It was the third store to have run out of the ingredient I was looking for – yeast. I wasn’t surprised though. Almost a third of the world population has been under some form of lock-down for the past few months in a bid to contain a pandemic that may become a part and parcel of daily existence, at least till the year-end. The fortunate ones, with new found time at home have begun discovering new hobbies, skills and relationships that barely existed in the past. Social media is awash with pictures, posts and recipes of various baked foods, and even people new to culinary sensibilities have mastered the dark art of making sourdough. There has been a surge in online courses and webinars (many of them for free) as people suddenly find themselves free to pursue any topic that might interest them. With long-distance supply/ consumption chains broken everywhere, spontaneous local distribution patterns are emerging. People are trying to explore aspects of self-reliance through encountering ideas of inter-dependency. Compost-making is in full swing, edibles are being grown at home, bio-enzymes are being made for use as cleaners, recipes are being freely exchanged, and much more is afoot. Unprecedented number of people have come forward to help those affected in generous and ingenious ways. The sparrows are back. The air is clear. But, most would hesitate to take a deep breath.
Not everything is abloom. Health-care workers are struggling as hospitals overflow with patients. Prolonged social isolation has led to spikes in depression, domestic violence and substance abuse as existing vulnerabilities have worsened in absence of help. Marginalised sections have been pushed into further poverty, and unemployment rates are rising by the day. Economies are scrambling to keep businesses afloat, with many nations lifting the lockdown by arguing that it is damaging the economy beyond repair. It doesn’t matter if it is the very same economy that makes it possible for enormous food scarcity and food waste to occur simultaneously. Or, bemoan the loss of wealth because of oil prices crashing and millions of cancelled flights during this period. To maintain status quo, oil needs to rule and planes need to fly. If the demigod of industrial growth demands human sacrifice, so be it. That has always been the case, except that now every shred of the masquerade is gone. Sand castles of socio-economic narratives are eroding with the onslaught of waves. Beaches lie empty. Turtles peacefully bask under the sun. Clearly, there is something in the air apart from the virus.
The pause, and the potential transformation
COVID-19 has enabled what numerous global conventions could not achieve – a pause long enough for people to consider alternate narratives. The juggernaut of market forces and techno-managerial approach to building societies, have reinforced ideas of naïve agency that suggest humans to be the sole authors of unfolding events. Even well-intentioned calls for environmental action are based on views of causal potency – “Be the change”. We name a geological epoch signalling the power and evidence of our presence on this planet. Ramsey Affifi calls it a form of “anthropoholicism”; an addiction to a conception of our unique and linear agency in this world. It is this hubris and addiction that the virus has damaged the most. Now, we find ourselves participating in probably the largest social experiment ever, and it is not one of our making. Like an alcoholic’s road to recovery, ours may begin with this simple but profound realisation. Affifi writes,
“In both cases, various interlocking historical, material, conceptual and emotional factors conspire to show the impossibility of simple willpower to be a sufficient catlayst for change… Admitting that one is not strong enough is not necessarily to admit defeat. For Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) recognising that one is part of a field of processes that one cannot control is seen as the beginning of health. It marks the beginning of a correction of a pathological epistemology, pathological because the very belief in one’s ‘power’ fed into a broader positive feedback loop that exacerbated the very conditions one was attempting to resist.”
What kind of transformation routes may open up to us, if we were to act on this realisation?
The audacity of change
Believing in one thing. Acting on it is another. It is especially distressing when the dominant cultural narrative has demanded that our needs be met by material wants, economic positions even as it has taken a toll on the ecological and social relationships that sustain us. Going along with this narrative till now makes us complicit in its making, thereby creating a strange species-level Stockholm Syndrome. We still want to protect a known monster rather than step into an uncertain, unknown tomorrow. Yet, there are cracks in the hull, and numerous lifeboats await. The diversity of experiences taking place right now can form the basis for a more reciprocal and enriching relationship with one’s community, human and more-than-human. Illich uses the term ‘conviviality’ to describe the thresholds of wellbeing that can act as a goal as well as a constraint. Farming can happen in cities, and dignified livelihood opportunities can exist in rural areas. Automobiles won’t be required along bike-friendly roads, and dolphins can swim along with humans if huge harbours (for shipping and transportation) are dismantled. Gift economies can take root, and people can give each other time, instead of money. We can spend less, and enjoy more. Forests can regrow, and corals can self-heal. In recognising our vulnerabilities, and lack of control in shaping the environment around us, we might actually find the strength to recover from the abuse meted onto ourselves. If we are audacious enough to let go, a new world awaits us. One that is filled with humility and care.