Alex Zimmerman

Alex Zimmerman

COVID-19 and The Crisis of Perception

covid-19, virus, coronavirus

The world has faced pandemics before, many much worse than the current COVID-19. The coming of the Black Death (bubonic plague) to the Western world in 1348, is one of the most infamous for which we have records. While the true cause was a bacterium (yersinia pestis), the germ theory of disease was still more than 500 years in the future so people didn’t know that or even suspect it. People instead blamed personal or societal moral failings, punishment from a vengeful God, bad air, malignant alignment of the planets, deliberate poisoning by foreigners, whatever.

With COVID-19, we know the immediate or proximate cause, a novel coronavirus that scientists are pretty sure originated in bats and was transmitted to humans via wild animal markets. Heroic efforts (and I am not being facetious) are being made to understand the virus, find effective treatments and develop vaccines. This is a serious problem to be solved and we will solve it in the short term – only the time frame is uncertain.

However, can we prevent something like this happening in the future or do we just treat the next pandemic as a future problem for which we try to prepare?

This pandemic did not, in fact, come out of the blue, unheralded. We were warned that a pandemic such as this would happen and we are told that this won’t be the last, that this may just be the “tip of the iceberg”.

As the UK’s Guardian newspaper noted in an article with that title, on March 30th, 2020; “As habitat and biodiversity loss increase globally, the coronavirus outbreak may be just the beginning of mass pandemics” and “ a number of researchers today think that it is actually humanity’s destruction of biodiversity that creates the conditions for new viruses and diseases such as Covid-19”. As David Quammen wrote in the New York Times on January 28th, “We invade tropical forests and other wild landscapes, which harbor so many species of animals and plants — and within those creatures, so many unknown viruses. We cut the trees; we kill the animals or cage them and send them to markets. We disrupt ecosystems, and we shake viruses loose from their natural hosts. When that happens, they need a new host. Often, we are it.

It appears that we are likely the ultimate cause of this pandemic, by virtue of how modern society is structured and the destruction it wreaks on the eco-system. The question this raises is why we, as a modern society, continue to destroy natural habitat and biodiversity.

I think it is due to a fundamental mismatch between our prevailing worldview and the reality of the world. I believe we are faced with what physicist Fritjof Capra (The Turning Point, 1982 and many articles since) calls a “Crisis of Perception” arising from our outdated worldview rooted in Newtonian and Cartesian mechanistic dualism. Rene Descartes formulated the idea that the mind is a distinct and separate thing from the physical body. Isaac Newton’s articulation of the laws of gravity lead to the view that the universe was a kind of clockwork mechanism, with everything predictable if you know the initial conditions. Together, these views led to the belief that man is distinct and separate from nature and that everything can be understood by ever more detailed reductionist analysis. It does not recognize relationships, networks and systems as having equal or even greater importance for understanding reality. Whether we acknowledge it or not, modern society effectively still operates on the basis of these beliefs.

At a conference I attended in 2010, I heard Paul Hawken say; “You don’t change things by solving problems, you solve problems by changing things.” To avoid future problems, we need to change our basic worldview, our current paradigm. Change it to what? Well, not everyone in the world thinks in the Cartesian dualist way, even now. There are alternative worldviews, alternative ways of being, that have far less antagonistic relationships to the natural world.

Here is a concrete example from my own experience. I was vividly confronted with this difference in worldviews more than twenty years ago when kayaking in the Hakai Pass area on the mid-coast. I had a conversation in Bella-Bella about this contrast with Frank Brown, a Heiltsuk man I met there. It centered on differing ideas of the concepts of environment, nature and wilderness. I thought the conversation important enough to include a summary of it in my book, Becoming Coastal:

We sit in the dock shed and talk as it begins to rain. I have been introducing a new sustainability framework to my company and I explain to Frank that it is based on four fundamental principles, derived from basic laws of physics. Frank says that four is a very important number in Heiltsuk culture and that it is related to all sorts of significant concepts. We talk about the need for a more environmentally sustainable way of life and Frank tells me that the Heiltsuk language has no word for environment or nature, because for them, there is no division between humans and the natural world, it is all one. This starts, in a small way, to get at what they mean when they say it is all sacred.

I think this is a way of being and thinking that the world needs to heed. We often talk, in modern Western culture, about “wilderness” and the word generally is taken to have positive connotations. It usually describes the natural world without humans, untouched by or degraded by humans. The unspoken, deeply rooted assumption in this way of thinking is that humans are somehow separate from nature, from the natural world. In reality, it is a form of alienation, where nature is seen as “other”. It is a modern concept not shared by indigenous peoples anywhere that I am aware of. The truth is that humans have been modifying their environment and have been an integral part of that environment for a very long time. While not all pre-industrial indigenous relationships were positive, most had economies that interacted with the natural world to make the surroundings more productive, for both humans and other plants and animals. Many First Nations peoples actually see the term “wilderness” as a negative one, connoting neglect and waste. James Rust, a Southern Sierra Miwok man from California, was quoted as saying “. . . the white man sure ruined this country. It’s returned back to wilderness.” (“Tending the Wild”, M. Kat Anderson, 2006). For our own long-term survival, we need to find a way of being where we regenerate the capacity of humans and the natural world to support life in all its forms, for both humans and for all the other species on the planet.

In my next blog, I’ll talk a little bit about how this also applies to the larger crisis facing us, which hasn’t gone away, the climate crisis. I’ll talk about some of the barriers I see to change, to getting to there from here and some possible ways we might go about it.

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