Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. — Arundhati Roy
The weird thing about a paradigm-shifting pandemic is many of my habits haven’t changed significantly but how I feel about them, and pretty much everything else, has shifted. Every morning, I take a walk with my dog up the road. We pass the sign of our village’s name with the diagonal red stripe through it, the castaños, up until the small pig farm. Often I’d throw in an earbud and play whatever podcast I had been listening to the day before, but I’ve stopped, preferring the sound of the birds and maybe the wind rustling the trees. The town comes into view on the right and from our elevated position one can see it in its entirety. Sometimes, like today, it is shrouded in a thick fog, the small peak behind, whose name I’m unaware of, protrudes out.
I have bad habits. I wake up early but then use that time unproductively for at least an hour or so, reading news or scrolling through Twitter, a place increasingly fraught with melodrama and uninformed commentaries on events we cannot control. I occasionally put off my exercise routine until after my classes, when I’m already worn done and my body is tight from sitting in a chair. Most days, I get closer to beating these. Small victories, sure, but still.
Before meeting Patricia, I had a terrible grocery shopping philosophy. I would fill my basket with things that looked good and when I arrived at the checkout, I realized I had purchased snacks rather than ingredients for a meal. Then I’d come home, eat the snacks, and toward dinner, walk to one of Nouakchott’s restaurants for shawarma.
I was once enamored by the latest and greatest Apple products. Now I cannot stomach the thought of buying new things while my current tablet works fine. I am grateful for hand-me-down iPhones from family regardless of the broken speaker. Technology podcasts or Apple’s price tags for computer wheels further remind me of how materialistic I once was, how I’ve changed. How we can all change to better adapt to what many of our most brilliant minds, away from the political class, are telling us what’s coming.
Our success or failure, individually during this quarantine, and as a species and planet through the next decade vis-à-vis a very probable second wave of coronavirus, our vampiric capitalist realism, the fast-approaching climate tipping points, will depend on our self-discipline and willpower. Our bad habits, our biases, some of our conveniences, our lack of knowledge on things like agriculture. Individuated mobilization starts now.
“The life of a single human being is worth a million times more than all the property of the richest man on earth.”
Chances are, many of us in the West will not be governed by an authoritarian regime so soon. Or if we are, it will have an air of nominal liberty. Our ‘freedoms’ and political inaction, the hard questions needing to be asked, the work that needs to be done, will climatically doom those in the global South. No one will tell us what to do.
Só o pobo salva ao pobo
Only the people save the people
We had plans to make a garden on a small plot of land close to the church that our landlady offered us this spring. But since we’ve been quarantined for a month and didn’t want to spend the money to fence it properly for boars, we decided to take some fallen branches from the monte and build a raised bed garden in our yard. Arugula, spinach, tomatoes, and aubergine are coming.
Day 24 here in Spain and the coalition government under Sánchez a few days ago announced it will extend the state of alarm until at least 26 April. After that, there might be an easing of restrictions until we’re out of the peak. The daily casualty rate is still high but has been going down for a few consecutive days. In the mornings, I don’t at the numbers like when it was still new and shocking.
I support as little movement as possible. Just writing that feels strange, because my position on travel and movement has shifted so considerably. I am one of the global 20% of the world who has ever flown on an airplane. Comparably, I guess I used to fly regularly. Now, it’s been 17 months since coming to Europe.
My livelihood doesn’t depend on going out on the streets. I’m not an essential worker nor a healthcare professional on the frontlines. Aside from the massive casualties COVID-19 has inflicted upon this country, the economic aftershock will stay with us for quite some time and I really worry about the social and political consequences. This is true for the world.
“There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.”
The troika of crises we confront; coronavirus, capitalism, and climate have further pulled me into a web of poignant questions. It’s Phase II; a shedding of what was considered normal before this, accepting new paradigms, and being prepared for either the coming socialism (it’s visibly obvious capitalism is incompatible with low-carbon future survival) or the coming barbarism.
Today was windy and rainy and it was easy to stay inside. I’ve been reading Kropotkin, waiting for a few other books to arrive. I hate Amazon, more so hearing about Chris Smalls being fired and the lies they spun about him, and really work to not rely on them as much as possible. I ordered about 8 books, most of them well over a thousand pages each, I don’t see myself using them soon. I do not link to Amazon in any way on this blog.
I was also reading about degrowth. I first heard the word in Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. It’s a critique of our globalized overconsumption. Why is it that the economy crashes when people only buy the things they really need? Most of us understand, communicated by scientists, that the planet has a few years before we head into unforeseen climate tipping points. We acknowledge that we shouldn’t fly so much anymore and we should buy more locally.
If COVID-19 and other animal viruses were caused by the human-animal interface, pushed ever more closer by deforestation practices and rapid industrialization, then we should all be thinking very seriously about how to scale things back, and fast. The myth of “infinite growth on a finite planet” has been shattered. A tiny virus has brought the whole planet to our knees with humility (with some exceptions).
Efforts to slow the spread and contain this coronavirus highlight the fragility of urban living, massive socio-economic inequities, of production for trade, a fragmented and globalised supply chain and just in time supplies — all characteristics of advanced capitalism.
Neoliberalism has led to under-resourced and overburdened health systems relying heavily on global supply chains that have fractured and warped as borders and work places close — colliding with urgent and massive demand.
No crisis could so sharply throw into relief the fragility and precariousness of capitalist societies characterised by globalised production for trade and profits; weak states led by bureaucratic elites; and a citizens experiencing anomie, individualism and alienation. But this is not a wholly new crisis, rather just a variation on an old capitalist crisis theme.
The problem is that the ruling class will have very little incentive to change course. Businesses and governments will try to bring us back to normal. But what is normal and should we even try to go back to it? This is my issue with one democratic presidential candidate who thinks of Donald Trump as some aberration. Normal is untenable.
I live in the privileged rural. Actively choosing to de-urbanize from Los Angeles and Cologne in search of a closer relationship with the natural world, not enticed by centers of culture, maybe this line of thinking comes easier to me than others.
The article finishes with this:
Degrowth advocates using one’s legs, bicycles and, to a small extent, public transport. In contrast the current coronavirus pandemic has clearly been spread much more rapidly due to travellers using aeroplanes and cruise ships. In short, another world is not only possible but also preferable.
With all this, I think of A Ribeira Sacra, the sacred riverbank in the heart of Galicia. The Ribeira Sacra is a canyon carved out by the the Sil River that straddles the provinces of Ourense and Lugo. It’s called the Sacred Riverbank in Galician because the once isolated region is home to many Romanesque monasteries from the early Middle Ages, whose monks and hermits continued cultivating vineyards and producing wine, like the Romans before them, on terraced edges of the canyon walls. It is also shortlisted for a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2021.
I’ve had the pleasure to a twice; once the first time I came to Spain and the second in January; camped near Parada de Sil under a meteor-showered night sky, hiked to the hidden Mosteiro de Santa Cristina de Ribas de Sil, entered the castle of Castro Caldelas, passed through Monforte de Lemos, the unofficial capital of the region on a very cold day.
My partner and I rent a house now. It’s difficult to find rentals in Galicia outside the major cities; everyone is selling. We’ve looked at a few places to buy. While both of us have that nostalgia of traveling, living in West Africa, being free and untethered, it runs against our longing for land of our own to care for and the acknowledgement that the earth cannot sustain that lifestyle on a grand scale.
Since moving here, we’ve vacillated on the question of proximity if we were to ever purchase something; how close to a town (and ease of socializing) or how far? We have friends in Allariz now and we were looking forward to the weather turning better so we could gather outside. But we also want space to garden, and the available options with an adjacent plot of land and within walking distance are slim or unaffordable.
But now, we don’t go to town anymore, save for a weekly trip to the market. And this will ease up. Of course at some point the current situation will end, but with what consequences? What will be new forms of normal? Will I so carelessly dar dos besos to friends of friends when I meet them? Can we anticipate another autumnal virus outbreak?
Which is why I think of the Sacred Riverbank. A refuge, still populated, but less so. And perhaps this future was written for us over there; quietly cultivating a small garden, telecommuting, with an occasional bike trip to town for groceries. It’s good enough for me.
The three intertwined and colliding global crises of COVID-19, climate change, and capitalism overwhelm us with so many challenges it’s almost impossible to think straight. But soon, for those not in precarity, not on the frontlines of a war against an invisible enemy everywhere in the public sphere, we must shine a light on this chaos, and ourselves at home, to see that the moment presents us with sink-or-swim opportunities for all of us. To hold this tension within ourselves will be very difficult, but it’s our only way. A better world and system is possible. Here are some of the things I’ve been reading and listening to.
We’re Not Going Back to Normal: “We all want things to go back to normal quickly. But what most of us have probably not yet realized—yet will soon—is that things won’t go back to normal after a few weeks, or even a few months. Some things never will.”
The Only Treatment for Coronavirus Is Solidarity: “The new coronavirus makes vivid the logic of a world that combines a material reality of intense interdependence with moral and political systems that leave people to look out for themselves. Because we are linked — at work, on the bus and subway, at school, at the grocery store, with the Fresh Direct delivery system — we are contagious, and vulnerable. Because we are morally isolated, told to look out for ourselves and our own, we are becoming survivalists house by house, apartment by apartment, stocking enough that’s canned and frozen, grabbing enough cold meds and disinfectant, to cut ties and go out on our own.”
After the Quarantine, the Flood: “In what ways are we numerous, enumerated, counted, uncounted, dividuated, enmassed, and divided? In what ways have we chosen to live this way, and in what ways is it chosen for us In whose interests are lives thus organized; which powers does this serve? And what, indeed, is the meaning of our modes of numerosity? I apply these questions again now, from a warm apartment, with ample food and the ability to support myself materially as I type. In this moment, we have been asked to mitigate being numerous together. Solidarity in the pandemic, for those in my position, is situated in not making things worse; this we can choose.”
Come On, You Live in a Society: “American politicians long ago shifted the burden of safeguarding the public from the government to individuals. Call it personal responsibility, call it deficit reduction, call it whatever you want; the consequences are the same no matter which label we use. The absence of any seriously developed health-care infrastructure abandons people to muddle through on their own. The absence of major labor protections forces people to work sick and will financially ruin anyone whose employers don’t offer paid leave. The preeminent message coming out of D.C. — and this is not a new trend; it is far older than the Trump presidency — tells people that they’re ultimately responsible for themselves. We are conditioned to think of ourselves as individual consumers first and as interconnected members of society second. Movements that hold the opposite view tend to be ruthlessly broken down and suppressed at worst, or at best, dismissed as the fantastical longings of childish adults.
Another day and I wake up early to make coffee. After skimming some news and Twitter about what happened after I went to sleep, I get dressed and unlock the front door to hear the birds singing and feel the morning early spring sun. Alqo and I always go to the monte in the morning and today is no different. But it is.
We are under lockdown, quarantine, social distance, whatever word comes out first. I haven’t been to town since Thursday or really interacted with anyone besides Patricia, aside from the morning mobile panadería or bombona delivery guy. The reality of the last four or five days hasn’t changed drastically for us. We’re not in Madrid, where we are isolated to an apartment without a small patch of yard, where we are densely populated, where the mortality rate doubles in 24 hours. And for this I feel lucky and guilty.
I feel lucky that all the experiences I’ve had led me to my interest in distancing myself from urban centers anyway, to be closer to nature, for a simpler, quiet life. I feel lucky for having found a partner in the strangest of places who shares my values, who I’ve watched grow and who has watched me grow, to the people we are now. I feel lucky to have Alqo to stretch out and pass gas at silly times when we feel overwhelmed by the news of places much more dire.
But I feel guilty for that privilege of mobility, of freedom, of having a remote job that for the time being, I still have. I feel guilty that I can’t be there for my family in California and I’m reduced to sending borderline hysterical warnings and preparation advice to my parents. I feel guilty for being closer to the catastrophe for practically untouched by it as of writing this.
This is the beginning long period of uncertainty. I bristle when I hear of people not taking decisive action now to socially distance themselves, choosing fun over preparedness. But perhaps I would think differently; if I lived in a city, if my friends were all within close proximity, if my loved ones were pressuring me for being ridiculous. All of this could be so different.
Either way, I’m lucky and guilty. To assuage that, I want to activate the things I’ve been thinking and talking about for so long.
My theosophical views give me comfort in that whatever happens, this is not the end, and as God says in the Qur’ān that we must change the condition of our souls before our material is changed, and to bring about a new positive life for all humanity, we must find each other, and call to give each other our very best.
Our new normal demands new ways of living, new frameworks to allow us and our earth to survive and thrive. We are at a crossroads. We have been here before and we will be again. But how we respond collectively; politically, socially, economically matters. This is only a time for physical isolation but not to close ourselves off and erect barriers, real or imagined.
I don’t have power or capital, here in Spain nor back in America. But I have a blog, some silly words, a brain, and a deep empathy and solidarity for things far outside myself, my family, and my surroundings. So, I’ll continue in the only way I can. Sharing things here, calling friends, writing, reading, and learning. These are still early days. Thanks for reading and please, if you can, stay the fuck home.