do not give it to him. Turn the other cheek. Be stoical. Be the person who stops the tank by standing there.
I am hunkered down. My survival chances are still better than those of an opposition leader in the Russia of Trump’s buddy. My daughter and her husband, both doctors, say I have a moderate case. I think I picked it up in a crowded Paris bar watching a soccer match. Whether soccer or life is more important is an open question to me.
The epigraph to Zweig’s book is a quote from Shakespeare’s “Cymbeline”:
“And meet the time as it seeks us.”
I will still try to do that. We must all fight, in the way my body is fighting now with every ounce of its strength to see off the enemy within, if the orange face of the plague is not to devour us all.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
From Climate to Covid, and Back Again, by Andrew Ratzkin (May 2)
In this op-ed published in the Albany Times-Union as Virus’ collective threat, the author, an energy-sector lawyer who serves on the Westchester County Climate Smart Communities Task Force, draws lessons for climate challenges from the Covid pandemic.
No one’s talking much about climate change lately. We have a lot on our minds.
But climate’s not going away as an issue, even though emissions have temporarily dropped steeply. The climate will not stop warming, and spillover effects will not stop coming, just because we are distracted dealing with coronavirus.
The coronavirus was not caused by climate. Still, there are important things we can learn from the virus, and maybe have already learned, that can make a difference in how we approach climate once we are again able to focus on other things.
The coronavirus’ spread and impact reveal critical shortcomings in our preparedness, and offer important lessons, directly relevant to the climate challenges to come:
Cognitive Dissonance and Magical Thinking. It’s hard to envision and take seriously things that seems distant and intangible. It’s harder still to confront a long-term, collective threat from an inanimate adversary, especially while you’re still comfortable.
Like climate change, a pandemic once seemed to many like something that was “never going to happen” — until it did. Coronavirus awakens us to the possibility that bad things (and worst case scenarios) can actually happen. Long-term things eventually become short-term, immediate things.
Facts Matter, Science Matters. Science can tell us stuff. Science helps us detect and solve actual problems. Self-serving or delusional spin can actually hurt us, even though bravado makes for good TV. Spin — believing it and acting on it — is dangerous.
Expertise Matters. We need to listen to people who have studied problems that are not obvious without study. We don’t have to uncritically accept everything experts tell us. But we should respect them, hear their analyses and warnings, and factor them into our decisions.
Prevention Matters, Preparedness Matters. We hear how expensive it is to control greenhouse gas emissions, to convert our economy so that it is not powered by fossil fuels, to build a climate-resilient infrastructure. Just like we’ve heard how expensive it was to maintain the pandemic unit at the National Security Council. But maybe we have learned that the cost of an exacerbated crisis far exceeds the cost of reckoning with one ahead of time.
Follow-on Effects Happen. The coronavirus caused stocks and the economy to crash. It will cause untold cultural changes. What do we think will happen when climate change really starts to bite? And, unlike coronavirus, climate effects won’t present as a short-term, albeit painful, blip. When climate change hits in a big way — say, the irreversible flooding of a major city — what will be the follow-on effects for the stock market, the economy, mass migration, conflict? Consequences can be as severe, or more so, than the initial cause.
Some Problems Are Global. If coronavirus couldn’t be prevented from reaching our shores, what about changes in the climate? Global problems require global solutions and international cooperation.
Politics Can Change Fast. Look how fast the Trump administration shifted from denying that the coronavirus was anything more than a liberal media hoax to relishing a “wartime” presidency. Look how fast the Republican Senate became a hotbed of Keynesianism.
Maybe, just maybe, the suspicion that, just like coronavirus, climate is not a hoax after all, nor a conspiracy serving a political agenda, will open some minds. Maybe more will listen to calls to redouble our efforts to prevent as much of the impending climate crisis as we can, and to take measures needed to prepare for what we can’t. For now, for the most part, climate change is still out there as something that will happen “one day.” But that day will arrive, when something happens so terrible that everyone will at last know it’s for real. When that day comes, will we be ready?
Of course, the climate crisis won’t actually arrive “one” day. It’s already here, if not quite yet in a form — despite wildfires, dying coral reefs, melting glaciers, changes to planting seasons, more frequent and extreme hurricanes, droughts and deluges — that evokes universal recognition.
The coronavirus will one day be behind us; the warming already baked into the atmosphere will make itself felt for decades and centuries. In that key sense, climate change is very different.